Perhaps no mainstream publication did more in 2022 than the New York Times to shift the mainstream conversation around transgender equality away from obstacles to access in housing, employment, and health care and toward the idea that the most pressing issue facing the trans community is actually too much medical care. The paper’s venerable pages featured profile after profile that platformed anti-trans extremists, fearmongered about the price of transgender acceptance, and framed rising trans identification as a social contagion. A recent article that centers the concerns of parents calling for the forced outing of transgender students shows why in 2023, the Times must improve its coverage.
The latest piece — another entry in the genre of New York Times articles that start from the premise that trans people are perhaps too accepted in society — covers “a network of internet support groups for ‘skeptical’ parents of transgender children, some with thousands of registered members” without noting that the groups are run by Genspect, an organization that opposes bans on conversion therapy and has numerous members who support banning gender-affirming care for trans people under 25.
Defying Associated Press guidance about repeating the slur that trans people are “grooming” children, the piece stated that some of the groups “have amplified the voices of people who call transgender advocates 'groomers,'” countering this harmful narrative only by noting that “detractors have called the groups transphobic.”
Several times the piece raised the specter that autism could in some way be connected to an increase in trans identification without bothering to explain why this might — or might not — be worthy of concern. At another point, the article ominously claimed that while the total number of trans people “remains small,” the number of young trans people “has nearly doubled” without noting that just 1.4 percent of 13-17 year olds say they are transgender.
Nowhere in a piece about young trans people who might attempt to conceal their identity from their own parents did the writer mention that 28% of LGBTQ youth experience homelessness in their lives — in many cases because they are forced to flee parental abuse or kicked out of their homes because of their identity.
Unfortunately, nothing is new about this sort of reporting. One recent report from Popula found that “in the past eight months the Times has now published more than 15,000 words’ worth of front-page stories asking whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast.” That doesn’t include the stories from the first five months of last year, or the stories that didn’t make page A1. This is, the report concluded, “a plain old-fashioned newspaper crusade. Month after month, story after story, the Times is pouring its attention and resources into the message that there is something seriously concerning about the way young people who identify as trans are receiving care.”
In 2022, a January 13 article in the Times on proposed changes to medical guidelines set by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health described an “emerging divide” in the medical community on the circumstances under which trans youth should have access to gender-affirming care. The article extensively quoted Laura Edwards-Leeper, a psychologist who supports increased gatekeeping for medical care, while failing to mention the barriers faced by many trans people in accessing medical care to begin with.
Later, when a groundbreaking study showed that the vast majority of trans youth who transitioned at a young age — more than 97% — continued to live as their gender, the Times’ coverage centered specious anti-trans narratives, including suggesting that trans youth felt pressure to persist with their trans identity, focusing on outsized fears of “detransition,” and implying that autism might cloud the data. Recent studies have found that the incidence of autism is in fact higher in people who are openly trans, but experts say there’s no reason that this should prevent them from accessing care. One possible explanation ignored by the Times for why so many trans people are also autistic is that autistic people are less likely to abide by arbitrary gender norms based on little besides tradition.
In June, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy piece titled “The Battle Over Gender Therapy.” The article framed recent studies showing a “significant rise in the number of teenagers openly identifying as transgender and seeking gender care” as primarily a medical problem — ignoring the fact that gender-affirming care is already difficult to access in America for myriad reasons. It gave a platform to the work of anti-trans extremists like Abigail Shrier, the most vocal activist pushing the trans-as-a-social-contagion claim, and also featured Genspect. The article also suggested that young trans people presenting with autism might “complicate determining a clear course of treatment” without explaining why that might be.
Critics accused the Times of offering “reactionary backlash as legitimate debate.” Researcher Heron Greenesmith noted that “multiple orgs and people quoted in this article don't just want to ‘be better’ about trans-affirming care for kids. They want to END it.” The state of Texas referenced the article as evidence in its quest to remove trans children from the care of their gender-affirming parents, writing that the idea “that there exists enormous controversy and disagreement among experts is itself the coverage of major media coverage including the New York Times’ ‘The Battle Over Gender Therapy: More teenagers than ever are seeking transitions, but the medical community that treats them is deeply divided about why–and what to do help them.’” For Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the questions raised by the Times were enough to merit a policy of child separation. The stakes of this beat could not be higher.
