Should a San Diego Reader reporter have honored the request of a transgender artist to use feminine pronouns when referring to her in a story? And what was up with local TV station KUSI not allowing the artist to appear on a program because she was dressed as a woman?
At the center of the controversy is Ernie Grimm's March 25 Reader cover story on Micha Cárdenas' performance-art exhibit, Becoming Dragon, at UCSD. Cárdenas, who was born male but has undergone hormone therapy and identifies as female, says she was initially reluctant to be interviewed by a Reader reporter given the weekly's socially conservative leanings.
She says her doubts increased when Grimm asked her, at the end of the interview, "Do you believe that there's a God who created you as you are?"
In addition to writing for the Reader, Grimm was once the editor of San Diego News Notes, a Catholic publication owned by Reader publisher Jim Holman that eventually became the California Catholic Daily. In an interview with CityBeat, Grimm says he was upfront with Cárdenas about his personal beliefs.
"I asked Micha straight out, Do you believe as I do?'" he says, later adding, "My article was first-person journalism. So my reactions to things were part of the deal. That's the beauty of alt' journalism-we can jump in and bring a little of ourselves to the story."
The Reader didn't run Grimm's piece until three months after the interview. During that interval, Cárdenas and Grimm traded e-mails in which she asked him to refer to her in print using feminine pronouns, and Grimm informed her he would not.
"My belief is that none of us chooses our gender, that our genders are chosen by our creator," Grim wrote to Cárdenas in February.
Grimm's story ran March 25 as the Reader's cover story. Throughout the long piece, Grimm referred to Cárdenas as a man: "he," "his," "him."
"I felt I could not allow an interview subject to dictate how I would write the story," Grimm tells CityBeat. "I think the question of whether people get to determine their own gender is still very much an open question and hasn't been decided."
But according to The Associated Press Stylebook, considered the journalism community's bible on word usage, the question has very much been decided. Since 2006, the Stylebook has advised reporters to go with their transgender subject's preferred pronouns. Grimm says the Reader doesn't follow AP style.
Pronouns and God aside, Cárdenas wrote in her blog March 25 that Grimm had quoted her accurately "on the core issues on the performance." So when Grimm asked her to appear with him on a March 29 segment of KUSI's Good Morning San Diego, she agreed. She met the reporter at the studio and was waiting in the green room when the show's interviewer walked in and told her she wouldn't be allowed on camera because she was dressed as a woman. Grimm was interviewed on camera alone.
Cárdenas says her exclusion was no less than gender-based discrimination. For his part, Grimm says the incident was "clumsily handled" and that he felt Cárdenas should have been allowed on camera. Asked whether the station's decision was simply a logical extension of his position on the pronoun issue-that, by insisting on calling her a man, he had essentially called the legitimacy of her personal identity into question-Grimm strongly disagreed.
"I wrote a story about Micha that was put on the largest alternative newspaper in the country," he says. "If anything, that gave him legitimacy."
Calls to KUSI for comment went unreturned as of press time. Stephen Whitburn, a former San Diego City Council candidate and a leader in the city's LGBT community, says he contacted station manager Steve Cohen, and was told Cárdenas' exclusion was a mistake.
Tim Wulfemeyer, a professor at San Diego State University's School of Journalism and Media Studies, says KUSI at the very least is guilty of bad preparation.
"Obviously, KUSI must have known ahead of time that it was very likely [Cárdenas] would show up as a woman and expecting to be referred to as she,'" he says. "I don't know what went wrong, but in most cases you'd expect a station to have done a little homework ahead of time."
Regarding Grimm's story, Wulfemeyer says the reporter should have explained to readers his reasons for putting his personal feelings ahead of those of his subject.
"If [Grimm] or any journalist is going to take a principled position, rather than accept the professional way of handling a situation, then I think the audience will be well-served if the journalist explains his or her rationale for going against the grain," he says. "That helps the reader put in perspective what's been shared in the entire article. There's been some research over the years that a journalist can tweak the message of a story with just an adjective change here or there."