The devil is in the details

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • March 13, 2013

It was front-page news — a Boston Herald cover story, written by a recent Emerson alumna, proclaimed, “He’s Our Brother!” 

This was a moment when sophomore Donnie Collins’ story crossed over from LGBT media outlets to the mainstream. The image of frat guys banding together to raise more than $20,000 for their brother’s transgender surgery is an immediate symbol of progress anyone can recognize. 

But a week ago, the progressive magazine Mother Jones discovered that the premise of this Indiegogo drive was not exactly airtight. While the popular narrative stated that Emerson’s student health insurance plan would not cover the surgery, subsequent college and insurance company press releases clarify that Collins’ rejection was delivered in error. In fact, Emerson stands among a small percentage of colleges that provide extensive coverage for transgender people. The New York Times recently cited only 36 schools nationally that go so far. 

The mishandling of this event is something both organizers of the drive and the reporters who covered it can learn from. The uncomfortable truth about this heartwarming story is that it was based on a serious miscalculation by its perpetrators. No better was the optimistic coverage by the media that reported on it — some of whom were current Emerson students and alumni.

This makes the story no less compelling. However, distortions like this are worth pausing to point out in a student newspaper capacity. The Beacon expects to print corrections when we have toilet paper hanging from our ankles, and respectfully holds others accountable when we see it happen on campus. 

One needs know nothing about Emerson College or Phi Alpha Tau to appreciate a bridge between the bro bonds of Greek life and the hard road trans people travel to arrive at acceptance and security. We know that at Emerson, such openheartedness is not unexpected or token — it’s imprinted on our social contract to one another. 

Imprinted on our insurance policies is access to transgender health care, and it’s a shame that our administration didn’t receive the credit it deserves. 

As it turns out, Emerson College and Aetna, our student health care provider, are not boogeymen in this situation. I’ve never taken a political communication class, but I assume professors don’t instruct students to thrust causes onto the map before validating them. One might shrug at the honest mistake if this were a chemical engineering frat, but Phi Alpha Tau calls itself a “professional communicative arts fraternity,” full of students who, frankly, should’ve thought twice.

I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on the intentions behind the campaign, but professionals don’t impulsively panhandle. They read fine print and understand their rights in a written contract. Sometimes they defer judgment to people smarter than they are. I’ve been guilty of dropping the ball, missing a step, printing corrections and staring mortified at my own errors. We are all accountable to our mistakes, and this high-profile misunderstanding should be a lesson to all of us. 

As a rule of thumb, before launching a media-intensive money drive, double check that the cause it supports is not the result of a bureaucratic mistake. Vet it.

The media that covered this is just as guilty. Like many feel-good stories, coverage of the drive was tainted by confirmation bias. When impassioned, good-intentioned groups appeal to us, we want so badly to take their words at utter face value. We overlook sloppiness. We resist digging that might challenge the “facts” of the narrative we love so dearly. We neglect to call the insurance company. This is true of national outlets and this student paper. 

That is how the media failed this story. 

I have such immense respect for a social and professional organization that raises money to help one of its members whose journey is intrinsically tied to our societal prejudices and automatic denials. But we assume too quickly that a conspicuous social media effort is the right thing, the best thing, and the correct thing. Let’s start thinking laterally about the way we address problems in this community. I don’t critique this heartfelt effort to hurt its participants, especially not in the service of a cause I care so much about. 

Regardless, a gay rights advocate friend and a member of Phi Alpha Tau have explained to me that the positive coverage of this story is a net gain, despite the more or less semantic misappraisal. ABC News covered an uplifting tale of acceptance and fraternity in the trans community, which is a win just on its own. I, perhaps cynically, wonder whether we’d get more mileage out of a story that wasn’t discredited in a couple of weeks. 

I’m not implying that healthcare in the United States is a cakewalk, or that insurance companies aren’t obfuscating, obstructive, and innately resistant to providing coverage to people who need it. Perhaps some of the funds raised could cover ancillary costs traditional health insurance won’t take care of. 

However, the broader point is that in an age when guerrilla social media campaigns seem like the answer to everything, sometimes it’s worth looking elsewhere for solutions. Or sizing up the problem first.