An interview in the Guardian (9/7/21) made waves—not because of something it said, but because of something it didn’t say.
A Q&A with renowned academic Judith Butler by Vienna-based writer and scholar Jules Gleeson included a scathing critique of anti-trans feminists—or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), those who believe that gender is biologically determined and that transgender people’s existence is a threat to women—that was later removed from the paper’s website (Vice, 9/8/21).
Jezebel (9/8/21) noted that the paper “deleted an entire section of the interview on the relationship between the far-right and TERFs,” where Butler said that “anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times,” and thus the trans exclusionary feminists, who are allying with the right-wing attacks on gender, are not part of the political left.
The paper took down this part of the interview, telling Jezebel that the question Gleeson posed “failed to take account of new facts” that emerged after the interview was conducted. Gleeson’s original question:
It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. This year’s furor around Wi Spa in Los Angeles saw an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organized by the Proud Boys. Can we expect this alliance to continue?
Jezebel explained the Guardian’s response:
The “new facts” to which the paper is referring is the arrest of Darren Agee Merager on five counts of indecent exposure in connection with the events that transpired at Wi Spa. Yet the “furor” to which Gleeson is referring is the fact that far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys organized at protests outside the spa, resulting in 40 arrests and the assault of one journalist with a bat, a facet of the story that has not been refuted.
According to a statement Gleeson provided to Jezebel, after the interview’s publication, editors at the Guardian suggested that the interview include details of the arrest in connection to Wi Spa be included as a “correction” to the story, or look for another solution.
Butler’s response made no reference to the spa controversy, which involved not only whether a trans woman was behaving inappropriately in a spa, but also whether one individual’s behavior was being used to impugn trans people in general; the New Republic (7/21/21) noted how a “right-wing outrage machine” used its “bat signal” to rile up a network of culture warriors. Butler did, however, note that the anti-gender ideology movement seeks to “censor gender studies programs, to take gender out of public education—a topic so important for young people to discuss.”
‘Pattern’ of transphobic content
As Gleeson told FAIR and other outlets, a “correction” to the piece wasn’t the right response, as there was nothing factually incorrect in her question. One could even suggest that the paper’s decision to cut out the question and answer makes a blanket assumption that nothing about the spa protest was transphobic. A simple solution to the emergence of new facts in the case, Gleeson said, could have been a clarifying editorial note, leaving Butler’s comments to stand. Whether one agrees with Butler’s comments or the assumptions of the question, there’s no doubt that the issue could have been handled better than simply censoring it.
“It’s very irregular, and I was very surprised by the situation,” Gleeson told FAIR in a phone interview, noting that she was asking Butler “generally about the overall convergence of gender critical perspectives…. The response was in generalities.”
This incident with Butler, Gleeson and the Guardian doesn’t exist in isolation, as many LGBTQ activists have rung the alarm bell about the Guardian’s editorial treatment of trans issues. The paper issued an editorial (10/17/18) in support of reforming the United Kingdom’s Gender Recognition Act, which allows British citizens to legally change their gender. “Women’s oppression by men has a physical basis, and to deny the relevance of biology when considering sexual inequality is a mistake,” the paper argued, citing as an example: “Women’s concerns about sharing dormitories or changing rooms with ‘male-bodied’ people must be taken seriously.”
Some of the Guardian‘s own journalists (11/2/18) saw this as an anti-trans stance, as rights groups claimed that the law would “make it more complicated for trans people to transition and access facilities such as toilets and changing rooms” (BBC, 6/20/20). Hundreds of Guardian staffers criticized the editorial leadership generally over a “pattern” of transphobic content (BuzzFeed, 3/6/20).
In that context, the Guardian would appear to be not just enforcing some strict editorial standard, but taking a distinct position that there are limits on how much criticism of anti-trans politics will be allowed in the paper—particularly accusations of transphobia directed at people who see themselves on the left. “My speculation would entirely be that there are some senior figures” at the Guardian, Gleeson said, who felt they “were being politically identified, and they took objection to that.”
