What a bizarre answer from the Toronto Star’s ethics columnist Ken Gallinger.
On January 5th, I wrote an article about a bogus story in the Toronto Star that supposedly involved a trans woman in a woman’s locker room with an erection “playfully” approaching someone.
I said at the time: “No where to be found in this report was the date, time, and location of this incident, along with the name of manager taking report of the incident, and whether or not the a report was made to the police. This leaves the entire story bogus, even if true.”
The next day, Cristian Williams published an article in the TransAdvocate about the same hoax which included this response from Gallinger: “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…”
This is such a stunning and bizarre response and I am rather speechless. If the “ethics” columnist can’t figure out what’s wrong here, maybe someone else at the paper can.
UPDATE — Jan. 17, 2014. Kathy English, the Star‘s Public Editor responds in an editorial:
“I cannot tell you with absolute certainty that a letter published recently in the Star’s “Ethically Speaking” column from a “senior” woman recounting the inappropriate sexual behaviour of a transgender woman in a Y change room is not a hoax concocted for political purposes.
I can tell you I have telephoned and talked to the North York woman whose name is on the email sent to Star ethics columnist Ken Gallinger in October. I have also confirmed that the YMCA of Greater Toronto received a similar letter from a former member in late fall. Last week, an executive of the organization contacted the same North York woman I talked with.
If this woman’s letter was a hoax perpetuated by organized forces opposed to transgender rights, as many in the transgender community through North America and beyond have declared with all certainty, then it is indeed a grand and elaborate one played on both the Star and the YMCA.
The woman would not agree to come forward publicly for this column. She spoke confidentially to me, in line with her expectation of confidentiality in the ethics column. “I am asking the Star to protect my privacy,” she said. “I would not rest easy if any group decided to approach me personally.”
She told me she is 70. She said the incident she described in her letter to Gallinger in which a naked “man” claiming to be a transgender woman behaved inappropriately happened “a couple of years ago” in the late afternoon in the women’s locker room of the Toronto Y on Sheppard Ave.
She said she shared her concerns with the Y manager at the time but felt she was not taken seriously. She said the branch manager contacted her in the fall after she sent her letter and she was again contacted by a senior executive of the Y following publication of the Star column.
YMCA spokesman Celecia Partap confirmed this week that the Y did receive a similar letter in the fall from “a former female member” about an incident that was “historical in nature.” Partap said the Y has no record of any formal complaint about the incident the woman described and that the general manager of the Y where the woman used to swim had no recollection of a past complaint.
This woman is aware of accusations her letter is a hoax. To that she said: “I have no agenda, just an incident. Why would anyone lie?”
This is where things get political. Stoking fear about transgender persons in bathrooms is a key nasty ploy of conservative groups opposed to human rights for trans people. As well, conservative media organizations in the U.S. have been called out for reporting fake stories about transgender persons harassing people in washrooms.
In Canada, Bill C-279, a bill to include transgender rights in our anti-discrimination and hate laws is still pending Senate approval. Last March, it was passed by the House of Commons by a 149-137 vote. The bill has been dubbed the “bathroom bill” by its vocal Conservative critics. Among the most vocal is Calgary MP Rob Anders, who posted a petition on his website saying the goal of the bill “is to give transgendered men access to women’s public washroom facilities.
“It is the duty of the House of Commons to protect and safeguard our children from any exposure and harm that will come from giving a man access to women’s public washroom facilities,” it states.
Throw in some fear of the documented practice of what’s called “astroturfing” in which organized lobby groups use letters to the editor, online comments and social media to make it appear that grassroots “real people” are aligned with their cause and it’s not all that surprising that some trans advocates questioned the veracity of the letter published in the Star’s ethics column.
Gallinger, a former United Church minister, answered the woman’s letter with sensible sensitivity telling her that transgender women have the absolute right to use the woman’s change room and that “we have come to understand that gender is much more complex than whether we wear our equipment externally or internally.”
But Gallinger and the Star came under attack after he told trans advocates he deals with issues as they are presented and said he did not verify the letter.
Certainly this raises ethical questions about whether the newsroom — or indeed readers — expect media advice columnists to verify the facts of the mainly anonymous letters they get from people seeking advice to life’s many strange-but-true quandaries. It’s a question neither I nor the newsroom had ever given much thought to so I reached out for advice from other public editors and ombudsmen.
From what I have been able to determine, media advice columnists generally do not — and likely cannot — verify the often fantastical facts in readers’ letters. But that does not give them a free pass to publish anything just because someone puts it in a letter.
