Local Vermont Media A Mixed Bag for Trans Vermonters

As a growing transphobic reactionary movement throughout the country uses both state and informal power to intimidate trans people out of public life, Vermont media shows mixed ability to cover these issues with sensitivity. With local politicians and political leaders rarely doing more than issuing empty statements, it falls to the media and journalists to accurately cover and support vulnerable trans Vermonters. 

On one end of the spectrum, local outlets such as WCAX and VTDigger have shown varying degrees of poor and dangerous reporting, giving space for local bigots to spout transphobic rhetoric and presenting sensational reporting at the expense of safety for trans Vermonters. On the other end, the Burlington Free Press, Seven Days, and Vermont Public often cover these sensitive topics by centering the voices of transgender people facing repression and intimidation.

A more accurate depiction of Felker, Slocum, and Sargeant’s bigotry and transphobia aimed to incite violence against trans people and their healthcare providers — as an example, in September medical staff at Boston Children’s Hospital received death threats, and one person was arrested for making a bomb threat.

How do these outlets rate on their coverage? Here is our summary of worst to best coverage:

Horrible: WCAX

WCAX, often derisively called WGOP, has always had reactionary reporting and their coverage of trans people has been abhorrent. Their initial reporting of the murder of Fern Feather was sensationalist, misgendering her and then blaming the State Police, who they regularly quote uncritically, for the error. In an editor’s note to rectify the report’s errors, which said they had “since learned of their transition and changed the story to honor that,” WCAX deadnamed Feather and used incorrect pronouns. WCAX couldn’t honor her enough to not include another transphobic interview the following day, interviewing someone who didn’t know that Feather was trans and misgendered her throughout the interview. While the station provided a disclaimer, it did not insert the correct pronouns in brackets in the article copy, which is common in other organizations, and does not excuse the usage of the interview in the reporting.

A less publicized but nevertheless sensationalized story in August 2022 discussed the first trans person incarcerated by the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) receiving gender-affirming surgery. While the coverage did center around an interview with a trans woman, it did not address how people who are incarcerated are often incapable of saying certain things for fear of retribution, and WCAX did not quote any trans people who were not under DOC control. On top of this, WCAX included the cost of care for the woman but did not offer any context for how much incarcerating her for several decades costs, making it appear as if taxpayers were unduly burdened with this unique cost.

Lastly, WCAX’s most egregious coverage of a trans teenager who was bullied out of a high school changing room in Randolph ricocheted across reactionary and fascist media. At first the station’s manager, Roger Garrity, refused to apologize for the very one-sided coverage which took the words of bigoted teens at face value. Once the story bounced around every right-wing media outlet in the country, WCAX deleted the story, refusing to retract or apologize for the story. Outright Vermont’s statement on the dangerous reporting offers a very succinct criticism about how local media should “avoid inexcusable platforming of baseless opinion at best and lies at worst.”

A recent VTDigger article describes the clearly racist and transphobic sign, but posted no photos and published Sargeant’s clearly dishonest defense that he is not transphobic.

Bad: VTDigger

VTDigger’s coverage of trans people and issues facing them in the last year has  declined severely. In 2021 and early 2022, the publication had good pieces looking at service-based discrimination regarding gender-conforming clothing, interviews exclusively with trans people, and an article focusing on two Vermont trans student athletes. When it comes to writing about bigots, VTDigger has fared quite poorly, seemingly unable to keep local actions within the national context of violence and intimidation or approach articles from a transgender-centered lens.

While coverage of the murder of Fern Feather included an occasional trans organization or voice, most coverage began to focus almost exclusively on transphobic voices encouraging violence. This included a parent in Cannaan who used incredibly transphobic and bigoted language to threaten a school, Burlington GOP chair and local transphobic bigot Christopher Aaron-Felker using extremist and exterminist language regarding trans people, and most recently reprinting racist and bigoted GOP candidate John Klar’s words comparing trans people/healthcare to eugenics and lobotomies and calling its supporters Nazis. 

While there has been a gleam of positive coverage such as the article regarding the Randolph teen who was bullied for being trans, follow up coverage downplayed the dangers trans people currently face, instead highlighting respectability politics and allowing transphobic perspectives to be treated as an equal perspective. 

