On Saturday, the Toronto Star published a Ken Gallinger advice column headlined Transgender Man's Ogling Behaviour Unacceptable.
In it, the paper's resident ethicist responded to a letter from an unnamed "senior woman" who describes an incident in which a "'man' claiming to be transgender, who had not yet begun physical treatments, was permitted by our local Y to use the women's locker room." The person, she said, "was not courteous and stared at me while I struggled out of a wet bathing suit. He was naked, had an erection and playfully asked 'do you come here often?'"
Gallinger's assessment was reasonably intelligent and sympathetic, making clear that "transgender women, regardless of their status regarding surgical intervention, have the absolute right to use the women's change room" but also that "the fact that a person is transgender doesn't mean they can't also be a jerk."
There was an obvious problem with the headline, which misidentified the individual in question as a trans man rather than as a trans woman. But the Star, to its credit, amended it online and issued a correction in Tuesday's paper.
There was also, however, a somewhat less obvious and much more serious problem: there's a fairly good chance that the letter itself may have been an ideologically-motivated fabrication. As explained by the U.S.-based trans news site the TransAdvocate, the sensational episode recounted in the letter is far more consistent with a number of hoax stories credulously reported in American media over the years than it is with any incident that is known to have actually taken place anywhere.
The TransAdvocate's Cristan Williams took the additional step of phoning "every Toronto YMCA with a pool" and found that no one she spoke to had heard of any situation like the one described in the letter. (It might be noted, however, that the Star's readership extends beyond Toronto's borders, and the anonymous letter-writer makes no suggestion that her "local Y" is in the city.)
In an email to the TransAdvocate, Gallinger wrote, "It is, of course, not possible for me to substantiate most of the stories I'm told, and frankly I don't try - my general policy is to deal with issues as they are presented..." That is, as an ethics columnist, his role is to evaluate quandaries in the abstract, independent from any particular truth value they might have.
One question, then, is whether there should be a greater responsibility with respect to reader letters that serve to reinforce negative stereotypes or (as is quite possibly the case here) proliferate baseless fear-mongering. To what degree should conventional journalistic standards apply to advice columns?
Gallinger, a freelancer who lives in the Parry Sound area, was a minister of the United Church through mid-2012. He's been writing the Star's Ethically Speaking column on a regular basis for the past eight years.
He tells me in an email that he's submitted a follow-up piece "addressing many of the same questions you're interested in," but declines to be interviewed until it's published.
Kathy English, the Star's public editor (who investigates errors and other lapses of standards), says she is aware of the TransAdvocate post and is looking into it. As for the broader issue concerning the duties of advice columnists, she agrees that there are "interesting questions to be sure."
In a 2011 article, Gallinger weighed in on the distinction between reporters and opinion columnists. "Both inquire, investigate and unearth facts," he wrote. "But at day's end, reporters report; columnists reflect, argue and opine. This doesn't mean columnists have unfettered freedom. We are expected to base our opining on facts - and those facts must be accurate. Sloppy research, prejudicial presuppositions andbad data are as unacceptable in opinion columns as in front page news."
UPDATE (1/19/2014, 2:00 pm): After investigating the circumstances behind the letter and interviewing the person who sent it, public editor Kathy English has concluded that it was most likely genuine. Meanwhile, Gallinger's promised follow-up has been published, in which (among other reflections) he concedes that he fabricated letters in the column's early days.