A casual newsreader is probably familiar with the typical trans kids story. Medical treatment for trans adolescents is often portrayed as controversial. Sometimes it’s framed as a “culture war” issue. There’s usually a mention of the news — the dozens of conservative states that have proposed bans on trans care — but the heart of the piece often asks, “Is there a grain of truth to any skepticism about trans care?”
What’s often missing, though, is that the protocol for treating gender dysphoria in young people has been agreed upon for over a decade. Kids do not walk into a doctor’s office, demand surgery and get it. A gender dysphoria diagnosis requires that a minor is insistent on their identity as another gender, and their claims must be persistent and consistent over an extended period of time.
Treatment first involves puberty blockers for adolescents going through the early stages of natural puberty — a puberty pause that gives kids time to ensure they’re making an informed long-term decision about their bodies. After a course of blockers, older teens will move on to cross sex hormones, essentially avoiding their natal puberty in favor of developing a body that more naturally fits their internal gender identity.
The “debate” over trans kids is happening now not because of any new scientific data showing cracks in the regularly prescribed regimen given to trans adolescents. It’s the result of a growing movement of anti-trans activists and conservative politicians who want to limit LGBTQ rights, especially after losing on gay marriage and failing to make headway in passing anti-trans bathroom bills. Medical treatment of trans kids is an issue that much of the American public had not considered before, which left it open to fear and skepticism — and appealing to the emotions of parents.
As a result, many media organizations are now covering trans kids regularly, often without assigning reporters and commentators who are experienced in covering trans issues. Recently, The New York Times came under fire from more than 1,000 of its own contributors criticizing several stories the paper published about trans kids.
“The Times has in recent years treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language, while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources,” organizers wrote in a letter to the newspaper’s standards editor, Philip B. Corbett.
The Times said they received the letter, but in their response, only specifically addressed a similar letter written by GLAAD and their “advocacy mission,” noting the paper stands by its reporting. “Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society — to help readers understand them,” Charlie Stadtlander, the Times’ director of external communication, said in a statement. “Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.”
Regardless of what the Times does and doesn’t do moving forward, the rest of us can still do better in telling stories about trans kids. As reporters, extra care must be taken to recognize our own biases while writing about a population of children who may be personally unfamiliar.
“I would do my best to set aside everything that I thought I’ve known about trans views up to that point,” said American Civil Liberties Union communications strategist Gillian Branstetter. “I would familiarize myself with some of the previous reporting and look to folks who have already gone in depth on this.”
Branstetter noted the work of Kate Sosin at The 19th, Maggie Astor at the Times and The Washington Post’s Anne Branigin as good models for reporters to approach covering trans kids. Jo Yurcaba at NBC Out and The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant also write extensively about the proposed bans on gender-affirming care for minors. Reporters who have questions about trans-related language and culture can also check out resources from the Trans Journalist Association, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association and GLAAD.
Then there are the larger ideas to consider when covering trans kids and their bodies. Here are a few to think about.
Talk to trans kids
This should go without saying, but if you’re reporting on trans kids, talk to trans kids.
Cisgender reporters first assigned to, or interested in, covering trans issues might not recognize their biases, whether it’s sympathizing with cisgender parents or being curious about detransitioners, the tiny percent of people who once thought they were trans but later realized they were not. An outsized focus on these people can sometimes mean the perspective of trans kids is either omitted or added as an afterthought in your reporting.
“Something I end up having to tell reporters: At every step of your reporting, you should be asking, ‘What about the trans people?’” said Branstetter.
Look for trans kids who have socially transitioned but have not yet started puberty blockers. Speak with trans adolescents who have started their medical transitions. Talk to young trans adults who were denied transition as youths. If you want to know about various experiences of transitioning, talk to those who have actually done it, considered it or were denied it.
“It really annoys me when people talk about [transition] as permanent,” said Carter Winner, a 22-year-old transmasculine and gender queer person. They said they rarely see their own life experience represented in traditional media coverage. After socially transitioning at 18, Winner was eventually able to access testosterone treatment, which they still take to this day and, after a four-year waitlist, has top surgery scheduled for next month. Over time, though, how they saw themselves evolved from being a trans man to someone who is nonbinary.
“I’ve been medically transitioning for a couple years now and it feels great, but the label I used to describe myself has evolved,” they said. “The thought that it has to be permanent, it has to be definite, is misguided. If it’s making trans youths happy, then that’s what matters.”
