When a 4-year-old biological male prays to be a girl, a few questions for journalists to consider

The Houston Chronicle tugs at heartstrings — or at least makes a valiant attempt — with a story today focusing on a kindergartner who wants to use the girls' restroom at school.

No, the timing of the cover story in the major Texas newspaper's City and State section is not coincidental: It's related to the Trump administration's decision this week on transgender students using public school restrooms and locker rooms. In case you missed it Thursday, we highlighted three key questions to consider on that issue.

Today's Chronicle headline and subhead play the issue down the middle:

Transgender policy change shows split
Reactions vary among Texas school districts

But the actual story leans heavily in favor of one side. Guess which? It's the side upset with the decision to overturn an Obama-era directive. By my count, four transgender rights advocates are quoted vs. one source on the other side — a school superintendent whose past quotes are recycled.

While the piece ostensibly is an overview of area school district policies, the story begins and ends with the kindergartner mentioned above. And yes, there's a religious angle — not to mention a ghost or two.

Hang with me for a moment, and we'll get to my journalism-related questions.

But first, let's start with the lede:

Kimberly Shappley accepted that her son needed to be her daughter two years ago after she overheard the child praying and asking God to let him die and live as a girl with Jesus. She spoke to youth psychologists and other experts who convinced her that it was wrong to punish her son for proudly proclaiming that he was a girl.
But Shappley worries what could happen to her daughter, now a 6-year-old named Kai, after the Trump administration Wednesday reversed a directive issued under President Obama that told schools and districts that transgender students should be able to use the restroom of their gender identity, regardless of what gender they were born.
Leaving transgender rights up to the discretion of states will lead to families like mine having to relocate,” Shappley said. “Transgender youth are merely the latest minority under attack.”

If that prayer occurred two years ago, that means the child was 4 years old at the time. (Please forgive me for stating the obvious.)

Later in the piece, the mother tells the Chronicle that Kai Shappley — who was featured in an ABC News report last year — already has suffered from having to use a nurse's restroom instead of the girls' room:

On multiple occasions, the nurse was out of her office and the door was locked when Kai came to use the facility. In those instances, Kai wet herself.
“That doesn’t seem like a big deal because kindergartners do have accidents,” Shappley said. “But when you’re conditioning this child to realize the adults in her life are not going to consistently be there for her, they’re failing her, that she did her part, she went there and the door was locked, and she peed on the floor.”
Shappley said she’s especially worried about next year because first grade students do not have private restrooms attached to their classrooms. Kai will have another choice: Use the nurse’s restroom every time she has to relieve herself or use the men’s restroom. If she chooses the nurse’s restroom and continues to have accidents, Shappley said she’ll have to continue to have difficult conversations with Kai.
“I have to explain to her that it’s not her fault,” Shappley said. “I have to apologize that she was failed, and I have to remind her of who she is and that the Lord designed her and that she’s beautiful.”

OK, do the portions of the story that I copied and pasted raise any important questions that the Chronicle fails to answer? Definitely, in my opinion. (Feel free to disagree.)

Among those questions:

1. What is the family's specific Christian background (I'm assuming it's Christian because of the reference to Jesus)? Do they have a church home? What does their church teach about this issue? How is that the same or different from what other Christian churches teach? 

The way the story is written, God and Jesus make only cameo appearances.

Honestly, and perhaps this is my GetReligion bias, I'm much more interested in the religion side of this story than I am the school district policy survey. I wonder if, just maybe, the Chronicle missed an opportunity to tell a better, more informative story by forcing the Shappley family's experience into this particular piece.

If religion is important enough for the lede and closing, why not take it seriously and really explore its role in this family's story? And in the issue overall?

2. What do youth psychologists and other experts say about 4-year-olds and gender identity? Is there general agreement? Or is the issue more complicated than the newspaper portrays it in the opening paragraph? 

Again, that story sounds much more intriguing to me than the one the Chronicle actually produced.

3. Is it fair, balanced journalism for the Chronicle to refer to Kai Shappley as a "she?" Or, in doing so, does the newspaper take sides on an issue with which its readers have diverse opinions? 

Yes, I know what the Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's bible" — says (we've covered this before):

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. See LGBT and transsexual.

But is that style the correct approach for a journalism entity aiming to provide impartial coverage? Just asking.

Please respect our Commenting Policy