February 2, 2024 - 8:35pm

Pinned between activists and an ever more inconvenient set of facts, the New York Times has often shied away from treating the surge in transgender identification as the fascinating news story it is. All the news that’s fit to print — unless we risk making anyone uncomfortable, in other words.  

Over the past few years, the paper of record has made just a few tentative forays into serious reporting on the trans issue. In the summer of 2022, Emily Bazelon took a deep dive into the controversy over how to understand and treat gender-dysphoric youth. A November 2022 piece questioned the potential risks of puberty blockers. Just over a year ago, reporter Katie J. M. Baker explored the issue of schools socially transitioning students without informing their parents. 

These articles — which would have been utterly unremarkable in their lines of inquiry and methods had they concerned any other subject under the sun — attracted intense criticism from New York Times staffers as well as outside activist groups like GLAAD, which accused the paper of “questioning trans people’s right to exist.” GLAAD even parked a truck outside the Times’ offices in midtown Manhattan to protest. Even the most cautious reporting — so the activists argue — can kill. 

Today, the Times returned to the subject, printing an in-depth story by Pamela Paul titled: “As Kids, They Thought They Were Trans. They No Longer Do.” 

The writer introduces the reader to three young people who transitioned as teenagers: Grace, Kasey, and Paul. To anyone who has followed this issue, their stories are achingly familiar in their outlines. Grace was isolated, bullied, and depressed. “Puberty made everything worse.” Online, Grace discovered the idea that she might be trans and seized on that explanation for the sense of wrongness she felt. She came to believe that if she didn’t transition, she would kill herself. Gender clinicians — rather than trying to understand the sources of Grace’s distress — affirmed her self-rejection. 

Kasey “transitioned because I didn’t want to be gay.” She had experienced sexual abuse in early childhood and struggled with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation — experiences she shared with her medical providers that did not in any way interfere with their rapid affirmation of her new identity with testosterone and a double mastectomy. 

Paul found it “much less threatening to my psyche to think that I was a straight girl born into the wrong body — that I had a medical condition that could be tended to” than to accept himself as gay. When Paul visited a gender clinic in the mid-2000s, he was “immediately” affirmed, too. 

Detransition is the third rail of gender politics and reporting because detransitioners raise fundamental questions about gender dysphoria, transgender identification, and the gender-affirming care model. If patients can be mistaken, how can clinicians who defer to patient self-identification and “embodiment goals” possibly avoid causing harm? 

This is a deeply moving piece that goes much further in its implications than anything the New York Times has run before. There are, however, also curiosities surrounding Pamela Paul’s piece, like the editorial decision to relegate her reporting to the opinion pages, and to run an apologia of sorts by Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, in which she suggests, in the mildest possible terms, that more conversation is a good thing for “humanity, nuance and empathy,” and that gender medicine is full of “complexities.” 

Doctors, activists, and reporters alike have treated the subject of gender as an utter exception. Gender clinicians are meant to jettison everything they know about child and adolescent development, about the ways distress finds expression in our bodies, about how dangerous ideas can spread like wildfire. Activists have insisted that the whole world observe their taboos and echo their mantras. And media outlets like the Times have too often abandoned their responsibility to inform themselves and their readers, to bring the facts to light without fear or favor. There has been far too much fear and far too many favours to activists, who never should have been allowed to control the narrative. 

The New York Times is still trying to tell a contained story of what has gone wrong in the field of gender medicine, but Pamela Paul’s piece lays out — much more clearly than anything the paper has dared to print before — just how deep and vast the scandal is, and just how much harm has been done.

Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.