How a local paper grappled with an anti-trans firestorm

September 5, 2023
Chrisw80, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a broadsheet daily that serves California’s Wine Country, is a community newspaper first and foremost. It devotes more of its coverage to wildfires than to the fiery rhetoric of the war on woke. And high school sports are a big deal. 

So when editor John D’Anna, sixty-three, found out that a transgender girl was competing on the high school’s girls track team, he wanted to offer her space in the paper to express herself. But her coach discouraged it, and her family didn’t respond to the paper’s inquiries. 

D’Anna decided it wasn’t the paper’s job to tell readers a trans girl was on the track team, if she didn’t want her story told. “We backed off,” he told me.

Eighteen months later, things changed. In May, the girl placed second in a race held in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin, qualifying her for a state championship. During the medal ceremony, the girl who came in fourth place gestured to the bleachers, frowned, and flashed a thumbs-down.

That fourth-place finisher, Adeline Johnson, would later say that she was gesturing at her parents and had given a thumbs-down to her own performance that day; it had nothing to do with the trans girl. (And Johnson would ultimately qualify for the next event, after the runner who came in third dropped out.) 

But video footage of the ceremony—showing a trans girl atop the podium, taking the rightful place of a cisgender girl—was a potent vignette. To some on the right, it illustrated something else entirely: the dangers of letting transgender student athletes compete on the team aligned with their gender, and why they should be banned from doing so. 

It was the local version of another image then rocketing around the conservative media sphere: the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas holding a gold trophy as rival Riley Gaines, now a prominent anti-trans activist, looks on. 

The Independent Council on Women’s Sports, a group seeking to limit girls’ sports to those “born female,” tweeted the Dublin clip, naming and misgendering the trans runner. It gained traction quickly, and Fox News picked it up the next day. Within the week, the runner’s full name, close-ups of her face, and the name of the school she attended had been republished in the Daily Mail and the New York Post, as well as numerous smaller sites.

Gaines, Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, and presidential candidate Nikki Haley piled on, further boosting the story. Just days later, Haley would make the baseless argument, widely covered, that trans girls’ presence in locker rooms was driving cisgender girls to suicide.

D’Anna knew his paper, the largest in the region with sixty-five staffers, now had to cover the story somehow. “Here you have a kid from Santa Rosa, who’s been pulled into this national firestorm of controversy—and so how can you be the Santa Rosa paper and not report something about it?”

Mindful of the stakes for the girl and her family, but under pressure to get a story up quickly, D’Anna sought help. He turned first to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and its edict to “minimize harm,” but that could offer only broad-brush guidance. 

So he reached out to the Transgender Journalists Association—and through TJA, to me.

TJA was formed from a Slack group in 2020 as a way for trans people working in media to connect with one another. In the years since, coverage of trans people and the burgeoning legal movement targeting them has exploded across front pages and homepages around the world. 

Though the most generous estimates put the trans population at less than 2 percent of adults in the US and less than 5 percent of minors, lawmakers across the country have introduced some five hundred state bills regulating trans people’s lives in general and our healthcare in particular. Among those recently signed into law: policies criminalizing the provision of gender-affirming healthcare for trans minors; barring trans people from public restrooms and changing rooms; and forcing teachers to use the wrong names and pronouns for trans students, among others.

That five-hundred-bill tally doesn’t account for other policymaking levers, like executive actions and court rulings, some of which were aimed at legislating trans people out of legal existence. Even in California, ruled by a Democratic legislature that has been quick to snuff out anti-trans bills, ballot measures could soon give voters the chance to push through three of the most severe proposals affecting children.

The conservative effort to pass these laws is a national one, to be sure; the language many proposals use is similar enough to suggest a common template, and advocacy groups call the same witnesses to testify in favor of them in statehouses across the country. Moms for Liberty, a Florida group known for its aggressive efforts to influence education policy, has organized parents as far afield as San Ramon, less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco. But many of the skirmishes over trans inclusion are being fought in city council chambers and at school board meetings—what would have once been traditional fodder for local newspapers. 