“We have a sexual healing column where some of the problems are — it seems to me — exceptional, but that may be a generational thing and a sheltered life,” Chris Elliott, Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, told me. “It is written by Pamela Stephenson Connolly and she says she makes a judgment as to each letter’s plausibility — as do our editors.
“If in doubt addresses are checked but a lot of people honestly submit problems anonymously, which makes checking very hard on occasions.”
Like all journalists, advice columnists must be alert to the possibility of a hoax and certainly question the plausibility of what people tell them. If something does not ring true — especially on a sensitive and political subject — further checking is called for before publishing.
That is common practice for the Star’s “Ellie.” Gallinger, too, told me he checks further if he has doubts about a letter’s veracity. While he has said publicly that a well-known trans rights advocate he consulted raised the possibility the letter might not be true, the woman’s letter seemed sincere to him and did not set off his alarm bells.
Having seen the full unedited letter, sent from a Rogers email account and signed with the woman’s name, I would agree. Still, as some measure of concern had been raised with him, I think further checking with the letter writer would have put the ethics columnist on stronger ground here.
I expect that would have landed him right where I am at now. Having talked several times to the woman, it’s a stretch for me to think the letter was some sort of hoax.
But as advice columnists well know, anything is possible.
UPDATED Jan 17, 2014. Ken Gallinger responds with another column:
“Recently, I ran a column on transgender rights; the response was fast and furious. Remarkably few correspondents were troubled by my answer; indeed many praised its “sensitivity” — which several were kind enough to describe as “unusual.” What troubled many, however, was the question.
An older, female correspondent reported an episode with a person who, apparently posing as a transgender woman, found “his” way into a woman’s change room and made inappropriate sexual advances. Several people, most self-identifying as trans, wrote to say that the question was likely a hoax; apparently bogus scenarios much like this have been used, especially in the United States, to scare folks into opposing legislated rights for transgender people.
Sadly, it now appears the column, or more precisely the question, may have been hijacked by groups and individuals as “evidence” that episodes such as this are an inevitable result of increased rights for trans folk. The reader’s question was presented to me as a private and unreported incident — but some have apparently translated a question into a news report — and then used it for their own sad purposes.
In response, several justifiably upset trans folk have requested, then demanded, to know who wrote the question and where the episode was purported to have taken place. I even received a note from a Toronto police officer asking, very politely it must be said, to know the “when, where and who” of the incident. As someone who pays speeding tickets 10 days before due, I experience such a request, even politely proffered, as mildly threatening.
This episode caused me to reflect on ethical questions attached to this column. This has all been unsettling, and I haven’t worked it all through yet, but I thought you’d be interested in a few principles I follow.
1: All questions come from real readers. Seven years ago, when we started this adventure, I had to “prime the pump” with made-up queries. No more. Most questions (several hundred each year) come by email; I notify the person that I will likely use their question, and in the process verify their email address. A few ask questions in person. Most are edited for length and clarity, but in every case the answers are mine, the questions are yours — as faithfully rendered as I am able.
2: I respect the right of people to ask questions confidentially. The name and address of correspondents is never given — not even in cutesy forms like “Miserable in Mississauga”. I won’t reveal names or contact information of correspondents except in extreme circumstances. (I once had a teenager write about the ethics of suicide, indicating the intention to end her life. After several exchanges, I became sufficiently concerned to reveal her identity to folks who could help. Was that ethical? Damned if I know.) In the case now in question, because of the uproar, I have confidentially passed on the original email to the Public Editor at the Star — but I have no intention of revealing my correspondent’s identity to anyone else.
3: I respond to situations as they are presented. That’s maybe a difference between so-called advice columnists and real journalists; journalists are honed to sniff out the last fact, while we who dabble in dispensing wisdom tend to listen to situations, and respond as described. I assume the pet columnist doesn’t verify that a black lab really did eat those slippers, nor the investment columnist ask to see proof of an inquirer’s RSP. I don’t believe many people intentionally lie to me — although a few do, and I won’t run a question I know to be false. But folks write about intensely personal situations — a fight with their sister, a sexual misadventure, a threatening episode in a locker room … often stories they’ve never told another human being. And they describe them as they see them — even if that might not correspond exactly with reality as a good journalist might document it.
At the end of the day, the scenarios described each week by my correspondents are unverified and, usually, unverifiable. In this particular case, I had, and have, no reason to doubt the claims of the reader who sent the letter — but I can’t prove it, and those who claim it was a hoax can’t prove that, either. All I know is that I stand by the answer offered.
I regret, and deeply resent, that my column has been so egregiously misused.”
Kathy English is the Star‘s Public Editor: firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone 416-869-4949, or fax 416-869-4322.
Other contact info for the Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/about/contactus.html
Categories: Transgender, Transsexual, Trans