In our last issue, The Wellesley News Editorial Board voiced our strong disagreement with the March 6 email from College President Paula Johnson regarding the gender inclusivity ballot question. In that statement, we promised to write a more comprehensive editorial in response to the student vote, which has since passed in favor of the non-binding referendum to amend Wellesley’s language and admissions policy to recognize and celebrate our community’s gender diversity. According to an exit poll conducted by College Government’s Committee for Political Engagement, 90% of students voted yes on the ballot question. Despite overwhelming student consensus, College administrators have held their ground. We refuse to accept this forced stalemate, which establishes a troubling precedent where College administrators cease to incorporate student perspectives in their decisions. We aim to elevate student voices by contextualizing the media coverage this non-binding referendum has received, both locally and nationally.
It would be naive to decree that transphobic rhetoric should never be covered or published, but it is also naive to claim that unbiased journalism about trans issues exists when trans rights have been swept up in the media’s “culture war narratives.” A 2021 opinion published on NBCU Academy remains all too relevant, wherein the author argues that “framing legislation that seeks to exclude trans people from having equal rights as a culture war reduces the trans community to a political football in an abstract policy debate. No longer is this issue about access to life-saving health care; legislation that focuses on trans Americans is a ‘wedge issue’ that reflects America’s polarization.” This reduction has real-world consequences by downplaying trans people’s humanity, the worst possible time to do so as trans people’s rights are currently under attack in 46 out of 50 state legislatures and the US Congress. While journalists are taught to be unbiased in their coverage, biases are not inherently good or bad; rather, journalists must disclose their biases and interrogate the impact of their journalistic practices. In a political climate fraught with misinformation, merely reporting on the “facts” without critical examination and a clear explanation of their context is irresponsible. As a result, despite best intentions, biases are pervasive in journalism, affecting even seemingly innocuous aspects such as the way that issues are framed in the media.
Let us illustrate this point through a specific, relevant example. The New York Times — one of the publications we’ve previously critiqued for their anti-trans editorial bias — was one of many publications to release an article regarding Wellesley’s gender inclusivity ballot question. While not outright transphobic, the article devotes an outsized amount of space to opposing perspectives — disproportionately high compared to what students, staff and faculty actually believe, as evidenced by the results of the exit poll and the number of academic departments and student organizations that have shared their opposition to College administrators and the Board of Trustees — and ends with a quote that is dismissive of on-campus organizing. This framing has the effect of minimizing the on-campus support for Wellesley’s trans community. When the article was updated to reflect the results of the non-binding referendum, Times subscribers across the nation received a breaking news push notification, provoking transphobic fury and attention toward the College community. While we are not inherently opposed to journalistic coverage surrounding marginalized groups — in fact, we believe journalism can be used to advance social justice goals, which we strive to do in our coverage and disclose this intention in our staff editorials — this coverage can achieve more harm than good if not conducted carefully and in regular consultation with the marginalized groups in question.
While many cisgender people who are not personally affected by this referendum and resulting media coverage may have tuned out the conversation, the distance becomes less apparent when the “culture war” surrounding trans people is reframed to be a broader attack against bodily autonomy, as some articles about prior waves of anti-trans legislation have helpfully observed. The same Republicans proposing anti-trans legislation simultaneously champion anti-abortion laws that threaten the autonomy and lives of people with uteruses. This framing is useful because it helps build solidarity among different marginalized groups. It also renders the College administration’s recent actions unsurprising. We won’t let them gloss over their protection and platforming of Kristan Hawkins — a prominent anti-abortion organizer who wants to ban hormonal contraceptives — when she came to speak on campus in 2021. These actions of the College come together to form the narrative of an institution that is uninterested in protecting the rights and safety of its most vulnerable students.
Refusing the forced stalemate, we urge students to continue voicing and acting on their opposition to the administration’s decision. This opposition should be led by queer and trans students of color to ensure that our advocacy is authentically intersectional, given that trans people of color face unique challenges due to the overlapping effects of transphobia and racism. In 2018, a student created a “Wellesley Disorientation Guide” for a class final project, which includes a historical timeline of radical activism at Wellesley. In support of issues such as endowment divestment from South African apartheid and fossil fuels, students have conducted die-ins and staged high-profile protests and hunger strikes. The rich legacy of student activism at Wellesley, as well as that of the trans community, should serve as inspiration for our work in continuing to dismantle harmful policies the College continues to engage with. The courage of past student work serves as a reminder that tepid or performative actions are not enough to achieve the change we demand. Even current efforts to organize and protest on-campus are not experiencing enough turnout to be meaningful to administration. Wellesley’s past has shown the power of our student body, which requires collective action.
Vote Count: 5/6 Editorial Board Members Voted in Favor. One member abstaining
Micol J. Zhai