In May, Betsy DeVos’s education department advised public schools in Connecticut that if they did not comply with the federal government’s dictates on gender expression and rescind a trans-affirming athletics policy, it would deny them education funding, claiming the policy constituted a violation of Title IX—which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded programs. “It’s effectively extortion,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said in September, as the October 1 deadline set by the department’s Office for Civil Rights approached. The statement wasn’t so much hyperbole as simple description. “The federal government is trying to force us to take a side against transgender individuals,” Elicker said. The city’s school district vowed to fight this in court, and at the last minute, the OCR relented, allowing the district to keep both its funds and its trans-affirming athletics programs. But the administration’s stance has not changed, and the coercive tactics have spread. After an anti-LGBTQ group threatened a New Hampshire college with a “civil rights investigation,” it dropped its trans-inclusive policies.
These are the methods of the counter-movement to the affirmation of trans people’s basic civil rights. Anti-trans configurations—not just the religious right’s law projects like Alliance Defending Freedom but also some groups who identify themselves as liberals or feminists—have co-opted the language of “rights” to serve their political goals. These were the groups assembled outside the Supreme Court last October, in opposition to LGBTQ-affirming groups there in support of the trans and gay people whose employment discrimination legal challenges were being heard by the justices.
The two gay men and the one trans woman whose cases are now collectively known as Bostock prevailed. But it did not feel like that, not with a government still willing to strong-arm public institutions into excluding trans people. Not when Aimee Stephens, whose case was heard, had died by the time the court handed down its opinion in June.
This is the place of trans people in American life as seen by the highest level of government, to say nothing of the day-to-day exclusion and abuse faced by trans and nonbinary people who will never be able to challenge their mistreatment in court, who won’t have their stories told in the media, who have benefited very little from the alleged “trans tipping point” declared by Newsweek in 2014. Media representation of trans people—now, sometimes, in media by trans people—has outpaced meeting basic needs for many trans people, like access to health care (including insurance coverage of transition-related care), while discrimination at work and in housing continues, even before the Trump administration rolled back anti-discrimination protections in shelters, health care, and education. That is not to underestimate the generational damage the judges he has appointed could wield: On Friday, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court ruled that bans on “conversion therapy” were a violation of the First Amendment. That is, coercive programs meant to make trans people stop being trans are regarded, by that court, as protected speech.
It is a reality that is unrecognizable in the mounting claims by cis journalists and pundits that trans people are now organized in a powerful lobby. It is an argument that ignores the eight states in which legislatures have taken up bills in 2020 that would restrict or criminalize transition-related health care if provided to minors, that overlooks the price and accessibility of that care where it is offered, and instead maintains that it is too easy for young people to transition. And it is a canny complement to the rights-inverting strategies of the explicitly anti-trans counter-movement, one in which trans people’s rights aren’t being violated—they are violating everyone else’s rights, including, apparently, those of the handful of writers who have turned their attention and audiences to the heretofore niche story of trans youth health care.
This brings us to Abigail Shrier’s new book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, which is premised on the false claim that young people transitioning is new, too accessible, and out of control. But “our daughters” are not the only victims Shrier sees: Now, she says, a “woke” mob is attempting to suppress her book. The public, she says, is the real victim, denied an important debate—as if she isn’t just repackaging the status quo of systemic discrimination that already defines so much of daily life for trans people in the United States.
Shrier deploys a rhetorical trick of the trans rights counter-movement, one which is itself borrowed from the gay rights counter-movement of the 1970s and ’80s: Save our children. “It has nothing to do with adults who are transgender,” Shrier told the podcaster Joe Rogan, in a July appearance to promote her book to his millions of fans. But Shrier is absolutely concerned with trans adults. She says she is fine if they want to make a “mature” decision to transition, yet she also asserts that when they are using a public restroom or posting a YouTube video about their lives, they are potential child predators. There is no evidence of this—has never been any evidence of this.
Writing in 2019 for City Journal, a publication of the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, Shrier tried to link trans people’s right to public accommodations to child abuse. Of negotiating bathroom access, she writes, “Stall dividers must be the answer, then, advocates insist. If we can put enough of those in, then girls will never be traumatized, assaulted, or treated to a peep show of male anatomy—at least, not in great numbers.” While Shrier alleges cisgender men would try to pass as women to use the bathroom with girls, she makes it clear that she believes trans women are a threat. Even if a trans woman in a women’s locker room “never became violent,” she writes, “would those girls find no reason to feel threatened” while sharing a bathroom with trans women?
Over and over, Shrier claims to be speaking out in defense of children under threat, but she returns to trans adults as the source of the threat. In a September interview promoting her book on the Independent Women’s Forum podcast, Shrier claims that young people are transitioning due to “trans gurus and influencers.” The message to parents and anyone else listening: Trans people are lurking online, preying on unsuspecting children, who “come upon them when they’re just going to an art sharing website or something very innocuous” and instead allegedly find “videos queue up automatically” promoting taking testerone, “and they’re very enjoyable to watch. I’ve watched hours and hours and hours of them.”
