We live in a world that is becoming slowly but steadily more accepting and understanding of transgender people and transgender issues, but every now and then something happens that sets us all way, way back. And this week that something is a Chicago Sun-Times article. This Sunday the paper ran a piece, in response to Laverne Cox's amazing TIME magazine cover, that left people everywhere screaming into their computer screens.
The piece, originally written by Kevin D. Williamson for the conservative site The National Review, has been pulled from the Sun-Times' website, and the paper has issued an apology, but that still doesn't explain why they thought it would be a good idea to run an article that was literally titled "Why Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman." And that's just the title. The article itself only gets worse, going after not only Laverne Cox, but also Chelsea Manning, consistently misgendering both throughout the entire piece.
Needless to say, the world was not pleased. In a statement, GLAAD wrote that Williamson's essay "is filled with falsehoods and inaccuracies about gender identity that ignore the expertise of credible medical and psychological health authorities. His essay is more than an ugly opinion, it's factually inaccurate." They also noted that the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association both say that "trying to change a person's gender identity is no more successful than trying to change a person's sexual orientation."
Chicago trans activist Jen Richards wrote in a piece published by The Daily Dot that, "Williamson’s grasp of 'the biological facts of life' is no different than pointing to the rising and setting of the sun as clear evidence that the earth is the center of the universe." She added that "Williamson's audacity to determine what Cox's body means" is frightening and dangerous, and "eerily echoes centuries of white men telling black women what they are."
On Twitter, people were equally unamused.
And over on Change.org, a petition asking the Chicago Sun-Times to retract the piece had reached about 1,800 signatures by the time the piece was taken down Tuesday night.
In their apology, the Sun-Times stated: "We try to present a range of views on an issue, not only those views we may agree with, but also those we don’t agree with." Which is another way of saying you were just playing devil's advocate and therefore can't be held accountable for your actions. The thing is though, that this sort of rhetoric is not theoretical. Discussions of trans identity do involve and often challenge our abstract notions of gender and our society's gender norms. But at the end of the day, the issue is not about theory, but about people.
Trans people face more than enough challenges already, from homelessness to suicide to discrimination to hate crime. The last thing that trans people need is a mainstream newspaper telling people both implicitly and explicitly that trans identity is a sham. That's not playing devil's advocate — that's playing with people's lives. And there's no way the Sun-Times should get off the hook for this one.