(UPDATED) Editor of bogus transgender story: ‘I don’t try to substantiate stories’

ken gallingerTHE GUERRILLA ANGEL REPORT — (UPDATED – Jan. 17, 2014. The columnist and the Toronto Star’s public editor stand behind the story. See two responses from the paper below.)

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: publiced@thestar.ca, telephone 416-869-4949, or fax 416-869-4322.

Other contact info for the Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/about/contactus.html

My previous article: Bogus ‘anti-transgender’ story in the Toronto Star | THE GUERRILLA ANGEL REPORT by Lexie Cannes.

Cristian Williams: Toronto newspaper pushes trans hoax, claims no duty to fact check | The Transadvocate.

ken 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…” – See more at: http://www.transadvocate.com/toronto-newspaper-pushes-trans-hoax-claims-no-duty.htm#sthash.eebE7iSj.dpuf
“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…” – See more at: http://www.transadvocate.com/toronto-newspaper-pushes-trans-hoax-claims-no-duty.htm#sthash.eebE7iSj.dpuf
“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…” – See more at: http://www.transadvocate.com/toronto-newspaper-pushes-trans-hoax-claims-no-duty.htm#sthash.eebE7iSj.dpuf
“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…” – See more at: http://www.transadvocate.com/toronto-newspaper-pushes-trans-hoax-claims-no-duty.htm#sthash.GI5SakZa.dpuf


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Categories: Transgender, Transsexual, Trans

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12 replies

  1. I’ve been in touch with the Toronto Star and asked them to respond directly to this…that was two days ago. So far, no reply.

  2. What I call that response, is typical of a tabloid newspaper like the Toronto Star. The Editor is an asshole, and his paper is an asswipe. I wish we could sue the bum for liable, at least put a motion against his paper’s liability insurance pending a court hearing on the matter.

  3. This has to be one of the ultimate responses of a reporter. It shows a complete lack of professional journalism. In the future any of his articles should be regarded with great suspicion.

  4. The fallout begins . . .


    Published on Thu Jan 09 2014 in The Toronto Star:

    Re: Transgender man’s ogling behaviour unacceptable, Jan. 4

    Transgender man’s ogling behaviour unacceptable, Jan. 4

    Ontarians accept that it is a challenging life for people with transgendered identities, which is why providing a reasonable alternative via the use of separate unisex bathrooms or change rooms seems to be a reasonable course of action to assist such individuals. Why is this reasonable and simple accommodation not enough for the minuscule minority of transgendered individuals among the millions of Ontarians?

    Our “decision-makers” at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal have decided for all Ontarians that it’s not enough for a trans person to view himself as the opposite sex — the whole world must be forced to share his subjective view, too.

    The new transgender bathroom policy has affirmed that the vast majority of Ontarian women and men are not entitled to the protection of the Human Rights Code as much as transsexuals are. What about the feelings, discomfort, and safety of the millions of girls and women in Ontario who are now forced to undress in the same change room with a pre-operation phenotypic male, who may claim to be transsexual?

    Do our rights get trumped because an individual subjectively “feels” female even though he may still have a penis, and be more than happy to show it off? Did the OHRT consult Ontarians regarding their decision?

    I am concerned that sexually predatory men will take advantage of the new bill by claiming they are transsexual in order to freely access any women’s washroom in the province. The guaranteed consequences of this bill are that many girls and women will definitely be victimized as a result.

    Mr. Gallinger’s article suggests that this is already happening — hardly a surprise — and the trend will likely increase because there are no legal consequences for any predatory individuals who behave in this way. A predator banned from one facility simply has to go down the road to another.

    Mr. Gallinger bemoans the predatory behaviour that one poor woman was forced to endure, while actively supporting a system that allows such predatory behaviour to flourish. Far more women than trans people stand to feel invaded and helpless by such behaviour as there are likely far more sexually predatory individuals out there than transgendered people — predatory individuals who will be delighted to put on a dress (or not even that) in order to access women’s bathrooms and change rooms under the guise of being self-identified as “transgendered.”

    Although a transgendered person may feel s/he has the “right” to be in a women’s change room, what about the feelings of the phenotypic females who may not wish a phenotypic male to be in that washroom?

    We women are entitled to the protection of the Human Rights Code, just like anyone else. Exactly how many transsexual people are there for whom we are risking the safety and security of our roughly 6.8 million girls and women?

    Daniela Caruso, Toronto

    • Did you actually read the article above? Or any of the related articles? First, I have NEVER met, nor heard of a trans woman who wants to blatantly display her pre-op genitalia. Many, if not most, trans women are ashamed of their genitalia. Secondly, this “poor woman” you speak of that Mr. Gallinger wrote about DOESN’T EXIST. The article was a bold face lie…which is why this blog post exists. Trans women ARE NOT PERVERTS AND SEX OFFENDERS – They are women with the misfortune of being born into a body that just doesn’t agree. This fear people have about men dressing up and pretending to be trans women to assault or peep at changing women – it’s almost completely unfounded. Sure, someone, someday might do this…but those same people would have found other ways to do their peeping and assaulting, regardless. You can’t remove an innocent person’s rights and strip them of their dignity, because a HETEROSEXUAL MAN might get sneaky about his pervertedness. Most sexual predators ARE HETEROSEXUAL MEN. Not trans women. Stop being afraid of people who are different than you. Try compassion, understanding, and empathizing, instead.