That’s what Shrier says to promote her ideas, ideas that just happen to fit the policy agenda of the trans rights counter-movement and its considerable allies in government. The book has become almost secondary to the campaign around the book, one waged by Shrier on the grounds that her ideas are being silenced. It is a very loud silence.
If Shrier’s intent with the book was to further inflame a debate about trans youth, she has succeeded. It has already contributed to an anti-trans backlash: Over the last week or so, right-wing websites like The Daily Caller, The Federalist, and The Blaze have all (predictably) run pieces in defense of Shrier against those who called her book transphobic, after Target briefly stopped selling it on its website. But Shrier has (also predictably) garnered some influential defenders, too, like Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald, who have positioned their outrage at the alleged censorship as a defense of free speech. Ultimately, these claims of fighting censorship and protecting children serve the same purpose: the further repression of trans people in a country that has already embedded such repression—dangerously and often fatally—into routine policy and daily life.
This is a debate over “free speech” nearly completely loosed from the realities of the majority of trans people’s lives. That is not remarkable. But as it attempts to pass as a debate over free speech, it has revealed something else, driving it on: the benefits accrued to those who claim to be on its controversial or even censored side. This is not something Shrier started. To claim victimhood while espousing the status quo is routine in our politics, whether that’s around gender, sex, or “socialism.” Having the power of the state behind him has not prevented the president from adopting the same pose of the maligned and censored martyr. Inside a debate carried on in such flawed and dubious terms, there is no engagement with how people speak and live their daily lives. There are also real costs from turning away entirely from this kind of debate. As constrained as it can feel, ignoring it can further shrink possibilities outside of it.
A few days after the Target dustup, the former Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald wrote a post on his new Substack publication. “The Ongoing Death of Free Speech: Prominent ACLU Lawyer Cheers Suppression of a New Book” framed the story of Shrier’s alleged censorship around a critique of the American Civil Liberties Union, making an example of Chase Strangio, deputy director for Transgender Justice for the ACLU’s LGBT Project. Greenwald wrote approvingly about the attorney, who has been part of successful ACLU legal challenges to protect trans people’s rights (like Bostock), but he presented this as something of a cruel irony, since Strangio had tweeted (and deleted) his opinion that Shrier’s book should not be in circulation. “[W]hy would someone with such censorious attitudes, with a goal of suppressing ideas with which they disagree, choose to go to work for the ACLU of all places?” Greenwald asked. Strangio told Greenwald that he had “never advocated with an entity to ban a book.” He read the book, he also said, “and the arguments contained within it are fueling a wave of bills in state legislatures to criminalize health care, including through … forced outing of trans youth by school officials (an actual serious First Amendment concern).”
It should be noted that books about trans people are among the most censored books in the U.S. Of the books the American Library Association identified as the top 10 most challenged in 2019, the majority either explored trans issues, featured trans characters, or were written by trans people—titles like Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out and the picture book about a trans girl, I Am Jazz. Trans writers and trans organizers alike have been censored in the ways Shrier believes she is being censored, though those stories rarely attract the level of attention from the same writers now defending her.
In those cases, the demands to censor trans books may not necessarily be coming from the government itself. But the demands are in alignment with the government’s broader aims to suppress trans people’s rights. They share a common goal: restrain, if not remove, trans people from our shared civic life. Strangio is cognizant of this power dynamic. As he wrote in comments to Greenwald that were not included in his story but tweeted by Greenwald in full, “I believe in fighting the central premise of these arguments and building support for what every major medical association has made clear—that care for youth is safe, effective, and life saving—and ensuring that trans youth don’t die as a result of these criminal bans.” Anti-trans suppression leads, too, to the “death of free speech.” It may also lead to the death of trans people.
In his defense of Shrier, Greenwald does not acknowledge that the far more common censorship scenario in the U.S. is for trans people’s speech—their gender expression itself, too—to be targeted. He is familiar with Strangio’s legal work, he writes, noting the fight it took for Chelsea Manning to be treated with dignity, including being allowed access to hormones, when she was in military prison at Fort Leavenworth (where she was sentenced after being put on trial for leaking critical documents about the Iraq War). “Trans people still face incomparable societal hurdles—including an epidemic of violence—even when they enjoy networks of support in the middle of progressive cities,” Greenwald wrote in 2017, after Manning was released. “But to do that while in a military brig, in the middle of Kansas, where your daily life depends exclusively upon your military jailers, is both incomprehensibly difficult and incomprehensibly courageous.”
