Balancing Opinions

The complainant, Jessica Cooper, objected to an Opinion column in defense of a women-only spa’s policy to exclude trans women. She thought it perpetuated negative ideas of trans people and was symptomatic of CBC’s transphobia. I disagreed. The article was not a diatribe against trans people and a different perspective was provided in another Opinion piece. In controversial issues there will be a strong reaction, but that does not mean a policy violation.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a column published on cbcnews.ca’s Opinion page. The article was entitled Why a women-only spa in Toronto should not change its policy to accept trans women.” You saw it as consistent with a pattern of transphobia at CBC. You said the writer, Megan Murphy, “is not an unbiased commentator”. You thought the article conjured slanders frequently invoked against trans people, mostly trans women, and treated them as fact. Among them you listed:

  1. Trans people are all sexual criminals who endanger "real" women by merely existing;

  2. Trans people, if granted access to 'women only space' will always immediately wave their genitals into everyone’s faces whether they want to see them or not;

  3. Trans women are 'really' only creepy men in dresses who will perve over your daughter unless everyone discriminates against them at all times;

  4. Trans men continue to not exist;

  5. Words like transphobia and transmisogyny need scare quotes because everyone knows these things are not really real so they don't need to be treated like they actually endanger real human lives;

You added there has never been a case of a trans person exercising the right to use a locker room or bathroom sexually assaulting anyone, and that no cis man has ever pretended to be trans in order to assault a woman.

Your primary complaint was around this article, which argued that a women-only spa should use biology and not gender identity to determine who could use their facilities. You also invoked other articles, including ones mentioning opposition to Bill C-16, an amendment to the Human Rights Act, to include gender identity and gender expression and other opinion pieces.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He pointed out that Ms. Murphy’s article was an Opinion piece and the perspective expressed was her own, not CBC’s. News management created an Opinion section so there would be a place to reflect a range of public opinion on matters in the public sphere. He stated that, while he realized you strongly objected to her opinion, CBC has an obligation to represent a range of views.

He also said that when the story about the women-only spa, Body Blitz, was first reported, the programmers of the Opinion section approached Sophia Banks, a writer and trans activist to provide a different perspective. Her article, Banning trans women from women-only facilities punishes them for the sins of others.” That piece was critical of the spa for its policies.

Mr. Nagler put these two articles in a broader context, dealing with social change:

We’ve seen Canadian attitudes to a range of social issues evolve over the years, sometimes with remarkable speed. Gay marriage, condemned a few years ago, is widely accepted today and celebrated across the country. But for years it was the subject of robust public debate. People on all sides expressed their views until, gradually, a consensus emerged.

I think what you are seeing here is another example of that social change. Trans women and trans men are not new, but they are relatively new to public consciousness. There are questions, issues to be discussed and consequences to be understood. That public discussion may well be resolved, as you advocate, with acceptance of the view that all women are women. But that public discussion takes time.

He added the purpose of columns like the ones he cited, and future publications, are designed to provide a range of perspectives to “help [Canadians] better understand and work their way through some complex issues. He said there was no intention of being discriminatory or undermining the human rights of trans women.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices lays out five elements in its mission. Three are pertinent here: to serve the public interest, to reflect diversity and to maintain independence:

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

We are committed to reflecting accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens. All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our Values.

We have a special responsibility to reflect regional and cultural diversity, as well as fostering respect and understanding across regions.

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

CBC Journalistic Policy also addresses a commitment to presenting a range of views over a reasonable period of time across platforms. In this instance, that of the story of this one spa, there were two Opinion pieces within four days of each other. Sophia Banks, the author of the one critical of the spa’s stance, clearly stated the case:

The case of Body Blitz Spa in Toronto reportedly denying access to a trans woman is a good reminder that laws don't necessarily shift public opinion. And the lingering, fallacious opinion among many seems to be that trans women, somehow, pose a threat to other women.

The Ontario Human Rights Code explicitly forbids discrimination based on gender identity and expression. But nevertheless, women-only Body Blitz Spa turned away a patron because she wasn't born female, according to her wife. The provision on gender identity and expression has been on the books since 2012, but five years later we're still hearing cases of transphobia and discrimination in bus stations, dressing rooms and, yes, in spas.

There has been progress in some areas; the YMCA, for example, has had trans-inclusive policies for years. But such facilities are still in the minority, and indeed, the case of Body Blitz shows that the societal shift to acceptance is still very much in its infancy.

Ms. Murphy made a different case, arguing that in this circumstance, anatomy should trump gender identity:

Trans activists would argue the distinction between women and trans women is an unimportant one — that people who identify as trans women are women like all other women. But the reality is that internal feelings don't change outward impressions. To some women and girls, the presence of a male body can leave them feeling uncomfortable, uneasy and even threatened.

You raised the point that Ms. Murphy was invoking the slander that trans women are “creepy men” or sexual criminals. I did not read it that way at all. The argument was that women who have been victims of sexual assault may be uncomfortable in what they take to be a women-only (based on biology) location. There is no inference that they might be preyed upon in this setting, rather that “the presence of a male body might make them uncomfortable”:

True, Body Blitz's policy might inconvenience a few trans individuals who have to choose a different spa. But as an oppressed class of people, females as a whole deserve the right to maintain women-only spaces. And for women who have been sexually assaulted — those for whom seeing a penis could have a triggering effect, especially in what they perceive as a safe space — the experience goes way beyond "inconvenience."

Ms. Murphy, as did some other feminists, took a position against the change to the Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression. I respect you strongly disagree with that view and find it offensive. As Mr. Nagler pointed out, societies and societal values evolve. While there may be some absolutes, there has always been some debate about what should prevail when there are competing human rights. CBC is obliged to ensure that over time stories are told and issues are examined from a range of views. That is what was done here.

I note the initial news report on the controversy over the spa: Women-only spa stirs controversy after transgender woman turned away,included more than one perspective. You cited other stories covered by CBC in a way that perpetuated negative stereotypes of trans people. Several of them were news stories about the debate over Bill C-16 or in other ways related to it. They did indeed feature criticism of the bill expressing concerns about its application. It also included alternate perspectives countering those positions. News reporting provides context; it also provides a range of views, even some that are repugnant or offensive to members of the public. It is the essence of free speech and a free press to express and report on a range of views. CBC has featured on various platforms and programmes transgendered people talking about their experiences, including a recent article seeking the response of trans veterans on U.S. President Donald Trump’s ban on service in the military.

There was no violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman