On The Antioch Review, Daniel Harris, and Transphobia

In an extraordinary post from the 1st of May, The Antioch Review — a literary journal whose name, in this moment, reflects the antiquatedness of the views in one of its most recent articles — decided to publicise some of its most recent, potentially controversial content. In a post that now appears to have been taken down, at least at the time of writing this, the Review — which has an impressive literary history, its inception dating back to the days of the Second World War in 1941 — referred to ‘[t]hree essays in the latest issue’ that ‘are sure to entertain, intrigue, and provoke.’ The first two essays, to be fair, do seem entertaining and intriguing, and, perhaps, even mildly controversial. One is about the sex lives of birds; the other chronicles a ‘Muslim-Jewish’ trip to Mecca after 9/11.

The third essay in this multi-faith trinity, by contrast, seems so out of place by comparison as to initially appear to be an impoverished joke. Entitled ‘The Sacred Androgen’ by Daniel Harris, the blog poster, Grace Curtis — who, incredibly, is Antioch Review’s marketing coordinator — describes Harris’ essay in a kind of editorial haze, dazed, no doubt, by the sacred glow of Harris’ androgens. Harris’ essay, Curtis informs us, ‘asks us to take our debate to a new level on the topic of transgenders.’ The essay ‘covers a range of topics–from transgender children to the notion of the imprisoned male or female metaphor to even the words used to refer to transgender individuals.’

It is clear from the first sentence of this advertisement that Curtis, like Harris, is not quite ready to elevate the discussion on trans individuals; after all, ‘transgenders’ is a term that would make most of us, cis and trans alike, cringe, a term that often connotes a very basic, at best, understanding of how to talk about trans people like me, and that, at worst, may imply a kind of Othering contempt. But all the same, there are many people who still do not know much about trans persons, despite our increasing media visibility. And so I can potentially forgive Curtis for her choice of language, even as I find it incredible that someone in the business of ‘marketing’ would possess so little foresight in, well, marketing. But I can let this go.

What I cannot let go, however, is Harris’ incoherent, scarcely literate, empathetically stunted, moronic, contempt-filled, vacuous essay. It is one of the most extreme anti-trans tirades I’ve read in 2016, the kind of contemptuous polemic one expects to find in a long Facebook post, on a conservative blog, or in certain right-wing publications’ opinion sections. I did not expect to see it in The Antioch Review, and I was far from alone in this disappointing surprise.

I want to make clear from the outset that I believe in freedom of speech without censorship. The Review can post whatever it wishes. I may fervently disagree with Harris’ points, as well as the poverty of his rhetoric, but I fully defend his right to write it. If our arguments are strong enough, we can withstand criticism of them. And I have no problems correcting Harris’ views, for they are factually wrong — not wrong because I believe they are, but because they are in fact scientifically, philosophically, and logically flawed. All the same, Harris has a right to write such things, and I never want to be in the business of forcing someone to adopt my view of the world.

With that said, while you can publish whatever you wish, it is simply myopic to believe that you will not get called out for it if you publish an essay that is not simply wrong, but that dehumanises and trivialises a marginalised community that is already in the at-times-negative attention of the media right now, due to the spate of anti-trans bathroom bills in many states of the U. S. Indeed, Harris’ essay, which reads with more tone-deafness and far less style than the racist passages in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, actually attempts to further marginalise trans people — who he repeatedly calls ‘TGs,’ a term that is benign-but-uncommon at best and that suggests ‘shemale’ pornography at worst — in the context of all this media outrage. Harris believes that trans women, like myself, are delusional and aggressive, forcing the evil term ‘cisgender’ upon innocent people like himself and even — zounds! — asking people like him to use the correct pronoun. Harris, who has also written about ‘gay culture’ in America long prior to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, is willing to accept queerness, as long as it is not the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT.’

