Last week, I found myself on the phone, trying not to shout at a reporter from the New York Times.
The shouting was about Substack. I was one of several people who left the platform over its choice to pay, platform and protect transphobic writers. Unfortunately, my post about leaving Substack caught lots of traffic, and I was being treated as an “expert.” Being a trans “expert” in a conversation about transphobia is the closest any human being can get to Hell without hitting Glenn Greenwald on the way down.
There was the writer who wanted to know why I wasn’t able to share platforms with “people I don’t like,” and who ended the interview when I kept pulling the focus back to transphobia. There was the radio show that interviewed me and a trans woman, then ran quotes from neither of us, tapping a cis reporter — the same reporter who’d ended the interview with me — to read my post aloud on air and explain how unreasonable it was.
After a few of these, I’d decided not to do any more interviews. I only budged for this request because, well, it was the Times. I shouldn’t have.
It fell apart early on. Ben Smith, the reporter, told me by email that his only other trans sources for the story were Daniel and Grace Lavery, who had accepted advances from Substack. I replied that I didn’t want to be pitted against the Laverys, and offered to connect him to several other trans writers, so he could get a range of opinion. He assured me he had no interest in a cage match. Then, on the phone, he asked me how I could call Substack transphobic if they were hiring writers like Daniel and Grace Lavery.
“If Substack were to pivot so that it only paid trans writers, I would be fine with that,” I remember saying, my voice already brittle around the edges.
I recall the rest less as an interview than as an ongoing series of attempts to complete a sentence. I said that Substack, by recruiting specific writers and making determinations about who deserved to be paid, had made itself a publisher, and was responsible for the rhetoric on its platform. This rhetoric was frequently transphobic, which —
But wait, he said, how could I be sure Substack was paying these guys?
I couldn’t, I said, because Substack refused to disclose that information. That’s why I was focused on across-the-board content moderation, because publishers have a responsibility to rein in hate speech, which —
Wait, wait, weren’t there other places on the Internet that had hate speech?
I wasn’t currently focused on those other platforms, I said, but Substack had specifically been providing a platform for high-profile writers to spread transphobia, which —
Well, no, the reporter said, he didn’t plan to get too deep into the whole trans thing, he was covering the business end.
“People are going to get killed,” I remember saying.
I was pacing my deck, and my voice was coming from somewhere scary, deep in my gut. It wasn’t that I was yelling, but if I let go even a little, I would be.
Rhetoric had consequences, I said again. Some of these writers had laid the rhetorical and political groundwork for bills like the one in Arkansas, which banned healthcare for trans children, which experts believe will lead to an increase in trans suicides. If you platformed those viewpoints, you gave them mainstream legitimacy, which led to more anti-trans bills, as the result of which more trans people would die. So any discussion of Substack’s business model had to start with the fact that extracting a short-term profit from hate speech made it more likely that trans people would fucking die.
The interview ended.
This is only my own subjective recollection. It differs from Smith’s: “I didn’t think you lost your temper,” he said, when I reached out for comment. “I thought you were clear that a central point was the suggestion that the company was giving advances to anti-trans writers, and/or that it was opaque on that point.”
Needless to say, I don’t recall this being my central point, or even one of the main points I was making. My point was about mainstreaming hate speech, and over the weekend, Andrew Sullivan published a Substack newsletter proposing a solution for the “trans question.”
If I re-read the Andrew Sullivan newsletter, I will start yelling again. I will try to avoid yelling, and I will fail. No rational human being could read that post without some part of their brain going up in flames.
The “trans question” has become polarized, Sullivan tells us, between trans activists and transphobic cis women, both parties being “psychologically unstable, emotionally volatile and personally vicious.” Thus, Sullivan lays forth his vision of a “truce” between trans people, who would like to exist, and transphobes, who believe we shouldn’t. This would be a world in which we don’t outlaw trans people, necessarily, but we do have laws in place to limit their numbers and render them second-class citizens.
