Have you heard the one about the trans woman who went into a female changing room and exposed herself to all and sundry?
No: that’s not joke, so much as persistent urban myth. However, thanks to an unhappy combination of reactionary and transphobic groups in the United States, and newspapers with a less than whole-hearted commitment to fact-checking, this is one trope that looks set to run and run.
The latest in an increasingly long line of untrue reports turned up at the weekend, courtesy of Canada’s largest circulation daily, the Toronto Star.
Ken Gallinger, who describes himself as their ‘ethically speaking columnist’ printed a letter that claimed to have been written by a ‘senior woman’.
In it, his correspondent alleged that ‘a “man” claiming to be transgender, who had not yet begun physical treatments, was permitted by our local Y to use the women’s locker room’.
They went on: ‘The person they allowed in was not courteous and stared at me while I struggled out of a wet bathing suit. He was naked, had an erection, and playfully asked “do you come here often?”’
Two observations are pertinent. First, if true, the conduct of the individual concerned was outrageous and needs to be dealt with in the strongest possible terms. It was harassment of a crude and sexual nature. Second, though, is the much larger question of whether this incident took place at all.
Serious doubt on the validity of this report is raised by Cristan Williams of the Transadvocate, who took the trouble of phoning round all YMCAs in the Toronto area that matched the detail given in Gallinger’s column. The response was unequivocal.
Cristan writes: ‘No complaint or even rumor of anything like this exists in Toronto area YMCAs. Every Toronto area YMCA was shocked to learn an unsubstantiated claim like this was propagated by the Toronto Star.’
If this were a single instance of outrageous misreporting, it would be bad enough. However, Williams has been assiduous both in her coverage and debunking of a spate of similar stories that have surfaced in the US press over the past year.
There’s the story of a transgender man (sic) exposing himself to girls inside a girls’ locker room in Washington state – untrue.
There’s the story of a trans peeping tom in a girls’ washroom in Los Angeles – not just untrue, but fabricated by an anti-trans parent.
There’s the forced cross-dressing, supposedly introduced as part of an equalities program at Heritage Middle School in Maryland – only problem is, there is no such school.
Finally, there was the alleged intrusion by a ‘man in a dress’ in a changing room in Rio: Reported excitedly by Channel 7, this appears to have been a stunt dreamt up by Christian groups opposed to new laws permitting trans individuals to use facilities appropriate to their identified gender.
What is going on? The answer, unfortunately for trans folk living in somewhat more enlightened European legislatures, is the US is playing catch-up, and the latest big debate on their LGBTI agenda is about opening up gendered facilities, such as bathroom and changing areas, to trans folk of the appropriate gender.
This has led to a spate of ‘bathroom bills’ across several states either asserting trans rights or, in some cases, attempting to restrict them.
Early opposition, primarily from religious groups in bizarre alliance with some radical feminists, led to the circulation of scary video clips: one depicted the supposed nightmare scenario of a young girl entering a toilet, to be followed moments later by a mustachioed man in a dress. Since, however, this was mostly preaching to the converted, the campaign appears to have gone mainstream, with an increasingly regular drip-feed of stories of the kind highlighted above.
The transphobic tendency is often aided and abetted by journalists who don’t check the stories.
In the Toronto case, Transadvocate reports that when challenged, Gallinger responded by stating: ‘It is, of course, not possible for me to substantiate most of the stories I’m told, and frankly I don’t try – my general policy is to deal with issues as they are presented…’
In other words, as a columnist he treated the letter as true, reprinted it and commented on it, rather than checking whether it really was true.
I have asked the Toronto Star to comment on this approach, but have not yet heard back from them.
According to Jennie Kermode of Trans Media Watch, two of these stories, originating in the US, have so far surfaced in the UK press. Following contact from Trans Media Watch, the stories have tended to die.
However, she added: ‘This is a serious issue. First because historically, it is trans people who have been most at risk in gender-segregated facilities – and this is widely-known. Anything that contributes to hysteria around the presence of trans people is likely to encourage violence towards them.
‘Reporters need to be aware that stories of this type coming from the US need to be treated with caution and added effort made to substantiate them, given the serious consequences they can have.’