Harris’ essay, in fact, takes the template of an angry member of the majority class railing against the slow successes of a minority group, a template that has appeared many times throughout history. It is easy to transform Harris’ essay into, for instance, an anti-black screed written by a white man. As I read through it — itself a struggle, given the impressive arrogance and ignorance Harris has worked into nearly every line — I found myself disturbed by how easily I could imagine my other identity — my being a multiracial woman — under attack in an essay that could read very similarly to his own. I can only assume that the next essay The Antioch Review decides to publish as a ‘controversial’ piece will ask if racial half-breeds like myself are truly fully human. That, after all, would go well with the theme. And, given that that topic has a long history of racist rhetoric behind it — we’ve been asked about our humanity and ‘purity’ before — it is not a flawed analogy, which makes it all the scarier.

It is telling that The Antioch Review has published this piece. It is still quite okay, in some places, to be casually hateful of trans people. And make no mistake: Harris’ piece is full of zealous anger. It is still quite okay, in some places, to casually brush aside the mental capacities of trans people, rendering us ‘mentally deficient’ and ‘delusional’ and even, if you read certain conservative sites, ‘the downfall of Western civilisation.’ These labels, of course, even at their most extreme, have all been applied to people based on race and gender, and gender identity is the new fashionable target. That Harris’ essay was published at all shows this, since a piece like his own — even solely based on his writing — is unfit to be published by a journal as esteemed as The Antioch Review.

I do understand that much confusion exists for many people around us. Lionel Shriver, only last month in Prospect Magazine, was able to write an essay much like Harris’ own in content but soberer in style, which asked similar questions. For Shriver, gender identity is all about ‘clothes,’ and she seemed unable to understand the distinction between cross-dressers (which are about clothes) and trans people. Gender identity is something we all have, be we cis or trans. For most people, their gender identity is not something particularly noticeable; it just is, and they never think to think of it, since it has no reason to be questioned. For trans people, gender identity is also, usually, not something questionable; the only difference is that our bodies and how people perceive us in terms of gender may not match our internal, psychological sense of self. Gender identity, like sexual orientation, is an internal identification that often has outward material manifestations in how we live our lives, and both are in the process of slowly being better understood by a variety of branches of science: neuroscience, genetics, epigenetics, endocrinology. It is not a whimsical choice we make; it is who we are. And it is not harmful to be queer in any way, whereas true delusions are.

I will always support freedom of ideas in literature. With that said, I will also call out pieces like this that crassly marginalise and attack vulnerable communities. Harris’ piece, beyond that, is not even good writing, and I am at a loss, unless there is some strange and sad agenda at work in the shadowy offices of the Review, as to why they took it at all. Let us speak out against this casual, crude hatred of trans people. Let us speak out against essays that mask genuine bigotry with the word ‘controversial.’ I do not say that we should prevent such pieces from being written, but we must speak out against them, so that hopefully, one day, they will not have any further need by anyone to be written at all. That is an idealistic dream, of course. Bigotry will likely never die away. But as long as it and we coexist, we can speak out against it. And that is what I am doing now.

I am ashamed of The Antioch Review’s having chosen and highlighted this piece. All the same, I am glad, in a way, that they did, for it showed me how quickly wonderful people in the literary community came together to call them out for it. Progress is slow — but here, in this case, it was real.

Literature, so often, is about what it means to be human, in all its strange and lovely and terrible and marvellous forms. And a literature that dehumanises other people is not a literature that is aspiring to be literature that is worthy of the name. Surely we — Harris included — can do far better, if we open ourselves to the vastness of human experience. That does not mean accepting everything; but disagreement and dehumanisation are not the same, and Harris’ piece is a clear example of one and not the other, an example we can do far better in for the rest of 2016 to come.

Gender 2.0

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Gabrielle Bellot

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Staff writer at LitHub. Writing in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Cut, Tin House, The Atlantic, Slate, Guernica, HuffPost, Electric Lit + elsewhere.

Gender 2.0

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