w/ Daniel Lavery ∿ Bitch Media ∿ February 22, 2022
The Chronicle of Higher Education ∿ Feb 3, 2022
A little less than a year ago, I accepted a Substack Pro deal for a significant amount of money to publish on this platform for a year. Today, I’m walking away from that contract and shutting down my account. I’ve exported the email addresses of everyone who has subscribed and will add everyone, for free, to whatever platform I decide to publish with next. I might also take a break from the newsletter hustle. I’m not sure, I’ll see how a couple of other things shake out. I’m proud of a lot of the writing I’ve put on this site, though, so while I’m going to be deleting everything from Substack, I’ve already uploaded everything from the last year to my own website.
I’ve never been under any illusions about why a literary scholar specializing in Victorian literature and psychoanalysis was offered a lot of money by a tech start-up. (A lot for me; obviously, pennies for them.) It’s because I’m a trans woman, and about a year ago, Substack was facing public criticism for its publication of a number of authors critical of the movement for trans civil rights. As it happened, I thought that the criticism often blurred an important difference: between libelous and hateful attacks on individuals on the one hand, and criticism of trans civil rights claims as a matter of public policy on the other. I thought, in other words, that it was important to acknowledge that, while I disagree with Jesse Singal’s work very profoundly, I don’t think it is strictly hateful; Graham Linehan’s activism, on the other hand, is very clearly motivated primarily and consistently by a lurid hatred of trans women, particularly those who love and have sex with other women.
So because I do not trust that the platform will enforce its own rules, I’m leaving.
However the term has been degraded by present use, I’m a passionate believer in free speech. In my view, trans people have a particularly intimate need for language as a vehicle for freedom: we, perhaps more than anyone else, are people whose fundamental sense of ourselves has depended on our ability to describe ourselves freely, even at profound personal cost. As a scholar and editor of scholars, I recognize the necessity of disagreement, plurality of opinion, and dissent. And someone who has been wrong many times, about many things, I’m particularly grateful to colleagues and interlocutors who have corrected me, sharpened my thinking, and jostled me closer to the truth, even when those jostles have also felt painful. I’ve taught classes at UC Berkeley defending free speech, worked closely with students whose political commitments profoundly contradicted my own, published essays on this subject many times, including on this newsletter. I have defended free speech in conversation with my own comrades, and I have helped to found an organization committed to Academic Freedom for All, a position I am planning to defend in a live debate with anti-trans campaigners in the UK. I care about freedom, and language, and the relationship between the two, more than anything else.
So it makes me worse than miserable—it makes me feel positively nauseated—to read shady corporate garbage like this pouring forth from those who’ve helped to pay my bills:
[A]s we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable, our answer remains the same: we make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation. While we have content guidelines that allow us to protect the platform at the extremes, we will always view censorship as a last resort, because we believe open discourse is better for writers and better for society.
Either deliberately or otherwise, this last sentence conspicuously equates the enforcement of “content guidelines” with censorship. That is, Hamish Mackenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj, who signed the letter, believe that their own injunctions against abuse and harassment would, if enforced, amount to censorship. I can’t continue to work with people who think that’s true—especially when I’ve personally explained to them, more than once, what’s wrong with it.
It’s important to understand why this isn’t true. People often think about this kind of online “abuse” only from the perspective of the abuser—someone who says cruel things, but who should be allowed to run his mouth off anyway because of his right to free speech. That’s fair enough at the scale of the individual. But it doesn’t work at the scale of the system. If abuse of a minority is allowed to continue unchecked, members of that minority will be excluded the system. Historically, this is why jurisdictions place controls on defamation and libel: to ensure equitable access to the public sphere.
But national jurisdictions are clearly incapable of performing that role in this case. For example, I’ve been advised by a number of lawyers that Linehan has libeled me, and that any court in the UK or the US would evaluate our dispute in my favor. The problem is that he lives in the UK, and I live in the US, so neither jurisdiction would hear the case. Our contention, such as it is, exists online, rather than in a national space—and so it is important that online regulators decide how they will ensure the same equity of access to the public sphere that the liberal rights-based framework of “free speech” had attempted, often very unsuccessfully, to supply.
That’s why my decision to leave the company was made halfway through my trawl through this truly repulsive trail of managerial slime:
It is, of course, massively important to the angry centrists that their egos are flattered, and so they must be told again and again that they are the underdogs. But there is absolutely no need for the platform itself to keep up this pretense—except that it has decided to adorn its shabby commercial interest with gaudy moral nostrums. If the company itself has swallowed the notion that controlling for abuse and harassment is a form of “censorship,” then public regulation of these platforms has become a logical necessity. There’s a case for public ownership, in fact—because Substack are publicly deferring to legal domains that, in fact, do not bind them.
The argument, however, is not persuasive. Yesterday, Greenwald published one of his usual link-thick clause-bombardments, this time directed against Neil Young on the one hand, and the critics of his own platform on the other.. His argument concerning the nature of censorship eventually led him into this peroration:
None of this is to suggest that American liberals are the only political faction that succumbs to the strong temptations of censorships. Liberals often point to the growing fights over public school curricula and particularly the conservative campaign to exclude so-called Critical Race Theory from the public schools as proof that the American Right is also a pro-censorship faction. That is a poor example. Censorship is about what adults can hear, not what children are taught in public schools. Liberals crusaded for decades to have creationism banned from the public schools and largely succeeded, yet few would suggest this was an act of censorship. For the reason I just gave, I certainly would define it that way. Fights over what children should and should not be taught can have a censorship dimension but usually do not, precisely because limits and prohibitions in school curricula are inevitable.
Only one link here, to an article declaring victory against creationism, albeit one published in 1987, before the issue has even become a flashpoint in the culture wars. But Greenwald’s sloppiness with sources isn’t the problem—and he isn’t usually that sloppy, either. The problem is that his argument is completely impossible to follow. It seems to be something like:
- Some would say that legislative efforts to ban critical race theory are censorious.
- “That is a poor example.”
- “Censorship is about what adults can hear, not what children are taught in public schools.” (One might have wished for a link to clarify that rather theatrical claim.)
- Liberals successfully suppressed creationism, “yet few would suggest that was an act of censorship.”
- But I, Glenn Greenwald, would define it that way.
- Debates about what children should be taught are kinda-censorious, kinda-not.
It is difficult to escape from this paragraph without the strong sense that Greenwald sees “censorship” merely as that which “liberals” advocate—whether that is critical race theory or evolutionary theory—and that whatever “liberals” don’t like, is actually “free speech.” But to deploy a somewhat Greenwaldian rhetorical construction, the incoherence of his word salad is useful, in so far as it is instructive. This man doesn’t know what “censorship” is, and has simply aligned his political interests completely with those of his corporate employer.
But for me, free speech is too important to leave to this sleazy group of millionaires. The stench here got too strong, and I’m leaving. Thanks to everyone who has supported this work––I will see you all around and about. My Twitter handle is @graceelavery; my Instagram handle is @grace.lavery.pangolin. See you all around, friends.
I’m republishing here a short article entitled “Sussex Uni decide not to take action against Kathleen Stock over trans comments,” which was written by a then-student journalist named Katie Tobin, and initially published by a student newspaper called The Tab in November 2018.
It was, however, quickly withdrawn from circulation after a set of legal threats issued by Prof. Stock, who claimed that the article had defamed her. Seemingly intimidated by being the object of a legal threat, The Tab withdrew the article and published this correction:
It is not normal for faculty to threaten to sue student newspapers. I cannot think of another occasion on which this has happened. And yet it is part of a pattern on which I have reported before, in which UK-based gender critical activists launch meritless lawsuits at students and activists who lack the financial means to defend themselves in court, and are forced to fold. Their having done so is then treated as a “win,” and the UK media duly report that some gender critical feminist has won a famous battle against online bullies. The truth, as we can see, is the exact opposite: institutionally secure academics using their money and power to silence their critics.
You will notice that the alleged defamations are (1) that a meeting of the Philosophy department at Sussex was convened to discuss general issues, not Prof. Stock’s conduct specifically, and (2) that Prof. Stock believes that trans people should not be the subject of discrimination.
In respect of the first alleged defamation, Katie’s article below did not claim that the forum was convened to venture Prof. Stock, merely that “the department of philosophy is listening to students, and is welcoming students to voice their concerns.” Does Prof. Stock think that this is defamatory?
In respect of the second alleged defamation, Prof. Stock’s claim that she does not believe trans women should be the subject of discrimination is, at the very least, ambiguous. Prof. Stock believes that trans women should be sent to male prisons, use men’s restrooms, participate in men’s sporting events. It is like saying that a ban on gay marriage isn’t discriminatory, because gay men enjoy the same right to get straight-married as anyone else.
In other words, these defamation claims are scandalously weak, and The Tab should not have withdrawn the article.
I believe that Prof. Stock simply wished to use her institutional clout to silence a critic—a tactic that she, and the broader “gender critical” movement, have deployed time and again. The critic was, at that time, a nineteen year old first-year student at Sussex University, at whom Prof. Stock directed her hateful Twitter followers. To defend herself against the charge that she had treated a student poorly, Prof. Stock claimed to an internal review board that she didn’t know that Katie was, indeed, a student. I don’t believe that that was true: The Tab was a student newspaper, and the article in question concerned student welfare.
I’m also curious as to which legal firm advised Prof. Stock of the credibility of her defamation claims against The Tab. Perhaps it was an unscrupulous company looking to steal a few quid from a student newspaper. Perhaps there was no law firm, and Prof. Stock wrote the letter of intent to sue without, in fact, having sought legal advice or representation. Most troublingly of all, perhaps the letter came from University of Sussex counsel, since we know that Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell had cut corners and changed policies to protect his Twitter celebrity philosopher.
These issues matter, because to this day the institutional corruption at Sussex University, and throughout the gender critical movement, has yet to receive any serious attention in the UK media.
So, I’m trying something new. With Katie’s permission, I’m reprinting her initial article from 2018. If it was defamatory then, it is defamatory now, and I will be receiving a letter from Prof. Stock or her representatives detailing the case for defamation. The absence of such a letter might be taken as an admission that the original claim against Katie was without merit. But worse, it would confirm something we already have grounds to believe: that Prof. Stock would never send such a letter to a person like me, since I have the means to defend myself against the frivolous and censorious lawsuits she uses to frighten her own students. It would confirm that gender critical activists like Prof. Stock have no interest in open debate and discussion, and only wish to leverage every degree of possible influence to shut up those who disagree with them.
Sussex Uni decide not to take action against Kathleen Stock over trans comments
by Katie Tobin
Following recent events at Sussex, the once welcoming, diverse, and accepting reputation towards the LGBTQ+ community that was once held by the university has been put into question.
National coverage of Kathleen Stock’s interview with the Argus this summer stating “trans women are still males with male genitalia” and her recent email to every student in the philosophy department have created a hostile and unwelcoming atmosphere within the university towards trans students.
Trans students are an already marginalised group. However, members of staff, who are in a duty of care towards students, openly writing articles such as “why self-identification should not legally make you a woman” have proved extremely detrimental towards the welfare of trans students at Sussex. This appears to be all in the name of philosophical debate and academic freedom.
One student at Brighton said: “I came to Sussex hoping that’s it inclusive because it’s in Brighton. I identify as male and I don’t want to go to a university that supports this person… I’ve chosen Brighton University over Sussex for further study because of this.”
The conclusion of the recent HAHP forum was that ultimately, as an institution, the university cannot currently take action against Kathleen due to the academic nature of her writing and the disassociation with her own beliefs with those of the university.
However, the department of philosophy is listening to students, and is welcoming students to voice their concerns.
The Sussex Centre for Gender Studies released a statement earlier this week to show solidarity with trans students, stating: “On Transgender Day of Remembrance, we are also reflecting with sadness on the hostile atmosphere being fostered by current ‘debates’ around the rights of transgender people.
“These have constructed trans people as aggressors and predators, erasing the fact that they are one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.
“Such transphobic ideas in public discourse create a climate in which trans people are more likely to feel unsafe, and can also embolden others to act out their prejudices in a more open way.”
Reaching out for help is hard, especially if you don’t know where to turn to – so we have compiled a list of support services available to trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students if you are in need.
Allsorts Youth Project
The Allsorts Youth Project provides a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community for a fortnightly meeting. “Young people are able to meet in a comfortable & confidential setting, access one to one support with youth support workers, access information and participate in workshops and activities.”
Brighton & Hove Switchboard
The Brighton & Hove LGBT Switchboard is a charity that was set up in 1975. Formerly a just helpline, Switchboard now offers a place for “LGBTQ people looking for community, support or information.”
They connect people and support them directly through specially developed Switchboard services or link them to other specialist organisations.
The Student Life Centre
The Student Life Centre can provide students with a directory to helpful resources all over campus; including counselling and more.
MindOut is a charity that focuses on the mental health of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Last year they helped 1,342 people struggling with social isolation, suicidal distress, financial hardship, discrimination and prejudice, hate crime and exclusion.
Clinic T offers a sexual health service for anyone who identifies as trans, non-binary or gender variant (partners are welcome too).
The clinic runs every month and upcoming dates are posted above. All of their services are free and completely confidential, and their staff have been trained in trans awareness.
Remember, you’re never alone and there is always someone who can help if you’re struggling.
Another conference. And I am saying, no, it’s not a thesis,
it’s a proposition. The term “thesis” blurs an important distinction
between theme and claim, deriving as it does from music,
specifically from the toccata, and the recursion pattern.
Like in “Carol of the Bells,” there is a thesis, and it is prosecuted
(slide into carceral metaphor-family already preempted, no doubt)
and the effect of the carol depends upon the proof.
If you don’t like it, you’re probably not persuaded.
And we say that too—“I’m not convinced by that”—
or, conversely, that we are convinced, and that the conviction (n.b.)
has been adequately conveyed. But clearly this isn’t the same
as an argument, which needs something more than narrative,
something more than satisfaction and fit, even if,
as is probably the case more often than we like to admit,
the forms of necessity that govern reasoning are still subject
to the same essentially preferential responses as narrative.
When we’re watching Eastenders, my husband says
“they won’t do this, they won’t make it happen again,”
and of course they would and might even. And my mother,
who is here for Christmas, just hides and clenches
and says that she needs to smoke a cigarette.
Only my response is correct and for that reason
I am not going to repeat it here.
So anyway, I was telling you all this in a dressing room,
where we were hanging out with your other advisor,
the one you like more than you like me (he’s my friend tho)
and you got it at once and the other guy knew things I didn’t
and it all got very “classical gas” if you know what I mean.
Sometimes I feel like a homosexual and like all this
could have been avoided. I can’t remember what you
had written about but it was green and small
and there were many of them of irregular but uniform shape.
It was space age: dressing room, topic, perhaps even conveyance.
And then a short time later I’m seeing a play,
and it’s that older woman, bad mama, the one who scares me,
the one whose life must not be in my future. My friend said
“the clique will kill you” and god knows i know but otoh
what else is there but the socialization of language!
And she’s doing an old Attention Scum routine in an art gallery,
maybe switching into and out of Alan Parker, Urban Warrior,
and I feel expropriated, which is gutless and stupid of me,
and anyway she’s a colonial just like me. I’m a wanker,
but we’ve heard it before, or I have (don’t know about them)
and it sounds more like Martin Luther’s pecker than it used to.
I’m in a wheelchair because why not.
Okay and it’s now “the problem with London is it’s TOO BIG”
and of course I realize that the point is that my mother,
who grew up in London, or sort of did, is here in New York,
and all her great fault is a refusal to cede the center of the stage.
Whenever we mention a place in New York, she replies,
treading on our toes, “yes I’ve heard of that,”
ticking off the checklist of cosmopolitan technique
like a fetishist. And it’s hard to listen but also hard to bear a grudge.
And my girlfriend seems to be pulling away.
I mean clearly the reason I am so obsessed with dreams
is because from a certain perspective life depends
upon one’s willingness to treat material reality as a symptom
of a more fundamental truth available only to psychic introspection.
I don’t know why she needs to do Attention Scum in a gallery,
but she does look a bit like Simon Munnery, who was nice
to me when I met him in Edinburgh to ask his advice
about how to be an artist and writer. I forget
what he said. She bolts and leaves me in charge,
so now I’m doing Attention Scum in a gallery and god knows
I’m lazier than she is, than almost anyone I know really,
and would be even more so if I still took a lot of drugs.
Which I think about from time to time. Were they so bad?
Another sober transsexual tells me she is scared
of being a drunk woman and I know what she means.
I waste everyone’s time with a wheelchair pratfall.
I’m walking away and there’s now an unctuous older gent,
and it’s NOT Edward Fox, because he’s here all the time,
I may as well call him THE INESCAPABLE EDWARD FOX
and Lawrence Fox blocked me on Twitter and I never
even said anything about him and isn’t that hilarious?
(That last part is one hundred percent true.)
Anyway it wasn’t Edward Fox but some guy who made a career
doing one role, and that role was Philip Mountbatten,
the longest serving “royal consort” in history
although one can’t quite imagine him eating her out.
Maybe that’s naive, but my grandmother’s friend
knew him in the Services, during the War, and such a lout
you never knew. Pouring beer into the piano and scaring the girls.
Which may well have meant raping them but far be it from me.
