No, you can’t be neutral in a debate about your own humanity

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When Lewis Wallace first showed up in the newsroom where I was the digital manager a few years ago, I had no idea how much I would learn from someone with very little journalism experience.

For many years, my horizons had been expanding beyond the fairly white-bread missionary world I was raised in. Oh, I knew many people from different cultural backgrounds, and, for a while, I considered myself to be well cultured. The problem was they all shared the same ideology. 

To be fair, the organization I was raised in was different from other missionary organizations in that it honored individual cultural expression rather than crushing it. Still, there was a world out there I didn’t know or understand.

Along my adult journey, I’ve met many different people from all over the world. I’ve learned from them about them, about myself.

I’m proud to say I have gay friends, priest friends, atheist friends, missionary friends, black friends, brown friends, multiethnic friends and transgender friends, along with many others that are uncategorized.

Unfortunately, that last sentence will make a large number of my friends cringe.

Because their only connection to that kind of diversity is through me. And every time I engage with them about the lack of diversity in their own lives, they remind me that even though Jesus taught us that the most important thing was to love your neighbor as yourself, judgement is impossible to resist.

So back to Lewis.

He shows up at WBEZ, and he gets a rotation on my desk. I show him how we do social media and put him together with my team to learn the various aspects of digital production at a major public radio station.

Lewis is transgender, the first transgender person I know. And I learn, for the first time in my life, that transgender isn’t a choice someone makes. As I work on projects with Lewis, I learn about preferred pronouns, and even now, I don’t know enough, because my time with Lewis was brief. And I type every word of this worried that I’ll get something wrong. But Lewis taught me a lot about courage in the few months I spent working with him.

Every journalist dreams of going from an internship or a fellowship straight to the New York Times. And Lewis pretty much did that. A few short years after his fellowship at WBEZ, he lands at APM’s Marketplace, which you probably hear twice a day on NPR.

This is kind of the pinnacle for a radio reporter, if you don’t count that Ira Glass podcast or Morning Edition.

I watched him from a distance, insanely proud of him for all he accomplished and for bringing a distinctly unique and underrepresented voice to major American media. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think he is one of the only transgender reporters at that level. I could be wrong, and I apologize if I am.

Today I was dismayed to read that two weeks into the new administration, Lewis was fired from Marketplace.

The crazy thing is that he was fired for writing something that every journalist has thought about from the first assignment they receive.

Lewis wrote a post about objectivity, but he says it much better than I can:

“I was fired for publishing a post on my personal blog about being a transgender journalist exploring what it means to do truthful, ethical journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time.”

Marketplace has one of those over-the-top hosts that everyone worships in public radio, the kind of host who Tweets whatever he wants. But when a transgender reporter asks the question about neutrality in the face of an administration aggressively promoting fiction, he’s fired almost instantly.

Much like Trump’s appointing Bannon to the NSC does for the executive branch, this sets a dangerous precedent for media outlets still too concerned about profits over aggressively combatting the falsehoods coming out of the White House almost hourly.

More than that, Lewis is a good journalist and good for journalism. He broadens the scope of the American experience and allows all of us to see a little slice of this country through his life and work.

Objectivity is important in journalism, but it’s also a myth.

When I did live-in journalism, the kind where I stayed with the families I was reporting on, I only got to know them by the few weekends or days or nights I stayed with them. It was just a sliver of their lives. I certainly wrote those stories as objectively as I could, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s the truth through the eyes of someone trained to report it as clearly and accurately as possible.

But that’s for the consumer to decide. For a journalist, the standard is set. But the choice is so much more difficult. I think Lewis summed it up well –

Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too. As a member of a marginalized community (I am transgender), I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be “neutral.” After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.

I need more Lewis’ in my life, not fewer. We all need to understand and see this country through the diversity of people and experiences that exist here.

And no, Lewis, you can’t be neutral in a debate over your own humanity.

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