"The Fallacy of the Middle Ground"
Anatomy of a freelancer's attempt to tell a different truth
As many of you know, last week the Archives of Sexual Behavior published a new study by Lisa Littman, “Individuals Treated for Gender Dysphoria with Medical and/or Surgical Transition Who Subsequently Detransitioned: A Survey of 100 Detransitioners.” Those of us who have been talking with detransitioners and desisters will not be surprised by its findings, which show that more people are detransitioning because they were not properly evaluated; the cause of their gender dysphoria was not well-considered in the treatment of it; they felt pressured—by doctors, friends, the culture—to transition; and they thought transition was a panacea. Nothing is a panacea (other than maybe dark chocolate with sea salt?) so of course they were disappointed. Sometimes they were devastated.
I had already interviewed a detransitioner named Laura, a lifelong gender nonconforming kid who developed severe mental health problems and, in her teens, gender dysphoria. She ended up going on testosterone and having a double mastectomy at 20, only to find that the treatments made her complicated mental health problems worse. So I used her story as an intro and wrote a piece about her and the left and center’s media failure to cover the growing number of stories like those detailed in Littman’s study. I tentatively titled it, “Why the Left and Center Media Must Report on Detransitioners.” In it, I argued that presenting objectors as hateful or anti-trans obscures the reality that the most experienced practitioners in the country, including some adult trans people, are trying to sound the alarm about abuses within the field of gender-affirming care, and that we are preventing their voices from being heard.
My piece did not argue that such medical interventions should be banned. I never argue that, in part because I don’t [know if I] want the government to dictate what an individual or child or family should do medically, just as I don’t want them to restrict abortion rights (a post on this crossover has been in the works for weeks but I haven’t gotten to it yet, what with working on a book that has nothing to do with this and all). My concern is about the increasingly narrow media narrative that stifles dissent, or paints it as bigoted, and places value judgements on sources rather than listening to them.
Because I assumed no left or center outlet would take it, I tried something new. I sent my opinion essay to the Wall Street Journal and had a back-and-forth with an editor there that I enjoyed, but proved fruitless. I wrote that perhaps one reason so few are willing to report about transition regret is because they fear doing so will give more fuel to right-wing fire, aiming to ban medical intervention for gender dysphoric, or trans, youth. He pointed out that I was using “right-wing” as an insult, when that is a term the WSJ’s readers proudly claim. Good point, I said. I’m not used to writing for opinion sections with that political slant, and I’m not about to change my political slant to do so.
Eventually, because of my refusal to argue that there was no medical or scientific justification for gender-affirming care—this is simply not what my piece was about—he told me that my views represented the “fallacy of the middle ground.”
This temporarily knocked the journalistic wind out of me. To me, understanding complicated issues from a variety of points of view is what writing is entirely about—not the false pretense that the middle path is always the best one. My first novel, written when I was 29, was about a 59-year-old lapsed Catholic womanizing bigot in his first week out of prison. I felt that guy’s pain, but I had almost nothing in common with him other than lamenting the corporatization of small-town America (a view which is ultimately debunked in my own novel). This is the fun of it, the sacred ground: making your brain hurt by inhabiting multiple perspectives. I cannot understand how the media has lost sight of that journalistic goal.
The editor, though, seemed to think this was a copout. And because I am so easily bowled over, so constantly simmering in a soup of uncertainty, and because I am habituated to considering alternative ideas, I considered his assertion. Is this pluralistic ideal I claim to uphold just wishy-washy liberal bullshit?
Well, no. Because as I reported earlier, some of the language in these “anti-trans” bills—thought of as child safeguarding bills by some people—is horrifying to me. The North Carolina bill, which ultimately failed, required teachers to notify parents not just if a kid was changing his or her identity, but if a child was exhibiting gender nonconforming behavior.
You know what you should do if a kid isn’t hewing to gender norms? Celebrate the kid, don’t narc on him. Call the parents to congratulate them. That is, I’m not going to align myself with the right just because the left is fucking up so royally.
Eventually, what the hell, I sent the piece to the New York Times, where it was actually considered, then politely rejected but deemed “thought-provoking.” I tried a variety of other outlets. Then I took out the media criticism and sent it as a pitch to the Washington Post health section, about reevaluating approaches to treating gender dypshoric youth. That was rejected in THREE MINUTES, the fastest anything I’ve pitched has ever been rejected.
Many have urged me to abandon the mainstream media, but a) I don’t know how to make a living without them and b) I don’t know how to make the kinds of change I want to make without them. The way others who’ve abandoned the mainstream media have made a decent living is by being didactic, on social media and in their own newsletters. The language of Twitter is the toxic cocktail of unkindness, certainty and close-mindedness, and I’m sorry, that’s not my kind of cocktail. Maybe this explains my kombucha addiction.
The record does need correcting in the mainstream media, even—or perhaps especially—in opinion sections. The New York Times’ opinion section is very important to me. I’ve published several pieces there that have spurred discussion and helped me sell books, and I care very much about what gets printed there. But there are some falsities and intellectually dishonest assertions. For instance, Jennifer Finney Boylan—whom I do think is a very good writer—once categorized ROGD as a diagnosis invented by the right wing to undermine teens’ transitions. A simple fact-check would render that insinuation untrue. It was not invented by a conservative, but rather Lisa Littman herself, nor was the intention to undermine, but rather to understand and to point out a place that was and still is in desperate need of research.
I personally don’t think social contagion is a useful term for what’s happened at the broader cultural level. These ideas have now sunk so deep into the collective consciousness that most people believe they have always been with us. They know almost nothing about the history of how sex, gender and sexuality have been understood at different times in the 150 years or so since they’ve been studied in the west, and they assume that the way we understand those things now is how we’ve always understood them, and how they will always be understood. In other words, they assume that these ideas have not evolved, and they are standing in the way of their future evolution.
I don’t know if anyone else out there still working in mainstream media is trying to broaden and shift how gender dysphoric youth are covered, as I am. I am trying to get the media to look at a variety of different kinds of evidence, of voices, and to let the story evolve. So far, I am just running around in circles. But it is not for lack of trying.