Private Messages Reveal the Cis Journalist Groupthink Behind Trans Media Narratives


Over the past few years, Jesse Singal has become a leading public intellectual and one of the most prominent journalists covering trans issues, including but not limited to adolescent transition. As this has happened, I, like many other trans people who read his work, have become deeply uncomfortable with the narratives he has centered and elevated in his reporting. Last week, I asked the question, “What’s Jesse Singal’s Fucking Deal?”, regarding his recent cover story in The Atlantic, “When Children Say They’re Trans,” which claims to be about families navigating a child’s transition yet largely focuses on adults who detransitioned and cis kids questioning their gender.

Singal has displayed an intense and particular interest in gender desistance—that is, people who realize they’re not trans despite earlier declarations to the contrary—even though, in March of this year, he publicly admitted that he had badly misinterpreted a study on the subject that informed his work for years. His work often evokes a contradictory pair of broader cultural anxieties that trans people are both over-medicalized (hormones and surgery are dangerously accessible) and under-medicalized (the supposed harms of an increasing number of trans people self-identifying as trans without an official gender dysphoria diagnosis) at the same time.

These anxieties speak to an American public that cares more about what trans people are doing than how we are doing, and they must be deeply felt among cis people across the political spectrum, considering how widely read and respected Singal’s work is. This focus of his on desistance, risk, and regret is not only frustrating, but troubling. The vast majority of Americans say they don’t know any trans people in real life, so media representations play an outsize role in shaping how cis people think of us. If a journalist approaches transition, adolescent or otherwise, as a two-sided issue—as Singal generally does—that journalist affirms a reader’s inclination to side against trans people, recasting a reader’s bias against affirmative treatment as a rational position to hold. “[The article is] actually a very elaborate dog whistle for parents looking to justify any doubts they have about their own transgender children,” writes ThinkProgress LGBTQ Editor Zack Ford, noting its “lopsided perspectives and dearth of citations.”

The fact that Singal is cis does not disqualify him from covering these issues, but the success he has achieved in doing so—often posing loaded questions and answering them using misinterpreted data while adopting the posture of someone simply exploring issues no one else is brave enough to touch—has compounded the frustration I’ve felt while reading his work. The opportunities he has been given—an Atlantic cover story about trans issues; a three-year editing stint for New York Magazine’s website; a book deal with Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux—are unthinkable to the vast majority of trans journalists working today. I often wonder, as I did last week, if Singal feels weird about this disparity in opportunity. I also wonder if the editors who seek him out as an expert on trans issues, like those at The Atlantic, have these concerns. Have they done their due diligence and read the criticisms of him? If they have, then why do they remain so assured of Singal’s authority, despite the countless number of people—trans and cis—who have criticized the way that he wields it? Why is he so assured of that authority in the face of such dissent?

To put it bluntly, he thinks he’s right and that everyone else is wrong. Private messages posted on a closed discussion forum and provided to Jezebel demonstrate that Singal is, in fact, aware of the criticism he has received for his Atlantic cover story and his coverage of trans issues more broadly. He’s just uninterested in hearing it, dismissing the bulk of it as an example of trans community “groupthink” and uninterrogated in-group bias, which prevents us from reporting on something like adolescent transition as fairly and accurately as he can. (Jezebel has repeatedly reached out to Singal for comment; he had not provided one as of our publication time, but we will update if he does.)

From one such exchange:

There should, of course, be more trans writers and artists. But…trans people, like members of any other group, have their own prevalent forms of groupthink. Time and time again my reporting and research has conflicted with what [the biggest-name trans activists have] told me[.] On other issues, of course, I would trust trans people more than anyone else—who better to talk about the humiliation of living in a state with a ‘bathroom’ bill, or the difficulty of getting hormones, or other stuff that only trans people have to deal with? But overall, no, I don’t think trans people are more qualified to write about the tricky science stuff going on here than I am. I’d just be lying if I said otherwise.

