Sweeney: Robust debates still can respect civility and dignity

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

The Press Democrat publishes five or six letters each day, or about 2,000 over the course of a typical year. That’s about half the letters we receive.

Choosing letters for publication is one of my responsibilities as editorial director. It’s one of the best parts of the job. Most days, I spend at least an hour reading letters and working with writers to verify facts and dates and quotations prior to publication.

Accuracy and clarity are important. So is dignity.

Jim Sweeney
Jim Sweeney

I failed to account for dignity — and accuracy — when I selected a letter published July 9 under the headline “Boys, girls and sports.” The letter addressed transgender girls and women participating in girls’ and women’s sports. Reasonable people can disagree about that; the problem is how the writer characterized transgender individuals.

She wrote about “real girls,” “real boys” and “boys pretending to be girls.” These references are, at best, demeaning. Some readers immediately identified them as hate speech. I should have, too.

What the writer intended is irrelevant. Hate speech is defined by the listener. Readers, including colleagues at The Press Democrat, were justifiably offended by the allusions and language in the letter.

Transgender describes people whose gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex at birth. It is distinct from sexual orientation and does not require sex reassignment surgery. About 0.6% of the U.S. population identifies as transgender, according to academic research.

GLAAD, an organization founded by writers and journalists to promote fair, accurate and unbiased media coverage of LGBTQ+ issues, specifically identifies “pretending” as inaccurate and defamatory language when writing about transgender individuals.

Gender is an integral part of anyone’s identity. Making light of it isn’t political rhetoric. It’s cruel. We don’t publish archaic and discredited tropes about women and minorities, and we shouldn’t have published discredited tropes about transgender individuals. Doing so was contrary to the values of Sonoma Media Investments, the locally owned company that publishes The Press Democrat.

I did some digging — the kind I should have done before approving this letter — and gained some insight into the underlying issue: competitive advantage in sports.

Transgender athletes have been eligible to participate in the Olympics since 2004. Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, will be the first-ever transgender competitor at the Tokyo Games, which open this week.

California allows transgender athletes to participate in school sports, a policy endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians. So do at least 14 other states, the District of Columbia and the NCAA. Unfortunately, legislators in about two dozen states are trying to ban transgender athletes from high school and college sports. Several such measures have been signed into law.

Have you kept up with the burning controversy over transgender athletes dominating competition in California? Sorry, trick question.

“In the more than eight years since the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) began allowing high school athletes to compete as the gender with which they identify — regardless of what they were assigned at birth — there has not been a single case in which a trans female athlete has been dominant enough to stir protest,” Larry Strauss, a retired Los Angeles high school basketball coach, wrote in USA Today in April.

Critics argue that transgender females have an advantage because biological males tend to be larger and produce more testosterone. But that isn’t an advantage in every sport. In gymnastics, for instance, flexibility is more valuable than size. A level playing field? As any coach or player can attest, not all athletes are born equal. As Strauss put it, “Does anyone believe there is any justice in the so-called ‘genetic lottery’?”

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order “on preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.” The order, which was referenced in the July 9 letter, directed federal agencies to review their policies to ensure that they’re consistent with the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The order didn’t change any laws or policies governing participation in sports. You wouldn’t know that from the social media uproar that followed.

The letter also referenced comments by Caitlyn Jenner, one of the Republican candidates in California’s gubernatorial recall election. On May 1, the one-time Olympic decathlete told TMZ that transgender girls shouldn’t be allowed to compete in girls’ sports. Four days later, she told Fox News that, as governor, she would appoint a commission to study the issue. Reversing course in the same interview, she said at least some transgender girls and women should be allowed to compete. Confused? I am.

Our letters section — Let the Public Speak — is a space where readers can share perspectives and express opinions. Our opinion pages are a forum for competing and conflicting views. Robust debate is good, but we ask writers to keep it civil, and it’s my job to make sure we maintain a civil discourse. In this case, I failed at that responsibility, and for that I apologize.

Jim Sweeney is editorial director of The Press Democrat. Email him at

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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