Chelsea Manning is an extraordinary example of an ordinary circumstance: Institutional gatekeepers stand between trans people and their self-determination, and those gatekeepers still have more power than trans people have. It is in that context that Strangio raises questions about the harm a book like Shrier’s can do—about the true, complex boundaries of speech. Is a rude email to the people at Spotify who pay Joe Rogan’s bills, which allows him to host a long chat with Shrier and put it in front of millions of people, at all comparable to that institutional gatekeeping? What about when the argument made in that chat empowers the gatekeepers, and at trans people’s expense?
But we aren’t having that debate. The debate Shrier wants to have—and which her defenders are now embroiled in—is being played out on grounds that barely resemble our ordinary lives. It is so small. If we were to understand freedom of speech more broadly, as a person’s capacity to express themselves, to have autonomy, to exist, then this debate becomes more complex and better resembles the world in which we live right now. Those are conversations worth having. We rarely do.
Put more bluntly: Whose speech is more constrained, a Wall Street Journal contributor or a trans kid whose teachers, if they call on him, won’t even use his name? Or who won’t let him use the bathroom? This inversion, of aggressors and gatekeepers and the otherwise powerful posing as victims, isn’t only the go-to play in the trans rights counter-movement. It’s a useful trick for hiding power—a kind of disorienting fog you have to wade through before you can see the full picture.
To focus on one retailer temporarily pulling one book but not point to that far more formidable power of the state over trans people’s ordinary lives is certainly a choice. As the Department of Education was trying to coerce school districts into excluding trans athletes, Shrier was using her opinion column to take the side of the government in that fight. The positions Shrier stakes out are the dominant position—“of common sense, the regime of the ‘taken for granted,’” in the language of Stuart Hall. The anti-trans expert—self-described as maligned, under threat, censored—has the state on her side.
It is possible Shrier’s own “censorship” has helped the book. But if it didn’t, the existing conditions of the publishing industry did. “Abigail Shrier’s privileged position at the top of the Amazon chart for Transgender Studies is the result of the absolute exclusion of trans people from the publishing market,” University of California Berkeley English professor Grace Lavery wrote to The New Republic in a statement. Lavery, who joked to her readers about burning Shrier’s book on a “safe pyre,” faced harassment and threats against her job after columnist (and former New Republic editor) Andrew Sullivan disapprovingly retweeted her to his 200,000 followers.
Being “policed” off a platform is a transgressive badge of honor today, particularly among people who nonetheless retain a considerable platform, whether they are a QAnon adherent, a Trump campaign staffer, or a white man who writes about politics for websites and magazines. It can also be a profitable brand opportunity. Sullivan left his six-figure salary writing at New York magazine for the newsletter trade. He claims to be bringing in $500,000 from his Substack, more than doubling his salary at the magazine, where his employer “politely showed him the door”—in the delicate parlance of The New York Times, which ran a brief profile of him shortly afterward—when his long history of racist writing (including at this publication) became less institutionally tolerable. (The Times’ own Bari Weiss followed out her own door at the same time, claiming her views were no longer welcome there.) Sullivan’s move was a harbinger; more writers would soon join the too hot for my day job exodus to Substack.
There is a marked overlap between those who have made a brand out of being “canceled” and anti-trans politics, as has been evident based on who in turn receives publicity for their purported, and sometimes self-mocking, cancellation. This is not some antagonism done in secret; it just calls itself something else in public. These writers have the option to shut the door on their debates about trans identity, I wrote here last November, because their investment in them is shallow and opportunistic. Many, though, leave that door wide open, since it provides a steady stream of content, no matter how small-ball.
Such “controversial” content—and the conservative media cycle that builds around it—then begets harassment. When Shrier went on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, the same day she published an op-ed about her alleged censorship on the pages of The Wall Street Journal, Carlson kicked off the segment by putting screencaps of both Lavery’s and Strangio’s tweets on-screen—an editorial choice that has also functioned as an invitation to harassment. After all this, Lavery said in a statement that her department had been “bombarded with demands for [her] to be fired” for her tweets; she noted herself on Twitter, “Truly amazing how many diehard free-speech activists have told my boss to fire me for saying something they didn’t like.”
In order to defend Shrier, her defenders do not offer a full-throated endorsement of her book. But they, along with her, contribute to dangerously narrowing the debate by failing to ask whose interests it serves. The people this book has helped place in the culture war crosshairs are not Shrier but the trans people—adults, too—who would rather not see a world where such outsize attention is paid to not-at-all-new arguments questioning trans identity. Media old and new still rewards people who pass off the repression of trans people as a defense of free speech. This ensures that what they want to call “free speech” doesn’t equally extend to people with considerably less power. And that’s the dead end this debate ultimately takes us into, this attempt to conjure a “seductive,” all-powerful lobby, when the material realities defining so much of trans people’s lives tell a very different story. The debate is a tiresome parlor trick. The damage it can do is very real.