The actor who played him always retained a distance,
and the physical resemblance was not entirely his fault,
though clearly he had done little to change it,
lucrative as the position had become. And we were old friends,
somehow, and he said there was only one question
that interested people, and that was how he felt when
Philip Mountbatten died. His answer suffered from being
over-theoretic; it was hard to deduce, as though composed
in a meta-language that only he could understand.
I sometimes think this about the feelings of aristocrats,
though this man may not have been one, though he was one
by virtue of being a famous actor, albeit an actor
famous only for playing a single role. There was a story
that was doing the rounds about a guy who was into toy crocodiles
which, I don’t know if he means simulacra of crocodiles
or if it’s a class of crocodile much like “toy dog” could be said to be.
Dude was aware of the story, that’s all he was saying,
and then he said he was at the agential draw
(agents pick clients in a draw: actors line up and each agent picks one
at a time, until all the actors are gone, just like sports)
and you have to have strategies reflecting not just absolute value,
but value of a given commodity relative to their
position in the draw.
Nobody outside of the corporate world understands game theory
which is how they all get along so well. Except my one friend.
The actor told me he wanted me to have been at the draw
and he said as much but then I had to remind him
that I’ve got nothing to offer and can’t even play
Attention Scum very well.
The crocodile guy. Everyone loves him. Now he is
a silver ball, traveling on its own steam down the spacey corridor
and he says “My name is Michel Utrecht, and I am
a graduate student at the University of Utrecht,
where I am writing a dissertation on Marxism-Leninism
and contemporary European fiction.” And I guess that checks out
maybe. And a stylish guy leans over to me and says
“I don’t think this will work out well for anyone except Substack,”
and I realize it’s weird that I’m part of this stupid story also,
and the silver ball travels through the air towards a laptop,
and he pauses before the laptop, to tell us that he
believes that Marxism-Leninist doxology continues to shape
the narrative form of the contemporary novel,
and he recites a little bit for us. It’s clear he has a fondness
for Marx but also feels detached and maybe a bit bored
at what the other people think of Marx. Everyone
has a Marx and they’re all fucking awful, except mine.
(Preach.) I’ve read this crocodile enthusiast’s Marx
and he makes the same mistakes everyone does:
he thinks Marx is an anti-capitalist; he thinks Marx is a socialist
etc etc. Not even the interesting wrong Marx, which is
the one with the competing theories of political
although (politics voice) of course politics didn’t interest Marx
very much. Then the silver ball merges with the screen
of the laptop and slowly begins to include itself, and now
it is merging into the screen. And I say to the actor
“this is what they call telepresence robotry,” and he winces,
because surely that can’t be right, and now
the voice of Michel Utrecht is coming out of the laptop
and it says “you’ll pardon my display of telepresence robotics,
but in my view remote delivery will transform the way
we share ideas and organize both our scholarly and political collectivities.”
Oh god oh god oh god oh god,
and really I’m just wondering whether there is a relationship
between computers and Leninism. I think Lenin
might very well have enjoyed the internet, although
I am far from sure that this should change anyone’s view of either.
Maybe I should have been at the draft pick.
I stand on the table and wonder why I did that.
“If romanticism’s so bad, why are you always howling?,”
I asked the well-dressed assistant director at the mic.
She looked back agog, then changed into a silver fox.
Typical. I didn’t even know how I got on this ship,
or why Princeton University was now seaborne,
or why I had brought my mother along. My mother,
incidentally, had heard me give one talk before,
on the history of the haiku, at an almost diplomatic
scholarly event. Scholars as dignitaries, and my mum
wanted to be introduced, as one would a VIP.
But I was barely a P, let alone VI. Anyway,
she complained, obviously, and told me
——that she was ashamed of me
——that I was a foolish little boy
——that I wasn’t fooling anyone
——that I was a maelstrom of snot and fidget
(she was right about that, let’s face it)
——that nobody could even understand what I was saying.
Here I am, some years later and a grown transsexual,
and complaining about my mum being mean to me.
We didn’t speak for several years after that. I nearly died
of alcoholism. Anyway it’s Christmas and she’s flying here.
So I’m on a boat and it’s Princeton and my mother is here,
as is that oikish boy who I went to school with,
my erstwhile chum, who—wait, what did he do
with himself? I never thought he’d come to much,
and if I recall correctly it was a tech start-up or a minor quango.
But here, shit, I have to hand it to him: the boy learned to sing.
Robust baritone, and it’s popping out of his precisely calibrated
weskit, and he holds his hand like a singer does.
What’s he singing? I can’t hear, is it “Some Enchanted Evening”?
He’s got a following, the pot-bellied mediocrity made good,
and there’s a whole frog chorus croaking it out with him,
but I can’t hear what it is, it’s just a swirl-a-whirl.
Leaning on the boat, and the group are swaying like an iceberg,
like koalas left on the tundra, drunk on climate,
and the tops of their heads merge with their eyes,
next it’s eye-heads, now bulging out of necks. Swaying,
and it’s big eyes, pupil-balloons, mouth-lids on the bottom.
Silver fox takes the stage: “let’s have a big hand,
for our special guest P——— J———, who’s come
all the way from Birmingham, England, to be with us tonight,
and who has taught us all a thing or two about using
lawn ornaments and furniture in the most eco-friendly ways.”
GARDEN CHAIRS, fuck: do I remember smoking weed in a hammock,
with him, or maybe his weird effeminate friend I disliked?
Or one of his many cousins, who fancied themselves cooler than us?
It’s pathetic, really, trying to make oneself the origin of a prince of frogs,
we haven’t spoken in decades, and there’s no way
he would possibly have any sense I was speaking today.
My mother always hated him. Well, but she’s a creature of hate.
He had come to see me in San Francisco when I lived there.
He was impressed at how much I drank and my cocaine hook-up.
I think we even talked about lawn furniture, even. Burritos,
al pastor, the kind with pineapple, at one of the shonkier
Mission cafeterias. Who that was born to Albion abhors a palm tree?
They had one at the Kingfisher Centre in Redditch
and everyone said it was very good. Italian mosaic,
google “Italian mosaic muralist” and of course you get Veronese.
Paolo something. Anyway the burritos were good,
and I kept it together, didn’t piss myself or owt.
Silver fox continues: “our next guest is a professor of English,”
audible consternation, “who is here to talk about the genius
of Stephen Sondheim.” I wasn’t. And even if I had been,
I wouldn’t have phrased it like that. Still she went on,
“Who died earlier this year.” That, he had. I was in an art gallery,
with my lover Lily, when I heard. It was hard for me
because the art was fun and contemporary, and the
staff seemed cool. And I was like, lord save me,
from being one of those lugubrious faggots
who seem more able to whine about the death of a songwriter,
than celebrate the force and color of a thousand mosaic pieces,
and anyway his best work was a half-century past.
Except, no, I don’t believe that. I know I’m supposed to think
Gypsy the high watermark, and Company the end of it all,
but the truth is, I like the trash. Well, within reason,
not Sweeney, I mean it’s fine, but Night Music is my favorite,
and if I had wanted a name, when it came time to get one,
I should probably have selected “Desirée.” But that’s too camp,
and I have been flirting with this other transsexual recently,
and I asked her if she preferred Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton,
and she said “both too camp for my taste,” and I thought,
well, I daresay David would approve, but how can I
respond to that, in my silver jodhpurs and Liberace wig?
I sometimes think people don’t even notice I’m there,
which even sounds like a line from A Little Night Music,
and honestly it wouldn’t be any worse even if it were.
The Liberace thing is odd. Early on in my recovery,
when I was going to meetings every hour of day and night,
there was a homeless Black man named James we all knew,
he hadn’t been sober since leaving Vietnam, but he always
said he would take us all to Las Vegas if he ever made it.
He died in a fire, a block or two from the Ghost Ship,
after falling asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
One night, we caught each other’s eyes on the tarmac,
and I was made up and twinkled, you know, like a
whatever-the-word-is, you know, nancy, and he asked,
“you know who you remind me of?” and i said no,
and he said “Liberace,” and I said, “oh?” but he didn’t hear,
went on, “and that motherfucker was—” theatrical pause—
“the greatest motherfucking pianist in the universe.”
And I knew he was right. AND that’s how I know Michael Douglas
is a homosexual. That and an incredible story I heard,
third hand, from a professional LA cocksucker,
who told my friend he fucked Michael Douglas,
drove away, but then was recalled to the hotel,
only to be confronted and then, subsequently, fucked
by Spartacus himself, Daddy Douglas, while Michael peeked.
God knows if it’s true but my friend said the hustler was trustworthy,
and isn’t there something in it that just feels true? Is to me.
I say to the silver fox, “I actually don’t have anything
on Sondheim, right now, unless you’d like me to extemporize?,”
and he said that sounded good, he wasn’t listening,
and anyway the crowd was dispersing, nobody cared.
I can’t even remember what I did talk about, and my mother
wasn’t impressed, any more than she had been the first time,
but at least she held her tongue. When Sondheim died,
I wanted to buy a big black coat I had just found,
and it was luxe and expensive, and I thought it would
make me a real woman. And I still think that, tbh.
I wanted to go to Marie’s to mourn, but I couldn’t go
except in the coat, and goodness knows I couldn’t afford
the coat on my own, though the next day Lily put it on her card,
and I paid her back when I got the next chunk of advance.
Writing is irregularly rewarding but god knows I’m overcompensated.
I don’t know. I wrote this whole book, about love and death,
and fear, and I thought it was big and good, but then
I showed it to someone who has responsibility for me,
and she said “I love it!” like the producer guy does in “Opening Doors.”
And I guess I had to decide what to do about that,
but in the meantime I had to buy a new coat,
so I did, and now it’s Christmas, as I say,
and my mother is coming, and I hope that even
if she dislikes my work (she said my book was “redefining
what it means to be a book,” which was a compliment)
she likes my coat, and my puppies, and my husband,
and my lover, and my apartment. My cooking, candles,
scents, and everything that is pretty and nice,
my vinegars, pillows. Perhaps my friends.
She’ll go to her grave without grandchildren, in any case.
I’m going to say some things that happened.
(We pretend that constative and performative
are coeval. They aren’t. Let’s stop overthinking.)
At some point, I loved a beautiful stately man,
who kept a small penis in his pants. With that,
he nudged me from time to time.
I showed a famous poet a poem I had written
about Hez Bollah, and kind of about the pope,
and he said “that’s not a poem. Manifesto.”
I sucked ur dick for as long as u gave it to me.
(We use the word “dick” to mean too much.
Downsize, please.) Now I have two voices.
One high-register, but total-throat. The other,
deep falsetto, kinda? Rufus Sewell fucked a guy
I liked. No poet is “famous,” if we’re honest.
When I sat up, found me saying, “I was raped,”
and just a little more of the detail. Not much.
Enough to show this wasn’t my first time
on the bottom. A student asked me, what
is difference between catalectic and caesura.
Do you know, I had to think about it.
If homosexuality were possible, we’d have found
it by now: like faster-than-light travel. Once ur
free of “them” u feel less fucking stupid.
I’ve a friend I see rarely. Tonight, I texted her
“I’m a bottom now,” and realized I’ve sent her
this message several times over the years.
What words would she have for a person
of such meager self-awareness? “Bottom”
is too kind a word. A girl I used to fuck agrees,
and adds that she now wishes to put curlers
in my hair. I said fine, I guess. Now we are
“in community” and never leaving, sorry.
I mean—sorry. I mean “in Brooklyn,” or else
“in time” or even like “in Lesbos” or something.
I never came out to my mother, and I hope
she never reads this. She knows (or thinks) I
was raped in a service station, like a “gas
station,” as they call them here in community.
When I changed sex, an angry woman told me
that she felt entitled to rape me, once,
one time only, in the interest of justice.
My friend—his cock has grown over the years—
I avoid “cock,” ugly, like a drip—“dick,” flexible,
but it’s played and we need a new word—
him, the friend: raped by a ghost in a helicopter,
and guess what, he was underage, and it was
his boss, and he loved it, and landed the copter.
I never sucked a dick of any kind in the town
where I was born. I gave an old timer a handjob
in Larry Gagosian’s house, for money, or drugs.
Okay. I am a lesbian. I am from somewhere.
I stopped caring and I stopped writing.
Years passed and something else happened.
I said to my other friend: it’s very important
to note exactly what her penis tasted like
when I stuffed it into my cheek-pouch.
And obviously like, there aren’t words—it tasted
the myth of homosexuality, and it’s not a word,
just a taste. I could squint and make it taste,
from my own body. A guy I knew was like, “well,
look, we have traditions of gay verse and how
i want to know, do they survive you?” I lolled.
Anyway, I said the thing I didn’t know—let’s
say “violet,” maybe—and then felt the shape
around it, and then I realized I can’t write.
Because I had been doing it for too long.
Not poem. Manifesto. Twenty years since I was
first raped, and nothing. Nothing, nothing.
I just wanted to give the love I have in contour,
I didn’t BUT I did feel the edge of the words,
not make a thing about a thing, inside a thing.
There is no such thing as homosexuality.
There is no such thing as transsexuality.
I just want to eat the best food, at the best table.
for you, Władziu Valentino
You left me a nugget of Scandinavian glass
zipped into leather; I bound to my office door;
someone stole therefrom. The end, right?
I write you a coil of necks, pricking at the edge,
and I picture myself (the awful shame of it!)
on my knees, slurping ink (sour, unapologetic!).
You write me back (I’m necks, you’re backs):
the glass was a euphemism for crystal meth,
and have I considered my position adequately?
I left you off a roster I had written—on purpose,
but without purposiveness—which was partly
for safety, partly to make you very angry indeed!
You leaf through me, before my disenchantment
from intel into shrinking softness;
there’s a panic at the cyclone; I blame you.
I’m right to note that the two best pronouns,
“we” and “you,” disguise (respectively) the role
of addressee and the quantity of it/them.
Your right to a glass cylinder inside blue puff—
undisputed by me or the insurance company—
nonetheless tethers bull to factory: awkward.
Oil: each palmister’s method differs from others
in more matters than style; still, lez be real,
there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
I’m mother, your pearl; brothers smothered,
and curl it in through the side-gob, hirsute.
You’re mother, pearl-mine: nut her fluff up,
and gouge it out of the throat, Liberace-style.
I’m beginning to worry that my old system for classifying dystopian franchises has had its day, and I’ve not even published it yet. So I’m rushing this out into the world just at the moment when I’ve really lost faith in it. The claim is this: that while we refer to “dystopian fiction” as a relatively singular framework, in reality it is two genres, with surprisingly little in common, which project and codify radically different articulations of the future, freedom, power, love, etc. There are rough dystopias and smooth dystopias. At the extreme end, rough dystopias depict worlds in which liberal institutions have collapsed entirely, and have been replaced by violent and unpredictable resource competition: Mad Max: Fury Road, for example. At the other extreme, smooth dystopias depict worlds in which liberal institutions have even more fully enveloped the world, displacing all personal and communal claims to autonomy: I guess, off the top of my head, The Circle is a decent example.
Of course it goes without saying that these are extreme cases and there are plenty of mixtures. Blade Runner, for example, depicts wealthy tech plutocrats and indistinguishable biological clones (common “smooth” tropes), while mostly taking place in disregulated spaces of economic exchange (typically the backdrops of rough dystopias). This turns out not to be a problem. Rough dystopias (I think Blade Runner qualifies) often depict some kind of smooth world—the difference is that in an actual smooth dystopias power, and plot, flows seamlessly from smoothness into the world, whereas in a rough dystopia, smoothness is cordoned off from what really matters, what is really happening. One of the greatest dystopian movies of the century, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, is at the extreme end of the rough spectrum, but still has that one scene with Danny Huston in a big white art space—smooth as you like. It’s just that the plutocrat’s power is limited, and the real events of the movie are effectuated by massy gangs of bodies—hustling inside internment camps, bombarding Bexhill-on-Sea, or emerging screaming from the woods.
I have a theory as to why rough dystopias often depict smoothness, but the smooth dystopias don’t usually depict roughness. Take The Circle again—not a great movie by any means, but a useful example. Here we have a world in which a liberal corporation, played by America’s dad, Tom Hanks, has absorbed a number of different economic sectors, and is attempting with some success to smoothen the world. Positioned as the unsmoothable hold-out is our protagonist Emma Watson’s rural poor family, especially her father who has MS. (Disability as indigence, as resistance to modernization—a Dickensian trope.) The problem is that the scenes with the parents are bathed in the same beautiful NorCal twinkle as the rest of the movie, and, in aesthetic terms, do nothing the arrest the parade of lovely, vapid Silicon Valley visual branding about which the movie is encouraging us to maintain a degree of skepticism, albeit a rather acute one.
So the theory is this: rough dystopias are developed from the Western genre, and as such concern themselves with frontiers, social hierarchies, and their fragmentation in the face of real human encounters. Star Wars is not usually thought of as a dystopia, though it is widely understood as a kind of Western. But the early movies have a certain amount in common with Blade Runner et al, and furnish a moral aesthetics in defiantly rough and smooth terms. Han Solo’s stubble: rough, good. Darth Vader’s helmet: smooth, bad. Luke Skywalker, with his blue eyes and boy band bob, definitely has a smoothness about him, which might connote an infantilized innocence, but also (viz his paternity) a kind of suspicious incipient thirst for power. Rough dystopias may hate roughness, but they hate smoothness even more.