Two more recent pieces further undermined the safety of trans Vermonters. One ended with a quote from a Northeastern University professor, concluding with the implication that there can be good reason for local media to harm trans children if there is a strong enough “public service/public interest component.” Another piece allowed Northfield’s police chief John Helfant, who has a history of lying, to claim retaliation from Randolph Union High School. They reprinted his bigotry without any pushback and didn’t ask Northfield officials if he would face consequences for implying that trans teens should be jailed for using bathrooms and changing facilities of their gender. 

It seems that VTDigger has not bothered to look at AP’s July updates to their style guide, which recommends that outlets “avoid false balance [by] giving a platform to unqualified claims or sources in the guise of balancing a story by including all views.” Though VTDigger will often give ample space to trans allies, their coverage, such as a recent article about State Rep candidate and open bigot John Klar, consistently reports on hateful messages and violent actions from transphobic bigots, which gives a platform to the lies and harmful stereotypes that these people deploy. 

A piece on the Vermont Pride Parade focused on the unfounded assertions made by transphobes that a local bigoted gay man, Fred Sargeant, was attacked. That piece centers Sargeant and Felker as victims, even though they went to Pride intent on promoting racist and transphobic ideas. . Three days later that same journalist, recently hired Patrick Crowley, reached out to Felker to discuss the Burlington GOP without acknowledging previous coverage of his transphobia.

Christopher-Aaron Felker’s Facebook banner.

Another piece written by Crowley focused once again on local transphobes, this time Josh Slocum of Winooski, a bigot who uses his video podcast to target both individual trans people and trans-supportive groups. The article didn’t treat Slocum’s years-long tirades and calls for violence against trans people with the seriousness it deserves, didn’t even bother to talk to a single trans person about it, and instead gave Slocum the space to defend himself and regurgitate hateful rhetoric with statements such as:

“Slocum, who identified himself as gay, disputed that he is transphobic. He said he believes that adults may make whatever choices they like but that providing gender-affirming care to minors constitutes ‘child abuse.’”

A screenshot of one of Slocum’s episodes in which he doxxes a trans woman looking for support from Pride Vermont. Identifying information redacted by The Rake.

Good: Burlington Free Press

While many articles are behind a paywall, their articles that aren’t paywalled are good; One focused on the positives of gender-affirming care for trans kids, another on Transgender Day of Visibility, and another from 2020 centered a trans woman who faced bigoted violence in Milton. They also fired a bigoted editor in 2018 for transphobic tweets.  

Great: Vermont Public (Formerly VPR)

When Vermont Public covers trans Vermonters, they do a good job. From a holiday etiquette primer on using correct pronouns, to a broadcast about high school drag shows, to coverage of Feather, the outlet has centered trans voices when covering trans issues in Vermont. Some other examples include a piece on how to support trans Vermonters, an interview that highlighted trans Vermonters’ experiences of transphobic rhetoric and violence, and an interview that allowed the mom of a Randolph teen who is trans to speak on Vermont Edition anonymously

Impressive: Seven Days

Seven Days has had consistently good coverage regarding issues facing transgender Vermonters. Their coverage of Feather focused on her friends and family, accurately used her pronouns, and looked at national contexts around transphobia. They broke stories on how incarcerated transgender people were mistreated by the Vermont DOC, wrote about trans and non-binary educators intimidated and attacked by a New Hampshire transphobe, who was given a platform by former Republican State Representative Kurt Wright of WVMT’s the Morning Drive, and covered two different types of pro-trans legislation

Likely because of their above-average  coverage regarding trans people in Vermont, the parent of the Randolph teen first spoke to Alison Novak of Seven Days. Once again this piece focused on the victims, only parroting reactionary talking points once. A week later Novak broke the news that WCAX had quietly deleted their coverage and refused to apologize or retract it. Yet even then, the pressure of centering fascists has reached Novak, as her recent article centered on openly bigoted politician John Klar, allowing him to defend himself while having no trans or queer voices included. 

While Vermont’s coverage of trans people overall is positive, there is a growing trend to report almost exclusively on fascists and harm to trans people. Outlets such as WCAX and VTDigger take this to an extreme, reporting in dangerous ways which embolden transphobic bigots who wish to intimidate and hurt trans children, teens, and adults. Media outlets should center trans voices and adhere to the Trans Journalist Association Style Guide. Readers and the general public, particularly allies, should be willing to call out shoddy coverage whenever they see it. 

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