Aiden Quinn used to be a woman. Now he's a man. It's a titillating detail — but is it news?
Quinn, you'll likely recall, is the 24-year-old subway driver from Attleboro who — moments after text-messaging his girlfriend on the evening of May 8 — crashed a Green Line train into another near the MBTA's Government Center stop, injuring roughly 50 passengers and causing an estimated $9.6 million in damages. The accident dominated the Boston news for days and prompted the announcement, on May 13, of a no-cell-phones policy for the T's drivers; it also led to Quinn's firing.
Given Quinn's admission that he was, in fact, texting prior to the accident, there's a general consensus that he's a dumbass. But there's no such agreement among the Boston media as to whether his switch from identifying as a woman to a man was germane to the larger story.
Some outlets seemed certain that it was. On May 11, for example, WFXT-TV (Fox 25) made Quinn's gender switch the lead fact of a Web story about his background (ahead of his driving record, which includes at least three speeding tickets — apparently he's a bad car driver, too) and played it up on Twitter. The Boston Herald took a similarly sensationalistic approach. On May 12, the tabloid highlighted Quinn's identity switch, calling him "stocky" for good measure — and the next day's paper boasted three more references, including a sniggering Howie Carr column and a news-you-just-might-use piece on transgender protocol ("Sex Change a Simple Switch at RMV") by reporter Dave Wedge.
Others were far more restrained. Following internal discussions, New England Cable News (NECN) sought to downplay that aspect of Quinn's history; as news director Tom Melville puts it, "It's part of who [Quinn] is, but it's not the main story." The Globe, too, de-emphasized Quinn's sex change. A May 12 piece by Noah Bierman on hiring standards at the T cited it, but the detail came late in the piece, and was delivered in a detached, matter-of-fact tone. Meanwhile, other Globe stories omitted reference to Quinn's past existence as a woman altogether.
"We knew very early of his transgender status, and we thought very hard about including it," explains Globe metro editor Brian McGrory. "It's certainly a provocative part of his personal history, but the question we asked was, 'Was it relevant to the crash itself?' And we couldn't determine that it was.
"Then we asked, 'Was it worth using at all?' " adds McGrory. "We determined that — because he's a person in the news, and because many of the facts that we were getting about him involved his driving record, and it was right there on his driving record that he was transgender — the proper thing to do was point it out, but not play it up particularly high in the story."
According to some advocates for the transgendered, though, even the lower-key approaches of the Globe and NECN went too far. A statement from the Massachusetts Transgender Political Caucus, for example, argued that a single mention of Quinn's gender switch was tantamount to yellow journalism: "Anything related to his gender identity would be irrelevant and further perpetuate unnecessary sensationalism. . . . Media outlets should be reporting on the facts of the case and not using sensationalistic coverage of a person's identity or former name when neither has a bearing on the case."
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), makes a similar argument about media references to Quinn's sex change. "We know why they're doing it — they're doing it because it's a sensationalistic angle, that's all," Keisling tells the Phoenix. "They may be able to come up with some weird rationalization, and pretend it's relevant to the story. But it's irrelevant, it's inappropriate, and it's harmful."
Journalism or advocacy?
Keisling's concern is understandable. Even though dangerous texting is a phenomenon that cuts across every demographic line — and despite the utter dearth of evidence that Quinn's gender change caused the accident in question — certain excitable right-wingers have already seized on the crash as a general indictment of transsexuals. After the accident, for example, right-wing blogger (and Herald city editor) Jules Crittenden asked: "Should people who deny fundamental biological facts and claim to be of the opposite gender be entrusted with large public conveyances that carry dozens of commuters?" (Crittenden also suggested that the National Transportation Safety Board look at whether hormonal treatment might have hampered Quinn's judgment. Based on this reasoning, a bunch of Greater Boston's shitty drivers currently must be switching sexes.)
But here's the problem with these calls for silence: asking the reporters who covered the crash to omit any reference to Quinn's sex change is, in essence, a request for journalists to be advocates rather than reporters.
It's true, as Keisling notes, that journalists don't usually highlight a particular individual's race, unless said individual is a criminal suspect who's still at large, or race plays an obvious role in the story. It's also true that — except in certain instances that reek of personal hypocrisy, like conservative evangelical preacher Ted Haggard's sexcapades with a male prostitute — we don't highlight matters of sexual orientation, either.