Civil debates are needed, but discussing gender and identity can be painful

A lesson I have shared whenever I teach a media ethics class includes viewing a video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta doing a standup at a Trump rally in 2018. Surrounding him are followers of the president yelling at the reporter.

Who had the freedom of speech in that situation?

I hope you know the answer. Both do, but the yelling didn’t forward the conversation for either side.

This lesson came to mind when I heard the news that American Public Square had to postpone its September 26 program, “Exploring Gender & Identities.”

A notice on the American Public Square website explained, “Upon the cancellation of two panelists invited to represent the transgender community, we are now unable to present the community with a conversation we feel effectively represents the diverse perspectives of this issue.”

It went on to say, “We have never been faced with canceling an APS program — until now.”

The reason? Organizers for the civic organization known for moderating difficult civil conversations believed the it would not be balanced or complete without the missing panelists.

That same day, the women advocacy organization United We, held an event – “United We Listen” — at the Kauffman Center featuring NPR’s National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson. The two programs, coincidentally scheduled, had been aligned to talk about holding civil discussions with, as Liasson called it, “a shared set” of facts and varying opinions.

“You can’t have a democracy and a civil society without a shared set of facts,” Liaison said.

Neither, apparently, can you have a program on exploring gender and identities. The barriers ultimately were too high, and as much as I believe that people need to sit down and listen to each other, some conversations are inherently more difficult than others.

I wanted to know why the panel didn’t take place. Is this the one issue that prevents us from talking to each other?

The program panelists were to be a mix of pro and anti transgender rights:

  • Monica Harris, author, attorney, and advisory board member with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism

  • Justice Horn, Chair of the City of Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission and former Board Director of the Jackson County Government’s Children’s Services Fund

  • Kara Dansky, speaker, writer and consultant committed to protecting the sex-based rights of women and girls

  • Alex Pearson, an attorney at Missouri Kansas Queer Law, who identifies as transgender and nonbinary.

  • Jamie Reed, former case worker at Washington University Transgender Center and a whistleblower who believes doctors in her clinic were not helping trans kids.

  • Dr. Anthony Strickland with Evolve MD, a healthcare company that advocates for transgender patients. (Strickland was not on the original panel and was a last-minute addition).

Representatives for American Public Square and two panelists representing the transgender community can agree on one thing. Both had received troubling feedback from the community they were trying to serve.

Both heard concerns and complaints about the program — that it would give a platform to anti-trans issues, and that the community needed to take a pause after legislative setbacks involving bans on transgender student-athletes from participating in women’s sports, and gender-affirming care.

“The transgender community is really weary right now,” said APS Communications Director Robin Smith. “So we are trying to listen to the feedback that right now wasn’t a good time.”

Horn concurred. “When people tell us this isn’t good for us right now, I have to listen. Community trust is very fragile.”

But the road to canceling was even more complicated.

Would it hurt?

I spoke to Justice Horn via telephone, and Alex Pearson over email. I asked Horn why he and panelist Pearson stepped down.

“To be quite transparent there was alignment between us. It started with me feeling a little shaky on this and pulling out. And Alex followed. We had a lot of feedback from the transgender community. Is this going to be productive in advancing our community?”

Pearson said they and business partner Madeline Johnson were contacted by several people in the transgender community who requested they not participate.

“Many local Kansas City transgender community members raised authentic concerns related to giving a platform to hate speech under the auspices of legitimate debate and felt that this conversation would be more harmful than helpful. We ultimately decided that we agreed with and decided to stand behind our community,” Pearson said.

Horn said he was on board at first, but he began hearing concerns as to whether the event would create a validating platform for those who disagree with them. “I thought, we are all on the ship, let’s steer the way, but others thought the ship was going to steer the other way,” he said.

When news of the postponement circulated, along with it came questions. One was whether the pro-trans participants felt threatened in any way. Both Horn and Pearson said they were not. Pearson, to my question, answered a succinct “no.”

Horn said he also wasn’t worried about physical threats, but added, “It’s not like a hometown crowd for me,” he said of the Johnson County location, and he worried there would be little support from the audience. “Folks (in the trans community) didn’t even want to show up to support, so I was going to be in front of people who thought I was…” his voice trailed off, but then he continued.

