Male or female, AP style created him or her

phoenix23One of the crucial principles in Associated Press style is that, when in doubt, reporters are supposed to let groups of people define themselves.

As a rule, a journalist is not supposed to force a person or a group to be defined in a way that the person or group insists is inaccurate. At the very least, the news organization is supposed to show that the issue of a label or identification is in doubt.

Well, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times faced a somewhat unique situation while covering one of the ongoing sexuality disputes in the world of mainline Protestantism. She came to Baltimore recently (no, she did not let the GetReligionistas know that she was in the area) to write about the case of the Rev. Ann Gordon of St. John’s United Methodist Church, who has caused a blitz of headlines by announcing her medical transformation into the Rev. Drew Phoenix, who is legally male in the eyes of the state.

But what about the United Methodist Church? And what about the Associated Press Stylebook?

Simon does her usual fine job of handling voices on both sides of this hot dispute, although some might question whether it is all that amazing that this pastor has managed to take the urban congregation from a membership of 12 to about 36.

But it is the transgender issue that is at the center of this national story. And this reality leads to a truly unique passage in the story:

Never during her eight-month-long transition did she question whether God would want her to renounce her femininity. She was sure God had intended her to be male; her woman’s body was meant to challenge her. And, perhaps, to push her church toward a fuller understanding of Christ’s love.

“Maybe this is my gift to the church. Maybe part of the reason I became pastor was this very moment,” Phoenix said.

He revels in his physical changes: His knuckles are hairy! His biceps bulge! But he also finds joy in a new sense of unity with his creator. “It’s like when you come back after a long trip, you collapse on the couch … and you just feel, ‘I’m home,’” he said. “I am who I am. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

His critics share the same certainty: God doesn’t make mistakes. Which is why they’re not sure they can endorse a pastor with a woman’s double-X chromosomes presenting herself as a man.

“There are theological implications we need to talk about as a church,” said the Rev. Kevin Baker, a United Methodist pastor in a Maryland suburb.

Here’s the question that bugged me. Was there any way to write this section of the story that did not appear — to people on one side of the issue or another — to have settled this issue? If the reporter changes from she to he, that is backing the medical and legal view. Yet that also appears to have decided the theological issue. Yet if the pronoun stays the same, then it appears that the reporter is siding with traditionalists.

There is, of course, no question about how Gordon/Phoenix would want this covered. Under AP style, that is the safe way to go. Any disagreement out there?

Photo: The Rev. Drew Phoenix

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    Delurking for a moment to point out that the AP provides an option even if the person has not expressed a preference.

    If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

    Gordon presented pulblicly as a women until the transition began and after the transition–whether there was surgery or not–Phoenix presented as a man. The fact that there was a name change actually helps quite a bit, even if the person never expresses a preference.

    That is also consistent with the style manual advocated by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

    Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters if there is a theological dispute about the pastor’s gender. That’s for the United Methodist Church to decide, not the Los Angeles Times.

  • HTB

    I thought that the balance struck here was a reasonably good one. Most of the article uses “he” when he’s living as a man, “she” when she was living as a woman. It’s descriptive and gives you the flavor that something changed. We are not required to go along with the story that any individual “was always” a different gender from the one they lived as a child.

    The only exception from that common practice is a short paragraph from the anti-TS crowd, and it’s reasonable to present their view that ‘he’ is actually ‘she’ when you’re specifically talking about it. A pronoun-free statement like “They don’t think that anyone without a Y chromosome could possibly be a man” is neither materially different from nor more offensive than “Since the pastor does not have a Y chromosome, they believe she is not a man.”

    (Oh, and about those chromosomes: The presence of a functional Y chromosome is biologically controlling for phenotypic sex in humans, but not in all animals. The politically incorrect mnemonic is that human woman are biologically female because we “don’t have what it takes.” Grasshoppers, which have WX chromosomes, are the other way around.)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I just noticed on another site that this issue has come up in England and the Catholic Church there is fighting government interference with who the Church picks to be priests and nuns. Apparently the government there is going to even make it mandatory that Church records be changed so that the Church cannot do research on the background of anyone who applies to be a priest or nun.
    One of the great uncovered stories in the American media is how governments here are similarly destroying freedom of religion in favor of the latest sexual bizareness.
    Here in Mass. freedom of religion has become relegated to joke status whether it is religious parents’ education rights crushed, or adoption charities destroyed, or justices of the peace coerced into participating in Gay Marriages–violence against the consciences of sincere Christians and Catholics here is condoned and encouraged by the Democrat liberal establishment. And the rest of the country is not informed by the MSM of how oppressive Massachusetts has become toward orthodox Christians.

  • Eric G.

    After reading the excerpt above, I was wondering what the “theological implications” there are in a sex change. I was satisfied to see the article answer that question. I thought the article was fairly written even though mostly from the minister’s point of view.

    As to the he/she issue, the AP style seems reasonable to me.