From the editor: Sonoma County trans student-athlete’s story is not ours to tell

The national firestorm that ignited last week over a Sonoma County transgender student-athlete is bullying, plain and simple, says Richard A. Green, executive editor of The Press Democrat.|

Resources for transgender individuals

Transgender people in crisis should contact the following resources:

• The Trevor Project's 24/7/365 Lifeline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386) or TrevorChat, their online instant messaging option, or TrevorText, a text-based support option. If you are looking for peer support, you can visit TrevorSpace from anywhere in the world.

• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)

• Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860

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.

“There were other issues with the coverage, not the least of which was the decision to name the Sonoma County girl publicly,” D’Anna said. “Advocates in the trans community and those who focus on LGBTQ+ issues are adamant on this point. It is never appropriate to ‘out’ somebody.”

I’ve thought often about our local Sonoma County student-athlete this week as national news outlets and ones in San Francisco have plastered her identity in print, on TV and on social media.

As I’ve shared in previous columns, I’ve been blessed to be in this business for more than 35 years, starting as a high school sophomore back in Ohio. That’s meant pursuing consequential journalism in eight newsrooms from coast-to-coast with a large chunk of time spent in my native Midwest.

I’ve seen something here in Sonoma County, however, that I’ve not experienced anywhere else: The intensity of emotional trauma experienced by our kids.

Our youth have had their lives, classroom work and emotional maturity disrupted by years of horrific wildfires, pandemic isolation, flood waters and school violence, including the tragic death of a student in a Montgomery High School classroom altercation March 1. My heart breaks every time we report on these traumatic events and how they’re affecting grades, literacy rates and the daily rigors of life in a classroom.

As journalists, a pillar in our code of ethics includes the obligation to minimize harm.

The local girl in question is 16 years old. In the eyes of the law and society, she is a child. Remember what it was like to be a 16-year-old?

To subject her to the intense and inaccurate barrage of vitriol in national media is bullying, plain and simple.

The stresses on trans youth are even greater: Here in California, 54% of trans youths have contemplated death by suicide, and 19% have attempted to end their own lives, according to the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit group focused on LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention.

My colleague, D’Anna, reminds readers that all of us in The Press Democrat newsroom take seriously our role in this community.

“Most of us live and work here,” he said. “We care about the people we cover, and like most of our readers, we believe it is imperative that we uplift and protect our children — especially those who may be having a harder time than most.”

I’ve assigned a reporting team to Clovis this weekend for the state championships. If there are high-profile protests, we won’t ignore it. We have an obligation to report and share the story with all of you.

But we also will continue what we’ve done the past 18 months or so. We’ll proudly celebrate the accomplishments of Sonoma County’s athletes. Win or lose, they’re our kids and we’ll lift them up.

Because no child deserves to be bullied, especially by the media.

Richard A. Green is executive editor of The Press Democrat. Reach him at Twitter: @EditorRAG

Resources for transgender individuals

Transgender people in crisis should contact the following resources:

• The Trevor Project's 24/7/365 Lifeline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386) or TrevorChat, their online instant messaging option, or TrevorText, a text-based support option. If you are looking for peer support, you can visit TrevorSpace from anywhere in the world.

• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)

• Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860

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