On March 11, 1998, New York Times copy editor Donna Cartwright posted a letter on bulletin boards on every floor of the paper’s newsroom. The letter began:
To my colleagues at the New York Times: in the 21 years we’ve worked together, we have shared much hard work and many rewarding experiences. I’m writing this now to inform you of a significant change in my life that will affect our relationship and to ask for your understanding and support. After much reflection and inner struggle, I have decided to resolve a longstanding conflict in my life by beginning to live full-time as a woman starting in about two months’ time.
With that, Cartwright became the first person at the Times to come out as transgender. Nobody transitioning in 2023 is guaranteed an easy ride, let alone in 1998. But despite some challenges—management was understanding but not particularly helpful, and she kept having to remind people not to misgender her—Cartwright found a mostly welcoming response. (She also briefly found herself in the limelight, even scoring an appearance on The View.)
“I would say the great majority of my coworkers were highly supportive,” she told me. “And even some relatively conservative people in union leadership were also helpful and supportive.”
These days, though, Cartwright—who left the Times in 2006 after nearly 30 years on the job—is troubled by where the paper finds itself on LGBTQ rights, especially when it comes to its coverage of trans people.
“The feeling that I get most often is annoyance,” she said. “If this was about a high school teacher who was being persecuted for believing in dinosaurs, the Times would think that that was ridiculous. But…LGBT people and trans people—it seems like we haven’t quite made the grade yet. We have to keep swimming upstream.”
Cartwright is not alone. There has been deep dismay about the Times’ persistently skeptical coverage of trans identity, which has come at a time when trans people’s right to exist in public is under attack across the country. Last week, the opposition to the paper’s seeming institutional animus toward trans rights burst into widespread public view, when thousands of Times contributors and over 30,000 supporters signed an open letter urging the paper to rethink its coverage. (Full disclosure: I added my name to the letter.)
In response, the Times dismissed the letter—and a separate one sent by the LGBTQ rights group GLAAD—as coming from people with an “advocacy mission,” as opposed to its own “journalistic mission.” The paper’s executive editor, Joseph Kahn, then sent a furious note to his staffers, some of whom had signed the letter from journalists, warning them, “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
Cooler heads might have warned Kahn that, in his rush to defend the paper’s antagonism toward an LGBTQ civil rights movement, he risked the kind of infamy that now haunts one of his most prominent predecessors, Abe Rosenthal.