Smooth dystopias hate smoothness, and are okay with roughness in small doses. I’m fairly sure I’m not the only person who wishes that the Hunger Games movies contained less of the fighting, and more of the posing in glamorous rococo outfits. But the movie I wanted to watch, I suppose, was The Running Man. Here, the glamminess of the smooth world extends outwards with plot and power. Arnold Schwarzenegger (a smooth man in almost every sense) is sent into an underground zone to fight garishly—or, depending on your view, glamorously—appareled ruffians, for the amusement of an audience watching on tv. Demolition Man is an even better example: supposedly a smooth dystopia being disrupted by two rough men, in fact both Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone look utterly gorgeous in their brightly colored and immaculately tailored costumes. Even the underground “Scraps” seem well dressed, and are led by a man with an extravagantly smooth name: “Edgar Friendly.”
So if rough dystopias come from the Western, smooth dystopias come from sci-fi fiction, right? Not exactly. Their provenance is more complicated and contested. Certainly Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison are part of it, and their shared sense of fiction as the narrativization of a conceptual premise structures more plots than the movies adapted from their works. And in some ways, smooth dystopias share those authors’ kneejerk concern about the putatively feminizing effects of capital—Demolition Man is a wonderful movie, but in political terms utterly reactionary; and think of the unsexable and wobbly flesh-spheres that drift around the space ship in Wall-E. These tropes are achingly familiar from mid-C20 science fiction too, and one can trace them back to the Eloi in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, though Wells’ figuration of class and gender as mutually-constituting and mutually-undoing categories is more complex than most of its revisions.
Meanwhile George Orwell’s 1984, a smooth dystopia, is a far weirder book than most of its advocates or critics acknowledge, with few obvious precursors or comparators. Though it has elements of Victorian horror and science-fiction, much of the novel as a whole consists of political speculation, with the narrator flipping between plot and theory. To a Victorian reader, Orwell’s work might have looked like a Menippean satire, to use the term that Northrop Frye anachronistically gave the genre. A strange composite of encyclopedia and novel, the Menippean satires narrated the business of knowledge-making (of writing philosophy, for example, in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus) as an essentially silly, incomplete kind of project. Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch is a figure from Menippean satire, drawn into a realist novel. These novels, like 1984, flip between grandiose theory and realist narrative, grounding a philosopher’s airy thoughts in the soil of his lived existence, with all its petty inadequacies and limitations. The genre often had an aspect that, while we might not recognize it as strictly dystopian, was similarly anthropological, in that it narrated the rules of a given social environment: Gulliver’s Travels, to take the most famous example, is part Menippean satire and part travelogue.
Which brings me to my recent crisis of faith in this division, which was brought about by the new Dune adaptation, directed by Denis Villeneuve. I’m not really the target market for either Dune or Villeneuve; I don’t like the sadistic dynamics of “hard science fiction” any more than I like hard science, and Villeneuve’s movies all seem determined to be very boring and drawn out. Although I did enjoy Rated R for Nudity as a kind of cheap conceptual gesture. But the Villeneuve movie is hard to place on the smooth—rough continuum because it smoothens out a visual-material element that, in many rough dystopias, stands for roughness itself: sand. In Mad Max: Fury Road, dust and sand are the rough matter of the universe, through which our heroes must travel in search of its logical and aesthetic opposite: water. But in Villeneuve’s Dune, sand itself is visually and materially water-like, rippling and expanding over space. So the smoothness of Dune is the same as its roughness—hence my conundrum.
What I think this conundrum makes available, though, is a new way to think about Orientalism as a cinematic phenomenon. I don’t know what Frank Herbert was thinking of when he made his spice-users’ eyes turn a preternatural blue, but surely anyone who watches Villeneuve’s movie is returned to Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia. David Lean’s movie is painful and disturbing to watch on account of Alec Guinness’s and Anthony Quinn’s brownface roles. I do want, though, to note that as a visual signifier, O’Toole’s whiteness is rendered monstrous and alien by Lean’s camera—a depiction of whiteness as surrealism. Whether or not mid-century British Orientalist movies of the Merchant-Ivory type might be, more broadly, a useful framework for considering smooth dystopias, I’m not sure—though one can certain conceive of political parallels between the official culture of the British state in the period of decolonization, and the collapse of the American empire in the present moment. But more to be thought about, anyway.
To my surprise, my essay from Sunday, “The UK Media Has Seriously Bungled the Kathleen Stock Story,” has achieved what publicists call “mild virality,” becoming in twenty-four hours the most widely read and circulated post I’ve ever published on this platform. It remains too early to see whether the piece will shape the story emerging from Sussex at all––the UK press appears to have dropped the story for now, and the mystifications surrounding the nature and purpose of academic freedom have been in wide circulation for a few years now.
But at the end of Sunday’s essay, I offered a right to reply to either Kathleen Stock or anyone who wishes to speak for her in this space. I am grateful then, to Prof. John Collins of East Anglia University, who wrote to me in that spirit. Prof. Collins is one of the organizers of the “Philosopher’s Letter” of support for Stock that was circulated last week. Our conversation turned on the LGBA’s charitable status, the purpose of the WDSR and the WHRC, and the value of “debate” as a method for managing disagreement. I’m uploading the transcript of our conversation unedited, so I can’t promise that I’m at my most lucid. But it would seem to be a case where editing might be construed as misleading.
I will reiterate here my pledge to include conversations like this with any other colleagues who wish to speak on Prof. Stock’s behalf, or indeed Prof. Stock herself. I truly believe that this issue has been shamefully mishandled in the UK press, and I want very much to produce better conversations and engagements around the topics of trans civil rights and academic freedom, both of which are principle commitments of my work as a scholar.
I’ve posted Prof. Collins’ words in italics, for ease of differentiation. He did not write to me in italics.
Prof. John Collins:
Hi Grace (if I may),
I read your recent piece on Stock. I declare an interest in being one of the organisers of the ‘UK philosophers’ letter’. Be that as it may, I think you are right that the coverage of the situation has been predictably poor. Your piece, however, misses a central component of the situation.
The LGB Alliance is a registered charity in the UK. So, while one may or may not think it is a hate group, there is no legal basis whatsoever to terminate KS’s contract on the basis of her association with the charity. Further, according to the Education Act 1986, universities are legally bound to allow free expression of opinion (within certain parameters) beyond issues of academic freedom. I cannot conceive of any legal argument for the disciplining of someone for being a trustee of a charity – to the contrary, the Act would prima facie rule out any such challenge, especially since GC views are also legally protected. Hence, the calls for KS to be fired are simply harassment, having no legal basis.
As for the issue of the student, UK charities are free to politically campaign for change in legislation. Being a trustee does not entail that one subscribes to all campaigns of the relevant charity. This matters, for from the get go, KS has defended the legal status quo. I know of nowhere where she has so much as entertained a scrapping of the Equality Act protections of trans people or a scrapping of the current GRA.
Thanks, John. I appreciate your response. If I may offer a couple of quick thoughts of my own:
I’m not sure what would be the grounds for concluding that charity status and the more informal designation of “hate group” would be in contradiction with each other. The Charities Commission has made a controversial decision in respect of the LGBA, but I don’t see any reason why their decision should prevent Sussex University, still less its students, from reaching a different conclusion. I agree entirely with your assessment of the Education Act, and support Stock’s right (and those of the Sussex students) to speak freely on this issue. As far as I know, the Education Act does not offer special protections for memberships of “charities.”
As I argued in my essay, Stock’s clear defense of the GRA is contradicted by her signature to the WDSR, which she then mischaracterized in her statement to the BBC. If she believes, contrary to an otherwise universal consensus which includes the Declaration’s authors, that the Declaration would not entail the scrapping of the GRA, she owes the Sussex community some explanation of how she has reached that conclusion. If she signed it in error, or has changed her mind, she should withdraw her signature. As things stand, students at Sussex are arguing that, when it comes to Stock’s position, “actions speak louder than words,” and that her signature on the WDSR should be given more weight than her statements of support for the GRA. I don’t agree with that––I think Stock really does support keeping the GRA, as she claims.* But one would have to admit that the students have a right to be concerned on that front.
I think there may have been some misunderstanding regarding “the student”––I assume you mean Amelia Jones. Stock’s claims about Amelia were made from her own Twitter account, not from the LGBA’s.
I appreciate your engagement. Would you like me to post this exchange on my newsletter––I am very keen to publish contrasting views, not least because I’m sure there are aspects of this that I’ve missed.
* I believed this yesterday when I sent this email to Prof. Collins. Having revisited Material Girls with Christa Peterson, I no longer believe it. It now looks to me like Prof. Stock’s profession of support for the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) is a tactical move based on the hypothetical notion that it could be reduced in force until it places no obligation upon anyone to “recognize” the gender of trans people––a functional, if not technical, repeal of the Act itself.
Thanks for the gracious (excuse the pun) response. Just a few points:
1. You are right that the Education Act does not make special provision for charities, although I’d need to speak to an expert to be sure. My point, however, is that since the act does make special provision for free speech, not merely academic freedom, and that GC views are legally protected (i.e., they don’t constitute hate speech), I can’t see what possible legal basis the university could have to discipline Stock. I mean, sure, they could try, but the law looks to be squarely behind Stock, regardless of any moral qualms people might have. It is in the sense that I think the campaign is harassment – there is just no legal basis for it.
2. Yes, I had in mind Amelia Jones. I am not on Twitter – I know, bizarre – so really don’t keep up with the ins and outs.
3. I think the WDSR is opaque. I take KS’s stance on this to be that she has continuously, in print and speech, defended the legal status quo. I do agree that the legal status quo is not commended by the WDSR. Suppose, though, that KS were to clarify the situation by saying, ‘Well, I support the legal status quo, and while the WDSR does not, or leaves it opaque, I endorse its broad aims’. Something like that. Would that calm everyone? I doubt it. As before, I really can’t see the WDSR as counting as hate speech, although it would be interesting if someone were to mount a challenge in that direction.
4. It is not for me to offer advice, and the US and UK contexts are distinct, both culturally and legally. I think, however, that the trans community has been ill-served by the ‘no debate’ position and the quickness with which people are accused of prejudice might silence people, but does not root out the prejudice that no doubt lurks in the minds of many. One might think, ‘Well, if it works, fine’. Unfortunately, it is not working out that well. There are some bad actors, but not everyone is. Politics is the hardest thing in the world, so I’m not particularly blaming people, but there has to be different gears.
5. I appreciate your openness, more of which is needed on both sides, as it were. What is the newsletter?
Thanks again for your response. I’ll offer some thoughts addressing each.
1. Like “hate group,” “hate speech” isn’t an official designation, except (in UK law) under the general rubric of incitement. So it is for students and workers to decide whether they think that Kathleen Stock’s public remarks on this topic––as distinct from her research into it––constitute hatred. We may come to different conclusions on that, but it is beyond doubt that there is a case for her to answer, and it has nothing to do with academic freedom.
3. I can’t really see what is “opaque” about a Declaration whose primary purpose is to demand the global abolition of “gender recognition acts” like the GRA. The Declaration was written for that sole purpose, a fact that has been affirmed again and again by its authors. So I can’t see what “broad aims” beyond that purpose that Stock could affirm. I don’t know why she signed it, but she might begin by talking openly about how she first encountered the document, how she decided to sign it, whether she discussed it with her allies, etc. I obviously can’t speak for anyone else at Sussex, but I’m genuinely puzzled as to why she signed a manifesto that so obviously and flatly contradicts her stated political position.
4. I hope you can tell that I’m a debater by inclination myself! Back in the olden days (2019!) I had a few conversations with Kathleen Stock, even, and she stood up for me when Graham Linehan accused me of “grooming” students. But of course not every debate is worth having, nor every debater worth engaging, and my sense is that over the last couple of years Stock and her allies have become committed both to more reactionary measures and underhanded political tactics like those directed against Amelia. I’m interested in talking about what “sex” is, whether it changes over time, and how it shapes our understanding of sexual pleasure and desire. I’m not interested in having conversations about whether I am a pedophile, rapist, or sexual predator; or whether trans women are mostly “abusive males.” I’m not sure “no debate” is the answer, either, but I’m very confident that “women won’t wheesht” isn’t.
5. Thanks! It’s just the newsletter on which I published the initial Stock essay, grace.substack.com. I’m proposing to put this correspondence up, unedited. Let me know if that works!
1. Well, anyone can make any legal challenge they like. My point is merely that I can’t conceive of its basis, given the factors I mentioned. As you say, there must be some incitement and intention, not merely perception, in UK law. If the protesters had spoken to a lawyer beforehand and prepared a case, then that would change things. So, I don’t see that KS has any case to answer.
3. People sign all kinds of things. The declaration is international, and different countries have different laws. The opacity, although I shall have to reread it, is over its application to the specific case of the UK. I agree that KS need not have signed it, given her ‘official’ position, but, as I said, if she rowed back on the declaration, I hardly think her troubles would be over, which suggests, along with my first point, that the campaign is vexatious.
4. To be sure, not everyone needs to be listened to or debated, but neither should they be fired. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether KS is a bad actor. I see no reason to think so, but I stand to be corrected. My general point, though, was intended to be friendly. In the UK, Stonewall is coming off the rails somewhat, and this is not because of any right-wing campaign, but because it has made a series of strategic and tactical errors.
5. Sure, publish.
Thanks, John! I’ll just offer some quick thoughts, and then post this with gratitude to you for your openness:
1. I’m not a lawyer either. But I think I’ve amply demonstrated, (1) that LGBA is a hate group, despite charity registration; (2) that Stock’s own public statements are consistent with the Blanchard position, which I think is self-evidently hateful; (3) that students have a right to protest, and even demand the sacking of, faculty, on the basis of our participation in public politics; (4) that whatever the merits of students’ case for Stock’s termination before last week, it became much stronger when Stock libeled Amelia Jones. So yes, in my view Sussex should absolutely come down like a ton of bricks for that reason alone, and those in the profession who claim to speak on behalf of academic freedom should loudly proclaim it doesn’t protect faculty libeling students.
2. I’m just always impressed when someone isn’t on Twitter! I’m an addict, I’m afraid…
3. If Stock walked back her support for the WDSR, stepped down from the LGBA, and issued a public apology to Amelia Jones for lying about her, I for one would publicly change my position. I doubt I’d be alone. I haven’t seen any students complaining about the substance of Material Girls, for example, as Prof. Stock herself has noted.
4. Probably not the best week to claim that there isn’t a campaign against Stonewall, since there has very obviously been one in the last few days? But I’ll remind you that the formation of the LGBA was prompted by exactly this complaint among a minority of senior admin at Stonewall: the organization should, they argued, have allowed for a plurality of positions on trans civil rights. That demand led those departing administrators to form a hate group. At some point, people need to take responsibility for their own views, and stop claiming merely that some bigger, badder force—cancel culture, Stonewall, kids-these-days, etc.—is preventing them from doing so. In other words, if LGBA is indeed representative of the views that the departing Stonewall administrators held, we can only be grateful that they were not indulged by the wider organization. And those with security of employment—like you, me, and Prof. Stock—are especially obliged not to pretend that controversy is the same as cancellation.
5. Thanks. I’m also happy for you to have the last word—I feel like I’ve said everything I need to here, so if you have any further thoughts just let me know and I’ll amend the transcript.
best wishes, and thanks again John,
UPDATE 10/20: I offered John the last word, and he wrote to have it. Here he is:
Since you have kindly offered me the last word, I’ll try not to abuse it. As before, just a few thoughts:
1. ‘Hate’ is ambiguous between its legal meaning and the normal meaning. The problem with calling LGBA a hate group or Blanshardism (as it were) as hate speech is that it is factually inaccurate, if one means it legally. If one means it extra-legally, then it is an academic matter, which shouldn’t involve the targeting of individuals. For instance, the students might be advised to protest the UK Charity Commission rather than Stock. So, while the students and others are free to call Stock hateful and dangerous, there is not the semblance of a legal basis to these charges, let alone for her being fired, and the university is legally obliged to protect free speech, not just academic freedom. One may support the students for extra-legal reasons, but that doesn’t make their actions any less vexatious.
2. Where we do agree, I think, is that the students should be free to protest without fear or sanction. I am a free-speech absolutist, so support the students independent of anything they say. As far as I can tell, none of them have been threatening, even if others have been. It is up to the university to find some resolution that allows for protest and for KS to work as normal.
3. I didn’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a campaign against Stonewall, only that it has made strategic errors independent of any such campaign. The finding of the report concerning Essex University was that Stonewall interprets the law as it thinks it should be, not as it is. I am afraid this reflects a general feature of a good deal of the trans rights movement, at least in the UK. It is perfectly acceptable for a charity to campaign for legal changes, but it is not acceptable for a chairity to give advise at odds with the law, such as with respect to what constitutes hate speech.
I’ll leave it there.
I forgot to address two further matters:
KS cannot reasonably apologise, for she has done nothing wrong, either legally or by the rules of the university; to the contrary, it is the legal duty of the university to support any student or staff member in their exercise of free speech, even if others disagree, which includes being a member of the LGBA and having GC views, which are legally protected as not hate speech. People shouldn’t seek others to humiliate themselves.
As for the libel, well, that is a legal matter. If the student thinks she was libelled, then she is free to seek legal redress. It is not for the university or the students to presume the outcome.
OK, that is all.