Singal posted these messages in the discussion forum of a closed listserv he belongs to, hosted on Google Groups. The listserv, per its “About” page, aims to provide an “off-the-record discussion forum for left-of-center journalists, authors, academics and wonks.” It has been around for at least eight years (I found discussion posts dating back as far as 2010), and has just over 400 members (403 at the time of this writing). These members include New York Times best-selling authors, Ivy League academics, magazine editors, and other public intellectualsin short, a lot of important people who influence public discourse through their written work. They use the listserv’s forum to discuss current events, news from their respective fields, articles they’ve read, articles they’ve written, and other topics of public importance. There are a number of threads about trans stuff, and they read like a greatest hits of the past decade of trans-related cultural anxieties: whether Chelsea Manning would pose a threat in a women’s prison; Janet Mock’s contentious 2014 interview with Piers Morgan and the “Twitter mob” she inspired; Elinor Burkett’s New York Times piece about Caitlyn Jenner and womanhood; comparisons between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal; erasure of the word “vagina”; saying “pregnant people” vs. “pregnant women”; and a number of Jesse Singal’s articles over the past few years.

None of these discussions brought trans voices to the table because the group has never had any out trans members, at least as far as I can tell. “I really wish we had some trans people on this list, it’s a real void we have,” posted an award-winning investigative journalist in a thread about Singal temporarily leaving Twitter last December. “I’m not interested in sharing this list or any other space with someone who is going to insist on nullifying and erasing my existence and experience as female,” a prominent futurist in progressive news media wrote back. The exchange demonstrates two different means of excluding trans people from the discussion: passive exclusion (empty calls for inclusion that don’t lead to action) and active exclusion (we must keep them out). At the time of this exchange, the listserv had existed for nearly a decade. If the group’s members really wanted to bring trans people to the table, they could have done so at any point. The fact that they never did suggests that the group’s members—400 prominent, influential figures in academia, media, and publishing—would rather keep trans people at a safe, anthropological remove where they can talk about trans people without speaking to trans people directly. A less generous reading of this exclusion would say that they don’t see us as potential intellectual equals and, thus, don’t read our work.

On June 18, the day that the online version of “When Children Say They’re Trans” went live, Singal shared the article to the listserv. “This one was a journey! It’s long, and it covers a lot of the stuff I’ve been endlessly posting about on this listserv,” he wrote, thanking The Atlantic for trusting him to take on “a controversial subject” and giving him the resources “to do this story the right way.” He went on: “I think what stuck out at me the most was the extent to which the complexity clinicians themselves are grappling with hasn’t trickled down to the public—some very smart, thoughtful psychologists and psychiatrists with impeccable bona fides when it comes to helping kids and teens transition are concerned that we are not approaching this issue with the rigor it demands. I’m just hoping to carve out a space so that both young people dealing with gender dysphoria (or more general gender questioning), as well as their parents, have access to the best, most complete, evidence-based understanding of this very tricky subject.”

Singal dismissed early criticism of his article as “over the top and exaggerated and clearly not pegged to anything in the piece itself” and made in bad faith. He noted that his article is supported by research and that he included the perspectives of two “properly diagnosed” trans teenagers. “If people view this sort of approach as a stalking horse for transphobia I don’t know what to tell them,” he wrote. “At the end of the day I can definitely stop writing about this issue if it gets to be too much, and I have little to genuinely complain about—I’m very lucky to have a cover story in the Atlantic. But there’s still a whiff of abusiveness in how this stuff goes down.” (I’d offer to buy him a copy of Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse, but it appears that he already owns one.)

