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Groundbreaking trans journalist alleges bias in termination from South Dakota Public Broadcasting

Groundbreaking trans journalist alleges bias in termination from South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Journalist Stel Kline alleges that South Dakota Public Broadcasting engaged in anti-trans bias before terminating them. Photo: Stel Kline

A transgender journalist is filing for wrongful termination after being fired from South Dakota Public Broadcasting, alleging the state-run media outlet treated them with bias.

Stel Kline shared on Twitter April 18 that they had been let go from their position with SDPB News on the grounds they are “not objective” and “have a problem with authority.” But the reporter said their most recent job review didn’t include any areas for improvement.

Related: South Dakota becomes the first state in 2022 to pass an anti-trans bill

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Kline suggested that the concerns about “objectivity” are directed at their efforts to defend against anti-transgender attacks lobbed against them on Twitter.

“I was encouraged by the comms team to create a twitter and share my experiences in [South Dakota],” Kline wrote in a Twitter thread. But when they shared that they were experiencing verbal harassment because they are trans, Kline explained, “the director of journalism content tells me I have lost credibility. That I am not objective.”

Kline noted that they discussed objectivity in their interview for the position.

“In my interview I was very clear that as a trans person I am unable to be impartial about attacks on my humanity. Objectivity is not a static identity, but when wielded as such becomes the language of those with the most power,” they said. “Declaring someone not objective is a selective practice used effectively to exclude POC / queer journos.”

Kline referenced fellow trans radio journalist Lewis Raven Wallace, who was fired from Marketplace after publishing a personal blog post about the ethics of objectivity as a transgender journalist. Wallace has since written a book about his experiences.

But it wasn’t just the disagreement about objectivity, Kline said. Bias related to their gender allegedly started on the first day of the job, when they learned an article announcing their hire would run without using their pronouns.

“A half hour before beginning my first day of work I received a call informing me the head of communications directed the editor of the membership magazine to remove all instances of my pronouns from an article set to run announcing my hiring,” Kline wrote. “Instead of using ‘they’ to refer to me in the third person she was told to use my last name, Kline.”

According to Kline, the director claimed the decision was made to prevent listeners from pre-judging them based on their transgender identity.

“When confronted, the director said he wanted me to make the best impression with listeners – so they would judge my stories and voice without being clouded by the fact that I am trans,” Kline said. “The director of journalism content added that it would be a grammar issue for the older readers.”

Kline noted that SDPB is owned by the state of South Dakota, and that they are drawing inspiration from trans trailblazers as they move forward with their appeal.

“[A]s I begin my wrongful termination appeal I am guided by the resistance and courage of other trans state employees – especially Teri Bruce,” they wrote. “Teri was an archeologist at the South Dakota State Historical Society Archaeological Research Center. He began a lawsuit to get state health insurance to cover gender affirming care. The lawsuit closed when Teri died by suicide in 2019.”

South Dakota state statutes do not address discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Neither Kline nor SDPB responded to a request for comment by press time.

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