This is a long essay. It has to be, because the errors made in reporting the Stock story are many and consequential. The upshot is: Adam Tickell, the VC of Sussex University, should be fired; the UK media desperately needs to hire trans editors; and Kathleen Stock has this week conspired to defame a student.
For the last two weeks, Sussex University (my alma mater) has been rocked by crisis. A clear picture emerges from reporting on Sussex in the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Mail, and on the BBC. It goes as follows: Prof. Kathleen Stock, a respected “gender critical” feminist philosopher, has been forced out of her academic job by bomb-lobbing masked students, who are offended by the strong critical stances she has taken on the conflicts between trans rights and women’s rights. Despite the ubiquity of this version of events in UK media, every one of its claims is demonstrably incorrect at the level of fact. By repeating this story until it has been widely believed, the UK media has amplified some of the most extreme and frightening positions within the contemporary debate over civil rights for trans people.
The most crucial aspect of the story, and the most frequently misreported, concerns the nature of academic freedom. In fact, Kathleen Stock’s academic freedom has never been infringed, nor even challenged by the students who are protesting her employment. On the contrary, it is the protestors themselves whose academic freedom has been shamefully undermined by Sussex University itself.
To understand this reality, it is important to understand what the phrase “academic freedom” actually means. It is often treated as indistinguishable from the vaguer principle of “free speech,” but particularly reserved for academics. But in fact “academic freedom” has a specific and definite meaning in a university setting: it is the collective right asserted by those working in universities to conduct research without interference by interior or exterior forces. Many people––myself included––consider ourselves absolutists on the question of academic freedom: we do not believe that there should be any limits on what an academic like Prof. Stock should be able to research and publish. Free speech, on the other hand, is by definition a limited right—most legal systems control for libel, breach of copyright, threats, and the kind of speech act that in his judgment in Schenck vs. United States, Oliver Wendall Holmes called “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” UK law also has an additional suite of controversial controls on speech, including a law against “incitement to religious hatred.” Academics are not exempt from these laws, and “academic freedom” neither covers nor is intended to cover their remit.
Indeed, scholarship on the subject tends to present academic freedom as a right in competition with free speech, rather than an extension of it. Two recent books on the subject, one by Joan Scott and the other by Hank Reichman, make versions of this argument. Scott and Reichman are by no means young firebrands: they are both emeriti scholars at Princeton and Cal State respective, and both former chairs of the American Association of University Professors’ longstanding Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. At the core of their argument is the observation that, in recent years, academic freedom has been under threat from the far right, who have consciously attempted to replace the academic’s freedom to research, with a broader right to say what one likes. This then serves to undermine faith in the public university, turning scholarly judgment into mere opinion-generating punditry, and serving the policy goals of those who seek to defund public education altogether.
Think of the idea of “diversity of opinion.” A generation ago, conservatives used to insist that academics should “teach the controversy” regarding evolutionary biology, rather than allowing scholars the right to determine how our own curricula should approach the subject. Of course, for evolutionary biologists, there is no “controversy” to speak of; the controversy only arises when religious conservatives attempt to interfere with, and ultimately to override, the academic freedom of scholars.
Clearly the same is not true of trans civil rights, where there is controversy––concerning, for example, the nature and relative stability of biological sex; the relationship between sex and gender; the nature of sexual orientation, etc. etc. A quick glance at the list of Prof. Stock’s publications, listed on her Sussex profile, amply proves that she has published her views on gender and trans civil rights very widely and prolifically. Sure, the protesters disagree with many of her claims––some of them, they find outrageous. But her capacity to research and publish has never been impacted.
Compare, for example, the case of Prof. Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University (SFSU). Last month SFSU upheld a complaint against University administrators, who failed to protect Prof. Abdulhadi’s academic freedom when the videoconferencing platform Zoom intervened to prevent a scheduled webinar on the “Zoomification of higher education.” This was a straightforward breach of academic freedom: Prof. Abdulhadi’s capacity to conduct research, in the form of scholarly exchange with colleagues, was compromised by an external force, against which her employer failed to defend her. None of this has happened to Prof. Stock, whose freedom to research and publish remains unfettered. Is it offensive to those whose academic freedom is truly under threat––especially those whose research involves Palestine––that Stock appears so keen to steal their valor?
(Added 9pm, 10/18: I should have said that the reason Zoom gave for shutting down Prof. Abdulhadi’s seminar was that they opposed the inclusion of Leila Khaled on the call. Khaled was part of two teams that hijacked planes in 1969 and 1970, and Zoom claimed that her participation constituted “material support” of a terrorist. Khaled is a highly controversial figure, and I’m not trying to take a position on her here, merely to point out that successful academic freedom complaints invariably involve the successful suppression of research in one way or another.)
One might consider this too fine a distinction: didn’t students want to infringe Stock’s academic freedom, after all? No, they didn’t. Sussex University Student Union (SUSU) trans and non-binary officer Amelia Jones made clear the nature of students’ complaints in a recent interview with the BBC. There are two: students oppose Stock’s leadership of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance (LGBA), of which she is a trustee, and claim that her signature on the Women’s Declaration of Sex-Based Rights (WDSR), a manifesto circulated by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC), creates an atmosphere of unsafety for trans students on Sussex campus. Neither of these have any bearing on Stock’s research (nor, therefore, her academic freedom).
Rather, both are aspects of free speech that are otherwise the legitimate grounds of disciplinary action by employers. This point is underlined in Sussex’s own “Code of Practice on Academic Titles” (CPAT) which states that “academic title holders must not bring the university into disrepute,” which it further defines as follows:
Those that demonstrate hostility towards, or could reasonably be expected to generate hostility in others towards, individuals or groups of individuals by reason of a protected characteristic (as defined in the Equality Act 2010).
Again, it is important to note that CPAT does not limit a scholar’s capacity to research the correct limits of the Equality Act, which is an issue on which feminists have different ideas––or indeed any other aspect of it. The only limitation is that faculty must not “demonstrate hostility towards” or “generate hostility in others towards” a group of people “by reason of a protected characteristic.” And there is no doubt that the cited Equality Act 2010 protects trans people––or at least, some trans people; the language is a little tricky to untangle:
A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.
So the question is whether Sussex students are right to claim that Prof. Stock’s leadership of the LGBA and her signature to the WDSR “demonstrate hostility towards, or could reasonably be expected to generate hostility in others towards” those with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. These claims are worth taking separately, since they don’t function in the same way.
Does the LGBA “Demonstrate Hostility” Towards Trans People?
The LGBA website describes the group’s mission as contesting “new ideologies conflating biological sex with the notion of gender identity,” a conflation that, in their view, “eras[es] same-sex sexual orientation.” Though the website, reasonably enough, doesn’t name any such “ideologies,” a recent essay of Prof. Stock’s in Quillette elaborates this theme with references to “French post-structuralist Michel Foucault” and Judith Butler, who, Stock thinks, claims that “biological sex categories” are “socially constructed, historically contingent, and culturally located.” As someone who has published work on both Foucault and Butler, I have to say that I find these accounts rather ill-informed: I wouldn’t call Foucault a post-structuralist (though some besides Stock might, I suppose), and it is hardly a matter of debate that “biological sex” pre-existed the discovery of the chromosome––which is no more than anyone means by saying that “biological sex categories” (my emphasis) are historically contingent. But clearly, this is hardly an especially hateful or objectionable line of thinking. And it would be ludicrous––not to mention sexist in the extreme––for someone to claim that Kathleen Stock was demonstrating hostility to trans women merely by asserting that she isn’t sexually attracted to us.
Yet the LGBA is regularly referred to as a “hate group” in the LGBT press, a sentiment that was recently echoed by Matt Lucas, the (gay) presenter of The Great British Bake-Off, formerly of Shooting Stars and Little Britain:
This characterization has two bases, one of which is all-too-predictable: the LGBA’s conduct on Twitter. The LGBA Twitter account, @ALLIANCELGB, regularly posts outrageous and very obviously “hostile” tweets either directly comparing trans people to paedophiles (or “MAPs,” minor-attracted persons) and trans claims of personhood to bestiality. Here, for example, is a tweet along these lines and a reply to a tweet of mine about it:
And here is someone defending the above tweet against the charge of “transphobia”:
Gender critical activists (GCs) frequently call themselves “dinosaurs,” as distinct from the new-fangled “unicorns” of the wider LGBT movement. The disguise of hostility is only wafer-thin here: we aren’t saying trans people are like pedophiles, we are saying that including them in LGBT organizing opens the door to pedophiles. Indeed, it is impossible not to hear an echo of Antonin Scalia’s famous dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which he argued that banning anti-sodomy laws removed legal protections against bestiality:
State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding.
Prof. Stock seems to have been influenced by the account of trans life proposed by Ray Blanchard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who has claimed that some portion of trans people (specifically those who tend to be sexually attracted to women) are victims of a “paraphilia” or “fetish” which leads them, as he argues in his own recent interview in Quillette, to become erotically fixated on menstruation, pregnancy, and other aspects of female embodiment. Blanchard has compared transition to demonic possession:
In short, Blanchard does not seem concerned to hide his obvious hostility to trans women. Prof. Stock is more circumspect, saying in one thread in 2018 “I don’t wish to stigmatise AGP [autogynephilia].” But the language is no less hostile, and clearly seems to have picked up from Blanchard the notion that this “paraphilic” subgroup of trans women are a distinctively malicious group of people:
Full disclosure: that latter tweet was addressed to the journalist Jesse Singal, but was concerned with me––I had published an essay on the Bell v. Tavistock case, which Prof. Stock referred to as a “revolting” “spectacle.” I am sexually attracted to both male and female people.
(Added 5.45pm: To say something that may not be immediately obvious: if “sexual orientation” is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, and “trans status” is a protected characteristic under the same act, then it follows that a hostility specifically aimed at trans women with a sexual orientation towards women is clearly protected too. It is no defense to argue “I only hate trans-women-who-love-women”; any more than one could use “I only hate elderly Buddhists” as a defense under an Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of age and religion.)
I suspect most fair-minded people would call these tweets “hostile”––but probably not grounds for termination on their own. The other aspect of the student complaint about the LGBA is less predictable. The LGBA supports conversion therapy: an extremely controversial and dangerous practice whereby Christian ministers encourage gay people to “pray the gay away.” Now, some anti-transgender campaigners argue that providing trans-affirming care to teenagers is itself a form of conversion therapy, because (they claim) the teenagers in question would grow up to be cisgender homosexuals. That claim has been widely contested by the medical establishment. But in any case, that is nothing to do with the kind of conversion therapy that the LGBA supports. As their website makes very clear, they believe that ministers should be free to conduct “therapeutic” relationships with cisgender gay patients, aimed at helping those patients to suppress their homosexual desires:
Why on earth would a group that is supposedly arguing for the defense of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people leave such people exposed to the predatory advances of religious zealots? Because, as has been widely reported, many of the LGBA’s members and allies have deep ties to conservative and religious organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Centre for Bioethics and Culture, who are using anti-transgender activists in the gay and lesbian community to advance a Christian and conservative movement against trans people.
Is the LGBA hostile to trans people? If I were still a student at Sussex, I’d be concerned.
(Added 9.30pm: A friend has drawn my attention to this evidence set concerning the LGBA’s reputation as a hate group; it’s much more comprehensive than the sketch I offer above.)
Does the WDSR “Demonstrate Hostility” towards Trans People?
The case against the Women’s Declaration is much easier to make, and it is in relation to student concern over the WDSR and the group that wrote it that Stock this week, and for the first time, made a choice that in my view warrants termination of contract: she conspired with the Daily Mail to libel Amelia Jones, the SUSU officer who appeared on the BBC. The issue is whether Article 1c) of the WDSR is “eliminationist”—that is, whether it aims to eliminate trans women in law. The relevant section calls for:
“[t]he elimination of that act and practice of discrimination against women which comprises the inclusion of men who claim to have a female ‘gender identity’ in the category of women.”
The matter is complicated by some differences in usage of the term “eliminationist.” There seem to be three:
1. removing all legal recognition and protection of trans people;
2. preventing trans people from accessing transition-related care;
3. murdering trans people.
To take the most dramatic first, clearly neither Prof. Stock nor anyone in her circle wants to murder anyone, though she has some supporters who seem to think that that’s the only salient form of “elimination.” The form of eliminationism relevant to the WDSR would seem to be #1. But this is a little more complicated than it appears. On their website, the WHRC stipulates that they do not believe their policies would “cause any person not to exist.” By which I presume they mean, die. Yet in the submission the WHRC delivered to the UK Parliament on the 27th November 2020––which, to be clear, Prof. Stock did not sign––the elimination on display looks more like #2, the denial of transition-related care to trans people:
The Convention calls for the ‘elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’ (Article 5). We consider that the practice of transgenderism clearly falls under this article because it is based on stereotyped roles for men and women.
The submission clearly states that “transgenderism” must be “eliminated” as a “practice.” The reasoning is that “transgenderism” is one of the “practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Such practices must be, the WHRC argue, “eliminated.”
But the important point is that the WHRC submission requires us to understand the “elimination” in question not merely as the removal of any legal recognition for trans people, but the prohibition of medical transition, or even social transition, in toto. In that sense, the WHRC echoes the famous + contentious phrase of Janice Raymond’s: “I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” There’s a cunning dimension to all of this. Just as the WHRC argues “of course we don’t want to murder trans women, we just want to remove their legal existence”; so Raymond goes with something like: “of course I don’t want to murder trans women, I just want to prevent them from transitioning.”
Trans feminists, including Roz Kaveney and Morgan Page, have likened eliminationism to genocide. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention reads as follows—and nb this article restricts itself to “national, ethnical, racial or religious” factions—so not women, trans or otherwise:
Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as
… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
It would be a fair response to Kaveney and Page (and me; I’ve said this) that “genocide” should not be extended to cover sexual minorities. Yet LGBT people are often targeted in state-sponsored campaigns of terror. The complaint is reasonable, but not in my view dispositive. Otherwise the key phrase is “deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Clearly that is Janet Raymond’s explicit goal, the explicit goal of the WHRC, and the implied goal of the WDSR. In other words, to the extent that the WDSR affirms the position of the WHRC, it may be thought of as a genocidal manifesto.
My understanding is that in genocide law, the toughest part to prove is that the policies under consideration were intended to cause the destruction of the group in question, rather than its dispersal. The WHRC: “the elimination of […] the practice of transgenderism.” Please note—this is the key point—that the Genocide Convention does not require killing (2a) or even assaulting (2b) any class of people in order to adjudicate genocide. The imposition of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction” (2c) is adequate.
Someone might ask whether the eliminationist position isn’t humane: to remove the desire to transition could be construed as no more genocidal than the pledge to “make poverty history.” The value of this position is that it forces those of us who want transition to be possible in the world to defend it as a positive good. The downside is obvious: a large majority of trans people would not detransition unless compelled to do so.
Kathleen Stock and the Women’s Declaration
Kathleen Stock does not deny signing the Declaration; nor has she explained why she wants to contest the above account of it (as far as I know—I could be wrong about this). But she has said that she supports maintaining the GRA:
So why sign it? I can only think of three possibilities: either she didn’t realize that the manifesto entailed replacing the GRA; she has changed her mind; or she is conflicted in her beliefs. Any of these would be grounds for student concern. However, Prof. Stock’s responses to students this week have been far more troubling than anything she had done to date.
On October 13th, last Wednesday, Amelia Jones claimed on the BBC that Prof. Stock had signed a Declaration that would eliminate trans women in law. Not only was Jones’ statement an accurate statement of fact, but Jones demurred from making the more critical claim––that the Declaration is in fact intended to prevent trans people from accessing care in general. But there is no question that Prof. Stock signed the Declaration, nor that the Declaration would abolish the GRA, which is the only existence that trans women presently have in law.
On October 14th, Prof. Stock baselessly referred to Jones’ statement as a “lie,” saying that she hoped to get a “correction”:
Later on the 14th, apparently at Prof. Stock’s urging, the BBC offered the following statement:
“Yesterday on Politics Live, we discussed the issue of freedom of speech on university campuses. We talked about the case of Prof. Kathleen Stock, an academic at the University of Sussex who has been accused of transphobia. Yesterday we spoke to a student union officer at the University, who said Prof. Stock had signed a declaration which wants to eliminate trans people in law. Prof. Stock has contacted us to point out that she supports the protection of gender reassignment, saying the text of the declaration does not amount to the claim that trans people should be eliminated in law. She says “my arguments are about the precise legal form protections for trans people should take, and how they should interact with protections for other groups. I do not want to stop all teaching of trans rights or trans identities in British schools, and I have never said this.”
The argument would appear to admit the WDSR is designed to replace the GRA in practice, but to protest that there might be other opportunities for trans people to be granted existence in law. Prof. Stock is of course entitled to that position––though, as we’ve seen, it flatly contradicts the views of those who wrote the Declaration she signed––but one could hardly call the BBC’s statement a “correction,” let alone uphold Prof. Stock’s defamatory claim that Amelia Jones had uttered a “lie.” Indeed, the reply that Prof. Stock gave to the BBC amounts to a minimally-nuanced concession of Jones’s central claim––that the establishment of the WDSR would entail the abolition of all actually-existing legal protections for trans women. Prof. Stock’s agitation on this topic on Twitter amounts to nothing more than a smear on an officer of the Sussex University Students Union.
I can think of no other case in academic history of a scholar who has libeled a student in such a way. I would be interested to hear examples if anyone can think of any.
