From the editor: Sonoma County trans student-athlete’s story is not ours to tell
Since arriving here at The Press Democrat in February 2021, I’ve worked hard to be transparent with our readers — sharing details about how we report our in-depth stories, introducing you to the staffers behind our bylines and, most important, explaining why we choose to cover some stories and not others.
I know that our words and actions as journalists have consequences and can echo across Sonoma County, if not the whole North Bay and beyond. You should expect, I believe, that level of accountability from your hometown news organization.
Today, let me tell you about a Sonoma County transgender teenager who is competing as a girl on her high school team.
For the past 18 months or so, The Press Democrat has been aware of her participation. We consciously decided not to pursue her story as a transgender student-athlete.
Why? Put simply, it’s not ours to tell.
In 2013, California legally allowed student-athletes to compete in the category that best represents their gender identity , regardless of their sex assigned at birth. As is often the case, California was far ahead of the rest of the country on a very personal topic.
An issue decided a decade ago here in the Golden State is now playing out in high-profile fashion in numerous states around the country, with legislatures and statehouses — generally controlled by Republicans — barring transgender female athletes from participating on girl’s and women’s sports teams at K-12 schools and even colleges.
Politicians, including at least one running for president, and others say the ban is necessary to ensure fair competition.
Opponents denounce the measures, saying they discriminate against transgender students who do not pose the competitive threat that some claim.
Many of the bans are being contested in court. And the Biden administration issued an executive order last year that directs federal agencies to recognize transgender students under Title IX, which protects against sex-based discrimination in education and school activities.
I’m confident our local girl is not the first Sonoma County trans student-athlete competing on a high school team. In this case, our top editors, reporters and columnists weighed all aspects of a potential story in several thoughtful conversations. We talked with national experts and families familiar with transgender issues.
We also examined our internal standards — especially related to the safety and welfare of children — and referenced the national Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
I vigorously defend our decision, as explained by my colleague, John D’Anna, senior news director overseeing our investigative coverage.
“We concluded that this young woman had broken no rules and that her personal story was hers to tell — not ours — and that she could tell it if and when she saw fit,” said D’Anna, who also supervises Corey Young, our sports director.
“We communicated our intentions to her family and coaches, with an offer to provide a platform if they wished to speak to us.”
Others have taken a different approach.
Last weekend, this teenage girl was in the crosshairs of the national conservative media furor over trans athletes after her surprising finish in Saturday’s regional qualifying meet that allowed her to advance to this weekend’s state championships.
An anti-trans group took to Twitter and claimed she had taken a spot away from a deserving athlete who finished behind the Sonoma County girl. They fully identified the trans girl by name and school.
They also shared video of the girl who finished in fourth place (and didn’t initially qualify) making a thumbs-down gesture, claiming she was flashing her displeasure at having her spot taken away by a trans athlete.
As is often the case, the story went viral.
It was picked up by Fox News, The Daily Mail in London, The New York Post and many others. Critical tweets about our local athlete were shared by GOP presidential contender Nikki Haley and Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman who staunchly opposes trans women competing in women’s events.
As the story played out, I talked with D’Anna several times that day, and we stuck to our position: We needed to hear from our local student-athlete before reporting what others were saying.
Sadly, the national media firestorm was fanned by misinformation.
First, the girl in the video making the thumbs-down gesture said it was not aimed at her fellow competitor. According to a statement issued by her school, she was merely communicating to her parents her disappointment in her own performance, not criticizing another athlete.
Secondly, the Sonoma County girl’s finish did not cost the thumbs-down girl the opportunity to compete at state. Another athlete who had finished in the top three dropped out to focus on competing in other events, allowing the fourth-place girl to advance.
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