Archive for May, 2011

Bad arguments

Because I haven’t written in awhile, I’m going to take it easy on myself and evaluate a simple bad editorial. The hard part is resisting the urge to throw my head against the desk as I address points that should have been put down years ago, but are still constantly repeated and uncritically accepted.

Katherine Kersten’s opinion piece, “Gay marriage supporters opt to intimidate,” was published on Saturday in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.  The Minnesota legislature, unfortunately, just decided to send a measure before the voters that would amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. (Minnesota state law lacks marriage equality anyway — and apparently the legislature should have been fixing their massive deficit to avoid a state government shutdown.)

Text from Kersten’s piece, in which she calls for “a few ground rules to ensure a fair and open exchange of views,” will appear in blockquotes.

Same-sex-marriage supporters’ constant mantra has been that Minnesotans who support one man-one woman marriage are motivated by bigotry. Gay-marriage proponents make this claim even about people who merely support letting Minnesotans vote on the issue.

… But people who support one man-one woman marriage are not bigots. They argue, very reasonably, that marriage is rooted in nature — in male/female sexual complementarity — and that children need both a mother and a father. They say that’s why it has been the bedrock institution of procreation and social order in virtually all times and places.

Claim: It’s unreasonable to say that supporters of one man-one woman marriage (which I’ll abbreviate to 1M1WM for simplicity) are bigots.

Response: Supporting 1M1WM is fine. The problem is that the 1M1WM crowd doesn’t stop there, but seeks to actively deny the same privilege to others they disagree with, without real justification. Forget acceptance, that’s definitely not tolerance — and so, it is bigotry. For that matter, letting the law stay as it is also qualifies as intolerance. Yes, when you passively ignore an injustice you can fix, you are actively committing injustice. “We won’t pass any more laws against you!”

My second recommendation: We know the precise constitutional amendment language the people will be voting on, so don’t distort it.

… The “ban” language [in opinion polling regarding measures like this] also casts traditional marriage supporters in a negative light. It compels them to say they are against something, rather than allowing them to articulate what they are for.

Most important, people often hesitate to tell a pollster their true beliefs about marriage when traditional marriage supporters are routinely demonized as bigots and haters.

Claim 1: Marriage-related opinion poll wording fails to predict voter behavior.
Claim 2: The way these polls are worded is biased and unfair.

Response: Kersten makes one good point. At least some polls should ask how voters will respond to the exact language appearing on the ballot, because we need to know how people will actually vote. Kersten points out that polls in California and Maine had predicted that voters would reject 1M1WM measures.

Is fairness an issue, though? It’s nice to know what you support. But it’s not unfair to ask you if you would, in fact, actively deny something to others. Coming back to Kersten’s first claim, the attempt to frame opposition to marriage equality as (only) support for 1M1WM marriage is so absurd I marvel that so many people continue to parrot it. See also: “I’m not opposed to interracial marriage; I just support marriage exclusively between people of the same race.”

One last point: In the coming debate, we must have zero tolerance for intimidation tactics. Bullying has become standard operating procedure for many same-sex marriage activists. Their attack last year on Target Corp. is now held up as a national model by those attempting to silence same-sex marriage opponents.

In California, support for Prop 8 has cost some people their jobs. The latest casualty is Olympic gold medal winner Peter Vidmar, who resigned as chief of mission for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team on May 6, after his support for Prop 8 became public. McCarthyism of this kind threatens to undermine Americans’ cherished freedom to engage politically without fear of personal reprisals.

Claim: Marriage equality activists have used bullying to produce results in their favor.

Response: This is a tough one, because Kersten summarizes a variety of incidents involving different people and organizations in different contexts.

Let’s start easy. Is it inappropriate for someone to use a position or organization to advance opinions on issues that are irrelevant to that particular pulpit? Absolutely — for example, if my state attorney general used his letterhead to announce his faith (or his atheism!), I’d expect him to be disciplined. (I hope he doesn’t get to prosecute himself.)

Is it inappropriate for someone who commands public influence to advance opinions on hir own time? The public and media interest ze enjoys is in this case unrelated to the issue at hand. However, this person is not just the Nebraska attorney general, or a Chase bank teller, or a Staples associate; even a public figure is entitled to a private life and mind. It’s not unfair to use one’s “social network” to the fullest, even if one’s famous or constantly making new friends. Just stick to the issues and don’t invoke irrelevant connections.

But what if a public figure’s private speech impacts the perception of an organization ze participates in? If what ze says suggests that ze not only disagrees with, but will fail to live up to the organization’s expectation of hir, that is something that both parties should be mindful of. If my boss were to disagree with my lifestyle or viewpoints, as long as that wouldn’t affect my treatment as an employee, I would have no right or reason to complain to hir superiors. A person should be penalized only if ze fails to perform the job ze was hired to do, or if the person was explicitly hired to embody the personality or personal opinions the organization values. From what I’ve read, there was no good reason to remove Vidmar from his position on the 2012 Olympic team: he represented a delegation to an apolitical event, was doing his job properly, and wasn’t speaking against marriage equality as the US chief of mission.

Last, we come to the fairness of the pressure placed on Target by equal rights activists, and similar situations. Is it reasonable to ask organizations we deal with to support our values, and is it reasonable to expect at least tolerance from them? Absolutely, because although here we are concerned with impersonal entities, these entities employ and affect the lives of real people, and promote and lobby legislators who affect the lives of these real people. When we buy, our obvious concerns are price and quality, but so long as companies can choose how to treat their workers and can affect the political process, our purchases really are votes. Whether it’s absurd that it works that way is irrelevant to the here-and-now where the inviolable freedom of the voter is invoked.

Or if you don’t want to get that deep into the philosophical, isn’t the buyer’s freedom of choice, however unwisely chosen, simply called…capitalism?

