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Fixating on “Cancel Culture” in an Age of Transphobia

Articles about "canceled" or "provocative" writers rarely focus on the people they've harmed.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last weekend, The New York Times published a rogue’s gallery of the allegedly “canceled”: that is, a group largely composed of writers who have faced profound public criticism, mostly online. In one another, they have found common cause, says the Times—even something like a community. They share the same critics (those they deem “social justice warriors”) and sometimes the same allies, the piece claims—a circle of contrarian podcasters, or an editor at Quillette, the online magazine devoted to rebranding conservative ideas as courageous defenses of free speech.

But one commonality remains unobserved: Of the 13 public figures featured in the story, ten have been “canceled” in part for work which has antagonized trans people.

Jesse Singal has made transgender children part of his beat, in stories at New York magazine and The Atlantic, framing children’s transitioning as a conflict in which transgender activists’ “adult agendas” are at odds with medical best practices.* Katie Herzog wrote a 2017 piece for The Stranger on detransitioners—a small minority of adults who transitioned and then later identified with their assigned birth sex—part of a wave of stories, like Singal’s, which raise concerns about trans children and teens being over-medicalized, even though the far more common experience of trans people of any age is facing down financial and geographic obstacles, as well as medical gatekeepers, in accessing transition-related care. Meghan Murphy, a blogger from Canada, has lately brought her trans antagonism to the U.S. website of The Spectator. She is mostly known to American audiences for having been one of the few people with a considerable platform to be banned from Twitter for violating its terms of service in a series of trans-antagonistic tweets.

The canceled may have faced consternation online, but they have safe spaces, too, the Times reports: parties hosted by Quillette, one website still happy to publish their works, alongside its usual content against #MeToo and in defense of phrenology. Conspicuously absent from the Times piece are quotes and stories from the people who have been deemed—both by the canceled and their chroniclers—supporting players in the culture war debate: the trans individuals the canceled have concerned themselves with, and whose lives and health are at stake.

It was just one year ago that the Times reported that “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration” by narrowing the definition of “sex” to that which can be determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” It is a definition at least some of the canceled, such as Murphy, defend—even as it would effectively eliminate federal recognition under the law for 1.4 million transgender people in the United States, including at least 150,000 trans children for whom the canceled profess concern.

Since that Trump administration proposal last October, the Department of Justice has argued before the Supreme Court that trans people should be denied protection from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The trans military ban was reinstated. The Bureau of Prisons eliminated protections for trans people who are incarcerated. The Department of Education rolled back guidance on respecting trans students and has become far less likely to investigate anti-LGBTQ discrimination in schools. Just this week, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed changing their rules so that the programs they fund can discriminate against trans people, from child-welfare, to HIV/AIDS prevention, to anti-trafficking service providers.

In response to all this, there have been waves of resistance from trans, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary people across the country. After the Trump administration proposal redefining sex was reported last year, they organized under the banner #WontBeErased, with protests from San Diego, California, to Portland, Maine, to the White House. On October 8, as the Supreme Court met to hear arguments on whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers in its Title VII, 133 people were arrested for blocking the street in front of the building. As violence against trans women has been recognized as an epidemic by the American Medical Association, this year Columbia, South Carolina, saw its first Trans Pride rally, part of the city’s Black Pride celebrations. In the course of two weeks there this summer, two black trans women were killed in the state: Denali Berries Stuckey and Pebbles LaDime Doe.

It would be beyond flippant to describe the last two years of institutionalized anti-trans bias in the United States as trans people being somehow “canceled,” particularly given how meaningless the term has been made. But the violence and attempts at erasure they have faced already exceeds the mere public criticism of the “canceled” cis writers profiled by the Times.

Murphy, for example, who opposes civil rights legislation for trans people in the United States and has travelled to Scotland to campaign against similar protections, claims the term “TERF,” meaning trans-exclusionary radical feminist and an accurate description of Murphy’s politics, is “hate speech.” After one of Murphy’s speaking engagements was protested earlier this month, she earned media hits from the BBC and the CBC, where her judgment that trans women are not real women was treated merely as an “opposing view.”

Whether she could even truly be called “canceled,” under these conditions, is up for fruitless debate. But regardless, to dwell on the effect “cancellation” has had on her, rather than the effect her work has had on others, suggests the trans-antagonistic content of her work is itself secondary.

“The canceled,” as the Times terms them, still work, which they acknowledge themselves to varying degrees. Murphy has moved from feminist blogging to the culture war circuit, elevated alongside other Twitter-banned internet personalities like far right conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer. Herzog remains a staff writer at The Stranger, long after her “controversial” feature, “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t,” ran, something she is still discussing on her fellow cancelees’ own media platforms more than two years later. Singal is still published at New York magazine, and a book in which he will tell, in the words of Publishers Marketplace, “stories of half-baked psychology—from the implicit association test to recent work on gender identity and many others” was sold to Farrar, Strauss and Giroux for a reported mid-six figures.

These writers, intentionally or not, have been able to use trans antagonism to build their careers. We are still only five years on from the Grantland story which outed a subject as trans during the pre-publication reporting process, leading to her death by suicide. One of the takeaways was supposed to be increasing the number of trans journalists and editors. This year, Lewis Raven Wallace interviewed trans editors and journalists for Nieman Reports about the state of the field. “Trans people’s personal stories are often ‘balanced’ with the opinions of those who question our fundamental rights to health care, safety, and employment, or depict us as dishonest or untrustworthy,” wrote Wallace. “And while trans people are often expected to disclose and probe our own ‘bias’ as trans journalists, cisgender journalists covering trans people are rarely asked to do the same probing of their own gender experience and how it might shape their work.”

Vice staff writer and Jezebel contributor Harron Walker has argued, specifically of Singal in the case of his Atlantic cover story, “When Children Say They’re Trans,” that “[h]is perplexing success as an authority on trans issues can be attributed to a combination of personal and structural transphobia.”

It’s the structural element that those reading—or editing—the individual works of these authors so often overlook: In the only cover story the Atlantic has devoted to trans people this century, the thesis could best be summarized, “…but what if they aren’t trans?” This was not even a new question for the Atlantic. The cover tease for a non-cover feature ten years before Singal asked, too, “Should children have sex changes?”

These writers may be both hailed and lambasted for being “canceled,” but at the close of business, they can set their writing down and shut the door on their debates about trans identity. Trans people do not have that luxury, and in fact, when they resist being drawn into debates with such writers, they are—again—cast as the problem. The canceled can elevate themselves to stakeholder status in the fight for trans rights. The struggles trans people face disappear behind the cancel drama; they are identified merely as the canceled writers’ “critics.”

* This article has been updated.