“I can debate with them, that’s fine, but trans folks and trans parents believed some of these panelists had actively betrayed them.”

Pearson said they also had concerns. “Following the pre-planning meeting, we had concerns about the opposing panelists ability to remain civil and respectful.”

Smith of APS said she heard the concerns and tried to convince Horn and Pearson that it would be OK. “We would never let certain behavior occur, but they felt it was not a conversation they could participate in.”

Which is sad, considering the changing views of gender and tenor about identity in the nation. In Missouri, 0.2% or 9,500 of adults identify as transgender. In Kansas, 0.56% or 12,400 individuals age 13+ identify as transgender. Those numbers come from a fact sheet provided by APS, but originate from a 2022 study.

Panelists for a planned event with American Public Square at Jewell decided they wouldn’t be able to participate in the conversation.

Panelist Jamie Reed

Horn said Kansas City transgender community members were most concerned about giving Jamie Reed a platform. Reed recently has been a lightning rod on the topic of transgender medical transition. Her story about becoming a whistleblower while she was a case manager in a children’s hospital affiliated with Washington University in St. Louis has been featured in many media outlets, and she has been vilified by many in the transgender community.

I asked Reed her thoughts on what happened with the panel during a phone conversation. “I’m disappointed,” she said. “I was open to a challenging dialogue.”

Reed took issue with labeling Kansas City’s transgender community, especially on medical transition for adolescents.

“There is not a unified and monolithic community that shares the same values on these topics,” she said. “There is a divide within the LGBT community within this topic, and that is OK to have different points of view, and it is OK for adults to discuss those things. I think it hurts our community to pretend like we are so fragile that we cannot have tough debates.”

She said the transgender community missed an opportunity to bring out differing views, for example, she argued that she does support medical transition for adults. “I think the panelists and I actually agree on a lot of concerns and questions. But there is so much nuance to medical intervention with kids and adolescents right now that our community will be hurt more if we cannot discuss these things.”

She said she would participate if the program is rescheduled. “I would like to see it occur.”

Need for talk

I have to admit that when I first heard about the American Public Square program, I was impressed they had decided to tackle such a big conversation. And when I heard it was postponed, I was disappointed. Certainly, it was going to be a complicated but essential confluence of diverse and divergent perspectives. We need to address identity, intolerance and understanding. We need help figuring out how to talk to each other. Data shows it.

A 2021 survey from Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos Hidden Common Ground found that most Americans believe political hostility and divisiveness is a serious problem in the U.S., and that 3 in 10 Americans are most worried about the fact that Americans don’t know how to talk about their disagreements and conflicts in constructive ways.

Allan Katz, founder and CEO of American Public Square at Jewell, said it’s better to be exposed to opinions that you disagree with. “It’s that exposure that will help us all better understand the complexities of the issues we face as a nation and, perhaps, find common ground in the process.”

But Horn and Pearson said there are certain things that you simply can’t debate.

“We knew our community needed to be represented,” Horn said, “but when we’re suffering and fighting for our lives, I do not want to defend my existence to you, nor do I have to.”

I’m glad that Kansas City has groups like American Public Square and United We promoting conversation — all different, but all fighting for the voices of diverse communities to be heard. On this issue, however, there doesn’t appear to be a clear path forward.

The APS program is “postponed,” not canceled, said Smith. “That (wording) was intentional. We wanted to pause and catch our breath. We can’t say where we will go from here but we think it’s important to sit down and have this conversation.”

Pearson said they do believe that conversations can and should be had around gender identity “that respect the personhood, humanity, and dignity of all persons,” but in the end, “We believe we made the right choice in the circumstances.”

Horn agrees, conditionally. “It’s going to be tough moving forward. We’re slipping back so far because we just have to defend our existence. There are some things that are not up for debate, the ability for people, if they want to, to live up to their authentic self.”

Check Also

Navigating the Complex World of Regulatory Law: A Guide for Businesses

Navigating the Complex World of Regulatory Law: A Guide for Businesses Regulatory law is a …