The “reasonable” policy includes segregated public facilities. (“Separate facilities for trans people is the sanest and least dangerous option.”) It includes banning gender-affirming healthcare for most minors, and potentially for adults who don’t pass gatekeeping standards. (“There should be some measure other than simply a statement by the person to show that the transition is genuine and sustained.”) It includes forbidding teachers to tell their students that “they have a choice over whether to be a boy or a girl,” lest those kids become “confused.” In other words, the “compromise” includes everything that anti-trans groups have already placed on our legislative agenda, and goes several steps further.
This is a public call to target a marginalized group that is already at extremely high risk of violence and discrimination. So why doesn’t Substack treat it as dangerous? How can an extremist agenda pass as “compromise” or “disagreement” or “free speech?” Simple: A cis person wrote it.
A radio show will assign a cis “expert” to explain what trans people are saying, rather than having those trans people on the show. A cis reporter will deem transphobia irrelevant to the coverage of a business, even when people are protesting that business over transphobia. Cis voices get to make “objective” determinations about what matters, and what matters is never trans people. Cis voices are perceived as the “reasonable” parties on trans issues, because trans people are deemed inherently biased by virtue of being trans.
When I read the words “compromise” and “trans question,” I remember hearing my own words “explained” on air by a cis reporter who didn’t even bother to interview me at length. I hear myself not-quite-shouting at a different reporter to at least consider that a lot of people in my community might die.
I wasn’t angry at that reporter. I was pleading with him. That’s what stings.
The Times article came out. I wasn’t quoted — I hadn’t expected to be — and neither were any other trans writers who’d left Substack. I learned afterward that the reporter had only spoken to one of the people I referred. The article downplayed the question of transphobia to the point of being flat-out misleading: Graham Linehan, who doxed trans women on a dating app, repeatedly accused trans women and allies of “grooming” children, was banned from Twitter for “hateful conduct” against trans people, and harassed one trans woman to the point of being given a police warning in 2018, was described as someone who “[activists] said [was] anti-transgender” because he “made fun of people’s appearances.”
A photo of Daniel and Grace Lavery, smiling happily in front of a brownstone, adorned the article — less an illustration than a visual disclaimer that the article, like Substack, could not possibly be transphobic if these two were present. The optics of only featuring trans people who were willing to strike a conciliatory stance do not seem to have occurred to anyone involved.
A cis person wrote it, so it seems objective. A cis person chose whose voices to elevate, and the missing trans people won’t catch the reader’s eye. I’m just asking questions, transphobic writers say, over and over. What I’ve learned, in the past few weeks, is just how much you can warp a story by asking the wrong questions. “The Substack problem” is not a Substack problem. It’s a problem with media writ large. It’s a problem with a world that systematically marginalizes trans voices unless they tell cis people what they want to hear.
In that world, the “trans question” is always a question about cis comfort: Should cis people have to treat us with respect, or not? Do they have to believe us about our genders, or don’t they? What can trans people do to make cis people more comfortable? What can we do so they don’t have to see us or hear from us any more? Yet I fully believe the people asking these questions don’t see themselves as transphobic. For them, trans people are a question, because they are ideas; trans identity is an “ideology,” and trans people have unusual beliefs about gender, rather than actually having the genders we say we do.
You can seek to limit an idea, if you believe it’s dangerous. You can disagree with an idea, or counter it with a better one. You can push ideas into the margins. But people are not ideas, and when you disagree with a person’s existence, the only thing you can do is to try to make them not exist any more.
So here we are, in a moment when state legislatures are trying to do exactly that: The Arkansas bill banning children’s healthcare, the North Carolina bill that requires teachers to report gender non-conformity, the bill in Texas that would take trans children away from their parents if those parents love them enough to let them be trans, all of it intended to make transition difficult or impossible, and thereby limit the number of openly trans people in the world. That’s where bad questions take us — to bad answers, brutal answers, answers that kill. So many cis people have asked me questions, in the past few weeks. So few have asked the one question that might change things: How can I help?