The story of the backlash against trans inclusion in the US crosses every beat—it’s a healthcare story, an education story, a politics story, a sports story. Even well-resourced publications have strained to cover it, let alone cash-strapped local newsrooms gutted by vulture capital funds. Papers like the Press Democrat have had to navigate the push-pull of conflicts that can be both intensely local and fanned by national partisan discourse. And most cisgender reporters not already covering LGBTQ+ issues would have had little reason to focus so intensely on such a small population before the passage of North Carolina’s then-infamous “bathroom bill” in 2016. Some shaky reporting on the trans panic was, I think, to be expected.

But years into this legislative campaign, news organizations continue to stumble over the same errors in logic, framing, and balance. Stories ostensibly about trans children too often center the cisgender adults in their lives, or fail to include the voices of trans people at all. Gender-affirming care, despite broad medical consensus on its safety and efficacy, is portrayed as a risky experiment—while natural puberty is “normal,” not a waking nightmare. Data about detransition and “regret” is stripped of its nuance. In an effort to balance the facts, editors let false statements about “mutilation” and “sterilization” go unchallenged and cite the same anti-transition activists again and again. 

Against this backdrop, public opinion has shifted: a recent Gallup poll found 55 percent of Americans now believe changing one’s gender is “morally wrong,” up four percentage points from 2021, while a CBS poll from June found 51 percent of respondents now say “limiting the rights of transgender people” is an important concern. And trans issues are likely to remain a major talking point throughout the 2024 election cycle, if the first GOP primary debate is anything to go on. Haley, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy all managed to get a reference to trans athletes into their talking points.

Cisgender editors and reporters everywhere need to be prepared to cover this story when it lands on their desk—as it almost certainly will. TJA’s mission is to help them cover it well. 

Our Slack group has grown into a nonprofit supported by a 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Tiny News Collective. Our goals are twofold: to support trans journalists over the course of their careers, connecting them with mentorship and job opportunities; and, more immediately, to equip newsroom leaders with the resources and training they need to cover trans issues with integrity and nuance. 

To that end, we launched a newly expanded style and coverage guide, with specific guidance on breaking-news situations and visual media, plus in-depth entries on topics like healthcare and athletics. 

Of course, good journalism requires more than just following the rules in a stylebook. That’s why we’re also stepping up our outreach—so editors in need of a trans journalist’s perspective have somewhere to turn. 

D’Anna and I spoke on the phone for a while about the trans track star. The next track meet was to be held in Clovis, a suburb in the state’s conservative heartland. I suggested that his team keep an eye out for protests, and D’Anna agreed. But the more immediate question was what to publish before that, as the online attacks continued. I offered ideas, but I couldn’t answer that for him.

A few days after he called me, the Press Democrat ran an opinion piece under the byline of the paper’s executive editor, Rick Green.

Without naming the girl, Green and D’Anna walked readers through the newsroom’s process:

The local girl in question is 16 years old. In the eyes of the law and society, she is a child. Remember what it was like to be a 16-year-old? To subject her to the intense and inaccurate barrage of vitriol in national media is bullying, plain and simple. 

I’ve assigned a reporting team to Clovis this weekend for the state championships. If there are high-profile protests, we won’t ignore it. We have an obligation to report and share the story with all of you. But we also will continue what we’ve done the past 18 months or so. We’ll proudly celebrate the accomplishments of Sonoma County’s athletes. Win or lose, they’re our kids and we’ll lift them up.

The Santa Rosa girl dropped out of the competition before the Clovis meet, along with another trans student athlete from Southern California. The Press Democrat’s follow-up story reported that there were ultimately no protests to speak of

D’Anna said the response to the column was “overwhelmingly positive,” aside from a few angry commenters online. He defended the paper’s choice not to print the girl’s name, even if she’d been outed in other publications already. 

“Local newspapers still have a lot of goodwill with their communities,” he said. “And if you’re transparent with them, and you explain yourself, then they’re much, much less likely to overreact.” 

He told me he wished the Press Democrat had gotten something out more quickly. But in D’Anna’s decades covering news and sports, he’d seen how bad journalism could wreak havoc on trans people’s lives. He said he was glad he’d taken the time to “get it right.”  

His advice to other local news leaders suddenly thrown into covering trans issues: seek out advice. 

“Other people are going to help you see potential landmines that you couldn’t even have imagined.” 

Graph Massara is a Trans Journalists Association board member and the editor of its stylebook. He is currently a freelance editor. Prior to that, he reported on viral misinformation for the Associated Press, where he also consulted with AP Stylebook editors on LGBTQ+ terminology.