Male or female, AP style created him or her

phoenix23One of the crucial principles in Associated Press style is that, when in doubt, reporters are supposed to let groups of people define themselves. As a rule, a journalist is not supposed to force a person or a group to be defined in a way that the person or group insists is inaccurate. At the very least, the news organization is supposed to show that the issue of a label or identification is in doubt.

Well, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times faced a somewhat unique situation while covering one of the ongoing sexuality disputes in the world of mainline Protestantism. She came to Baltimore recently (no, she did not let the GetReligionistas know that she was in the area) to write about the case of the Rev. Ann Gordon of St. John's United Methodist Church, who has caused a blitz of headlines by announcing her medical transformation into the Rev. Drew Phoenix, who is legally male in the eyes of the state.

But what about the United Methodist Church? And what about the Associated Press Stylebook?

Simon does her usual fine job of handling voices on both sides of this hot dispute, although some might question whether it is all that amazing that this pastor has managed to take the urban congregation from a membership of 12 to about 36.

But it is the transgender issue that is at the center of this national story. And this reality leads to a truly unique passage in the story:

Never during her eight-month-long transition did she question whether God would want her to renounce her femininity. She was sure God had intended her to be male; her woman's body was meant to challenge her. And, perhaps, to push her church toward a fuller understanding of Christ's love.

"Maybe this is my gift to the church. Maybe part of the reason I became pastor was this very moment," Phoenix said.

He revels in his physical changes: His knuckles are hairy! His biceps bulge! But he also finds joy in a new sense of unity with his creator. "It's like when you come back after a long trip, you collapse on the couch ... and you just feel, 'I'm home,'" he said. "I am who I am. God doesn't make mistakes."

His critics share the same certainty: God doesn't make mistakes. Which is why they're not sure they can endorse a pastor with a woman's double-X chromosomes presenting herself as a man.

"There are theological implications we need to talk about as a church," said the Rev. Kevin Baker, a United Methodist pastor in a Maryland suburb.

Here's the question that bugged me. Was there any way to write this section of the story that did not appear -- to people on one side of the issue or another -- to have settled this issue? If the reporter changes from she to he, that is backing the medical and legal view. Yet that also appears to have decided the theological issue. Yet if the pronoun stays the same, then it appears that the reporter is siding with traditionalists.

There is, of course, no question about how Gordon/Phoenix would want this covered. Under AP style, that is the safe way to go. Any disagreement out there?

Photo: The Rev. Drew Phoenix

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