Many of the listserv’s other members were similarly dismissive. “I see the Twitter reeducation process has begun, Jesse,” wrote the editor of a progressive news site. “I’m sorry you are dealing with the Twitter crowd once again,” wrote a Washington Post opinion writer. “Most people I know will not write about this subject any more because no matter how hard you try to represent the issues accurately and without bias against trans people, you will be accused of not doing so,” wrote a published author. Another member, an award-winning journalist and Washington Post editor, agreed: “Jesse is the most thoughtful person on this beat right now, pro-trans and pro-science at once. It’s very hard to write about this without being attacked by bludgeons.” One of the listserv’s most frequent posters, an award-winning essayist and poet, wrote: “I value [J]esse’s reporting on this—and other—topics. He made me more empathetic and sympathetic to trans people… The attacks on him on twitter and in jezebel seem completely over the top to me.”

Most of the people who posted found the criticism baffling. Some offered theories to explain it. “It’s like there’s a permanent distributed ledger of people who have sinned against left orthodoxy, and he’s on it, no further explanation needed,” wrote a prominent education policy analyst. (Participants in an earlier forum discussion about a wave of similar criticism wondered whether Singal’s critics were right-wing trolls, Russian bots, or covert men’s rights activists.) An award-winning investigative journalist wondered whether Singal’s critics even understand how journalism works: “The idea that he’s ‘fixated’ is particularly bizarre. He’s a journalist with a beat!”

Yes, Jesse Singal is a journalist with a beat. He is clearly invested in covering cases where trans people stop being trans—to the point that he misinterpreted a study about adolescent gender desistance and, per ThinkProgress, parroted an anti-trans parent group’s talking points about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria,” a “fake diagnosis” that says “teenagers who were assigned female at birth are being influenced by social media to suddenly decide that they are transgender boys, but that they are not legitimately transgender.” The what is not in question but, rather, the why. Why this particular beat?

Because he thinks it might end badly.

“I think parents need good and balanced info on this stuff,” writes Singal in the listserv discussion thread about his Atlantic story. “There is a dearth of good information about gender dysphoria out there.” I agree on this point. There is not enough research on trans health care and the longterm effects of hormones. But when I look at that “dearth of good information,” or talk about it with my friends, I see a structural disregard for the wellbeing of trans people, not a minefield of definite though unknown dangers that must be avoided at all costs. Singal continues: “This [lack of research and reporting] is part of the reason I am drawn to this story. The combination of the newness of the treatment, the lack of long-term outcome data, and the high and rising social costs of exhibiting any skepticism about the idea of putting young teens on powerful hormones—it all sounds like Chapter 1 in a story we’ve heard before that could have a bad ending. And I say that as someone who is utterly convinced that hormones are right for some teens, as I wrote in the piece.”

So, I guess that’s it. Jesse Singal is drawn to covering trans issues because he is concerned that giving teens hormones “could have a bad ending”—something, presumably, no one else has ever considered—which explains why we so often find him deep in the weeds of desistance and regret. This is his bias. This is the perspective he brings to his work. It’s a bias he might admit to if asked (“Everyone has an agenda. No one’s objective,” Singal tweeted last year) but not one he feels would prevent him from covering adolescent transition in a balanced, nuanced way. In his view, it’s the critics, from trans writers and activists to Twitter randos with anime character icons, who are the irreparably biased ones. We are the ones who are incapable of looking at an issue like adolescent transition without devolving into “groupthink.” It’s a sentiment that his editors, his fans, and most of the other members of the closed listserv he belongs to seem to agree with.

“At the end of the day I can definitely stop writing about this issue if it gets to be too much,” wrote Singal in another post on the thread about his article. That’s a hard thing to believe, though. He has the support of a closed group of some of the most influential people in journalism, many of whom are currently lauding him for doing discredited and discrediting work.

“I think you did a great job with this and from all I can see, you bent over backwards to make sure it was balanced and not anti-trans,” said one member of the group. “I don’t see what else you could have done other than to simply not write about the real issues around deciding when and if young people should have irreversible surgeries that would have been seen as acceptable.”

“I definitely hope you don’t leave this beat, Jesse!” said another.

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