But it got worse. After Prof. Stock had persuaded her Twitter followers that the BBC had “corrected” Amelia Jones, her backers in the UK media escalated the lie even further, with the Daily Mail yesterday publishing a story under the headline “BBC is forced to apologise to feminist professor for allowing students’ union office to falsely state she had signed a ‘declaration to eliminate trans people in law’ during live broadcast.”
Of course no apology was given, let alone warranted. I have written to Jacob Thorburn on Twitter to inform him that this statement is libelous and possibly unlawful, but have not received a response. All I can say is that if Kathleen Stock wished to correct the slanderous treatment of Amelia Jones, she should do so at once.
(Added 8.30pm, 10/18: When I published this story yesterday, I was happy to take Prof. Stock’s clarification of her position about the GRA on its own terms––I had already read her book Material Girls, and I couldn’t remember any specific calls either for its retention or repeal. At Christa Peterson’s urging today, I have returned to the book, and find that while Stock doesn’t clearly say that the GRA should be repealed, she certainly doesn’t make any case for retaining it. Stock describes the GRA most fully in Chapter 6, and she paints a picture of it as what she calls a “legal fiction,” by which she seems to mean a mere convention, that none of the involved parties hold to be literally true. A naive reader would, I suspect, come away from Material Girls believing that Stock believed that the GRA should not have been passed; that, once passed, it should not have been enforced; and that, in general, it would be better if the GRA placed no obligations on anyone except the transitioning person. This position is indeed fully consistent with the WDSR, for the simple reason that it amounts to the elimination of trans women in law.
The relevant passages read as follows:
If, as I have argued, people can’t literally change sex, what exactly did the 2004 Gender Recognition Act make available to people that they didn’t have before. My view is that the GRA, and the Gender Recognition Certificates that go along with it, jointly put in place what is known as a legal fiction about the possibility of sex change. […] Looking at debate transcripts, it’s a good question what exactly legislators thought they were doing by seeing this bill into law.
A second problem is the cost to freedom of speech. An individual’s choice to get immersed in a fiction or not is precisely that: a choice, falling into the realm of autonomy and individual conscience. Even if we sometimes get immersed in fictions given exposure to the right sort of prompts or props, we can usually choose to pull ourselves out of them. Non-hateful speech shouldn’t be compelled. It’s not hateful in itself to refuse to immerse yourself in a given fiction and to choose instead to refer to facts. It is perhaps considered rude to refuse in some cases, just as it can be rude to point out facts about someone’s weight, or that they’ve gone grey, or look aged––but ‘hateful’ it is not. And when trans women like Debbie Hayton, Miranda Yardley and Fionne Orlander refuse to enter into the fiction that they are women, and state that they are men, they are not being ‘self-hating.’
In other words, not only did Kathleen Stock lie about Amelia Jones, she lied about her own book. I do not have any plausible explanation for why she might have done this.)
Watching this story unfold this week has been a surreal experience. Journalists across the spectrum of media from right to left have published laudatory essays about Prof. Stock, portraying her as a valiant warrior for academic freedom, rather than someone who has wholly undermined academic freedom by reducing it to mere opinion, and attempting to use it to cover genocide apologism and labeling one’s critics “revolting.” Nobody has thought to ask Prof. Stock questions about why she thinks the WDSR is compatible with the GRA, when the Declaration was written explicitly to displace the Act; nobody has raised a peep about the systematic attempt to destroy Amelia Jones’ reputation after she had said no more than the literal truth: that Prof. Stock signed an eliminationist manifesto. Nobody has questioned whether a “smoke bomb,” as the Brighton and Hove Albion called it, is really the best way to describe this:
And for all the moral panic about “masked” protestors, nobody has wondered what steps they might take to oppose genocidal ideology, if the Vice Chancellor of their University was saying something like this:
“Pressuring the University to terminate [Prof. Stock’s] employment” is “disturbing”? Please. You’re Sussex University, students have been pressuring you to terminate the employment of faculty they don’t like since you opened in 1959.
(Added 5.45pm: These tweets, indeed, amount to an infringement of students’ rights to academic freedom, since the University administration has made it clear that they are “disturbed” and planning to retaliate, to “take any action necessary,” against those who publish––i.e., put up posters of––arguments for the suspension of Prof. Stock.)
Sussex University needs to start acting like a University again. Adam Tickell, who misunderstands academic freedom and who issues vague threats against student protestors, needs to lose his job. I realize that Tickell’s en route to a new position as VC of Birmingham University. He should lose that job too. Admin should begin disciplinary proceedings against Kathleen Stock for her role in the libel of Amelia Jones (who has, predictably, had to close her social media accounts after attacks from Prof. Stock’s supporters). And the British media needs to grow a spine, swallow its pride, and hire a bunch of trans editors, any of whom could have seen this coming a mile off.
Just for the record, I am happy to offer a right of reply to Kathleen Stock or anyone else who wishes to speak for her in this space. I do not want to silence anyone. Prof. Stock has my email address if she wants to reach out; if anyone else wants to respond to these claims, you can either DM me on Twitter or reply to this email. I’m going to restrict below-the-line comments to paying subscribers to the newsletter, because experience suggests that otherwise they become swamped with irrelevant personal attacks. — GEL
Hi all. It’s been a while since I wrote. For the last four weeks or so, I’ve been in bed with Covid and its aftermath, and I’ve not really been able to do very much. Most days, I’ve had difficulty being out of bed for more than about ten minutes at a time, without getting dizzy. I’ve had memory loss as well as a complete loss of focus. So, I’ve not been writing, and I’m sorry about that.
Today, though, I felt able to write for the first time in a while. I was talking with my friend and editor Claire about that odd moment during the 2016 Republican primary when Ted Cruz attempted to distinguish himself from Donald Trump by saying that a man who didn’t begin each day on his knees wasn’t fit to be president. There was a lot of fun to be had at the time imagining Ted Cruz as a serial sucker of dick, which is funny because of course Ted is a vicious, sex-hating fascist bigot. But anyway, speaking with Claire, I got kind of snagged wondering how Ted Cruz actually feels when having sex, and then felt inspired to write some pornography about it. This thought was especially fun, since Claire is due to have a baby any minute now, and wouldn’t it be amazing if she were induced to give birth after reading some steamy prose about Ted Cruz?
So, this post is for my beloved friend Claire, wishing her a safe, invigorating, and beautiful labor, and the happy delivery of a baby that I know will be the luckiest one in all of New York City.
* * *
Ted’s Nut (Ted Cruz Tries to Keep Still While Getting Head)
We thank You Lord for the gift of matrimony and the many gifts it has to offer that lead to the fruitful sharing of joy between man and woman. We thank You Lord for the gift of knees and hair-crowns, atop which we place the hand a-blessing. Lord we thank You for the stars and the heavenly baby Jesus who came from them, and not from the bowels of a manual laborer or agricultural worker. For Jesus this most grievous sin I confess, that when I was a child I was tempted by thoughts of carnality and I meditated thereupon with the blessed image of the Trinity and the mysteries thereof. For just as the sacred cross is made of three elements—vertical, horizontal, and central—so likewise the Godhead protrudes in three directions. First it points upwards, as the eyes rolling back in the head. Second as it wraps outwards, as the lips of the mouth which stretch between cheeks, opening space and exposing the openness within. Third as it circulates in diffusion across the spheres, and guideth all the sweet motions of the world as though upon an axis. Even so I now endure the sweet temptation into fleshly pleasures that accompanies the spiritual compensations of a prone helpmeet, in aspect as of prayer, a duty to which the charge of sodomy is not put. For with each sweet organ of her body it is woman’s part to soothe and comfort him whom she serves, just as the Church which is the bride upon Earth of thy Sacred Heart, and serves You, O Lord, upon its knees and in all of its hearts. The Church begs upon Her knees to be filled with the Spirit and made whole.
To clarify: it does not befit a man that he serve the Church merely for Her own Sake except if it be for the greater glory of Him by whose blood and wine I am redeemed. For now a man must be received in the crevices of woman kind, the organ of song and prayer, which in men serves but two functions (prayerful song, nourishment by bread) but unto the bodies of women the Lord hath offered a third use, by which is indicated the service of her husband in acts of tender devotion. And so she looks at him and makes eye contact with him and he wonders what is to be done. For pleasure twixt husband and wife is a heavenly phase of being in which the presence-at-hand of the Kingdom of God is felt, and each other temporal chronology recedes. Thus, a pleasure-hymn offered to the Glory of the Lord (as, for example, “Smoke on the Water,” as chanted in observation of the somber lenten robes of Deep Purple) can stretch into the time of angels, perhaps hours, because in the act of wifely obedience the clocks melt and time itself liquefies into the stream of godly sensation. He feels his nose twitch and he considers plunging it to the back, but he holds himself steady and still, in honor of the blessèd moment.
The mother of his children, borne in the light to the Lord, born under a star, visited by wise men from distant lands. The Blessed Virgin received the Annunciation by ear, and not a finger was laid upon her sacred head or puffy lips. No angel dreamed of swelling her cheeks, as swelled the womb of the Mother of Christ. No force impelled the Sacred Word to enter into throat or canal, save the physics of the Lord by which that which is written may be transmitted onto flesh, for true Flesh was the Son, upon whom is written what has been written without sin. Her flesh was without sin, I mean. Like, of course the Spirit which filled her to swelling—it is not. It is not complicated.
Husband gaze descend wonder “love?” debauch love resist force carriages hold peach grip hands, maybe? Fingers tighten in bleach-dried hair, hard; perhaps, if the husband blesses her with his own rhythm he removes from her the burden of service? From service to receptacle, priest to chasuble, but he must stay. When uncertainty appears in the interpretation of Scripture man looks to the Church which is the sole appointed authority to teach the meaning of God’s language on earth. And in the morning he (Ted, that is me myself—though it pains me to recognize myself in the moment, as though it were me into whose mouth the sacred implement were thrust—and yet how else, at this moment, to delay beyond the time of trial that moment of unknowing at which the devil, Satan, the lord of lies—and flies—has his momentary triumph; how, fearing the imminence—and immanence—of the tempter, to keep his worms at bay; how, but to picture the man, Ted, Rafael Edward the humble servant of God—not as rod but as river, not as cross but as Calvary—but here too—); switch, and find the plan again: tomorrow morning, to appear on his knees to Father Ted, saying the words of the rosary and touching the shrine of bones with his hand. It is not a metaphor; it is Not a Metaphor; it is NOT A METAPHOR and the hand hath the power with which God endowed the sower, and yet.
Spray face, throat, for he has avoided pushing and the Hour of the Demon is at hand?, but even that word, “hand,” as though her face was not the Vehicle of the Eye of God (is that right? that feels made up) but the arid ground, dusty ground, stony ground––oh but aren’t there so many places where one must not sow one’s seed––and so few where one should; the Church; the Mouth of God; perhaps the ear. Perhaps the ear. Perhaps the ear. Perhaps he will spend in her ear.
And he bends her face to the side, and the moment has crested.
This morning I was informed that one of my tweets had fallen afoul of the Twitter “rules against abuse and harassment.” The tweet in question, which I was forced to delete as a condition of beginning the countdown to unlock my account, read:
bizarre and quixotic attempts to distinguish the TSQ cover from any number of other feminist evocations of hyper feminine violence aside, i have a question: would we generally understand this meme as itself a feminist image? I can imagine the argument either way.
The image in question was this one:
Which says “Shut the fuck up TERF,” with a picture of an anime girl apparently holding a gun. The image, of course, could conceivably be conceived as abuse or harassment. But a scholar inviting a discussion of the meaning of that image could not.
Let’s call this what it is: an assault on academic freedom.
Honestly, I’m on holiday this week so quite happy to have an enforce break from Twitter. But life being what it is, I’ll walk through the discussion we could have had.
A couple of days ago, a number of gender critical activists found the cover of the new cover of Transgender Studies Quarterly, and implied that it contained an implicit threat of violence against them. The rush appeared to start with Julie Bindel, an outspoken opponent of civil rights for trans people.
The image in question was a photograph from an installation by the Taiwanese cis feminist artist Shu Lea Cheang, entitled 3x3x6. The issue’s editors, Eliza Steinbock and Yv Nay, both respected feminist scholars, chose this image for the cover, and explained their reasoning in the issue’s introductory essay:
With the notion of enclosures and policing of deviance in mind, we will close with a short analysis of the cover image, from the documentation portfolio shot by trans visual artist and filmmaker Johanna Jackie Baier of queer digital artist and filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang’s (2019) 3x3x6 installation for the Taiwanese Pavilion of the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale. The title 3x3x6 refers to the industrial stan- dard of prison architecture that calls for cells that are three meters square and are monitored by six cameras. Curated by the trans Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado, Cheang’s installation draws attention to the (dis)continuity of disci- plining, surveilling, and imprisoning from 1755 until today, with contemporary queer and trans performers reprising roles of ten historical and current cases of imprisoned gender and sexual dissidents: Casanova (Italy), de Sade (France), Foucault (in Poland), as well as cases from Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Their fictionalized portraits include composite prisoners as well, like D X, a transgender man who in the 2010s was imprisoned for the crime of “rape by deception” for not revealing his gender status. The viewers’ interaction with their narrative storylines work to expose the outer limits of cultural norms that are carved with the hard line of criminality. The pavilion makes use of the Palazzo delle Prigioni, a Venetian prison from the sixteenth century in operation until 1922, by reimagining a panopticon structure as a space now overlaid with three-dimensional facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and internet tools of surveillance and control. The public program took place in a former psychiatric hospital located on an isolated island to highlight the procedure of removal and segregated containment central to both forms of incarceration, in a prison or asylum. The so-called treatment of “mental illness” conducted there included early on “a vast array of gender-, sexual-, and class-excluded subjects such as ‘repugnant poor people wandering the city,’ ‘unruly women,’ ‘hysterics,’ and ‘deviants’” (Venice Biennale 2019).
In other words, while Bindel saw in the image a threat aimed directly against anti-trans activists like herself, Steinbock and Ny saw three glitzy feminist activists confronting the punitive institutions of prison and mental hospital, asserting their own freedom, and collectively articulating the aesthetic promise of militant feminist politics.
I have to say, I found Steinbock and Ny’s reading more persuasive than Bindel’s, and not least because, unlike her, they had actually done some research on the image. I think many people––probably most––who saw the Cheang photograph would see in it a suite of visual references to other kinds of arty femme militancy, that might have included:
Riot Grrl bands like Bikini Kill…
lesbian punk bands like Tribe 8…
Chicks on Speed…
…and millions more. The anti-trans activists sneered at the phrase “hyperfeminized violence,” but it identifies something quite easy to recognize and fairly ubiquitous.
Of course, anyone would be welcome to argue that this imagery is not feminist––especially Harley Quinn and Tank Girl, characters created by male writers. But of course the question is worth asking. Do we imagine these girly gun-toters as feminists, or as ciphers of patriarchal violence? I can’t imagine how one could possibly teach a class on feminist visual culture without asking that question often.
Of course, none of those were the image that Twitter has censured, which again, was this:
Here we have an image that is strikingly similar to the others in any number of respects: cute, cartoonish girl, check; gun-as-dick pointed in your face, check; titillating friction between femininity and violence, check. On a different day, or for a different purpose, I would be minded to argue that the other images-–from riot grrl on down––traffic with the titillating spectacle of the chick-with-a-dick, and to that extent depend upon what the feminist scholar Emma Heaney has called “the trans feminine allegory.” But for now, all I want to argue is that this image obviously has a certain amount in common with the others, and that therefore––given that it is avowedly a feminist image––it behooves feminists to take that claim seriously.
By shutting that conversation down, Twitter has decided that it already knows what feminist imagery is, and what kind of conversations one should have about it. The spectacle of watching activists who believe themselves to be feminists attempt to limit the kinds of conversations feminists can have about imagery and iconography is depressing enough. But it goes without saying that a social media platform has absolutely no use if it prohibits conversations of this kind.
My gender-critical friend, with whom I disagree about most things trans, was good enough to tweet about this. I want to thank her.
I’m quite sure that those who complained about my tweet will take it as evidence that I am an abusive harasser. I’m not. Meanwhile, I’m hoping someone might be so good as to alert those proud defenders of free speech who have made their fortunes out of being canceled. You know their names––we all know their fucking names.
I am a public educator. Part of my job is to initiate, moderate, and summarize difficult conversations. This is a disgrace. Twitter should reinstate my account immediately, although I hope they don’t because, as I say––I really want to be offline and on holiday for the next week. But that’s not to say that others shouldn’t be concerned about this.
Why does the Guardian do this?
The Guardian published a story today under the headline “Gender-critical feminist charged over allegedly transphobic tweets.” Every part of the headline is a misleading lie, and the newspaper should withdraw the story entirely, which reveals serious and structural errors in the paper’s reporting of LGBT issues.
The story concerns Marion Millar, an anti-trans campaigner, who was arrested in Glasgow. I have been involved in anti-cop politics for a long time, and do not support the arrest. Indeed, I imagine that most trans people I know are equally opposed to the use of the police state to apparently safeguard our interests.
However, the Guardian article provides no evidence whatsoever that Millar’s arrest was for “allegedly transphobic tweets.” And it probably wasn’t. The relevant section of the law Brooks cites, the Communications Act 2003, prohibits a range of behaviors, of which the circulation of “material that is grossly offensive” is only one. The section also prohibits communication that is “of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character.”
