Pullman, Washington, doesn't get much attention: Trivia buffs might know the city was named for railroad industrialist George Pullman, in the hope that he'd run a rail line through the city. (It went to Spokane instead.) Those deep in the weeds of President Donald Trump's cabinet might know that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was born in Pullman. Apart from those who know that Washington State University is there, Pullman is pretty much under the radar.
Comes now The Washington Post to help change that. Pullman, you see, has jumped into the vanguard of sex-change surgery, technically known as "Vaginoplasty," in which a male's genitals (and nerve endings thereof) are rearranged into a, well, you know.
I'll cut to the journalistic chase: The Washington Post has effectively decided who's right and who's wrong in this story. We can tell from the headline: "A small-town doctor wanted to perform surgeries for transgender women. He faced an uphill battle." Read the opening paragraphs, and the "angle" should be clear:
The surgeon had spent several years preparing -- reading medical journals, finding someone to train him, practicing on cadavers -- until only one hurdle remained: getting permission for the medical procedure he wanted to bring to this small community on the Washington-Idaho border.
“Vaginoplasties,” Geoff Stiller remembered telling the CEO of Pullman Regional Hospital, referring to the surgical construction of vaginas for transgender women. “I want to do them at your hospital.”
Nine months later, Stiller looks back on that conversation as a final moment when his request still seemed like an easy one. Nobody yet had cited Bible verses or argued that culture was blurring the line between men and women. Another doctor at Pullman hadn’t yet sent an email to eight co-workers, who forwarded it around the hospital, with the subject line “Opposition to Transgender Surgery at PRH.” The hospital hadn’t yet received hundreds of letters from the community. Stiller hadn’t yet lost 20 pounds from the stress, nor had he yet anticipated that his request might turn for him into something more -- a fight not just over a surgery, but over what he’d later call a “moral issue.”
This is a long article, even by Post standards. There's a lot of discussion here, including why Stiller felt compelled to do this, and why a patient named Sarah Bergman wanted to take what she called "the last step," i.e. the new surgery Stiller wished to perform.
Also discussed is the reaction of Rod Story, a physician also employed by Pullman Regional Hospital:
Like Stiller, Story was a doctor of good reputation in the community. Unlike him, he saw the surgery not as the right thing to do, but as something that defied his most basic belief as a physician and a reformed evangelical Christian: that there are immutable differences between men and women.
Uh, maybe that was supposed to say "Reformed evangelical Christian" -- as in a Calvinist? Otherwise, a "reformed evangelical" would be an evangelical who reformed and became a good guy, or something like that.
Unlike Stiller, Story's concerns found their way into an email sent around the hospital, inviting other employees to "join" Story's efforts to block Pullman Regional from granting Stiller permission to perform the procedure. Story's chief concern was his belief that patients seeking the surgery had "mental conditions," as the Post put it.
To its credit, the Post gives us some important background on Story, at two different points in the article. This is a large excerpt, but it's important reading:
Story, 43, had been conflicted about whether to share his views widely. He respected Stiller and considered him highly skilled. Plus, Story liked his job. He had been a physician at Pullman Regional for eight years, treating nonsurgical patients and assisting surgeons before and after their procedures. He and his wife had nine children, a spacious and renovated house on a hill, a back yard with a picnic table that overlooked miles of wheat and lentil fields and buttes. ...
But Story also felt that he had built much of his life by following his conscience, even when it was inconvenient. Two decades earlier, Jenny had gotten pregnant. They weren’t yet married. Story was a pre-med student. They had no money for a baby. They were embarrassed at having crossed a moral line, and they talked about crossing one more line -- getting an abortion. Instead, Story temporarily dropped out of school. Jenny delivered the baby. Story spent three years working as a janitor, earning money, and feeling he had preserved some part of what he believed in. ...
[O]ne Sunday [he] walked into his church and found out that the sermon was about him. “Think of Rod and Jenny Story right now,” the pastor, Ty Knight, told the congregation, and Story could feel some eyes turn toward him and his wife.
Story had sometimes felt alone since writing the letter. His initial email had been read by almost everybody at Pullman Regional, posted at nurse’s stations, and only two people had responded to him. But that was the medical community, and this was the church, and there were 120 people in the pews, and a thousand other members of affiliated congregations in the area, and it was here at least where Story sensed support.
“There is a great sin that is looking to come into the [region] of having transgender surgery,” the pastor said. “Rod is faithfully holding to God’s word.”
So what's my journalistic problem here?
The leaning over towards the heroic story of Stiller versus the "reformed evangelical" Story begs some questions. For one, does Stiller have any religious views -- or does he have none? Did Stiller have any spiritual questions he needed to be answered before going ahead?
It's probable Stiller did not, but it would have been nice to know the reporter asked. After all, the Post quotes Stiller as calling this a "moral issue." So, whose morals? What was the issue? And how did Stiller handle it all?
Also -- and this one should be a no-brainer -- did Stiller and Story ever speak with each other? Before the Pullman Regional hospital board met, before the vote, before everything else. Story worked at the hospital for eight years, and interacted with surgeons. Are we to believe the two never spoke to each other about this?
The stress of this matter cost Stiller 20 pounds of weight. It also, admittedly by his own decision, cost Story his job.
What we don't know about the two principals is, well, a lot. The omissions don't serve readers who want to truly understand the issue and how it played out in a little town in Washington state perhaps previously best known for the railroad line that wasn't built there.