Parker Molloy on the mainstream media's anti-trans bias
Also: Republicans turn the House into a circus.
By Noah Berlatsky
Last month, Iowa Republican legislators introduced a bill to bar teachers from making accommodations for students’ gender identity without written permission of a parent or guardian. Teachers would essentially be forced to misgender students, or out them to their parents.
Mainstream outlets do report on these human rights abuses, as the links above make clear. But their editorial stance has often been ambivalent, and sometimes actively hostile to trans people.
As journalist and media critic Parker Molloy pointed out recently on her Substack The Present Age, the New York Times started out the new year by hiring conservative columnist David French, who has called trans people a “tiny, disturbed population” and who has stated that he plans to willfully misgender trans people whenever he writes about them. French, as Molloy notes, joins an opinion staff “absolutely loaded with anti-trans voices” —from Pamela Paul on the right to Michelle Goldberg on the left. In contrast, there are no regular trans columnists writing for the Times.
Molloy has been writing about the mainstream media’s anti-trans bias for years, not because she wants to, but because she feels someone has to.
“I don’t like writing about trans issues,” she told me. “I’m not an activist. I don't like writing about this topic. If I had the choice, I wouldn't write about it ever again in my life. But I have to because these things are happening and the mainstream media just isn’t paying attention or covering it in a fair way.”
I spoke to Molloy about how the media covers trans issues, why they so often fail, and what they could do better. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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What’s your background in media criticism? What led you to become interested in these issues?
I've always been very interested in media generally. When I was six or seven years old in the early 90s I would wake up in the morning, and I would go downstairs, and I would turn on the TV and watch the news. And I would watch the WGN news, and then I would watch the local Fox channel, and then watch the Today show.
So I was very interested in media just generally. I went to college and majored in something completely unrelated. But eventually, I had a job at an ad agency. And it was while I was working there that I came out as trans.
One of the things I noticed at that time was that a lot of the reporting on trans people was pretty bad. This was around 2012. And so one of the things I started doing just in my spare time was writing about news about trans people. I was sick of seeing stories that were like, “A strangely dressed man was found dead in a local pond.” That’s how they would refer to trans women in a lot of these stories. They would misgender people. And it was a case where people couldn’t speak up for themselves and couldn't fight back.
Why is media coverage of trans issues important right now?
One of the things that is frustrating me is that there are a lot of [mainstream media] stories right now [focused on trans people] about very pointless things. The New York Times ran a story about a poetry festival that turned away some guy who wanted to read some anti-trans poem. And the Times does a big, big thing about it, they send a photographer to take pictures of this guy who's been supposedly unfairly censored.
But meanwhile, you look at what's happening in legislatures, and it's terrifying. Since the beginning of 2023 there have already been something like 27 bills banning gender affirming care, banning trans people from sports, bills banning drag shows.
Some of these bills ban anyone under 19 from attended drag shows. First off, that's absolutely goofy. But second, they define drag in these bills as a person wearing clothes that aren’t true to their gender observed at birth.
These bills are so broadly worded that they essentially outlaws trans people from being able to like, perform at concerts. Kim Petras, who sang on that huge Sam Smith song, “Unholy,” she appeared on Good Morning America in a big puffy coat in 2020. It was one of the most non-sexual things possible for morning TV. But that exact performance, after one of these bills becomes law, would be illegal, and it would be illegal for anyone to go see her.
That seems like a free speech issue.
When people talk about, “Oh, free speech, the censorious left, etc, etc.” — when they talk about that sort of stuff they're always talking about it like, “Oh, yeah, free speech is under attack because I'm not allowed to berate my trans employees or tell my trans coworker that they're a monster.” Meanwhile, states, using the power of the government, are trying to make it illegal for trans people to exist. You can’t perform concerts. You can’t exist in public.
We're debating whether or not teachers should have free speech to call students the wrong name and wrong pronouns. Imagine if you went to school and you said, “Hey, my name is Noah.” And imagine if you did that and the teacher said, “No, your name's Steve, and I'm going to call you Steve from now until you leave.” It’s just stuff that is so pointlessly mean.