In other words, the Act includes explicit threats made against individuals, a class of speech that is legally and morally distinct from “free speech,” by also from “allegedly transphobic” speech.
Also, Libby Brooks, nor anyone else, has provided any evidence whatsoever for the claim that the electronic communication in question occurred over Twitter. Evidence I have seen suggests that it was not.
Now, in a tweet on my thread, Brooks admits that she has no idea about the content of the tweets for which Millar was arrested.
So who came up with the phrase “allegedly transphobic”? Brooks or editors?
Either the Guardian headline referred to evidence it didn’t present, or was completely made up. Almost certainly the latter.
I will say again: I do not think that Millar should have been arrested. I don’t think anyone should be. The 2003 Act also seems overly broad (though since I advocate the abolition of all criminal statutes, I’m not going to get into debating the minutiae of an electronic communications provision). But this is also an opportunity for the British liberal media to ask why they so consistently get trans issues wrong.
The headline is only one of a couple of serious problems with the article. Notwithstanding that Millar self-identifies as a “feminist,” the use of that term to describe anti-trans activists is profoundly controversial, and creates the impression that the parties in contention are “gender critical feminists” and “some LGBT activists.” In fact, many feminists—Sally Hines, Alison Phipps, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed, and Roxane Gay, to say nothing of trans feminist activists like Julia Serano and Susan Stryker—are outspoken defenders of trans civil rights. In reality, the group to whom Brooks refers as “gender critical feminists” is an online hate movement, with only occasional and minor overlap with feminism.
Yet look at how Brooks frames the disagreement:
The two paragraphs contain several serious errors. The central problem is that nowhere is the view ascribed to “some LGBT activists” attributed. Despite seeking block quotes from For Women Scotland and Police Scotland, the opinions of these unnamed “LGBT activists” are conveyed in garbled, barely comprehensible paragraph that describes no sensible view at all. That a paragraph that makes as little sense as this was able to pass through editorial review without anyone asking what it means reveals one thing very clearly: Guardian editors don’t care what garbage views they attribute to trans people, as long as they can portray us as mincing snowflakes armed with speech codes.
Whereas of course the anti-trans activists “fear sex is being argued into non-existence” (another passive construction, to avoid naming anyone who might need to be cited), and that “this will erode rights hard-won by women.” Nothing could be further from the truth. As has been amply illustrated by Twitter accounts like @GCMisogyny, the so called “gender critical” movement is a radical anti-trans movement with ties to far-right organizations like the Heritage Foundation. Indeed, it is a hate group that (predictably enough) engages in precisely the kind of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing that one associates with QAnon, probably the closest US equivalent to the UK GCs. See Christa Peterson’s excellent thread here:
If Libby Brooks wants to speculate about the content of the charge against Marion Millar, she would do better to look at recent legal cases involving prominent GCs. At Julie Birchall, for example, who paid Ash Sarkar substantial damages after accusing her of “worshipping a paedophile.” (Sarkar is a Muslim.) Or at Graham Linehan, who has baselessly accused me of “grooming” students at UC Berkeley. Like QAnon, GCs see pedophiles everywhere—or, at least, everywhere they encounter anyone who isn’t straight, white, and middle-class.
But better yet: Brooks should not speculate. Brooks should acknowledge that she has no idea why Millar has been charged, and the article should be withdrawn completely.
Oh, and message to the Guardian: hire ten trans journalists in editorial and managerial positions yesterday.
By the time you have read this, you should be able to tell the difference between:
✅ a libel!
✅ a defamation!
✅ an opinion!
✅ a fact!
✅ an error of fact that is neither defamatory nor opinion!
And, knowing these things as you will, I heartily encourage you to start a podcast explaining our current crisis of free speech, “cancel culture,” something something “woke”. Not just because it’s a good grift and several people have become extremely rich from it, but because you will know more on the topic than the two most popular grifters currently working that particular beat, Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog. These two bozos have somehow extracted a living from a whole lot of people concerned that you can’t say anything these days and perhaps even that it is turning into nineteen eighty four, without doing even the most rudimentary reading on the topic. Hats off!
On March 28th, Singal and Herzog dedicated a podcast to Graham Linehan, an anti-transgender campaigner and oddball former comedy writer, exploring Linehan’s history of transphobic remarks, and his gradual transformation into the shambling bigot we’ve all come to know and hate. I got the thing transcribed––and yes, please do rest assured that I didn’t have to give either of them a cent of my hard-hustled money in order to do so.
(By the way, I hope you’re keeping track of all these insults! They’re part of the point: Singal and Herzog are “grifters” and “bozos”; Linehan is “an anti-transgender campaigner,” an “oddball,” and a “shambling bigot.” Libel? Defamation? Opinion? Fact? Find out soon!)
Singal and Herzog’s report gives Linehan a supervillain origin story (“Graham was viciously bullied as a child”) and, drawing on a story in The Telegraph in which he is rather fawningly named as “the most hated person on the internet” (such a badass), to suggest that Linehan became radicalized after being “dog-piled” for the mere crime of having written an episode of The IT Crowd in which our heroes tranny-bash a trans woman named April once she reveals her true, dastardly nature.
That episode, “The Speech,” might in fact constitute evidence of prior radicalization––since, as far as I know, no other middling-but-popular Channel Four sitcoms were celebrating the violent assault of queer people back in 2008. But it’s no great matter: the only real downside was that the episode rather spoils one’s enjoyment of the otherwise-excellent stealth trans actor Matt Berry, who plays the poor sap dating the arm-wrestling brick.
(Wait, is Matt Berry really a stealth trans man? Isn’t that a libel? What was that fifth category again?)
Singal and Herzog also talk about my beef with Linehan, which I detail here. Here they are:
Indeed, a “ridiculously unfair libel.” But let’s look a little more at what they mean by that. They evidentally accept that, by accusing me of “grooming,” Linehan was accusing me of either conduct preparatory to sexual misconduct with children, or, more strongly, accusing me directly of improper sexual conduct with children. (That stronger, latter, position was incidentally the meaning assumed by the High Court in a recent libel trial in England) Katie notes that the accusation is “ridiculous on its face,” because I do not teach children, which both implies that she holds the allegation to be false, andthat she holds it to be a claim substantially concerning conduct towards children.
Singal offers a slightly different critique. He agrees that Linehan’s claim is “ridiculous on its face,” because I have no recorded contact with children whatsoever, but also argues that it is substantially false by another meaning too: even if one were to accept that “grooming” could apply to adults (a claim which, again, an English court rejected in 2018) then the imputation of improper sexual conduct was false.
We have two theories of the case here: Herzog thinks Linehan’s claim was libelous because it improperly accused me of child molestation; Singal thinks it was libelous because it improperly accused me of misconduct towards adults. But notwithstanding those differences, they both correctly identify the two components that are necessary for a claim of libel to land.
LIBEL ELEMENT ONE: a libelous claim is false.
LIBEL ELEMENT TWO: a libelous claim is defamatory, that is, likely to prove injurious to the reputation of the claimant.
Linehan’s claim was definitely false, and definitely defamatory. Libel!
Let’s go back to our pals:
Grace is totally fine with libeling other people? Say it ain’t so!
I wracked my brain trying to figure out what they were talking about. I have lost more friends than I care to note by my attempts to bend over backwards to defend people I disagree with, including saying in the piece about Linehan linked above that I haven’t seen evidence that Singal sexually harasses trans women, and I think that claim circulates thoughtlessly. But I haven’t, and I think it’s important to say.
So what did they mean?
I thought it was possible that Herzog had meant something like “Grace doesn’t mind if third parties are libeled by other people”––that it wasn’t a direct accusation of being a libeler like Linehan. So I took a leaf from Singal’s own book, and I sent him a wee message to ask for details:
Singal came back with a genuinely stunning response [which for some reason didn’t upload when I first posted this––update 3.50pm]:
Singal names two occasions on which I have referred to him in unflattering terms as “straightforwardly libel.”
The first is that I claimed that Singal argued that my Foreign Policy essay (that he has tried to maul to death by a thousand paper cuts but has not, to my knowledge, actually engaged with substantially) should be taken down. I did indeed claim that, on the strength of a tweet in which Singal said that it should never have been published. Rather embarrassingly, I can’t find that tweet now, but Singal doesn’t deny having written it:
Is saying that something should be taken down the same as saying it should not have been published? Tricky. They are both expressions of a wish for the piece’s non-existence, so to that extent they are interchangeable. But Jesse also has a point suggesting that they’re not exactly the same, and I could have been more careful there.
Here’s the rub, though. My claim wasn’t defamatory. Being thought of as having claimed of an argument “this should be taken down” wouldn’t noticeably harm Singal’s reputation any more than being thought of as having claimed “this should never have been published.” They both show him as a pompous, bloviating ditto, whose aversive responses to being described in terms he doesn’t like is simply to fantasize a world in which everyone agrees with him.
So: maybe false (though I maintain it isn’t), but definitely notdefamatory. Not libel!
Let’s look at the other claim.
“You said I called trans people a ‘contagion.’ I never called trans people a ‘contagion.’”
This one is potentially more damaging, since the rhetoric is, indeed, “Hitlerian,” as Singal rightly identifies. So to be thought of as someone who thinks of trans people as plague-carriers, passing on our unhealthy attachments to each other.
Let’s look at the record, shall we?
Singal first came to public attention as, preposterously, an authority on trans issues after the publication of his article When Children Say They’re Trans (queue up the sinister strings section) in The Atlantic in 2018. I’ve already dealt with the vicious and stupid rhetorical techniques that Singal began to craft in that essay––quickly: whatever happens, the lesson is always that trans people are unreasonable––so I won’t do so again here.
But let’s go ahead and do that cmd+f for “contagion.” Lo and behold:
Couple of things to notice here. First, that this phrase appears in inverted commas, and therefore cannot be taken as Singal’s own. And second, that these words are spoken by “parents,” and not––this is important because of a dumb defense of Singal some people tried to mount on Twitter––by professional sociologists. The context in which this phrase is being spoken is parents who feel, at best, ambivalent about their kids’ professed transness, and, at worst, hostile. Singal’s word is “worried.” So we can assume that the term is supposed to carry a certain kind of shock value––and indeed, I’d guess that’s why Singal thought to put it in scare quotes in the first place.
Now, some of these dear little snowflakes are, for some reason, moved to find this rhetoric (which Singal has himself, remember, called “Hitlerian”) “offensive.” The poor dears. But we still don’t have Singal himself endorsing this position, do we?
Weird, the word “contagion” has been dropped. Why? Perhaps to spare the blushes of those dear old tr*nnies who find it “silly or even offensive.” But perhaps, rather, to substitute out a “Hitlerian” claim––that trans people are infecting children with their crazy ideas about gender––with a perfectly banal, indeed entirely uncontroversial one, that “social forces can play a role in a young person’s gender questioning.”
Find me a person who denies that sentence as written. I would be surprised if there were any. So why has begun the sentence with “But,” as though it were contradicting the paragraph about the antsy tr*nnies, and italicized that word “can” as though the argument were belabored? It’s a neat little trick, but very obvious once you’ve seen it: Singal has managed to endorse a “Hitlerian” idea without using the word itself, while making trans people look like they’re opposed to a self-evident truth. Crass, manipulative and, yes, transphobic.
So, definitely defamatory, and definitely not false. Not libel!
Now, let’s just have a quick word about “transphobic.” This is a word that Singal, Herzog, and their cohort of courageous woke-skeptics really don’t like having applied to them. We’re not afraid of you, we just don’t like you!, they cry, not unreasonably. So let’s acknowledge that it is possibly to be implacably opposed to every single major issue in which trans civil rights are entailed without being, in the strict sense, phobic: you can oppose trans people being allowed access to healthcare, social care, legal and bureaucratic gender confirmation, etc., not out of fear, but out of hate. I think transmisic would be a better formula for Singal and Herzog: they really aren’t afraid of us––they despise us. But I also think that’s what most people mean by “transphobic,” and I think that Herzog and Singal’s pettifogging campaign of confusion on this issue is designed to split hairs in order to prove their general case that trans people are oversensitive.
Which, you know, we’re actually not!
But, here’s something that’s very important. A general principle of libel is that there should be strong protections for expressing political opinions. An opinion can be a difficult thing to determine. Is it a claim of fact that Jesse Singal is transphobic, or transmisic? One could imagine a situation where it could be––if, for example, someone claimed that Jesse Singal acted towards trans people with hostility in his personal life. But to claim that his public conduct itself constitutes transphobia, or transmisia, is more a matter of opinion: in my view, a man who spends his life arguing against the civil rights of trans people is transphobic, however he conducts himself in his private life. In other words, I’m not interested in the character of Singal’s soul: I’m interested in the damage that he does every day he goes to work, prosecuting his campaign of misinformation and carefully-choreographed exasperation against trans people online.
Katie Herzog has claimed, publicly, that this view of mine––which I’ve argued in, for example, the Linehan essay linked above––constitutes a libel of Singal. It doesn’t, because there is no claim of fact entailed. It’s an opinion.
So, not false, and maybe a bit defamatory. Not libel!
But more damningly and bizarrely than that, Herzog seems to think that my calling Singal “transphobic” is a transgression on a par with calling someone a pedophile without any evidence. One would think that was a pretty high bar, especially since I’ve defended Singal against claims of sexual misconduct of far less seriousness!
But here we are:
To which the answer was:
To give you some sense of how flexible the “opinion” exemption is, I’ve been trying to express the above argument as a statement of fact so that, if it were false, it would be libel. My first attempt:
Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal do not understand the first principles of “free speech,” and are not qualified to write or broadcast on this topic.
But this doesn’t work, because “do not understand” and “are not qualified” are clearly judgments, which are a type of opinion. Oh I don’t know. I just think they’re stupid, belligerent, dishonest grifters, and I think it’s time their fifteen minutes was over.
Let’s see if we understand the differences!
- grifters: opinion
- bozos: opinion
- anti-transgender campaigner: opinion
- oddball: opinion
- stealth trans man: non-defamatory error of fact
- grooming: libel
Great Sentences Featuring the Word “Woke,” Part One
I’m going to start a series of people using the word “woke” in heroically stupid ways. There’s something about the moral panic that the word seems to have detonated that brings out the Ciceronian bloviator in even the most flatfooted of ex-leftists or the proliest of crypto-fascists. Of course, the very pomposity of the rhetoric indexes the pleasure whiteness takes in distancing itself from the presumptively unsublimated condition of Blackness that the word “woke” is itself taken to illustrate. To watch people using the word “woke” is to witness whiteness marinating in its own vulgarity––and therefore, mockery is only one of a number of possible responses.
Here’s todays, from Victor Davis Hanson:
Mm, taste that bland! Yummers.
Last Friday, the High Court of the UK reversed the practical effects of the Bell vs. Tavistock case, which determined that puberty blockers were exempt from the usual rules concerning children’s capacity to consent to medical treatment. Though that decision remains in place, a case brought by the Good Law Project successfully argued that, in the absence of patient consent, parental consent to medical treatment should apply. The practical effect of this latest decision will negate the decision in Bell vs. Tavistock, because the patients being seen at the Tavistock were all presumed to be treated with parental consent anyway––neither the latest decision, nor indeed the Tavistock Clinic itself, has any bearing on trans kids who may need treatment but who lack parental consent.
A couple of days ago, I spoke with Jolyon Maugham, the founder of the Good Law Project, about Bell vs. Tavistock, the rise of transphobia in the UK, and the implications of the latest decision for trans kids seeking competent treatment. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
* * *
GRACE LAVERY: I thought maybe the first thing I could ask you was just to tell us a little bit about the background of the Bell vs. Tavistock case.
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well it’s a case I’ve been following right from when it, sort of, launched, and I took quite an interest in it. I first read about it in The Guardian––it sounded a bit like a joke, to be honest. No one—certainly I couldn’t see any legal basis for the court to decide the matter in Keira Bell’s favor. And, indeed, I took advice from a leading public law lawyer, I mean, formal advice, as it happens, and, her view too was that the case was dead in the water. As time went on, I got more and more nervous about it because the court seemed to be behaving in ways that I just couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand why none of the organizations or individuals from the trans community who sought to intervene in the case were given permission to do so. I couldn’t understand why the court was adopting such a relaxed stance in relation to the evidence that was being produced by Keira—evidence that was from quite weird marginalized figures in the medical establishment, by and large. Where it was from more mainstream figures they were speaking outside their area of expertise.
GRACE LAVERY: Can you give me a couple of examples of that?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: So I haven’t got the names to hand, but I commissioned a little bit of an investigation into all of the witnesses. And there are lots and lots of—I mean, there’s a very odd collection of people: one of them is a vet, some of them are lawyers, some of them are sort of international traveling advocates for—or rather against—affirming trans kids. Very, very few of them sit—few or none—sit inside the sort of mainstream of opinion.
GRACE LAVERY: Ok.
JOLYON MAUGHAM: But there was no real challenge to the evidence they gave. I mean I tweeted out some of the conclusions, some of the evidence I found of who those people were and what their expertise was, because it struck me as just completely remarkable that the court was listening to them. The court made a rather odd order that their evidence should not be published. And that I found really, really striking because in England, as in the states, we have a sort of presumption [inaudible] of justice. And it struck me as distinctly odd that this testimony that seems to have swayed the court should be hidden from public view. We’re trying to overturn that order, as it happens.
