Unorthodox trans story in New York Times: Voices on both sides get to share their views

What we have here is a New York Times story that would appear to fit perfectly under the umbrella of "Kellerism," the emerging journalism doctrine (click here and here for background) stating that there is no need for balance and fairness on many moral and religious issues because the Times already knows who is right.

The headline on this story from Illinois puts it right in the middle of one of America's hottest clashes between the Sexual Revolution and heartland values: "A Transgender Student Won Her Battle. Now It’s War."

It appears that the goal of this story, however, was to let readers actually hear the voices of ordinary people on both sides of this debate. That's different than the new mainstream-media normal in which the hero or heroine gets to narrate the story and then the opposition appears via one quote from a press release or an appointed lawyer. The key is that only one side sounds human.

But the Times team -- to its credit -- took another approach this time. Here is the rather standard overture:

PALATINE, Ill. -- Tall and sylphlike, an athlete with delicate features and a blond topknot, she changes clothes behind a privacy curtain in the girls’ locker room at her high school. But just being allowed to set foot in that locker room was a huge victory for the girl. She is transgender.
She graduates in May -- but the war over how to accommodate transgender students is far from over in her Chicago suburb.
A new legal challenge is making its way through the courts. And a coalition of insurgent school board candidates, an evangelical church and conservative parents are looking to reshape district policy. The goal: preventing transgender girls and boys from sharing the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice with other girls and boys, on the grounds that they are “the opposite biological sex.” Their presence, the opponents argue, violates community standards of decency.

Yes, the basic DNA issue is treated with scare quotes. However, note the passing reference to the evangelical church that is involved in this debate. That is where the Times faced an interesting complication that, frankly, I have seen many a newspaper editor dodge in the past.

Experts and activists play very small parts in this story, which means that it is rather light when it comes to legal arguments. It's clear that the emphasis here is on the voices of the ordinary people involved in the case.

The unnamed student at the heart of this story gets to speak quite a bit, which is totally necessary in a story of this kind. The voice that surprised me, in terms of its clash with "Kellerism" norms, was that of the evangelical pastor.

James Pittman Jr., pastor of New Hope Community Church, an evangelical congregation of about 50 active members in Palatine, has become a regular, along with members of his church, at school board meetings and candidates’ forums where transgender policy is discussed.
Pastor Pittman has become a particularly effective foil against the argument often made that the transgender rights movement is heir to the civil rights movement. “I am black; my family members are black,” he said in an interview in his church. “None of my family members nor friends would equate this movement to the civil rights movement. Matter of fact, that’s an insult.”
“We didn’t choose to be black,” he said, “and no matter what choice we make in the future, guess what? We’re still going to be black.”

Once again, it is strange that Associated Press Stylebook standards for clergy titles never seem to apply to African-Americans. I would have thought that it would have been "the Rev. James Pittman, Jr."

But never mind. Anyone who knows anything about the vast majority of African-American churches in this land knows that they tend to take traditional stands on sexuality issues. There was a reason that President Barack Obama didn't have his change of heart on same-sex marriage until he knew that his second term in the White House was pretty much a lock.

So it was striking that the Times featured a black pastor, in a story on this topic.

Otherwise, the story includes an appropriate balance of voices on both sides of this painful and emotional local debate. It's clear that the newspaper of record was, in this case, striving for some sense of balance and a show of respect for the views of people on both sides. It even notes that students who spoke out against the pro-trans policy have reported being bullied because of their beliefs.

The coverage is rather different in a Washington Post story -- "Transgender student’s quest to use girls’ locker room defines school board race in Chicago suburb" -- about this same case.

In this story, it's basically school politics from A to Z and the conservative candidates declined to talk to Post. Thus, readers get the pretty standard formula mentioned above, with human voices on the trans side of the debate and legal jargon on the other side.

This is not a story about people, you see, at least not on both sides. It's about politics.

Meanwhile, what about the Rev. Pittman? Did anyone from the Post go to his church and hear his point of view, as an African-American pastor who has spoken out in public forums? The answer: "no." This story also avoids contacts with students who believe that the current pro-trans policy violates their privacy rights in the locker room.

Thus, the Post story ends pretty much where one would expect it to end.

Amid the rancor, the student at the center of the debate says life is normal at William Fremd High School, where she uses the girls’ locker room multiple times a week and says her classmates for the most part don’t react.
“Young people, they don’t care,” said the student, who asked to be referred to as Student A, as she is described in court papers. “I use the girl’s bathroom and no one makes an issue of it.”
If the board flips and a new policy goes into effect restricting her to a separate facility, she said she would feel “horrible” but would continue to use the locker room and restroom where she thinks she belongs. “If somebody wanted to try and stop me from going into that bathroom every day, go for it,” she said.

This is an essential voice in this story.

Obviously. Everyone would agree on that. But where are the other voices?

Please respect our Commenting Policy