After an outpouring of criticism following the article, a campaign trail piece, published in August, once again ignored AP guidance on repeating the “groomer” slur unchecked. Another asked what University of Pennsylvania trans swimmer Lia Thomas “could mean for women’s elite sports” — months after Thomas’ season had come to an end. The article put “cisgender women,” a term for women who are not transgender, in quotation marks and “biological women,” a term falsely implying that transness is not natural in origin — in plain text.
A piece in September fearmongered about gender-affirming top surgery for trans youth, giving an outsized level of focus to two patients who said that they regretted their surgery. A November article about puberty blockers downplayed the rarity of the treatment and earned condemnation from WPATH and its United States affiliate. Together, this pattern of coverage painted a picture of transness through vitriolic opponents, terrified parents, random assertions about autism, and the ever-present specter of regret — a picture that might lead Times readers shocked to discover that 97% of trans people reported being satisfied with their transition in one 2022 survey.
The opinion writers of the Times, which last had a regular trans perspective before writer Jennifer Finney Boylan departed in early 2022, largely echoed the narrative promoted by their newsrooms, arguing that a skeptical center was being somehow excluded from a narrative their own news coverage helped shape. Ross Douthat instructed his readers on “How to Make Sense of the New L.G.B.T.Q. Culture War,” claiming that society is “running an experiment on trans-identifying youth” that was “inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor,” ignoring the actual science behind such care.
Another Times columnist, Pamela Paul, pushed the narrative that trans inclusion poses a threat to cisgender women, writing July 3 that “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count.” The piece attempted to compare gender-neutral language to the right’s attack on reproductive rights, framing both as equal threats to women, and downplayed the extremism of trans-exclusionary radical feminists in Britain, claiming that anyone who believes trans women were “not identical to those who were born female” was being unfairly and “brutally” reputed. Paul has a long history of anti-trans animus; author Kyle Lukoff claimed in 2022 that Paul forced a rewrite of the opening of a glowing review of his novel, arguing that a paragraph placing it in the present context of anti-trans attacks was too “political.” The section recently added a column from David French, who wrote in October 2022 that “I don’t agree that trans men are ‘men’ or that trans women are ‘women.’”
The Times has shown that it’s able to cover the transgender community with sensitivity and nuance, when it serves the paper’s purpose. A March 2022 piece, “How to Support a Child on the Transgender Spectrum,” noted research showing the positive effects of gender-affirming care on mental health. A December article profiled the community around LittlePuss Press, a feminist press run by trans people, without resorting to hand-wringing about the chances that anyone present might someday regret it all. But the former article still included links to earlier controversial coverage, and the latter initially included a text box with links to fearmongering articles that was later removed.
As the nation’s top newspaper, the Times is treated as the gold standard. The paper is perfectly capable of producing responsible reporting on trans people when the powers that be decide that such an approach is merited, as evidenced by a recent article that laid out the stakes of the legislative assault on LGBTQ lives. When the Times instead feeds a moral panic about trans identity — centering angry parents over desperate youth and anti-trans activists over the community they seek to eliminate — right-wing media use it to add heft and a patina of credibility to their attacks.
Seven years ago, Media Matters reported on the Times’ increasing willingness to publish commentary predicated on “discredited and problematic myths about trans people,” warning that it could result in real-world persecution and violence. We now live in the world that this approach has wrought, where the Overton window for attacks on trans and gender-noncomforming people has shifted so strongly that more than 260 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed thus far in 2023, banning everything from books that dare to mention the existence of queer people to equal participation of trans people in sports to the airing of “transvestite” materials in public. All the while, the Times has continued to flood the conversation with biased, misleading, and offensive reporting and commentary. They’re asking questions. They’re just asking the wrong ones.