What Facts Matter?

Are you aware that one of the alleged young killers at the STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado is a transgender boy? If so, you’ve had to do some digging to find out about his gender transition because the mainstream media has left the issue mostly unspoken, leaving it to the crank right to trumpet. I frankly don’t remember where I got wind of it. The New York Times and the Washington Post appear not to have mentioned it; CNN reported it but failed to use the term transgender, as did NBC, which said only that the shooter in question “prefers male pronouns.” But the crank right was all over it: the Washington Examiner, CBN (Christian Broadcasting News), Breitbart, SNN (Satan News Network)… okay, I made that one up, but the others are all too real. And in case you’re wondering, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

My first research stop was Snopes.com to check whether this was yet another float in the parade of media misinformation of the type that Snopes debunks. Snopes’ headline and subhead present the problem in a nutshell: “Was the ‘Media Silent’ About a ‘Democrat Transgender’ Colorado Shooting Suspect? It’s unknown whether the political leanings or purported gender identity of either suspect is relevant to the crime.”

I’m wading into some turbulent water here, but I say but the answer is unequivocally yes. Of course one of the shooters’ gender identity – or as Snopes delicately puts it, “purported gender identity” — is relevant to the crime. Everything about the shooters is relevant to the crime. Well, maybe not everything. As Snopes’ reporter, Bethania Palma, wrote on the website, “So far, authorities have disclosed no motive for the attack, but that didn’t stop some people from assigning one that fit their narrative. For example, the following meme circulated on Facebook in the aftermath of what was the second deadly school shooting in the US over seven days: “Colorado school shooter was a democrat transgender Anti-Christian drug user.” Note the, um, idiosyncratic capitalization. Note also that the suspect in question, Alec McKinney, is only 16 years old and therefore couldn’t register as a Democrat, a Republican, a Green, or an Independent because he’s too young to vote.

“Although the claim that the ‘media is silent’ is a common conspiratorial trope,” Palma continues, “it is often misleading. In fact, the news media indeed reported the details contained in the above meme. One day after the shooting, Denver station KMGH-TV first reported one of the shooting suspects ‘is a transgender male who was in the midst of transitioning from female to male.’ Subsequently, publications that sent journalists to the suspects’ court appearances reported that McKinney was born female with the official name ‘Maya,’ but prefers the use of male pronouns and goes by the name ‘Alec.’ Right-wing websites such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller also reported that the older suspect, [Devon] Erickson, was registered to vote as a Democrat.”

Palma continues: “News reports also indicated at least one of the suspects may have used drugs, while the New York Post reported that ‘what appears to be’ Erickson’s Facebook page included a 2014 post in which he allegedly wrote about hating ‘All these Christians who hate gays.’”

I will leave to you the task of sorting out which facts belong to which shooter — it’s a mess — and return to the subject at hand, namely: is it relevant to note in reporting this crime that one of the suspects is transgender?

I say it is. To deliberately leave out this information is to reinforce the idea that being transgender is something to be hushed up — ignored at best and at worst deliberately elided. Most news consumers are not so stupid as to need to have their news content-filtered for them. And so what if they are? It’s not the job of journalists to decide whether or not to report a major news story. It’s their job to report it as thoroughly and as free of bias as possible. To strip Alec McKinney of his gender is to render him less than fully human.

Palma goes on: “Whether any of the information about Erickson or McKinney is relevant to the crime is unknown, however. Authorities have not made public a motive for the shooting, said Deputy Cocha Heyden, spokesperson for the Douglas County sheriff. Heyden declined to state whether media reports about the gender identity of the younger suspect were accurate. Andrew Patrick, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), told us that focusing on alleged political leanings of the suspects, their gender identity, and their purported views about Christians appears to be a distraction from the issue at hand — that shooters with murderous intent were able to access firearms.”

I disagree. Yes, obviously the shooters were able to access firearms. That goes without saying. It was, after all, a shooting! Beyond that, gender identity is far from “a distraction.”

The real question here is not even whether or not one of the shooters’ gender is relevant to the news story, but rather whether or not this basic fact of McKinney’s life should be hidden from the public. For what purpose would a media outlet deliberately conceal it? Vicarious or projected shame? Fear of guilt by association — in other words, the ridiculous implication that all transgender people are murderers waiting to find just the right person to kill?

Nobody knows yet if Alec McKinney was bullied because of his gender identity (except, of course, for McKinney himself), and it would be premature to speculate on that subject. But that doesn’t mean that his gender identity should be kept out of the story merely because some nutty fascist somewhere might get the impression that all transgender people are crazy enough to shoot up a school.

Words and phrases that must die right now: Meme. Trope. Iconic. Game changer. And the worst of all: You got this. That one was memorably employed by the former Beverly Hills 90210 star Shannen Doherty as her parting words to her late costar Luke Perry. Exactly what did Perry get? Death. Yeah, Luke – your iconic performance on the iconic series was a game-changing trope. Now you’re dead. You got this.

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