Keeping Trans People in the Abortion Debate
Two trans journalists weigh in on the last couple weeks of abortion coverage.
EVER SINCE POLITICO published Justice Samuel Alito’s draft Dobbs opinion, which will have the effect of eliminating the right to abortion if it holds, a torrent of follow-up commentary and reporting has inundated our feeds.
Some of these articles have focused intensely on abortion as exclusively a women’s rights issue. But I’ve also noticed that little by little, more journalists have been open to including gender-neutral phrases like “pregnant patients” in their reporting.
I wanted to get a sense of whether this practice has actually become more common in journalism, so I reached out to two incredibly smart and kind trans reporters to walk us through what journalists are still getting wrong and what, if anything, we’re getting right.
Kam Burns (@kamcburns) is a founding member of the Trans Journalists Association, which exists to support trans journalists in their workplaces and careers through community support, style and ethics guidance, and workplace inclusivity practices. He’s also an engagement editor at Politico.
The week the opinion dropped, the Associated Press published new AP style guidance recommending that reporters stay away from phrases like “pregnant people” unless the story is about trans people and abortions. Soon after, TJA published a Twitter thread reminding us of the obvious: that “people who are not women do get pregnant and do get abortions.”
Orion Rummler (@i_oriion) is a breaking news reporter at The 19th, a nonprofit outlet covering gender, policy, and politics. He’s added to his already-robust portfolio of writing on states’ efforts to exclude trans people from certain areas of society with fantastic dispatches from the steps of the Supreme Court and beyond about the effect of overturning Roe.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Alienhood: Kam, I’ll start with you. What has it been like running TJA this past week? Do you feel like people already have this existing baseline knowledge that not only women get pregnant and you just have to remind them? Or do you feel like it’s been more of a push on your end?
Kam Burns: I would definitely say more the latter. We are in the midst of rewriting our style guide, and that’s definitely something we want to build up more. So we had to make a separate statement for this specifically.
It has been a stressful couple of weeks, but the response we’ve gotten has been largely positive. I think part of that is that people latched on to the second tweet [we posted], which was like, you can still say the word women and phrases like people with uteruses are offensive to cis and trans people. ... It just immediately shuts down that straw man argument of like, ‘Trans people are trying to erase women’ — because we explicitly said we are not.
I wish that wasn’t something we had to say. I wish that we didn’t have to add, like, 18 caveats to every statement that we make. But that’s the reality of where we are. And if doing so gets our message to more people and helps people be more receptive to it, I'm okay with that.
I don't think we're compromising what we believe and how I believe this coverage should be done. Because we are very explicit that you do need to include trans people in these conversations and your coverage.
A: And just to level set, why is this even important? What happens when trans people aren’t included in conversations about abortion?
KB: What I think is so important to think about in this specific moment is that all of this is a conversation about bodily autonomy. And we’re watching bodily autonomy being taken away from trans people in states with these bills that are trying to diminish trans health care for minors or for adults. We’re continuing to act as if this is an issue that only affects one type of person, and like these are two separate things, when in reality, it’s the same thing.
It’s an attack on letting people live their lives and function the way that they need to.
If you don’t include trans people [in abortion coverage], I don’t think it’s good reporting.
Orion Rummler: I also have thoughts on this. If you don’t include trans people [in abortion coverage], I don’t think it’s good reporting. You’re leaving out a really significant part of the story. Like, outside SCOTUS, I spoke with Dylan, who is a queer and trans person who got an abortion when they were 19—and said it was the best decision they ever made.
But I also spoke with a non-binary anti-abortion protester, so these are voices that should be included in coverage on this issue. You just need to be aware of different voices.
KB: I’m really curious as to what the non-binary anti-abortion person’s perspective was, if you are able to share that.
OR: It was Herb Geraghty, who is with the group Rehumanize International. I spoke with Herb, and the way he sees abortion rights is it goes against human rights in his view. And he’s also an atheist and a registered Democrat, although he explained that he doesn’t always vote or support Democrats. And I spoke with him a little bit near SCOTUS in the evening of protests, like seven to 8pm, when a small group of anti-abortion protesters were left within court grounds after there was a scuffle, like some shoving and shouting.
But he just said that his main view is that he supports LGTBQ rights and human rights, and he thinks abortion is against those rights.