GRACE LAVERY: Do you have a sense of why that might have been instated?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Yeah, I do. I’m a practicing Queen’s Counsel, so I’m a practicing trial lawyer, and so I have to choose my language carefully.
GRACE LAVERY: I realize that.
JOLYON MAUGHAM: But I mean it’s pretty clear that the divisional court brought to that decision and indeed to the trial process a series of preconceptions about gender incongruence and about ways to treat gender incongruence. And that those preconceptions were articulated in the procedural decisions the court made and in the substantive decisions that eventually the court arrived at. If you’re a lawyer, it’s heresy to say something like that. To say it as nakedly as I have. But it’s also completely orthodox. Because we as lawyers talk all the time about the importance of having a diverse judiciary. We do that because we recognize, at some level, that the law is a human instrument. Once you recognize that diversity is important because the law is a human instrument, you necessarily logically have also to recognize that judges bring their own biases to decision-making. I can’t think of a worse example of that happening in English law in recent times.
GRACE LAVERY: These are really strong words that you’re using, I’m really struck by that. I’ve had dealings with British lawyers before, and they don’t usually speak so frankly about these things. And it sort of answers a couple of the questions that I have. But I guess the next one that I was wondering about was that some journalists seem to report that the legal team Keira Bell had assembled were connected with some kind of religious organizing or there was some kind of connection with religious advocacy? Was it your sense that anything of that nature played a role in the trial?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Certainly, I mean, I was making the point in the summer of 2020, repeatedly, that the lawyer that Keira Bell had retained was using was someone with links to the religious right. He himself has said so. And you can look at the cases he has brought. They’re attacks on abortion rights. They’re attacks on gay rights. And he has associations with organizations that have attacked assisted dying. And he appears on the sort of tv channels of organizations who are religious conservatives, let me put it that way. So I didn’t think he would deny that he comes from that background. His name is Paul Conrathe. (STEALTH EDIT: an earlier version of this misspelt Conrathe’s name as “Conrad.” That was my mistake, not Jo’s. — GL) It’s certainly abundantly clear that he does. The barristers, I don’t have any reason to suggest that they come from that standpoint. And the judge who is believed to have written that judgement—a judge called Natalie Lieven—doesn’t come from that background. She is simultaneously a hero amongst the Good Law Project’s overwhelmingly female staff team for the work that she’s done as a judge protecting the right to an abortion. And now, a sort of fallen hero for what we all regard as the work that she’s done to roll back trans rights, to empower transphobia and transphobes in domestic public discourse. She comes from a very particular place, and I don’t know whether this is mirrored around the world, but in England there is a very, very dominant…strand of feminism. Not dominant numerically but dominant because it’s a feminism of privilege that is deeply opposed to trans rights. And that demographic is the demographic that she fits perfectly in. I’m not saying she’s a transphobe. I’m just saying that she is in that demographic.
GRACE LAVERY: Yeah—that’s a really helpful and careful clarification, and these are questions that I wanted to ask you about as well, if you have any hunches about. Why do you think anti-transgender activism is so dominant in the UK domestically and why do you think—maybe this is a different question, maybe it’s a related one—why is it that British…the British style of anti-transgender activism has become so globally important to the kind of emerging global anti-transgender movement?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well, these are broad questions that require a broad social sweep, and I think there are a number of things going on. One is that we have a really poor media in the UK. We don’t have real media pluralism. Rupert Murdoch is a very important figure, and he is obviously not a trans ally. And the BBC occupies an almost monopolistic place in our media. And although that which people abroad see of the BBC is largely positive, the content that the BBC serves up to its domestic audience is very different and is very transphobic.
GRACE LAVERY: Yeah—
JOLYON MAUGHAM: So, I think one of the answers to your questions is that there are a number of powerful—well, our sort of mainstream media is overwhelmingly transphobic. Another thing that has happened is that it appears as though the religious right has pumped large amounts of money into the UK through a number of astroturfed organizations who have very real influence and very real money despite no one being clear as to the sort of legitimacy of source of that influence or the source of the money. And what’s happening on social media is really, really interesting. There’s an awful lot of sort of bots or sock puppet activity that weaponizes questions around trans’ rights. Anyone reading your newsletter will know that J.K. Rowling complained bitterly of the abuse that she received on social media––and I think she’s entitled––right indeed––to complain about that. But much of it wasn’t genuine abuse. It came not from member of the trans community but from accounts that were set up, I believe, to discredit the trans community. And what I was particularly angry with J.K. Rowling about, somebody who I’ve spoken to privately in the past and previously had a good relationship with was that I thought that she weaponized in a rather mischievous way the abuse that she received. But it’s happening in both directions.
So I’m accused, not infrequently, of having an unhealthy interest… an unhealthy sexual interest in children. I’m accused, not infrequently, of being motivated by a desire to gain personal access to women’s toilets. And it becomes difficult for you, if you’re on social media—this is the point really I want to make—to separate out the abuse that you receive from accounts that are deliberately creating mischief and divide from accounts that belong to people who are, I would say, wrong but well-meaning participants. And so in one’s head a rather unfortunate thing happens. You find that you dislike everyone on the other side, unless you are extremely careful. And you tar everyone on the other side of the debate—whether you be on the trans’ side of the debate or the gender critical side of the debate—with the same brush. And I know how powerful and dangerous a force that is. Because I’ve been working to serve a feminist agenda for literally decades. So above my desk is a photo of me, from the ‘90s, in The Daily Mail, talking about discrimination against women. I’ve don’t that work for literally decades. And I found myself, at times, feeling a sort of an inclination to lump together all feminists, despite knowing that that strand of gender critical feminism is not particularly numerically dominant in England. And it was when I saw that happening to myself that I worked out quite how powerful is that activity on social media. A very long answer to your question, but—
GRACE LAVERY: No, but a very full one. And, you know, I think the observation that the kind of psychic trance that social media puts us in, the kind of absolutism that it—absolutism and Manichaeism—that it seems to instill in everyone who participates in it is tricky, and I’m certainly aware of some of these feelings myself, having also been accused of some of those same things as you, and also very recently just sort of being a target of some of the worst actors on the other side. Maybe I could just ask you what is the latest qualification to the judgement changed? And maybe I’d be especially interested to hear about why the Good Law Project pursued a legal strategy based on parental consent?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: So the Tavistock—the Bell case—was about whether children had the ability—had the sort of mental capacity—to consent to puberty blockers. And the court couldn’t really change the law on that because the law set out, in effect, a supreme court—a UK supreme court—decision (small s, small c) called, basically known by the shorthand of “Gillick.” What it became was a self-appointed, judge-led public inquiry into the usefulness of puberty blockers in which that self-appointed, judge-led public inquiry heard from no trans people at all. The Tavistock called witnesses who were patients of the Tavistock, but they didn’t speak in their own name, they spoke in the name of the Tavistock. And which heard from an enormously unrepresentative sample—an enormously unrepresentative subset of medial opinion—an extreme subset of medial opinion. And the decision did two things really. It created this awful mood music around what gender incongruent kids need. And it also removed, in particular for kids whose family sit lower down the economic pyramid, any real possibility of being able to access puberty blockers. And it did that not by saying that puberty blockers were unlawful because the court couldn’t do that but by preventing kids from accessing puberty blockers without having a court order. And the conjoined effect of that judgement and the practice of the Tavistock, which was only to treat on the basis of a child’s consent, ie treating parental consent as irrelevant, was to create a world in which, even when you had an expert doctor who wanted to treat, a child who wanted to be treated, and parents who wanted their child to be treated, you still had to go and ask a judge whether that treatment could take place. And, another question derived out of that: what does a judge bring to the party? A judge doesn’t know the child, and a judge isn’t a medical expert. So, what is it—what function is the judge supposed to be performing there? What legitimate interest do they have in that scenario where they’re not the expert, they’re not the child, and they’re not the child’s parent.
GRACE LAVERY: I mean, for me, the implication of that question is that their only role is to retard the process of getting kids the treatment that they need.
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well—
GRACE LAVERY: I know you can’t really say that necessarily, but I think it’s such an obvious question, as you say. If the state is imposing itself between patient and doctor and parent—
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well, the reason I’m slightly pushing back is not as you’ll now have gathered from having spoken to me because I’m disinclined to say something that I believe to be true. It’s because that outcome was the consequence not purely of the decision but of the conjoined effect of the decision and the practice of the Tavistock, which was to treat parental consent as irrelevant. But if you are able to force the Tavistock to adopt a different practice so that if a child couldn’t consent, the Tavistock could instead take the parent’s consent as sufficient basis for treatment, you would, in effect, remove almost all of the practical effects of the Bell decision because, um, so high are the bars—the practical bars—to getting treatment to the Tavistock, that only—that in practice—there may not be any, there certainly won’t be many—kids who are able to leap that hurdle without the support of loving parents. And so, it basically, in practical terms, it restored the status quo ante such that if you were a kid and you got treated at Tavistock, which you could only do with your parent’s consent, the Tavistock, if it thought appropriate, could once again prescribe puberty blockers.
GRACE LAVERY: That makes a lot of sense, and it makes me want to get into the weeds of the apparently controversial treatment at the center of this case. Can you explain to me—I’ve never quite understood why—the prescription of puberty blockers is thought to be so potentially dangerous that it outweighs Gillick’s competency, as established by the supreme court? What is it about this treatment that has produced this you know, this very dramatic reversal of a long-standing policy or assumption of competency?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well what’s reversed it is an intellectual sleight of hand. An intellectual dishonesty. And that sleight of hand or dishonesty is that it arises from the fact that almost everyone who takes puberty blockers at the Tavistock goes on to have cross sex hormones. And so the argument in the divisional court was this: it was…because almost everyone who takes puberty blockers goes on to have cross sex hormones, when you are prescribing puberty blockers, you are, in effect, prescribing cross sex hormones. And cross sex hormones, on any view, have partially irreversible consequences. But the reason I describe that reasoning as a sleight of hand or intellectually dishonest is because there is a perfectly good alternative candidate explanation for the fact that almost everyone who get puberty blockers at Tavistock goes on to take cross sex hormones. And the alternative candidate explanation, I don’t think it’s only reasonable, I think it’s right. The fact that the Tavistock has such high barriers to prescribing puberty blockers has as a consequence that, in effect, they are mis-prescribing puberty blockers because they’re not using them to create this so-called time to think for gender incongruent kids. They’re treated as a sort of place holder until you can have cross sex hormones. If Tavistock had a lower barrier to prescribing puberty blockers, you wouldn’t have seen that same statistic where substantially everyone who takes puberty blockers at Tavistock goes on to take cross sex hormones. But, but, but…there was that sort of conflation—I say a sleight of hand or intellectually dishonest—between the two different stages of the process. And it was that, coupled with the absence of any consideration—any proper consideration—of reasons why it is important that kids do get puberty blockers that caused the divisional court, I think, to push so fiercely against what in most of the world is entirely conventional analysis.
JOLYON MAUGHAM: I saw.
GRACE LAVERY: Yeah. That essentially kind of made that argument. Because it seemed self-evident to me that keeping the number of people on blockers low would ensure that the percentage of people who go onto HRT is high, so you have to decide, you know, in some way whether that percentage is really a problem. That seems to me to be a kind of…a fairly obvious response to Tavistock and Bell. But it’s one that—
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well, it took me about 30 seconds to spot it when I read the skeleton article in the case.
GRACE LAVERY: Yeah—
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Well, I mean the problem is, fundamentally, that our legal system is set up to constitute judges as independent arbiter acting in accordance with rules, acting fairly. And I don’t think one can say of the divisional court that it performed its function. The consequence of that, as is always the consequence when one part of an enormously important but complicated governance process drops the ball, and it’s—you know, that injustice happens. You know, if you’re the Tavistock and you’re bobbing along, and you think to yourself, “well, this is a case about a child’s ability to consent—all perfectly normal, all perfect rational, no practical basis for saying the Gillick rule doesn’t apply here.” You don’t ball up and make those arguments about why puberty blockers are important. All of a sudden you find that you’re involved in, as I described it, a sort of de facto, judge-led public inquiry into the utility of puberty blockers, not knowing that you were going to, you didn’t turn up with the right evidence and the right witnesses and the right arguments.
GRACE LAVERY: Can you think of any other cases where the notion of a medical pathway has been used in this way? The notion that prescribing one course of treatment necessarily, or kind of prejudicially, implies the prescription of a second course of treatment?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: I can’t, but then I wouldn’t expect to, because it’s just not my area.
GRACE LAVERY: Yeah, ok, fair enough. The last question I have on this, then, is what’s your sense of the future of the Tavistock? What happens next? Do you think that there’s any hope in the medium term of restoring Gillick competency in the case of puberty blockers?
JOLYON MAUGHAM: Yeah, Gillick—I mean, what’s going to happen in divisional court is that there will be some reversion to the mean. In other words we will have something closer to an orthodox understanding of Gillick competence, and we’ll get there maybe in the court of appeal—although I don’t feel particularly optimistic in the court of appeal—or we’ll get there in the supreme court, and I feel more optimistic in the supreme court. And what we will be left with, which will be really damaging, is not a legal…a practical legal impediment to the prescription by the Tavistock of puberty blockers. What we will be left with, I fear—I hope, you know, I desperately hope I’m wrong—but what we will be left with, I fear, that transphobia will have been institutionalized by that decision. Transphobic views will now find support from not a place of marginalization but from a center of power and notionally a center of independence, and that is the, I think, long-lasting and profoundly damaging consequence of the Bell decision. I think, reversing that is a generation’s work.
GRACE LAVERY: That’s a really great place to call it. Thank you so much, Jo. This has been a fabulous conversation. I’m really grateful to you. Thank you for your work.
This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.
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I’m writing this today, as the inaugural post of THE WAZZOCK’S REVIEW, my new twice-weekly publication for Substack. I was given the opportunity to write this journal on a Substack Pro contract, about which I cannot say more. Before I signed, I wanted to be sure that the contract did not prevent me from asserting full editorial independence. I am so satisfied, and so I am using the privilege of that independence to say to Hamish, Chris, and Jairaj: you have mishandled the Linehan affair, and you should set it right quickly.
Before I walk through the case against Linehan, I want to make a point of contrast with Jesse Singal, another anti-transgender campaigner and journalist whose own Substack Pro contract has been a matter of controversy in recent weeks [“stealth edit,” whatever that means: this apparently isn’t true––apparently Singal makes his money from direct grifting, the old fashioned way]. Singal’s work has been roundly criticized by trans critics (including me) for inaccuracies in reporting, and for a general bias against trans people. My thread on this subject is here.
Some of Singal’s writing on trans issues skirts the line of between robust debate and hate speech. He has referred to trans people as a “contagion”; his followers regularly misgender trans people (yesterday it was my husband Danny’s turn); and his tenacity prosecuting a one-man battle against trans people in media sometimes seems to border on the deranged. When Foreign Policy published an essay criticizing British anti-transgender campaigners and the decision in Bell vs. Tavistock, Singal responded by saying that I had never read the decision, demanded that Foreign Policy take down my essay, and eventually pestered their editors, who rejected a majority of his complaints but added three misleading “corrections”—one of which is a plain error of fact. Having failed in his quest to get my piece withdrawn, and with most of his criticisms rejected, Singal claimed victory in his campaign against me—which takes stones, for a guy who makes a podcast criticizing something called “cancel culture.”
[Edited: 3.52pm. True to form, here comes Jesse Singal, emailing me to ask me to “correct” two claims in the above paragraph. The first correction he requests is as follows: “I didn’t and would never refer to trans people as a ‘contagion.’ I wrote that some parents believe their kids’ gender exploration may be a result, at least in part, of social contagion. Then I explained why trans activists find this offensive, then I explained why there’s some evidence it’s true, quoting an experienced clinician, a trans boy, and a former trans girl.” Please do see how convincing you find that account here, or also just note the formulation of “I explained trans people were contagious, then explained why people find that offensive, then showed why it’s true.” Happy to “correct,” Mr. Singal.
The second “correction” he asks for is that he claims that he never called for the withdrawal of my Foreign Policy essay. He said “it should never have been published.” You can split that hair too.
I won’t reciprocate. While it isn’t impossible to imagine Singal stooping to mere hatred and personal libels, nothing he has done so far looks to me like grounds for deplatforming. Moreover, a persistent rumor that Singal has sexually harassed scores of trans women in their Twitter DMs––though no screenshot of such harassment has ever been made public––appears likely false, and based on a misunderstanding. When he feels harmed by trans women (which he often does), Jesse Singal can respond with long, unwelcome diatribes, which are often made in private. I have experienced this habit of Singal’s myself. It was challenging, and exhausting, but it did not feel sexually motivated to me.
It’s important to say these things directly, because Linehan and the many like him are currently hiding behind Singal. If we are serious about confronting the very worst forms of bigotry, we need to get better at distinguishing between different classes of opposition. Jesse Singal is a dolt, but Graham Linehan is a menace, and Substack writers and readers need to be protected from his harassment, abuse, and threats.
* * *
So, the case against Linehan. I’m going to make this argument solely on the basis of his attacks on me, but this is not because this matter comes down to personal beef—it is simply because the libels and slurs he directs against other people are so vile, that I do not wish to repeat them. Linehan’s treatment of me is by no means unusual, as a cursory glance at his own Substack newsletter will confirm.
