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Just repeatedly asking the same questions on page A1

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The sheer amount of prominent words the Times (along with other prominent mainstream outlets) have devoted to articles Just Asking Questions about whether trans people are getting too much medical care and being granted too much autonomy and privacy is extraordinary:

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wrote to 12 state universities, ordering them to provide a list of how many students, of what ages, had sought or received gender-reassignment treatment through their schools’ medical services. The request was strikingly detailed, specifically asking, item by item, about puberty blockers, hormone treatments, mastectomies, breast augmentations, orchiectomies,  penectomies, vaginoplasties, hysterectomies, metoidioplasties, vaginectomies, salpingo-oophorectomies, phalloplasties, scrotoplasties, or “any other medical procedure.”

This official inquiry into the intimate anatomy of young people struck a now-familiar tone—the combination of meticulousness and prurience, the performance of rigor. 

On January 23, a few days after the news of DeSantis’ inquiry broke, the New York Times published a story under the headline “Parents and Schools Clash on Gender Identity,” at the top of its front page. “For this article,” an introductory note read, the reporter “interviewed more than 50 people, including parents and their children, public school officials, medical professionals and lawyers for both L.G.B.T.Q. and conservative advocacy groups.”

The specific clash about gender identity, in this case, was over the question of whether schools should tell parents that their children have chosen to take on a new gender identity socially, at school, if the children don’t want the parents to know. Following broad, existing principles about student autonomy, privacy, and pupil safety, many school districts honor such children’s preferences. The Times described this situation as an example of “wrenching new tensions over how to accommodate transgender children,” and as something that leaves parents “unsettled” or feeling “villainized.” 

[…]

Concerns are, indeed, growing. A regular reader of the Times might conclude that the paper itself is cultivating those concerns—even when the “data is sparse.” With the story about social transitioning in schools, 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 cumulative figure of 15,000 words doesn’t include the 11,000 or so words the New York Times Magazine devoted to a laboriously evenhanded story about disagreements over the standards of care for trans youth; or the 3,000 words of the front-page story from its designated anti-wokeness-beat reporter, Michael Powell, on whether trans women athletes are unfairly ruining the competition for other women; or the 1,200 words of the front-page story by Powell on how trans interests are banning the word “woman” from abortion-rights discourse; or the various expressions of polite skepticism or open hostility toward trans interests from opinion-page columnists like Michelle Goldberg (fretting about “progressive taboos around discussing some of the thornier issues involved in treating young people with gender dysphoria”) or Pamela Paul (citing Powell to argue that trans-rights supporters “deny women their humanity, reducing them to a mix of body parts and gender stereotypes”).

The count also doesn’t include the 2,000 or so words in the story from the roundup box about intimidation and violence against trans people. The Times published that one on page A25.

Page A1 is where questions go. Is the number of young trans people suddenly unusually large? Is it good for young trans people to be getting medical treatment as drastic as breast-removal surgery? If they’re deferring more drastic medical treatment by taking puberty blockers, is it harmful for them to take those puberty blockers? If they’re not getting medical treatment at all, are their schools letting them socially transition too easily?

This is pretty obviously—and yet not obviously enough—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. Like the premise that the Clintons had to have been guilty of something serious, or that Saddam Hussein must have had a weapons program worth invading Iraq over, the notion that trans youth present a looming problem is demonstrated to the reader by the sheer volume of coverage. If it’s not a problem, why else would it be in the paper?

The justification for this blizzard of skeptical words — coverage which the Times, in 2023, would not bring to coverage of abortion or kids coming out as gay and not wanting schools to tell their parents, although the same stories certainly could be written — is essentially tautological:

Any medical decision involves some sort of judgment about how to balance competing sets of risks. Yet the Times isn’t publishing multiple front-page stories about whether teens are endangering their bodies by getting treated for cystic acne. The Times‘ gender-treatment coverage insists, through its sheer bulk and repetition, that there is something particularly wrong about the way young people who identify as trans are receiving care. The difficult and complicated decisions that these patients are making in consultation with their doctors are being made wrongly, if not wrongfully. If the Times didn’t believe this, as an institution, the coverage would make no sense. 

[…]

Those standards of care are subject to much internal debate, as the Times Magazine covered in its 11,000 words. But if the clinicians who administer trans health care are already weighing these possibilities, why do the readers of the Times or Jesse Singal’s newsletter need to keep worrying about them? Especially when the subject is social transitioning at school, rather than actual medical care? Singal argued that social transitioning is a significant intervention in itself, with serious psychological impacts, and that schools aren’t qualified to make such weighty assessment “on the sole basis of a single child’s say-so.” The justification loops back on its own defining premise: trans care requires extra concern because trans care requires extra concern. 

One thing we do know is that there is a major anti-trans moral panic going on in this country with real, material consequences, that an endless parade of trans-skeptical stories contributes to. This gets coverage too, but in a tellingly different way:

What if, perhaps, a mainstream liberal moral panic about young trans people has been moving in synchrony with “a barrage of bills to regulate the lives of transgender youths, restricting the sports teams they can play on, bathrooms they can use and medical care they can receive”? What if the laws are being promoted by “some of the same figures who fought the legalization of gay marriage”?

And what if the latest wave of this legislative assault included “bans on transition care into young adulthood; restrictions on drag shows using definitions that could broadly encompass performances by transgender people; measures that would prevent teachers in many cases from using names or pronouns matching students’ gender identities; and requirements that schools out transgender students to their parents”?

This was what the Times reported on Jan. 26, three days after it had used its front page to air parents’ objections to teachers using names or pronouns matching students’ gender identities, and letting those parents suggest schools should have requirements that out transgender students to their parents

In this story about new legislation, the Times raised the possibility that the interest in young people’s welfare was a tactical pretext by the far right, the opening stage in a full-on campaign against trans people:

Matt Sharp, senior counsel and state government relations national director for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said his group believed “gender ideology attacks the truth that every person is either male or female.”

And Mr. Schilling, of the American Principles Project, confirmed that his organization’s long-term goal was to eliminate transition care. The initial focus on children, he said, was a matter of “going where the consensus is.”

This news ran under the headline “G.O.P. State Lawmakers Push a Growing Wave of Anti-Transgender Bills.” 

It was on page A13.

The comparison with past Times crusades like Iraq, Whitewater, and EMAILS! indeed seems apt.

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