on trans issues

For awhile it’s been bubbling around that Substack is transphobic, or that prominent writers on Substack are transphobic, or that the Substack Pro program is a way to attract transphobic writers. I’m not going to speak about that, other than to be the thousandth person to point out that Substack has an immensely diverse group of writers and insisting otherwise depends on only paying attention to a handful of controversial writers. (Seriously, it is simply not remotely accurate to say that even a majority of Substack Pro writers focus on culture war, let alone are all cancel culture critics.) In any event, I have become aware that I am specifically being named as a transphobic writer on Twitter. I find it necessary to point out that this accusation is based on literally no specific writing or arguments of mine. (I know, the irony.)

I have, I think understandably, been sensitive to this accusation, so I tried to figure out where it was coming from - what specific thing I’ve written in the past that was prompting these claims. To my considerable frustration I have not found anything. I looked at dozens of tweets and not a single one that referenced my supposed transphobia cited, linked to, or quoted from a piece of my writing. It’s hard to know how to respond because the accusations literally do not have content.

It won’t matter for my reputation how I self-define my positions regarding trans people, but I may as well do it anyway. I have always felt that trans rights are an important part of any progressive or left political project, as trans identity is equally valid as any other and trans people are a uniquely vulnerable population. I think and have always thought that trans people require anti-discrimination and hate crimes protections. I think good, progressive people fully recognize trans people’s genders and identities as they express them and of course use their preferred pronouns. Trans people should have government-guaranteed cheap or free health care in general, as all people should, including those expenses related to transition; if and when an individual trans person chooses to undergo gender confirmation surgery, the government should pay for it. You’ll have to either take my word for it or not that these are my views. I will not play the “I have X number of trans friends” game.

On more complex areas of trans issues I don’t believe I’ve ever really engaged because I don’t feel confident enough that I understand those issues. I don’t know when children should begin transitioning. I don’t know what the medical standard for the transitioning process should be. I don’t know if or when children should begin hormone treatments or puberty blockers. I don’t know how many detransitioners there are and I don’t know what lessons people should take from the existence of detransitioners, if any. These things are beyond my knowledge and lived experience, so I don’t have anything good to say. I have written untold thousands of words on the internet - I have published, by conservative estimate, more than 250,000 words on education and education policy - but I would guess I’ve written less than 5,000 about trans issues in 13 years of writing for public consumption. Because I don’t know enough to feel comfortable to weigh in. It’s just not something I write about.

The only thing of substance that I’ve written about trans issues remotely recently was only a few weeks ago, in the context of my post “The Synecdoche Problem.” (Such an awful title.) The point of that post is that both our psychological tendencies and the professional incentives of writing and activism compel us to mistake our own feelings about what’s best for a given population for the opinions of that population itself. The point is most relevant to BlackLivesMatter, which is a righteous cause but one which embraces some positions far out of line with that of average Black voters, who are generally speaking the most conservative part of the Democratic coalition. I also mentioned this in context of trans advocacy and argued that because of the small numbers of trans people overall and the paucity of polling of that group, it’s hard to know what trans people as a group believe, as compared to trans activists. You should probably read the entire post, but some quotes include

Trans people are a minority group whose legitimate gender identities and identifications make them the victims of discrimination and violence. We need to pass laws to protect them from harm and to legally recognize whatever gender identity they identify with. Gender confirmation surgery should be freely available where appropriate. Socially we should accept trans identities, use their preferred pronouns, and in general practice acceptance of and concern for trans people.

And I think we can absolutely achieve all this. The heart of discrimination is dehumanization. You overcome dehumanization by showing the humanity of those being discriminated against. Black people were literally bought and sold in this country because a propaganda effort convinced the white public that they weren’t human; demonstrating that they were was a big part of the abolition effort. Gay and lesbian men and women made huge leaps in the past several decades because improved visibility demonstrated to the average person that they were human like anyone else and that they deserved rights and compassion. Improved visibility of trans people can absolutely do the same. Will inevitably do the same, I suspect.

I go on to say that there are more extreme positions within the broad trans rights movement that seem less achievable. Again, I do not comment on whether these positions are correct or not because I don’t feel confident in doing so. I do say that they seem less likely to be politically achievable than broad trans acceptance generally. (Some criticized that post at the time by saying that these are such niche views no one holds them, but I linked to specific arguments of their type, including in major publications, and that’s who I was responding to.) I call for more and more effective polling of the trans population so that we have a clearer sense of what the average trans person wants. Like I said, read it all if you want.

Certainly that post could be wrong on the merits. You might even argue that it’s transphobic, though I genuinely struggle to see how. But you would have to actually do that - name that post as your evidence, cite specific passages, and explain your reasoning for why it’s transphobic. To say “transphobic writers, like Jones, Smith, and deBoer,” without any evidence at all, isn’t just unfair. It trivializes the accusation and undermines the effort to fight the legitimate thing. (I know, the irony.) It is certainly possible that I’ve written or said stupid things about trans issues in the past, though I have always believed in the equal rights and dignity of trans lives. My own sensitivities and understandings evolve like anyone else’s. But if there is a specific dumb thing I’ve said, I would hope that it would be named and quoted from responsibly, and I would also hope that evolving public sentiment in this area would be taken into account. And I’ll disavow anything offensive I’ve said in the past about trans people, if you actually do the work of showing evidence and making an argument.

I’ve said what I need to say about my writing career and Substack. All I will add right now is that the basic controversy with Substack, if we’re being honest, is that it’s a platform for publishing writing and some people on the platform write controversial things. Just a few years ago people would have thought this level of rage about that would be crazy. But here we are. People will say things you don’t like, guys. You will never go a day of your life without being offended. That’s life. Only you can decide what to do with the feelings that provokes in you. This attitude not only exists, it’s prevalent. Why are your argumentative priorities the way that they are?

I guess the only thing that really bothers me is that some of the self-same people on Twitter who are making this accusation are now going to turn around and say that there’s something inherently funny or pathetic about me writing this. It’s a real fine trap: you say that a particular accusation is one of the worst accusations that anyone could make, you create a culture of righteous condemnation against people guilty of that accusation, then you make that accusation constantly and with no evidentiary standards whatsoever, and then you act as though those defending themselves are somehow disordered for doing so. How does this help actually-existing trans people? I don’t have the slightest idea.

This is not what I wanted to share with you all today.