North Dakota has introduced a bill that would force people to misgender trans students and trans employees. I haven't seen any of the free speech people speaking up against that.
Why do you think trans coverage is often so bad in mainstream media?
Remember back in like 2015, when Time Magazine had Laverne Cox on the cover, and everyone was talking about the “transgender tipping point”? It wasn't a tipping point, it was one actress who had a role in a Netflix streaming TV show. And at that time a Netflix show was not comparable to having a network TV show.
It was weird to see these outlets try to play up the very legitimate and impressive accomplishments of a very small handful of people as proof that society is totally accepting of trans people. I think they oversold just how far society has come. And ever since then, there's been this sense from mainstream media outlets that we in fact hit the trans tipping point, and that means that trans people are totally accepted. That’s the mainstream narrative now.
Then you have a bunch of guys who are contrarian writers. These are people who say, I don’t want to go with narrative A because I can get more views going with narrative B.
Would it help to have more trans writers at mainstream outlets?
People at large outlets, people, like, let’s say, Jonathan Chait, will write articles about how people don’t want have a debate about trans issues. It’s not that people don't want you to have the debate. People would like it, if you actually knew what you were talking about, and actually included trans people’s voices when having this “debate.”
There are no trans columnists at the New York Times, or New York Magazine, or the New Yorker, or the Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, or USA Today. These places don't have any trans people who have a real megaphone equivalent to what the big columnists have.
I can write about these issues. But my audience is very, very small compared to the New York Times. It’s totally asymmetrical. It’s impossible [for most trans people] to participate in this supposed debate — a “debate” that never gets defined, because if they were honest, it might sound horrific. It might be, “Oh, hey, we're debating whether trans people should be allowed to exist in society.” So they don’t say that out loud. Instead they say, “People just keep saying I’m bad when I write about this.”
And yes, people say you’re bad because you're concern trolling, not consulting trans people and not involving trans people in the discussion.
What would the benefit be to having more trans writers at these outlets? Would that really change people’s views of trans people and trans issues?
The media is how people get to know trans people. What the world thinks about trans people is almost entirely based on what the news says about them, because there aren't a ton of trans people.
People will say, “Well, gay people had success, people got to know gay people.” But gay people had a lot of things on their side. They had more media representation, they have larger numbers. There were TV shows that portrayed gay people in a positive way, and didn’t use negative tropes.
But with trans people, most people now don't know a trans person or don't know if they know a trans person. All they know is what they see in the news. So when the news is not covering these bills that will make it damn near impossible for trans people to just live our lives — when they're not covering that, and when instead they’re covering this poetry festival that said no to a guy reading transphobic poetry, they're really trying to make trans people seem like the ones in power. And that is such a common argument. “No, trans people have too much power.” What power? We have no power. There’s no representation; it’s just nonsense.
And that’s a common theme with many groups throughout history. You claim the people you’re oppressing are actually the oppressor.
Do you think the mainstream bias around trans issues affects the coverage of other issues as well?
I don't know if it necessarily has a direct effect on their coverage. I think what will happen as Republicans keep pushing this stuff, and as they get more of what they want, and keep pushing it further, is that the people who are doing it are going to see that they're not getting much pushback. They're going to keep testing limits, and it's not going to end with trans people.
We started to see that happen when after years of just passing these bills about trans people in sports, Florida was like, “Hey, we're just going to push through a bill that was too extreme for Tennessee a decade ago.” That’s what the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was. It was a bill that other states years ago had tried to pass unsuccessfully because it was too extreme.
The only reason the media did start to pay attention was because it affected gay people. Had Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans just targeted trans people, I don’t think there would have been a national media backlash.
Are there mainstream reporters who do a good job reporting on trans issues?
I mean, it's difficult. I think one person who's not trans but does a good job writing on these issues is Melissa Gira Grant. I think she's done some really good writing in the New Republic about a lot of the anti-trans stuff happening right now. Another person who is really good on this is Moira Donegan who’s written for the Guardian.
Other than that — it’s tough. Most people seem to think, “Oh, the trans people, they can’t be objective on this issue. Only us, only the cis people can be objective.” But any time an issue involves human beings, you really have to involve the human beings you're talking about if you want to actually make progress on anything.
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