In lawsuit over transgender student using girls locker room, a surprising development

Hey, this is interesting.

The Chicago Tribune reports on a federal lawsuit challenging a high school's decision to let a transgender student use the girls locker room.

And guess what? The coverage is fair, balanced and informative. It's mostly just the facts, ma'am.

As GetReligion readers know, that's not always the case (examples here, here and here).

So what's the Tribune's secret?

The newspaper sticks to the simple lessons learned in Journalism 101. You know, the ones about reporting the relevant details (without taking sides) and giving each side an opportunity to make its case — with a proper amount of background to put the lawsuit into a broader perspective. However, I do have one question about the story that I'll ask below.

But let's start at the top:

A group of suburban students and parents is suing the U.S. Department of Education and Illinois' largest high school district after school officials granted a transgender student access to the girls locker room.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday, the group contends that the actions of the Department of Education and Palatine-based Township High School District 211 "trample students' privacy" rights and create an "intimidating and hostile environment" for students who share the locker rooms and restrooms with the transgender student.
"Students have an expectation of privacy in restrooms and locker rooms, and that expectation is violated when a school puts the opposite-sex student in those kinds of private and intimate facilities," said Jeremy Tedesco, attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious legal advocacy group representing the plaintiffs.
The group also asserts that the Department of Education's inclusion of gender identity under Title IX, which aims to protect against discrimination based on sex, is unlawful.
Wednesday's lawsuit is the latest development in a heated national debate on the rights of transgender people in public spaces. Chicago Public Schools this week announced that transgender students will be able to use restrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a transgender student in Virginia who is seeking access to the boys restroom. Meanwhile, North Carolina recently adopted a law that limits public bathroom access for transgender people, though the U.S. Justice Department on (sic) said Wednesday that the law violates federal civil rights protections.

Keep reading, and the Tribune quotes a parent and a second attorney on the plaintiffs' side as well as the school superintendent, an American Civil Liberties attorney and the U.S. education secretary on the defendants' side. Subscribers can form their own opinions about who is right and wrong.

On the one hand, that's just basic reporting. On the other, it qualifies as kind of extraordinary in the age of what Terry Mattingly calls Kellerism.

In a recent GetReligion post, Godbeat legend Richard Ostling highlighted some of the complexities involved in covering transgender issues:

One of those complexities can be seen in the Tribune story: whether to refer to the transgender student as "he" or "she."

Ostling's earlier post noted:

And then, how will newswriters and copyreaders navigate the transgender conundrum? The New York Times Magazine reports that “the language debate of the moment” is between the “biological essentialist” approach based on birth genetics versus new “gender identity” assertions.
Some propose that publishers shelve “he” and “she” in favor of the “singular they” that is already accommodating feminists. But such blurring of gender offends some transgender advocates who instead want newly invented pronouns like “xe,” “xim,” and “xir.” The GLAAD gay lobby advises journalists to carefully check with each individual named in a story to use hishertheirxir preferred pronoun and gender identification.
Stay tuned.

The Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of American journalistsadvises:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. See LGBT and transsexual.

In keeping with that style recommendation, the Chicago story uses "she" to refer to the transgender student:

The District 211 transgender student, who has not been identified publicly, initially filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging that the district discriminated against her when it denied her access to the girls locker room. The district had previously allowed the student to use the girls restroom.

But the plaintiffs describe the student as "he" in the lawsuit, as the Tribune reports:

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which represents the student, called the lawsuit a "sad development by groups opposed to fair and humane treatment of all students, including those who are transgender."
He also bristled at the lawsuit's repeated reference to the transgender student as "he."
"It's pretty offensive that they don't even fundamentally acknowledge that our client is a girl," Yohnka said. "If you don't understand enough about what it means to be transgender to get that, I don't know how you even begin to opine on this."

Here's my sincere question: Does the Tribune — in an otherwise evenhanded, praiseworthy story — hurt its journalistic cause by using the gender pronoun preferred by the defendants? 

Just asking.

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