Ezra Klein's nascent news and policy site Vox.com promises readers that its journalists will “really know the topics they cover.” But newly minted Vox writing fellow Brandon Ambrosino - a frequent commentator on LGBT issues - has repeatedly demonstrated that his understanding of LGBT topics is superficial at best, and frequently dangerously off-base.
In Vox's Facebook post announcing the hire, Ambrosino noted his interest in LGBT topics. That interest has manifested itself in numerous pieces whitewashing the homophobia of figures like Jerry Falwell and Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, asserting that homosexuality is a choice, and condemning LGBT rights activists as bigoted.
Vox's home page promises that it's “hiring journalists who really know the topics they cover” because "[t]here's no way we'll be able to help readers understand issues if we haven't done the work to understand them ourselves":
But a look at Ambrosino's body of work demonstrates that he doesn't understand several basic facts about one of his purported specialties:
1. Being Gay Isn't A Choice
In two pieces in The New Republic, Ambrosino asserted that he had made a “choice” to be gay, failing to explain when, why, and how he made that choice. His pieces were criticized for their misuse of academic texts. His assertion also contradicts mainstream medical expertise, which overwhelmingly concludes that a person's sexual orientation isn't chosen.
Of course, Ambrosino has previously spoken of when he started experiencing “gay feelings” and realized he “was attracted to men” - strongly suggesting that his sexual orientation was something he realized, not selected. It's certainly a choice whether or not to embrace one's sexual orientation, but as Ambrosino's own words attest, it isn't a switch you can flip on and off.
2. Being Transgender Isn't A “Sexual Choice”
In the same New Republic pieces, Ambrosino urged gays and lesbians to learn from the transgender community. Transgender activism, he wrote, is “fueled by the belief that the government has the responsibility to protect all of us regardless of our sexual choices.”
But being transgender isn't a choice, much less a sexual choice. A person's gender identity is a deeply ingrained, intrinsic characteristic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a person's gender identity is usually established by the age of four. Being transgender, as one expert put it, is "part of the human condition." It also has nothing to do with a person's sexuality or sexual orientation.
In addition to not understanding the most basic realities of what it means to be transgender, Ambrosino has also used the term "tranny" - a transphobic slur - to describe transgender people. Assuming that Ambrosino didn't have malicious intent, his use of the slur still reflected a remarkable ignorance of transgender issues for a frequent commentator on LGBT issues.
3. The United States Isn't A Post-Equality Country
Writing for The New Republic, Ambrosino observed that countries like Uganda and Russia have recently implemented draconian anti-gay policies. He contrasted this development with the United States, where “we are edging ever closer to post-equality.” Accordingly, Ambrosino responded to actress Ellen Page's announcement that she's gay by suggesting that it's no longer “brave” to come out.
Ambrosino's notion of a nearly “post-equality” country contrasts sharply with the reality on the ground. Not only is same-sex marriage still illegal in 33 states, but it's also perfectly legal in 29 states to fire an employee for being gay, while 33 states lack protections for transgender workers. The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has languished in Congress, as House Speaker John Boehner refuses to bring it up for a vote. LGBT people face discrimination in housing, healthcare, and public accommodations, earn far less at work than their heterosexual peers, and are disproportionately targeted by hate crimes.
Ambrosino's failure to note the realities of anti-LGBT discrimination raises serious questions about his qualifications to write about even basic LGBT issues.
4. Homophobia Isn't Always Physical Violence
In "Being Gay at Jerry Falwell's University," the Atlantic essay that first won Ambrosino widespread attention, he wrote that the founder of Liberty University has been unfairly caricatured by progressives who seizes on a few of his “soundbytes” - including remarks blaming gays and lesbians for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and calling AIDS "God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."
Falwell's inflammatory views failed to cross Ambrosino's threshold for homophobia; Ambrosino wrote that he had no doubt that Falwell wouldn't have wanted him stoned. Similarly, after Duck Dynasty's Robertson equated gay people with mass murderers and pedophiles, Ambrosino argued that Robertson's critics - not Robertson himself - were the real bigots.
Underlying Ambrosino's objection to calling anti-gay views homophobic is the notion that words matter, and we should accordingly be careful with them. It's a fundamentally sound principle - and it's also a red herring. As any gay person could attest, there are degrees of homophobia. Denying the homophobia of a man who sees AIDS as God's rightful judgment on homosexuality on the grounds that he wouldn't support anti-gay violence indicates an understanding of homophobia that's perilously myopic. Even when pressed in debates, Ambrosino is reluctant to identify anti-gay rhetoric as homophobic unless it's tied to an act of physical violence.
Vox's editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, has admitted that he didn't vet Ambrosino before deciding to hire him as a writing fellow. But Ambrosino's hire nonetheless raises questions about Vox's commitment to hiring journalists with real expertise in the areas they plan to write about. Ambrosino's work may have earned him sympathy from right-wing media outlets, but he's not an expert on LGBT issues, and his short career has done more to generate half-baked, sensationalist click-bait than to illuminate the realities of the LGBT experience.