This article is adapted from Assigned, a project tracking anti-trans coverage in the media.
The Washington Examiner is a right-wing, tabloid-style news outlet with a particular nasty streak when it comes to coverage of transgender issues. “Trans women must sign up for military draft,” one recent news story read, explaining that the same policy that has governed the draft all my life—one that doesn’t take trans lives into account—continues to be in effect. It’s not news, but it’s mean to trans people, so it runs. There are many, many examples. “Your four-year-old child is not transgender,” reads a commentary one day. “A religious freedom lawsuit against transgender orthodoxy,” goes another opinion piece. And on and on. I’ve been following right-leaning coverage of transgender topics as part of an accountability project—Assigned Media—that I recently launched. And one recent item in the Examiner’s opinion section struck me as being quite different from the rest of the pack.
I clicked the story titled “Meet the transgender war correspondent breaking stereotypes in Ukraine” expecting a knife twist within. From what I’ve observed, the Examiner seems to require that all trans women be referred to as “a biological male who identifies as female.” (For an example, here’s a piece with a similarly neutral-seeming headline “Wyoming sorority makes history after accepting transgender student into sisterhood” which uses that phrasing to describe the pledge.) But this piece, a profile by reporter Adam Zivo of an American journalist named Sarah Ashton-Cirillo who became a combat medic with the Ukrainian forces fighting Russia’s invasion, had none of that.
Since the end of the Trump presidency, anti-trans sentiment has become a prominent theme of right-wing politics. Dozens of bills have been introduced to target the transgender community, most states have seen such legislation, and more recently states are starting to pass bills banning transgender youth in sports and targeting transgender youth health care. Ever harsher measures seem perpetually around the corner. At the same time, transphobic propaganda has taken over right-wing news sites, going from an occasional tasteless joke or a niche issue to a daily area of coverage. In that context, unbiased or positive information about a trans person seems unlikely to ever cross the path of those who exclusively consume conservative media.
Then, this. I wanted to know how such an unbiased piece came to exist in such a biased ecosystem. So I messaged Zivo on Twitter, and asked if he would talk to me.
Zivo is a good-looking gay dude from Canada, and he was quick to assure me that, while he considers himself politically conservative, Canadian conservatism is different from conservatism in the U.S.. He’s also been a longtime activist for LGBTQ+ issues, although his main focus has been on sexual orientation, as is clear from the name of his nonprofit, LoveisLoveisLove.
The process of pitching the Examiner was, in Zivo’s telling, incredibly straightforward. “I made a phone pitch on Sarah, like, ‘Hey, this is an interesting story of survival on the front lines.’ It’s tired to do all these stories that are like, ‘the first trans person to do X,’ but this is just a huge outlier that people found fascinating.”
One thing Zivo said made the process easier was that until very recently, Ashton-Cirillo was also a journalist. A summary of her story, from Zivo’s Examiner story reads:
For over seven months, Sarah Ashton-Cirillo was the only openly transgender war correspondent working in Ukraine. She gained online fame for reporting almost exclusively from Kharkiv, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Ashton-Cirillo is now making waves by enlisting as a combat medic in the Ukrainian armed forces.
“Sarah understood the assignment,” Zivo explained. “As a journalist, she understood that conservatives respond better to people who view their identity as incidental. It’s a framing that works well with that audience.”
Zivo highlighted three things that he felt made his piece on Cirillo right for the Washington Examiner, despite its usually harsh anti-trans skew:
First, Zivo said that the pro-Ukraine sentiments of Ashton-Cirillo were a good fit for the Examiner, which has avoided the pro-Russia slide that seems to have occurred in many outlets on the right, such as Fox News.
Second, he said that Ashton-Cirillo’s patriotism in joining the war effort would appeal to those with a more conservative outlook.
Third, he said that those who identified with libertarianism (or classical liberalism) ideologically would connect to Ashton-Cirillo’s framing of her experience in an individualistic manner, with her gender identity being incidental, rather than central to her personhood.
Zivo described how he and Ashton-Cirillo worked together to produce an interview they felt could make a transgender woman more sympathetic to the Washington Examiner’s right-wing audience.
As I talked with Zivo, at first I really tried to paper over our differences and try to help him feel comfortable talking with me. But as the half-hour time went on, it became clear he had something he wanted to get through to me, and by trying to find common ground I was standing in the way of him delivering it. Zivo had a message for the transgender rights movement.
“I have LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] sympathies,” Zivo said. “I’m not full–LGB Alliance or anything like that, but there are these two distinct activisms, and I’ve come out of more of an LGB perspective.” (The LGB Alliance is a hate group with mostly straight membership who purport to speak for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in their opposition to transgender rights.)
Zivo said he is concerned that fears around childhood transition have led to slurring all transgender people as groomers, then using the same slur for drag queens, and now, seemingly, to a revival of all the ugliness of ’90s homophobia. He feels that a more assimilationist approach to transgender rights would be helpful, and that if people advocating for trans rights were more strategic, it would reduce the temperature on the right, and bring more sanity to the climate.
“The last thing you want to do is to piss off a powerful majority. We’ve made so much progress, and we don’t need to anger people who might take all of that away. You need to be careful about infuriating people with a monopoly on power,” Zivo said, and I got the sense that he was pleading with me, personally, as a representative of transgender activism, rather than as a journalist who wanted to help him tell his story. (I do not consider myself an activist, although like any trans person I hope for a future where people like me have equal rights.)
It became clear that Zivo and I agree on the stakes. He’s clearly frightened, and so am I. He knows there are powerful forces of transphobic and anti-gay hatred that, at least right now, seem determined to wipe trans people out. Zivo also knows these bigots won’t stop at trans folks. Gay men, even conservatives like Zivo, are on their list of targets too. Where we disagree seems to be about whose fault that is, and what the LGBTQ+ community should or could be doing to try and stop the worst from happening. I don’t think trans people are responsible for the decision to make us the GOP’s most recent wedge. I think there will always be some fringe weirdo, or trans criminal, or just somebody who uses the wrong word or phrase, that the people who hate us can present as representative of who all trans people are, or what we want, and I can’t stop them, nor can any of us. In the face of their malice, I seek to present a face of unity and solidarity with my LGBTQ+ siblings, not tear them down, even if I don’t entirely agree.
Of course, there was also a third person hovering over our conversation, and that was Sarah Ashton-Cirillo herself. After I published my interview with Adam on Assigned, I managed to contact her and ask why she felt it was important that her story run on a website as transphobic as the Washington Examiner is. She wrote:
As a member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces who is also a proud American, I understand just how fragile the support of Ukraine is on Capitol Hill.
I felt it important to reach an audience that may otherwise be skeptical of supporting Ukraine based on long peddled Russian lies. The fight against Russia is one for liberty across the globe and as such, my concern is focused on that macro battle and not the hateful comments that sometimes appear in the Examiner. In my role as a journalist I trusted Adam to present my story fairly, especially since he had profiled me previously for an LGBTQ centric website in Canada.
The Journalist was just as important as the outlet in this case. The Ukrainian Armed Forces took all of this into account before allowing me to be interviewed.
The three of us are individuals, but we are all part of the LGBTQ community. One, we all agree, feels more vulnerable in America at this moment than it did a few short years ago. I disagree with Adam on many things, but I couldn’t have placed an article in the Examiner like that. As deep and painful as our differences may be, I find, I’m very glad he did so.