In March 2016, I covered a Donald Trump rally in Vandalia, Ohio, for local radio station WYSO and NPR’s Weekend Edition. It was both familiar and eerie: Comfortable suburbanites, old people who’d driven hours from rural places, and children in red hats who cheered, then chanted, then jeered in unison, “Build the wall!” Trump told an apocryphal story about a U.S. general dipping bullets in pig’s blood before executing 49 Muslim prisoners of war. Protesters were dragged out one by one, and someone in the crowd shouted, “Off with their heads” as Trump mocked them from the podium. At the end of the rally, I ran into someone I knew: a man from a trailer park that had been facing frequent water shutoffs. I’d knocked on his door when I was reporting the first national story about that struggle.
People have asked me if I was afraid. I wasn’t. First of all, I am white, boyish and nominally Christian. I also know the community. To me, the people at a Trump rally weren’t an intimidating mob, but a familiar crowd with stories I was genuinely curious about. I interviewed dozens of supporters and protesters at the rally, and have since interviewed dozens more, on the streets and in their homes and workplaces.
But I do know what it feels like to be nervous while working. I’m transgender, and I don’t always pass as either male or female, which means I’m almost always in a situation of potential gender chaos. When I go into women’s restrooms, people get scared that there’s a boy in the bathroom. When I use men’s rooms, it can mean outing myself to people who’ve assumed I’m female. Often, I just hold it.
All of which is just a way to set up the conundrum I’ve been obsessing over: in my everyday life, a basic aspect of who I am is politicized. Trans people have been painted as dangerous and delusional, and right now there is a national push to legislate against our human rights. As a journalist, I’m supposed to present myself as neutral in public and in private conversations with sources, and I’m quite good at making people who are different from me feel comfortable. But the fact is, I can’t be neutral in a debate that pits my own humanity against other people’s ignorance about me.
At this point I should probably tell you that I lost my job over “neutrality” recently. Last year I went from the local radio station in Ohio to a national position at the American Public Media business show Marketplace. In January 2017, a few days after the inauguration, I posted a piece to my personal blog, wondering aloud how journalists can best respond to a president who openly disrespects women, people with disabilities, Muslims, Mexicans, black people and Jews, and apparently also disdains free speech. It questioned whether “neutrality” was actually the best way to approach the challenge.
I knew that these questions were on a lot of people’s minds: does neutrality just maintain the status quo? What if the status quo changes? What if suddenly your parents were deportable, or your right to use a bathroom up for debate, or your personal safety threatened? Can media organizations remain “neutral” in that situation? More importantly, should they? I asked how we would maintain our moral compass in a moment of such rapid change and rampant misinformation.
The top executive at Marketplace felt the post violated a company policy that reporters must, among other things, keep their political views private. I was suspended from my job doing daily news even though nothing I had produced for Marketplace had ever been accused of political bias. After a bit of back and forth, I decided to leave the post up and I was fired. I went public with my story (many have written about the details elsewhere, and my own account is here).
Since then I’ve heard from people all over who say they’re struggling with the requirements of “neutrality” in their jobs. I’ve talked to a high school teacher in the Bay Area whose administration has asked her to “balance” the views of undocumented students with the views of students who get all their information about immigrants from Breitbart News; a librarian at a state university who has been discouraged from leading discussions focused on women and trans people because of fears it would alienate some people; a rabbi frustrated because his local Jewish federation discourages speaking out against anti-Semitism lest it appear partisan. At a recent visit to a college, a staff member in the college’s diversity department said they had been asked not to put out messages of support for their immigrant and Black students lest it appear politically biased.
Journalists have also told me how trapped they feel by “neutrality” in their newsrooms. One radio host said she feels “hamstrung and useless;” others confessed to attending protests in secret. Almost all of the people who’ve shared these concerns were LGBTQ people, women and/or people of color, and most have had edicts passed down to them by straight white men who aren’t targets of the current administration’s policies. All requested anonymity, fearing repercussions for themselves or their employers.
There are good arguments for neutrality. Some say making space for all sides of an argument helps foster learning and open inquiry, though I’d argue that misogyny and white supremacy are actually quite toxic to curiosity. Others fear that abandoning neutrality stokes political partisanship, which I see as a straw man: members of any political party can (and do) support dehumanizing policies. Sure, fostering respectful and complex conversation among people from different backgrounds might alienate some who cling to bigotry, but it should not mean silencing people who are already marginalized.
The biggest argument for neutrality, though, seems to be perception: media, congregations, libraries and schools serve a wide range of people, and they fear undermining their credibility or losing funding. But this argument overlooks the equally important need to be credible with marginalized populations. By choosing silence on issues like refugee bans and transgender bathroom access, institutions merely reveal whose uncomfortability is more acceptable to them.
I wasn’t afraid at that Trump rally, because I’m not afraid of regular people who are figuring out where to stand and how to survive, and I loved my job learning about their lives. But since I got fired, I have been afraid. I see whole communities under attack, while people in positions of power hide behind a facade of neutrality, choosing comfort over controversy. Many of these same people and institutions claim to value diversity and inclusion. The hypocrisy of that truly scares me. For some of us, staking out a position is an intellectual exercise and a choice. For others, it is a matter of life and death.
Lewis Wallace is a writer, editor, multi-media journalist and rabble-rouser currently based in Brooklyn. Check out his website lewispants.com and follow him on Twitter @LewisPants.