Transphobia and ‘cancel culture’
The movement for transgender rights is a major issue for critics of “cancel culture,” who contend that expressing a viewpoint counter to the one espoused by Butler is considered so toxic as to be career-ending. Author J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books have sold over 225 million copies, is often heralded as the poster child of writers who get “canceled” for their transphobia (NBC, 12/19/19; Daily Mail, 4/16/21).
Conservative academic Jordan Peterson (BBC, 11/4/16), speaking out against “legislation that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression,” justified his stance with this: “Free speech is not just another value. It’s the foundation of Western civilization.” This is a common tactic for anti-trans activists, who drove around a “free speech bus” advocating gender essentialism (Washington Post, 3/31/17), the take-away being that to be offended by their position was to be offended by free expression.
And in the world of journalism, the New York Times (11/2/19) noted that two journalists—Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal—had either been “canceled” or received “scorn” for their writing on trans issues. The right-wing outlet Quillette (3/18/21) also issued a long piece about what it has perceived as persecution of Singal.
Herzog recently took heat for seeing a threat to the cisgender lesbian population: “They’re coming out as nonbinary or as men,” reads the deck of her piece on the subject on Substack (11/27/20). Herzog, according to her critics, draws a “direct line from disappearing lesbian bars to the extinction of lesbians themselves, even as she admits that her evidence is far from conclusive” (Washington Post, 3/19/21).
Evoking ‘cultural anxieties’
Outlets like Jezebel (6/27/18) have been critical of Singal’s reporting on trans youth (Atlantic, 7–8/18). Libertarian writer Cathy Young (Newsday, 9/6/18) lambasted the “backlash on social media and in left-of-center publications” against Singal and the Atlantic, but Jezebel‘s Harron Walker said:
His work often evokes a contradictory pair of broader cultural anxieties that trans people are both over-medicalized (hormones and surgery are dangerously accessible) and under-medicalized (the supposed harms of an increasing number of trans people self-identifying as trans without an official gender dysphoria diagnosis) at the same time.
The fact that Singal is cis does not disqualify him from covering these issues, but the success he has achieved in doing so—often posing loaded questions and answering them using misinterpreted data, while adopting the posture of someone simply exploring issues no one else is brave enough to touch—has compounded the frustration I’ve felt while reading his work. The opportunities he has been given—an Atlantic cover story about trans issues; a three-year editing stint for New York magazine’s website; a book deal with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux—are unthinkable to the vast majority of trans journalists working today.
Singal—love him, hate him or never heard of him—has hardly been canceled. As FAIR (10/23/20) has previously noted, he and Herzog host a popular podcast that serves as a “guided tour of what’s upsetting the woke” (Reason, 8/7/20). He also recently reviewed for the New York Times (9/7/21) the book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, by Helen Joyce. An Economist journalist, Joyce takes a similar tone as the Guardian stance on the Gender Recognition Act: She asserts, according to Singal, “biological sex matters, that females have a right to truly sex-segregated spaces.” Singal wrote in his review:
The zeal for self-ID extends to trusted medical and mental-health organizations, too: As I was working on this review, the American Medical Association called for sex to no longer be listed on publicly available birth certificates in the United States, since (the thinking goes) this unfairly impinges on people’s right to declare it for themselves. Trans is unapologetically opposed to all of this.
Singal gave the book a mixed review, saying that while the author’s “arguments are convincing,” he found himself “wishing for a bit more nuance,” calling the book “very thin on citations.”
Meanwhile, Butler and Gleeson have had their anti-TERF views redacted by a newspaper whose editorial position stands in opposition to the now-censored answer Butler gave.
Butler and Gleeson’s censorship is hardly an isolated example; trans advocates see anti-trans slants in corporate media in both the US and UK all the time. Jeffrey Ingold, one of Britain’s most prominent LGBTQ advocates, resigned from his position after what he called a “tsunami” of anti-trans hate (openDemocracy, 5/21/21), adding that “trans people are facing an unprecedented, coordinated campaign of vitriol and misinformation driven by large swathes of the UK media.”
In the US, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) (Twitter, 5/23/21) lambasted a piece 60 Minutes (5/23/21) ran on laws that would “limit care for transgender youth”; GLAAD called it a “shameful segment fearmongering about trans youth,” promoting “the false belief that young people are being rushed into medical transition.”