GLAAD responds to the World-Herald on Brandon Teena

GLADD contacted the Omaha World-Herald after the publication of the article that referred to Brandon Teena as a woman, the local response I participated in, and the subsequent “compromise.” Like me, and like various others, GLADD didn’t think the World-Herald’s changes to the article helped as much as they could have. From GLAAD:

The reporter and his editors heard from local transgender advocates as well as GLAAD, and determined that they should “compromise” on the article. The paper updated the online version to remove all pronouns, refusing to replace female pronouns with male. Instead, the paper replaced “she” with “Brandon” used as a surname.

At GLAAD, we feel this is insufficient. It isn’t a “compromise” to neuter the story from any reference of gender. The editor argued that using male pronouns would be “confusing” for a reader. Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold – because many responsible journalists use appropriate pronouns and names for transgender people, in an effort to accurately represent the person, and their readers/viewers/listeners aren’t confused.

Two responses, including one from GLAAD’s Adam Bass (senior media field strategist), were  published in the World-Herald’s Public Pulse section saying much the same. As far as I know, while the online edition was edited to reflect the “compromise” relatively quickly, the World-Herald didn’t see fit to make a notice of correction in the print edition, nor otherwise publicly comment.

I received a response from Mike Reilly, the executive editor, who I had e-mailed before the online corrections were made. His response seems to have been about identical to what he sent to a few others in the community, so I feel I can print it in its entirety here:

Dear Jon,

Thanks for writing and calling this to our attention.

As a result of the concern you and other have expressed, we changed our handling of references to Teena Brandon’s gender in later editions of this story, including the online edition. We also will will be mindful of your concerns in future stories.

Our goal is to be clear and honest with all of our readers as well as being sensitive to and respectful of transgendered people.

So we have specified that she was a woman in a “biological” sense and avoided using the female pronoun.

We will not change her name to her alias, as some have asked us to do today. Use of an alias is a separate matter and using it again and again years after her death would, in my opinion, only serve to confuse readers.

Same goes for use of the male pronoun in this particular case. I think it would be confusing, given that Brandon’s rape and murder stemmed from a heinous reaction to the discovery of Brandon’s biological gender.

Thanks again for writing.


Mike Reilly

It’s also my understanding, despite this particular article and the awkward editing that followed, that the World-Herald’s policy on referencing transgender people is the same as Associated Press style:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

So I’m hopeful that future World-Herald articles involving transgender subjects will be handled better.  Still…even Mike Reilly’s response seems to indicate some confusion about trans issues; the phrase “biological gender” in particular sticks out.

Thus I replied back; although I didn’t receive a response, I’m hopeful it at least got read, and I’m sure he had other people flooding his inbox, too. I’m by no means an expert, but I think I adequately addressed the most important issues at hand:

Mr. Reilly,

I was pretty surprised (and pleased) that the you and your staff responded to our concerns so quickly. I understand that aliases can be tricky to navigate, and appreciate the quick revision of the article to reflect Brandon’s biological status, and to address the pronoun issue.

That being said, I think the use of pronouns still needs to be addressed — I can say personally that the importance of it is hard to grasp until one becomes involved with transgender issues. That you used the phrase “biological gender” is what prompts me to focus on this, because “biological gender” is self-contradictory. Sex is biological: male or female, based on chromosomes and other physical traits. Gender is essentially psychological: how people feel and act in relation to what are considered masculine and feminine feelings and roles. (In a nutshell, sex is the body, gender is the mind.) It’s a distinction I don’t see most people realizing outside the medical field, and I and others notice it when writers say “gender” when they mean “sex.”

But returning to pronouns: Transpeople, regardless of their biological sexes, face a continuing conflict between their actual gender identities, and the genders attributed to them by others. This is why pronouns are important — they show either the perception or acceptance of one’s gender. While my transgender friends generally shrug off a stranger referring to them by an improper pronoun — the person is just making a judgment based on apperance, not acquaintance — they’re deeply hurt when someone who knows how they identify insists on the wrong pronouns. Yes, Brandon’s rape and murder centered on his (biological) sex, but his female sex is important because his gender identity didn’t correspond to it in the way it usually does; and it was exactly the denial that this can happen that enabled Lotter, and others before and after him, to excuse their actions toward their transgender victims.

When we use pronouns, we’re not referring to a person’s biological sex, but to that person, and his/her personal identity as s/he choses to express it. So while it’s entirely accurate to use terms like “biological female” or “female-bodied” to refer to Brandon’s physical body, because he presented himself as a man, it’s more accurate to refer to Brandon the person as a man, and with male pronouns. (The phrase used in the revised article, “biological woman,” was a good attempt, but again, it’s the distinction of male or female sex, versus gender identity as man or woman.) While using pronouns like this may be “confusing” to the general public, obviously the journalistic concern should be accuracy; I hope you’ll take this opportunity to demonstrate to the public the PROPER use of pronouns instead of simply defaulting to the most familiar, misconceived use.

In talking to a couple others about the article, I was asked to pass on that if you do correct the article in that way, and people call or write in and say they were confused by the pronouns, it’s really an opportunity to share that learning experience with your readers. And if not as an editorial unto itself, a note in the revised article online stating how and why it was revised would be appreciated by a lot of us, at least to indicate that it WAS changed from the originally-published version. (The original article URL seems to have become invalid since the revised one came online.)

Once again, thanks for responding; I’m glad that the OWH and the readership have a dialogue on this issue. Since referencing transgender people is (obviously) complicated or at least counter-intuitive, I’m more than happy to keep answering questions or addressing misconceptions.


*shrug* We’ll see if anything more comes of it.

(Once again, thanks to Aarron Schurevich for bringing this issue up.)