I’ve told this story so many times, it’s laborious to rehearse it once more. So let me repeat that my story with Linehan is by no means unusual: on the contrary, he has done things like this to dozens of trans people.
On May 7th, 2020, Graham Linehan accused me of “grooming” my students at UC Berkeley.
He then, on Twitter, suggested that I wanted to teach “away from the prying eyes of parents” for nefarious purposes:
Finally, on the same day, he referred to queer theory––a branch of the humanities dealing with the cultures and histories of LGBT people––as “paedophilia”:
I contacted Twitter about these tweets: moderators agreed that they were inflammatory and libelous, and took them down. Linehan’s Twitter account was closed as a result––though he falsely claimed (before the UK Parliament!) to have been censured for a relatively harmless barb he lobbed at the Women’s Institute.
To say that the stress of being linked to pedophilia publicly, and being subject to a swarming hate campaign of hundreds of Linehan’s minions, was overwhelming, would be an understatement. All the more so since, at the very same time, my husband and I were engaged in a high-profile campaign for child protection and safeguarding in evangelical churches. To this day, I get hate mail, including accusations of being a “nonce,” from Linehan’s supporters, and I have been subject to an ongoing campaign to get me fired from UC Berkeley––waged by the same people who talk with such pained frankness about “cancel culture.”
I recently brought myself to watch the video which Linehan kept sharing, of one Derrick Jensen, attempting to discredit queer theory via some reprehensible remarks the French gay writers Michel Foucault and Guy Hocquenghem made about child sexuality in the 1970s. Jensen’s attempt to discredit two of the most important French gay voices of the twentieth century is the very definition of cancel culture, and warrants no engagement. But a further irony is that all I had said was that I taught queer theory (which I do), not that I, personally, accepted every aspect of it (which I don’t). Queer theory has absolutely nothing to do with advocacy of child abuse, but it’s an open question as to whether my own work has much to do with queer theory: I’ve written two essays critical of some of the method’s fundamental principles, “Grad School as Conversion Therapy,” and “Egg Theory’s Early Style.”
After having been booted off Twitter, Linehan took to Substack, where he reiterated that he “still believe[s]” my teaching method is a form of “grooming,” because queer theory “ha[s] to do with blurring boundaries and pedophilia.”
You will notice that this formulation itself blurs a boundary, between the advocacy of pedophilia and the practice of it. I am guilty of neither, but having persuaded his readers of the first charge, he moves on to the second without difficulty. By December, Linehan was offering even cheaper slurs, such as that I must “really enjoy pornography”:
…which, as it goes, I don’t. Earlier this month, Linehan wrote “I stand by everything I’ve written about Lavery” calling me “dangerous AND comical.”
While he clarifies “I didn’t mean to suggest that Lavery is a paedophile”––he three times uses the same awkward formulation to create just that impression:
And of course, his Substack followers knew exactly what he meant:
One of the core purposes of a college education is to give students––young adults––opportunities to explore ideas in their own terms, without direct supervision from their families. That is not to say that families of origin are necessarily hostile to the interests of LGBT students––though plenty are––but that education means developing one’s own ideas, one own’s commitments. To cast that as simply the product of predatory designs on the part of educators would be cruel, stupid, and misguided.
However, it would also be fair comment. That isn’t what Graham Linehan has done. Graham Linehan has waged a campaign, on multiple platforms, to convince his readers that I in particular am a pedophile. They believe him; and as a result I receive hateful, daily harassment. That is wrong, and those who care about “detoxifying” the debate around trans civil rights should have the courage to say so.
* * *
In December, I contacted Substack to complain about Linehan’s remarks about me, which I held to be libelous, and therefore censurable under the Publisher Agreement (PA):
They responded that while, of course, they did not believe I was “grooming” my students, nonetheless they were not a courtroom, and could not determine whether or not it was a libel. The implication was that Substack would only remove posts that had already been deemed libelous in court. If that’s all the PA means, the company should be clear about that––indeed, no such document would be necessary, since compliance is assumed.
Clearly, Linehan’s attack on me is serious. But is it “based on” my sex, gender, or sexual orientation? Yes, self-evidently it is.
Linehan’s own defense is that contemporary scholars in a field of study deriving from two French gay men is irreparably damaged because of remarks those men made decades ago about childhood sexuality. That defense is homophobic on its face: it is very obviously a “serious attack” based on the presumed “sexual orientation” of practitioners of queer theory.
It is also, transparently, false. Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality is certainly influential in queer theory, but no more than in any other number of fields: he is one of the most influential historian of the last century. Hocquenghem is read less frequently today, but his emphatic advocacy of gay identity (not queer) would be temperamentally hard to reconcile with queer theory. I would guess that literally not a single person who works in queer theory today would agree with Foucault’s or Hocquenghem’s views on child consent. Of course I do not, and until Linehan nobody I had ever encountered had ever made this outlandish and disturbing connection.
I am wary of walking through the falseness of Linehan’s “argument,” because it is very clear that Linehan neither knows nor cares anything about the subject. His goal is to smear trans people as pedophiles, and he believes that connecting me to Foucault and Hocquenghem will get him there. It is a truly disgusting move. The only basis for such a move is that I am a trans woman, a class of person whom Linehan thinks contemptible, malicious, and undeserving of civil rights.
It is difficult to think of a more straightforward example of hateful speech act than referring to someone as a pedophile on the basis of their being gay or transgender. This should not, therefore, be a difficult case for Substack. There is no risk of throwing a baby out with this particular trough of sludge. Graham Linehan should not be able to monetize his hatred of trans people, and Substack should not enable him to do so.
For all of the scapegoating of trans people for cancel culture, often among the more successful adherents of the Substack model (Singal, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and others), the truth is that the Linehan-like style of vicious, personal attacks on trans people, especially trans women, is the norm rather than the exception. It’s no surprise that trans people online often blame people like Singal and Greenwald for spreading hate, when they profit––directly and indirectly––from the tactics of people like Linehan. And until those people draw a line between their own views and those of the bigots, it is reasonable to assume that they all stand together.
(Gosh––yesterday Jesse Singal actually published a piece calling Linehan a “transphobe,” and referred to his conduct against me as “disgusting.” Credit where credit’s due: bravo. Would be good to see similar backbone from Greenwald, Sullivan, and the others.)
Substack’s media model offloads all editorial responsibility, and most of the financial reward, onto writers. It is a complex idea, and has many advantages over traditional media, while posing particular challenges. Obviously, it has served me well––hence my relaunching my newsletter after a year or so of dormancy. But in order to work as an environment receptive to a diversity of opinion, Substack needs to enforce its own TOU. As the Substack owners recognize, that project depends upon an ability to distinguish between “guard[ing] against harassment” and “censorship.”
Linehan harassed trans women on Substack, and he should not be able to poison this community, nor to draw a profit, from his hatred. Freedom of expression is important, and open access is worth fighting for. So are the rights of discussants to talk about complex and controversial topics without being exposed to harm.
So close Graham Linehan’s Substack now.
Update, 03/24/21, 2.45pm: Substack just sent around an email explaining their moderation policy. Though they don’t mention Graham Linehan my post specifically, I kind of think they’re thinking about me, because of this slightly wobbly moment:
Now, this is a bit odd. The headline is “we do not allow harassment or threats,” a formulation that quite clearly suggests the two are different. They do not say, for example “we do not allow for harassment (ie, threats).” So using “threatening violence” as a definitor of “harassment” makes no sense at all.
So what does the word mean? I’m sure some lawyers have more precise ideas than me, but here’s a quick google result:
Is Linehan aggressive? Does he apply pressure? Does he aim towards intimidation? Yes, yes, and yes.
The statement from Substack also fails to respond to my point about libel. Is it truly the case that Substack will only judge a statement to be libelous if directed to do so by a court? If so, they should make that clear.
The Guardian ∿ January 7, 2021
Foreign Policy ∿ December 15, 2020
I want to begin by sharing my disgust with those––starting with The Sun––who have escalated misogynistic attacks upon you in the wake of your recent disclosures of opposition to the movement for trans civil rights. While I disagree with your position emphatically and unapologetically, and it is the primary purpose of this letter to explain the substance of that disagreement, it is beyond doubt that many people who believe themselves to be supporting trans women have targeted you unfairly. I join, then, with Roz Kaveney, Andrea Lawlor, and the dozens of other trans people who signed a letter of support for you after The Sun had published a story under the headline “I slapped JK and I’m not sorry” earlier this year. Such an alarming display of misogynist power gives the lie, in my view, to the notion that “terf” is, intrinsically, a sexist slander: at least, it was not one that The Sun had any need for, when it decided to exercise that power against you.
I want also to name another point of agreement between us: as you explain in your oddly-titled essay “J. K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues,” our experiences are not the same. It is difficult to find much that I have in common with you––although, like someone quite close to you, I was a child from a lower-middle-class family who, at the age of 11, moved into a magical world of selective education, and gained access to social circles and cultural capital that nobody had heard of in the house in which I’d grown up. Like The Chosen One, I found that my being an outsider emanated a certain ambivalence, in me and in those around me: I found it easy to hold people’s attention, though perhaps not as easy as the hero of Hogwarts. Still, partly because of the psychic consequences of those experiences, and partly for their ramifications across an entire social domain, I cannot romanticize selective education, nor the Government Assisted Place scheme upon which the ward of Dursley would have depended had he been admitted to King Edward’s School, Birmingham.
The remainder of this letter, which concerns civility––indeed, has been written in order to endorse and uphold the noble goal of discursive civility to which you have committed yourself––must, I am afraid, make clear what I take to be very serious errors of judgment in your handling of this matter. In some cases, those errors of judgment stem from errors of fact. You write early on, for example, that your absorption into your present circumstances was occasioned by tweeting your “support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets.” Although the single quotation marks around “transphobic” make clear that you are not quoting from anywhere, it isn’t clear to this reader, at least, whether you believe the tweets in question to deserve that description––my inference is that you do not.
You go on to describe Forstater’s tweets as part of “a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology.” In fact, the clause might indicate either of three things: either (1) a belief that sex as determined by biology is protected in law, (2) a belief that sex is determined by biology as protected in law, or (3) whether “a belief that sex is determined by biology” is protected in law (the question in the latter case being whether such a belief would be protected in law becauseit was right, or simply because it is a belief, and beliefs are protected in law). The question of whether law or biology comes first, a position on which is quite difficult to extract from your sentence as published, is of course the central question of the very debates in feminist philosophy (in the work of, for example, Catherine McKinnon and Judith Butler) that the current “gender critical feminists” either have not read, or act as though they have not read.
Still, one thing is eminently clear: neither of these “beliefs,” whether or not they could be attributed to Maya Forstater, adequately describes either the letter or the spirit of the tweets for which her contract was not renewed, and which were primarily at issue in her claim against the Center for Global Development, decided against her in November 2019. The full decision, including the texts of the tweet, has been uploaded to Snopes, the website for debunking online misinformation, since Forstater herself (and now you) have been responsible for such grotesque distortions of it. In particular, I would call your attention to the tweet cited in the decision in §34.2, in which Forstater quote-tweeted, with approval, an article entitled “Pronouns Are Rohypnol”:
We may save ourselves the usual fruitless debate over whether a retweet constitutes an endorsement, since in this case Forstater has made it clear what is her view of “Pronouns Are Rohypnol”: it is an “important article.” Now, you are perhaps free to think that this alarming analogy is not “transphobic,” but in that case I suspect you would find yourself in the minority. Perhaps you think that, despite being transphobic, it should not be grounds for contract non-renewal: on this point, you might find broader agreement. But you certainly cannot think, unless you happen not to have read the Forstater decision, that the tweets for which her contract was non-renewed were anything to do with “a philosophical belief.” They were abusive tweets, quite simply meant to shock, hurt, and frighten women.
It will appear unseemly to dwell on the vicious online behavior of one troll––albeit a troll who seems to have had the dubious privilege of radicalizing the wealthiest writer in the world, possibly in history. But it is the central importance of “pronouns are rohypnol” to the ongoing “debate” (I do quote you: “the debate around the concept of gender identity”) can hardly be overstated. The apparent meaning of the phrase, which is indeed the one developed in the essay “Pronouns Are Rohypnol” by Barra Kerr, published on the Fair Play for Women website: basically, that when trans people ask others to refer to us by particular pronouns––and more specifically, when trans women do so––we are, in essence, disarming people of their power to fight us off. “Rohypnol,” then, because trans women are analogous to rapists: all we want is to gain sexual intimacy with women by force––this, the “gender critical” team has it, is the compulsive condition called “autogynephilia.” And pronouns are one among many techniques with which trans women may carry out our work of silencing dissent, the better to prey on unsuspecting women.
This plain sense of “Pronouns Are Rohypnol,” of course, rather gives the lie to the notion that trans people are uniquely rude or cruel in our participation in what you call the “debate” over our civil rights. Indeed, I think trans civil rights activists should not be discredited on the basis of occasionally sharp words, mostly from teenagers. Believe me, I have also been called cunt and bitch––and addition, I have also been called rapist, in that case by the person you have made it your vocation to defend. And explicitly pedophile, by Graham Linehan, one of the primary signatories of another recent letter in support of you, and by his many defenders, enablers, and excusers, including Jane Clare Jones––who still, I believe, does events with Linehan––and Kathleen Stock, who, after initially having the courage stand up to his ludicrous bullying, and call libel by its name, eventually said she regretted his having been expelled from Twitter for it because, after all, it was just a little rough-housing. Unlike you, Joanne, I have access to neither billions of pounds to comfort and protect me, nor the telephone numbers of the British Establishment from whom I might expect a letter of public support. When the creator of Father Ted publicly accuses me of “grooming” my own students at UC Berkeley, on the basis of my having expressed concern for LGBTQ students currently living at home in perhaps unsupportive families, I have no defense open to me––a beloved former mentor, who knows thankfully little about this whole mess, wrote to me to express concern about Linehan’s accusation, assuming that a person of his eminence would not identify smoke were there not also fire. So I sympathize––indeed, if you will forgive my use of the forbidden verb, I identify––with the “millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.”
You will notice, Joanne, that I have not yet addressed the apparent substance of your essay: the “philosophical belief” you impute to Maya Forstater that “sex is determined by biology.” You flesh out this argument a little later:
I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.
Since you don’t say which arguments you’ve read (all of them?) I can hardly respond in detail: indeed, a significant part of my point here is that the supposed philosophical debate that is being silenced (concerning the meanings of something called “biological sex”) is both less censored, and much less interesting, than advertised. It is difficult to know how best to respond to the above bluster––perhaps by attempting to distinguish, as Judith Butler has so conscientiously done, between the body as a material object; the body as it presents itself to consciousness; the body as it is “sexed,” to use your passive construction (which, I take it, indeed derives from Butler); the body as its biological features are assigned particular kinds of taxonomic significance and legibility; the unpredictable effects and distinctions of those meanings as they change over time. Discriminations of this kind are usually necessary to any philosophical analysis of sex (not gender) in both analytical and Continental philosophical traditions: one can hardly characterize a body of knowledge that stretches back over a century, and has shaped the thoughts of millions upon millions of women, as “misogynist,” without sounding a little like one of those politicians who confesses himself sick of “experts.”
Less useful as scholarship than as ideology––as the mark of how a certain social class understands itself and represents itself at this moment in history––“J. K. Rowling Writes” is indispensable. It perfectly depicts a dishonest and insecure oligarchy, desperate to control access into its own terrains and repel invaders at the border. Though its author may have felt otherwise, “J. K. Rowling Writes” is the document of the Brexit era: a text that could rival the present Prime Minister for evasiveness, philosophically incoherence, and a liability to cover up felt intellectual inadequacy with bluff, unfunny jokes: “a lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair (which is doubtless literally possible, according to the kind of people who argue that clownfish prove humans aren’t a dimorphic species).”
I want to conclude with a contention of my own, for which I have no more evidence than a hunch and a few dozen conversations and anecdotes shared with my friends and allies in the LGBTQ community against whom, for whatever reason, you have declared war. We mostly don’t care whether “trans women are women,” and we have many positions on that. We mostly don’t care whether femaleness resides in the sexed body, or what “femaleness” is, or what “the sexed body” is, or what it means for a property to “reside” in a predicated object. We simply don’t believe you when you claim not to be transphobic, not because of these positions, but because of your failure to notice that your apparently blameless movement of frustrated common-sensers, has been infiltrated at every level by the kind of vicious, hostile bigots whose entire business is to defame and degrade the lives of trans women. From Maya Forstater to Graham Linehan, through the Heritage Foundation to WoLF, you have failed to address the hatred in your own ranks, and it is for that reason, and nothing to do with your banal opinions, that you must be called to account.
w/ Steven Rascón ∿ California Magazine ∿ Fall 2020
w/ Charlie Markbreiter ∿ The New Inquiry ∿ July 13, 2020
The Guardian ∿ July 10, 2020
Catapult ∿ October 17, 2019
Vice ∿ September 19, 2019
Catapult ∿ July 10, 2019
them ∿ June 17, 2019
Catapult ∿ June 11, 2019
Catapult ∿ May 7, 2019
GAY Magazine ∿ May 1, 2019
w/ Emma Pettit ∿ The Chronicle of Higher Education ∿ January 20, 2019
Los Angeles Review of Books ∿ October 29, 2018
Avidly ∿ February 7, 2018