GLAAD (3/3/21) also issued “failing grades” to several US news outlets, including the New York Times and CNN, for their coverage of the Equality Act, which would offer federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ people. The group said the Times coverage offered “zero quotes from LGBTQ community or advocates,” while generously citing “inaccurate, transphobic rhetoric from several elected officials without countering or contextualizing [them] as false.”
GLAAD pointed out that Newsweek (2/24/21) ran a hyperbolic opinion piece against the act, stating that it would be the “end of females,” because it was scientifically “ludicrous” to consider gender outside the gender binary. The magazine even dismissed intersex people as people with “disorders.”
As FAIR’s Justin Pilgreen (3/3/21) argued in his survey of Equality Act coverage:
Rather than hearing about the content of the bill and how it could codify millions of Americans’ civil liberties and concretely impact their lives, readers were treated to largely unchallenged reprintings of the GOP’s hateful and dangerous rhetoric on the issue.
Using AP‘s coverage (4/29/18) of the Trump administration’s move to overturn protections for LGBTQ people in medical discrimination as a case study, the Daily Beast (5/5/18) outlined how “both sides” journalism fails by giving the same weight to anti-trans commentators who use faulty science as to people fighting for equal rights.
A look at conservative media gives insight into what the usual “anti-gender ideology” arguments are. They often involve the ideas that trans identity is an affront to biological sex, and therefore to women’s rights (Fox News, 6/24/21; Breitbart, 9/9/21), and that anti-trans critics face public hostility (Federalist, 7/30/21).
Some anti-trans right-wing media have joyously responded to the Guardian redaction. Spiked! (9/9/21) used the opportunity to red-bait the paper (likening it to the Soviet Union’s Pravda), saying that the redaction wasn’t even enough, because the paper issued no apology for what is said was a “dishonestly framed question.” The outlet also misgendered Gleeson, a trans woman, and said she has “cast iron balls” for objecting to press censorship.
Unherd (9/10/21) framed Butler’s views not just as distasteful, but a very physical threat to public health: “So now we have queer theory, gender theory, critical race theory, out in the open. And this stuff is dangerous when it metastasizes…. It weakens and debilitates us.”
Quillette (9/12/21) also pounced on Butler’s interview saying that their theory is an “elite” one that they defend “in an obscurantist way,” while indirectly condoning censorship of their views, saying that Butler should “desist from giving interviews to journalists.” Transgender people are sort of like Captain Ahab’s white whale for Quillette, as the publication recently ran a three-part series (9/21/21) on fighting so-called “gender extremists,” because they “have created an artificial reality” that has “gained ground thanks to extremists’ capture of academic, activist and media organizations.”
‘An established career path’
Given that places like Spiked! and Unherd aren’t shy about defending censorship of pro-trans viewpoints or attacking trans writers and gender theory, the Guardian redaction has some trans activists wondering if the rhetoric of the far-right media is bleeding into the mainstream, and into newer outlets.
For example, writer Nathan Tankus earlier this year quit using the popular self-publishing platform Substack (4/6/20) over what he saw as an uptick in “gender critical” users on the site: “I can’t ignore that Substack is particularly benefiting from and encouraging a culture of anti-trans bigotry.”
Gleeson said of Substack and of the success and openness of anti-trans writers: “It’s an institutionalizing example, you can make good enough money if you do this stuff in a certain way…. It’s now an established career path of its own kind.”
Butler’s statement about anti-gender ideology wasn’t just that it was politically reactionary—a statement that anyone is free to debate—but that its mission was also to stifle mere discussion that questions the gender binary. Butler’s position, in the case, was validated when Guardian editors successfully purged it from the paper’s record.
Critics of “cancel culture” are right that free speech is a value that’s worth preserving. Yet it’s not those who promote anti-gender ideology in the mass media—like Peterson, Rowling or Singal—whose views are shaking the foundations of free expression. Rather, the Guardian instance shows that people like Butler and Gleeson have to worry about their free speech rights when speaking out. As Gleeson put it: “These conversations are difficult to have, and people prefer not to have them.”
This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Ari Paul.