A: Could you just give us a little bit more about what the scene was like at the Supreme Court? I’m assuming that this was a minority view. But were there queer people there who are talking about why this was particularly important to LGBTQ communities?
OR: Absolutely. The majority of people I saw were pro-abortion. And I talked with Dylan—Dylan had a really personal story, about how they got an abortion and that made a huge difference in their life, because they, for several reasons, were not ready to have a child when they were 19.
I also spoke with Marie, who was 51, and she is a trans woman. And she also spoke about this issue being important to her because like, the way she sees it is: If Roe is overturned, that will lead to more rights for LGTBQ people being overturned.
Although the primary reaction from LGTBQ people was that this affects us just by itself—like, this affects me because I need to get an abortion—but also, I'm worried about this affecting my right to get married, this affecting my right to exist in general.
A: Orion, you’ve written a bit about the Bostock decision, and how textualism, a legal theory embraced by conservative justices, was used to secure new anti-discrimination guarantees for LGBTQ people.
Can you tell me about how that that story that you did matches up to the current panorama of bodily autonomy rights, or even the ‘right to privacy’? What is the limitation confining the legal analysis to just discrimination on the basis of sex?
OR: What LGBTQ legal experts told us they’re worried about is that this draft opinion as it’s written—and Politico recently had another story that said that the draft opinion we saw is still the current version—this could harm Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell based on those arguments for privacy.
And there’s also some concern when Alito talks about the Fourteenth Amendment, and especially with due process, that that cannot support abortion either. One of the constitutional law professors I've talked to put it this way: there's an imminent danger to trans rights in a post-Roe world. If the legality of bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth got to the Supreme Court, with this right-to-privacy debate, would this precedent mess with that?
And when Alito goes on to argue that abortion is never mentioned in the Constitution, and that it doesn’t fit into the “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions” framework, that was also part of [the concern]: like, if that’s not deeply rooted in history, then these other rights also aren’t deeply rooted.
A: A couple years ago, Bostock was seen as a victory for LGBTQ rights—we had this decision that was wildly unexpected that said queer people who are discriminated against for their sexuality or gender orientation are being discriminated against on the basis of sex. But at the end of the day, you can’t use that like construction to try to secure all of the liberties that you need as a queer person to live.
KB: One thing I’ve found working at Politico, and in political coverage, is that local- and state-level elections are so, so, so important to people, because the reality is, if Roe gets overturned, it’s going to affect a lot of people in a lot of states—and in other states, it’s not going to affect them at all. And so when we’re looking at who’s running for Congress, who’s running for president—obviously, that stuff matters, but it’s so much more granular than that, even like district to district in terms of whether or not there are abortion clinics available. And the same is true I’ve ever seen with all of these anti trans laws. Because states have so much room to make those decisions. And because of the makeup of the Supreme Court right now, people don’t want to bring it there.
So it’s really scary seeing how all of this is playing out, because if you’re in one of those states that’s been gerrymandered to death, then there’s not a ton that you can do. And that is something that … I feel gets lost in a lot of political coverage that really focuses on the national level and doesn’t understand the more personal impact it's having on people.
I feel like there’s been a really positive turn towards service journalism in the past few years, especially since the pandemic. … That sort of thing is so important, because people are really scared, and having like really concrete information of how does this impact folks right now is super important.
A: Yeah, and the point that I think that you’re making is that this is part of like a broader project. And I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense. I just mean that as in, these systems all work together with each other.
What is your sense of what the coverage has been for the past couple of weeks? What is a good thing that’s been reflected in the coverage? And what’s still missing? What are we still not talking about?
KB: I feel like there’s been a really positive turn towards service journalism in the past few years, especially since the pandemic. I have seen the messaging saying, if you want to go out and get an abortion tomorrow, you still can. That sort of thing is so important, because people are really scared, and having like really concrete information of how does this impact folks right now is super important.
But again, we’re like still centering the same people in these conversations. It impacts a lot of women, it also impacts a lot of trans people. And also, the types of women who are going to have their access limited are usually low-income women, they’re women of color. They’re trans people of color. Because rich, white women will always have access to abortion: They can afford to travel, they can afford to get this procedure.
