Publishing letter in response to ‘A new man’ damaging | Guest View

By Louisa Mackenzie | Dec 07, 2018

We are writing regarding the Nov. 29 Letter to the Editor written by Jim Fulmer as a response to the recent front-page article “A new man.”

To be precise, we are not responding to the letter itself, but to the editorial decision to publish it. We believe that this decision undid much of the good done by publication of the initial story.

We respectfully request that you consider retracting the letter, and apologizing to your transgender readers and especially to Jess Cienfuegos, the local trans man who bravely told his coming-out story in the article.

The decision to publish Fulmer’s letter, we believe, did no social good; rather it was hurtful, even harmful, to already vulnerable transgender members of our community. We do not use the word “harmful” lightly.

The Beacon presumably presented itself as a safe space for Cienfuegos to share publicly his story and identity, including real name and photos. But the paper betrayed that trust, dignifying transphobia with publication of Fulmer’s letter, as if this letter were simply one valid side of a debate.

We realize that the Beacon’s editors were keen to show a variety of viewpoints. However, the letter was not simply a statement of confusion or discomfort about trans rights. It crossed the line into hate speech – and giving a platform to hate speech is not responsible editorial choice.

We are sure you would not have published a letter containing more recognized forms of hate speech. We urge you to apply the same standards to transgender issues.

Like the word “harmful,” we are not using “hate speech” lightly. First, the letter intentionally misgenders Cienfuegos. Deliberate misgendering (as opposed to an unintentional mistake) is now considered hate speech by major social media platforms.

Even the notoriously indifferent Twitter is banning misgendering, so we know a shift in public awareness is occurring. Second, the letter calls Jess’s personal story “crazy,” “disgusting,” “nuts,” “bizarre,” a “vogue,” even equating it with causes of child abuse.

The dehumanizing consequences of such views are felt by trans people every day, to the detriment of their physical safety, their mental health, and often their life.

We understand that such claims of harm can seem overdone to those who don’t know transgender people personally, but the realities of transphobic violence and levels of suicide in the trans population are objectively terrible.

Trans people do not need to be reminded that the world is full of Fulmers; they navigate around them every day just to survive with a minimum of dignity and safety.

It may “only” be a letter, but reading such things is genuinely painful for many transgender people.

When you are directly affected by a form of prejudice, seeing it being articulated is not something you can shake off or view objectively. In addition, marginalized people know too well how easily attitudes conveyed in speech become social policy and physical threats.

We are also concerned with the implied breach of trust. The Beacon solicited a story from a local young man who made himself vulnerable within his own community, with the laudable goal of trying to put a human face on trans identities for readers who may not know any transgender people personally.

This was a signal to transgender and gender nonconforming readers that the paper is open to and encouraging of their identities, and wants to understand their stories. Jess Cienfuegos felt safe; he did not use a pseudonym and there are photos of him.

He knowingly risked being attacked for telling his story ... and the paper confirmed any fears he (and trans readers) may have had by publishing an attack from someone in the community and giving editorial permission for misgendering and dehumanization.

One justification for publishing this letter, we imagine, is that the public at large deserves to know the level of hatred directed at trans people in order to increase general awareness of transphobia.

However, that does not override the harm done to Jess and to trans individuals who, in reading the letter, will simply see yet another example of the attitudes that embody themselves in policy, that drive them to harm and, all too often, to suicide.

And it accumulates social prejudice to allow other transphobes to see their opinions validated; research on the rise of hate speech shows that prejudice is emboldened when it sees itself reflected.

Transgender individuals are extraordinarily vulnerable in this particular moment in the USA. They are frightened. Please don’t let the Beacon add to or amplify the voices trying to deny their existence. Publishing yet another reminder of how hated they are does nothing to advance discourse.

Another reason for publishing the letter was no doubt to represent diverse points of view. However, trans peoples’ existence and basic human dignity is not a “both-sides” debate, and their existence and dignity were precisely what was denied by Fulmer’s letter.

We can have robust and reasonable debates about taxes and city planning, and about whether pineapple belongs on pizza. We can certainly debate how transgender rights should best be recognized in policy.

But the fundamental rights of transgender humans are not subject to debate, and the most basic of those rights is to be able to live as their true gender, along with correct pronouns and names. Concerning this, there are no two sides equally deserving of air time.

Nor is this a free speech issue.

The definition of free speech is that private citizens will not be punished by the government for speaking our minds. Fulmer certainly has the right to think what he thinks and to write whatever he wants to the editor without fearing fines or jail time imposed by the state.

But the Beacon did not have to publish him.

Fulmer’s right to express himself does not mean he has the right to be heard. And editors have the responsibility to refuse a platform to harmful discourse, in particular if such discourse is directed at a named member of the community.

At the very least, the misgendering and the accusations of mental illness and complicity in child abuse should have been redacted.

In conclusion, we request that the Beacon retract their publication of the letter in question, that they reach out to Mr. Cienfuegos, make a statement to transgender readers acknowledging that the misgendering in the letter constituted hate speech, and reach out to transgender community members to craft an editorial “best practices” policy concerning transphobic speech.

We know that this is an emerging area of civil rights discourse, and hope that the Beacon’s editors will welcome the chance to learn how to discuss it in ways that respect those most directly impacted.

Thank you for your consideration.

This column was also signed by Diane Santiago
Terra Rose, Lisa Meyer
Oshuna Oma
Thomas Garrard
Mary Vogelzang
Donna Fay Bond
Naomi Baltuck
Becky Guerra
Jessica Bunoan
Kelsey Foster
Rachel Broderhausen
Terra Mangum
Audrey Tanberg, Lynnwood Erin Lavery ,Bianca Mattingly, Lauren Berliner, Sarah Speidel and Hannah Meier.

Also: Anji Jorstad ,Jess Jorstad, Sarah Fleming,
Danielle Hursh, Julie Hertl, Jozette Bell,
Lorraine Flaherty,
Kelly Fox, Molly Powell,
Brian Flaherty,
Karin Butler,
Laura Johnson,
Pam Iverson, Don Miller, Donna Murphy, Joanna Jamerson, Lillian Afful-Straton, Brandi Stockdale, Elizabeth Morgan, Heather Damron,
Kim Kelly Hart,
Sarah Portugal, Perry Hallman Janssen and Maura Do.

Editor’s note: The Beacon doesn’t usually respond directly to opinions expressed in Guest View submissions. But, as this one clearly demands one, we certainly acknowledge the pain that the transgender community and supporters may feel while reading Jim Fulmer’s letter.

However, we don’t agree that the letter was hate speech, as the letter writer vented his anger specifically at the Beacon for publishing the “New man” story. We believe Fulmer is entitled to express his opinions that others may disagree with or find offensive.

But, rest assured that the Beacon would not have published the letter if Fulmer had attacked Jess Cienfuegos with foul language or other harm.

As far as for naming Cienfuegos as a woman, we believe Fulmer may have been simply ignorant of current – and accepted by most – thinking of gender identity. On Wednesday, Fulmer wrote an apology that you can read in the Letters to the Editor section.

 

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