By most accounts, Seven Days is the kind of newspaper you’re cheering for during uncertain times for small independent media. It’s a local, free, women-owned weekly in Burlington, Vt.
But a recent column offensive to transgender people has set off a small firestorm in Vermont’s LGBTQ community and forced the paper to do some soul-searching about its publication policies.
The trouble started Jan. 17 when the paper’s Ask Athena column, which typically fields questions on love and sex, featured the question of a self-identified man looking to meet transgender women.
“I want to know if there is a place or places in Burlington where a man who would like to meet pre-op male-to-female transsexuals might accomplish that,” he wrote. “I am an admirer (and somewhat confused about myself) and am looking for nonsexual encounters.”
The paper responded that the writer might try Pride Center of Vermont (PCVT), the local LGBTQ center.
“The center offers loads of resources and support groups for transsexual and gender-nonconforming peopleas well as those who are confused,” the column reads.
It also suggests taking out an ad in Seven Days:“Maybe your M2F transsexual is reading this right now!”
What editors were not aware of is the term “admirer” in the trans community typically refers to a person who fetishizes transgender people. The words “M2F” and “transsexual” have also started to fall out of fashion, and many trans people find them offensive. For that reason, most LGBTQ resource guides suggest not using them unless a trans person specifically identifies that way.
Jamie Moorby, a queer transgender woman and regular reader of Seven Days, was alarmed that the paper offered up PCVT to a writer asking about transgender genitalia.
“Maybe he’s a dangerous individual. There’s no way to know from his question,” she tells INTO. “It’s really not language that you would expect one to use if one is questioning their gender and looking for a support group.”
PCVT, which shares a building with Seven Days, condemned the piece in a strongly-worded response on its website.
“This advice creates an unsafe environment for trans women, and encourages the fetishization of one’s trans status,” PCVT wrote. “PCVT works to provide a safe space for all members of our community at our South Champlain Street location, and does not tolerate any form of voyeurism or fetishization of our transgender family.”
Ze’eva Chasan, a local transgender woman, was also offended by the terminology used.
“Referring to us with language that pathologizes us and is just totally outdated makes me really question what is going on with Seven Days,” she says.
Pamela Polston, co-owner and founder of Seven Days says the paper thought it was helping someone questioning their gender identity find an appropriate safe space.
The paper issued an apology following outcry from transgender Vermonters and a media inquiry from INTO.
“After hearing from several readers and the Pride Center of Vermont, it’s become clear that our advice missed the mark,” the statement reads. “We regret that we failed to recognize all the possible meanings of ‘admirer’including its voyeuristic connotationand that we made the LGBTQ+ community feel at risk.”
Polston says Seven Days has made strides toward trans inclusivity. The paper has an official policy of honoring preferred pronouns, including gender-neutral pronouns that like “they/them” and “ze/hir” that may be less familiar to readers.
“Should we be up on it?” asks Polston. “Yeah perhaps we should, but in this case we weren’t. It was an honest mistake, and we take our responsibility to all of the community and certainly the trans community very seriously. We’ve been covering LGBTQ issues since we started.”
Polston said the staff has since obtained a GLAAD media guide, which offers guidance to press outlets on reporting on the LGBTQ community. Seven Days also met with PCVT to review what happened and talk about how the paper can improve.
But some trans women say that doesn’t change the fact the offending column remains online.
Rachel Young, a transgender Vermonter, wrote to Seven Days on Facebook and requested the column be taken down.
In her message, she asks the paper why the article remains, “potentially endangering trans women at one of our few dedicated safe spaces in the state?”
Seven Days responded that their policy is not to remove articles, yet Polston says the paper might still take the article down.
“I guess we felt that putting our response there would explain it,” she says. “We didn’t want to just say, ‘Oh, shit, we made a mistake. Let’s take this down.’ We’re very reluctant to take things down in most circumstances. I don’t know. I don’t really have an answer for that one, I guess.”