Reporters new to the trans beat may find it difficult to get trans people to speak with them because the community has been misrepresented in the past. A journalist’s previous work on trans issues, along with a publication’s track record for coverage, are key considerations that parents of trans kids evaluate when deciding on whether to speak with a reporter.
“I usually check with TENT, which is the Transgender Education Network of Texas, or Equality Texas to see if they know anything about the reporter,” said Lauren Rodriguez, the mother of a 19-year-old trans man and a long-time advocate for the rights of trans kids in the Texas legislature. Rodriguez says most parents are extremely picky about any media coverage they’d be potentially opening their family to.
New York Times opinion writer Megan Stack ran into this issue while attempting to speak with families of trans kids for a recent story that portrayed affirming parents as sympathetic figures, saying she had been “iced out” by rights organizations because of her “professional affiliation.”
According to Rodriguez, parents of trans kids talk to each other about how they’ve been treated by journalists in the past. “If you piss off one parent, you’re kind of s— out of luck,” she said.
Don’t just frame trans kids as a culture war issue
Rodriguez gets particularly frustrated when reporters use a culture war framing when attempting to tell her family’s story.
“It’s not a culture war to me; it’s my son’s life,” she said. “It’s like you’re arguing against my son’s existence.”
Trans rights is indeed a highly divisive political issue — but it’s one driven largely by the culture-focused religious wing of the Republican Party. As such, trans bodies have become easy fodder for columnists who want to make larger points about the direction of society. But reporting should consider that real people are affected by the discussion and passage of laws restricting gender-affirming care.
On the surface, gender-affirming care for adolescents doesn’t feel to most people like an economic issue, like taxes or policy. But this care and the laws around it does have a real effect on trans people’s pocketbooks over their lifetimes. For example, a trans kid who receives timely gender-affirming care can often avoid some of the later transition-related surgeries meant to reverse the effects of natal puberty, like facial feminization surgery or top surgery, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Often in trans care reporting, there is a lot of anxiety wrapped up in a child possibly regretting their transition. But alternate questions like, “What happens if the child doesn’t ‘grow out of it’?” rarely enter the discussion. Reporters should also consider what adult life may look like for a trans child who is denied transition.
Winner would like to see more stories about trans joy rather than the “difficult” questions that tend to dominate coverage of trans people. “I have never seen a trans joy story about a kid in any mainstream media ever,” they said. “The trans story is often depicted as, ‘You can make this decision, but you’re probably gonna get murdered or assaulted or live a sad life.’ It’s always sad trans stories.”
Research and be transparent about your sources
Bias can sneak into coverage through sourcing choices. For example, a recent New York Times Magazine cover story on new standards of care for trans youth by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health featured Grace Lidinsky-Smith speaking against gender-affirming care. The story referred to her as someone who has written about her transition regret and detransition, rather than as president of the Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network, an anti-trans advocacy group that trans advocates, including the writers of the Times letter, say is dedicated to spreading misinformation about gender-affirming care.
It’s important to be upfront about who your sources are and not omit key information. If a parent had been on Fox News one night calling his child’s teachers “groomers” — an inaccurate term conservatives use to imply that the LGBTQ community and their allies are pedophiles — it’s important context to add when writing that the same parent said “he respected the rights of families who disagreed with him.”
Provide relevant, factual context
A story about trans health care should make clear all the facts about trans health care. They should include that nearly every major medical association supports the current protocol of gender-affirming care for minors, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. If one of your sources wants to dispute that the science is somehow wrong, they need to bring factual evidence, just as any other source would for any other story. Highlighting a few anecdotes of detransitioning is not a counter to the dozens of studies spanning the last decade that show improved mental health and life outcomes resulting from gender-affirming care for adolescents.
What’s also often missing from stories on trans kids is the context under which these families’ decisions are being made. Above all else, many trans kids and their families want to live as normal a life as possible. For Rodriguez, that meant getting her son’s medical transition over with before college.
“One thing we wanted when he went off to college was to not have to hide [from his roommates] to change,” she said. “How can we make him just to be like any other average teenage boy in the dorm?”
It was important for Rodriguez to give her son a chance to just be a regular guy, without being known as “the trans guy.” It’s a perspective that isn’t found in journalistic work that treats transness as a scientific experiment or a philosophical abstraction. People may want to study trans kids in a sterile, neutral environment, but these kids have their own lives, their own thoughts and dreams beyond their gender identity. Journalism should reflect that humanity, not debate it.