So when we’re talking about abortion being illegal, it’s worth asking, “Who is it really illegal for? And how can we make sure that they’re part of this conversation?”
A: Orion, this question is related to Kam’s point about service journalism. You work for an outlet that’s very much still national, but it’s very much focused on issues relating to women and gender. How has it felt being in this type of newsroom during this time, as opposed to other newsrooms where you’ve worked in the past?
OR: It’s felt really good. All of our editors are well used to us saying pregnant people, and like making those important changes in our coverage—more than just the wording but, also to explore the different ways people are affected by this.
[Editorial director] Abby Johnston has especially taken the lead on making sure everyone who comes in understands that that’s like our baseline—we have to incorporate trans and LGTBQ people. When I pitch an LGTBQ story, I don’t have to explain why it's important for us to cover this. And it makes it so much faster. I don’t have to jump through more hoops about it, which has been really nice.
I’m just really proud of our coverage in general, like Shefali [Luthra] is especially amazing. and she’s been handling a lot of our coverage on this, so check out her work as well.
A: One quick follow up on that: One thing that strikes me about The 19th that I find very admirable is not just there is a trans journalist who’s covering LGBTQ issues, but also, it’s not just you who is capable and able to do that.
How has it been working with other queer journalists in the newsroom, or with other trans or non-binary journalists like Kate [Sosin]?
OR: I'm lucky that in the professional newsrooms I’ve been in, I’ve never been the only trans person. At Axios, there was me and Ina [Fried] that I knew of, as far as trans people.
But it’s been really good working with Kate, especially being able to tag team on stories, like what would happen to LGTBQ rights if Roe were overturned. I’ve appreciated being able to work with them and just brainstorm with them. And I am also speaking beyond just the day-to-day, professional stuff. I think it’s important just to have someone who understands from the jump some of the emotional stress that can come from covering your own community.
I don’t like to talk about that lot, but I’ve been like learning how to like, feel my feelings about it, which people at The 19th have been helping me do. Some of our editors, and like our higher ups addicts have been like, checking up on me to feel my feelings about it, which I'm not sure I’d I get somewhere else. It's been delightful.
A: What’s it been like for you, Kam?
KB: We broke the story, which was huge. It was very all hands on deck. And that honestly did help me cope in a big way.
I felt like I was doing something—a big feeling a lot of people have right now is helplessness, and I don’t feel that between Politico and TJA. It’s also really reassuring to see that they are continuing the coverage of it pretty much every day; it’s not like they have just moved on. Because there's still things happening that are impacting real people.
So yes, it’s been a difficult few weeks. But it’s good to feel like I'm contributing something to the conversation and helping people be more informed and informed in a more holistic way.
How have you been doing?
A: A lot of how I process my feelings is through writing.
I wrote a little bit about abortion already, but it’s been difficult not to fall into the trap of just thinking about this in legal terms. Like: what are they exactly saying? What would this do to the precedent that this right was built on? Does this mean that we need to support rights on the architecture of other precedent? What is the point of rights if they are dependent on the state?
I think it’s put a lot of perspective into what I want my writing to be and how we can balance like, both my own use of writing as an exercise to process my emotions, and figuring out what exactly it is that I can contribute as somebody who is both queer and non-binary and acutely aware of like, the lack of representation of trans people in this conversation, but also as somebody who cannot personally have an abortion. That’s a line I’m still trying to figure out how to toe, but I’m glad that it’s not a lonely conversation, right?
Like, Kam, I was at your place last weekend, and Orion was there, and we could talk about this topic if we wanted, or not. It’s not like I have no other queer and trans friends that I can discuss this with. So I think in some ways, these conversations ease the helplessness a little bit.
Moving forward, the support and care network is going to be crucial, and it’s been comforting to feel like I have that.
KB: Yeah. I will also say that when we were writing up our statement on Roe for TJA, I’ve never seen such an all-hands-on-deck response from our membership. We haven’t had these sort of acute, really intense, tough conversations since we first wrote the style guide. I think that was a really positive thing, [because] it would not have been as strong if it was just a handful of us. And that also made me feel a lot better. Because it's like you said, like, it's not like there's no one having these conversations, there's a ton of us having that, in the end, we can amplify each other and like, make these conversations better overall.
A: All right. That’s all I have. Thanks, y’all.