      • The above comment was a repost of a letter sent in to “The Star”, not the opinion of the poster. I know this because I read the whole thing. Also, the poster is the writer of this blog.

  5. Very irresponsible journalism. He’s either very naïve or he has a political agenda and is trying to discredit Trans folks.

  6. Thanks Jane and everyone else who commented and posted links. We’re going to stay on top if this.

  7. There’s this from Now Toronto:


    On Saturday, the Toronto Star published a Ken Gallinger advice column headlined Transgender Man’s Ogling Behaviour Unacceptable.

    In it, the paper’s resident ethicist responded to a letter from an unnamed “senior woman” who describes an incident in which 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.” The person, she said, “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?'”

    Gallinger’s assessment was reasonably intelligent and sympathetic, making clear that “transgender women, regardless of their status regarding surgical intervention, have the absolute right to use the women’s change room” but also that “the fact that a person is transgender doesn’t mean they can’t also be a jerk.”

    There was an obvious problem with the headline, which misidentified the individual in question as a trans man rather than as a trans woman. But the Star, to its credit, amended it online and issued a correction in Tuesday’s paper.

    There was also, however, a somewhat less obvious and much more serious problem: there’s a fairly good chance that the letter itself may have been an ideologically-motivated fabrication. As explained by the U.S.-based trans news site the TransAdvocate, the sensational episode recounted in the letter is far more consistent with a number of hoax stories credulously reported in American media over the years than it is with any incident that is known to have actually taken place anywhere.

    The TransAdvocate’s Cristan Williams took the additional step of phoning “every Toronto YMCA with a pool” and found that no one she spoke to had heard of any situation like the one described in the letter. (It might be noted, however, that the Star’s readership extends beyond Toronto’s borders, and the anonymous letter-writer makes no suggestion that her “local Y” is in the city.)

    In an email to the TransAdvocate, Gallinger wrote, “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…” That is, as an ethics columnist, his role is to evaluate quandaries in the abstract, independent from any particular truth value they might have.

    One question, then, is whether there should be a greater responsibility with respect to reader letters that serve to reinforce negative stereotypes or (as is quite possibly the case here) proliferate baseless fear-mongering. To what degree should conventional journalistic standards apply to advice columns?

    Gallinger, a freelancer who lives in the Parry Sound area, was a minister of the United Church through mid-2012. He’s been writing the Star’s Ethically Speaking column on a regular basis for the past eight years.

    He tells me in an email that he’s submitted a follow-up piece “addressing many of the same questions you’re interested in,” but declines to be interviewed until it’s published.

    Kathy English, the Star’s public editor (who investigates errors and other lapses of standards), says she is aware of the TransAdvocate post and is looking into it. As for the broader issue concerning the duties of advice columnists, she agrees that there are “interesting questions to be sure.”

    In a 2011 article, Gallinger weighed in on the distinction between reporters and opinion columnists. “Both inquire, investigate and unearth facts,” he wrote. “But at day’s end, reporters report; columnists reflect, argue and opine. This doesn’t mean columnists have unfettered freedom. We are expected to base our opining on facts — and those facts must be accurate. Sloppy research, prejudicial presuppositions and bad data are as unacceptable in opinion columns as in front page news.”

  8. http://www.thestar.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editors/2014/01/15/trans_myths_based_on_intolerance.html

    From the Toronto Star:

    Trans myths based on intolerance

    Published on Wed Jan 15 2014

    Re: Transgender man’s ogling behaviour unacceptable, Jan. 4

    Recent references to a transgender person in a column and in letters to the editor are of concern to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, because they advance some common misinformation that has caused serious harm to the transgender community.

    First, let me be clear: unwanted sexual behaviour is never acceptable. We all have the right to be free from this, and we have a responsibility to report it when it happens.

    At the same time, look at the reality for the transgender community. There is a stereotype of connecting transgender people with wrongdoing and being sexual predators. We have never seen a documented case of a heterosexual man gaining access to a woman’s change room by posing as transgender. In fact, in washrooms and change rooms, and in society at large, transgender persons are more at risk than anyone else of being harassed, abused, assaulted, or even killed.

    Also, there is no new transgender “bathroom” policy. For more than 15 years, transgender people in Ontario have had the legal right to use the washroom – or change room – according to their lived gender indentity. The elected Ontario legislature, not the human rights tribunal, put these laws in place. These laws were reinforced by Toby’s Act, in June 2012.

    We also see continued calls to segregate transgender people into separate bathroom and changing spaces, for the good of the larger majority. This is a practice based on fear and stereotypes, and is exactly opposite the vision of Ontario’s Human Rights Code, which is to build an Ontario based on inclusion, where everyone feels a part of and is able to contribute to the community.

    The Ontario Human Rights Code exists to benefit all Ontarians, including transgender people, who often have a daily battle to overcome the barriers that misunderstanding, fear and intolerance cause.

    Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission


  1. (Update) Bogus ‘anti-transgender’ story in the Toronto Star | THE GUERRILLA ANGEL REPORT by Lexie Cannes

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