Transphobia In A Literary Journal Isn’t Free Speech — It’s Hate Speech
By Catherine Brereton
There’s been a bit of a furor in the ordinarily mild-mannered world of literary journals. Back in March, Antioch Review, the literary journal of Antioch College in Ohio, and one of the longest-standing and most respected journals in the literary world, announced the lineup for its Winter 2016 issue. In the March press release, Antioch College drew specific attention to “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate,” an essay by New York-based writer, Daniel Harris, calling the essay a “must-read about one sexual choice for humankind,” an “outstanding” feature which “should stir controversy and lead to discussion.”
Harris’ substantial essay (it rolls in at over 5,300 words) purports to present, as the title suggests, the “transgender debate.” Yet, as poet, cartoonist, and librarian Oliver Bendorf says, “It’s important to clarify that trans lives are not up for debate.” For anyone with an ounce of compassion and understanding, it’s a difficult read. The essence of Harris’ argument, succinctly summarized by Brynn Tannehill in a personal essay for the HuffingtonPost, amounts to this: “Transgender identities are a delusion requiring psychotherapy to cure,” “Transgender people are pathetic, ugly, disgusting, and loathsome,” and “‘Normal’ people shouldn’t have to play along with the delusion.” Of course, Tannehill is pulling no punches here, and Harris doesn’t quite use those words, at least not precisely. But he comes pretty close.
What Harris does say, among plenty of other things, is this: “TGs have ambushed the debate and entangled us in a snare of such trivialities as the proper pronouns with which to address them . . . They insult us with the pejorative term ‘cisgender,’ . . . they shame us into silence by ridiculing the blunders we make while trying to come to grips with their unique dilemma, decrying . . . our unwillingness, or even inability, to enter into their own (often unsuccessful) illusion as narrow-mindedness.” He suggests that transgender individuals swim in “surgeon-infested seas,” and draws a fallacious comparison between gender reassignment surgery and “the nips and tucks undertaken by the trophy wife or celebrity.” His language is vile — venomous, even — using phrases like “obscene trout pout,” “ulcerated saddlebags,” and “vaginoplasties that create, not orifices, but fibrous lumps.”
There is so much wrong with Harris’ rhetoric — from his dehumanizing use of “TGs” to his attempt to create yet another polarizing us-them binary — that it would take pages to deconstruct fully, but it is immediately apparent, without any kind of analysis, that this essay can not be passed off as thought-provoking or provocative. It is, quite simply, offensive — although that might be, in fact, far too mild a term.
I’m not the only one to think so. As the readers of Antioch Review browsed through the 2015 National Magazine Awards finalist’s new edition, they were, like me, horrified. Within a matter of hours, a collective of writers, editors, and librarians, spearheaded by Bendorf, who identifies as a trans man, collaborated on an open letter, denouncing Antioch Review’s decision to publish Harris’ article and asking for the editors to be held accountable not only for the publication, but for the subsequent way in which they touted it — advertised it, even — on social media platforms. “Folks were sharing their outrage on Twitter and Facebook, but in scattershot pockets of social media,” Bendorf says, “and I wanted a way to collect those sentiments and make their collective power visible . . . I wanted to transform what may have otherwise been individual, isolated expressions and responses into something powerful, public, and unwavering in its stance.”
The response from the literary community was both immediate and significant: “Google had trouble accommodating the number of people viewing and editing the document,” he told me. “Every time I looked, the number of supporters had jumped by another hundred at least.” At the time of writing, the open letter has garnered over 4,000 signatures.
Within 24 hours of the open letter’s publication, Antioch Review’s blog posted a response, not from the publication, as one might expect, but from Antioch College. However, that response fell a long way short of even a basic apology, relying on vague, non-committal legalese stating that “Antioch College does not condone or always agree with the ideas and viewpoints expressed in the Review,” that the college has “confidence in the Review’s editor and editorial process . . . [and supports] . . . the free expression of ideas and opinions, even when they run counter to our own.” A short while later, Antioch Review’s editor, Robert Fogarty, posted his response in which he did, at least, indicate his regret for “any pain and hurt that the publishing of this piece has caused,” and invited responses to Harris’ essay via the journal’s usual submission process.
This is all well and good, but — with apologies for the language — I call bullshit. Fogarty and the editorial team at Antioch Review knew exactly how Harris’ transphobic puddle of venom would be received, especially in light of what Abeni describes as a bombastic marketing campaign. And they had a responsibility — still have a responsibility — to take much, much more care with their publishing decisions. “I suspect that the editorial leadership actually wanted a controversial, sensationalist screed to draw attention to its pages,” Abeni says. “And if so, then they intended it for it to be harmful.”
That the Antioch Review moved forward with this piece, and even promoted it heavily, raises questions about the ethics of editorship — and about what happens when those ethics are flagrantly, cravenly violated.
I have served as the Editor-in-Chief of a longstanding literary journal, and I understand only too well the pressures of that kind of editorship. Readerships are dwindling, as audiences have hundreds of thousands of free publications at the tips of their fingers; they’re crunched for time, and they’re discerning. They can click away from an online publication in an instant, and needn’t spend money to have access to high-quality writing. It’s a competitive marketplace for any literary journal, even one with the pedigree of Antioch Review. Editors respond to this competition by creating journals that people want to read — and, yes, audiences love controversy.
But it must never be forgotten that the audience we chase is one made up of real people who have experienced wonderful and terrible things alike. The audience that we chase is diverse. And although editors need to provide that hook, the piece that will draw the audience in, doing so does not come without responsibilities. There is an ethical line, and, to my mind at least, that line is clearly visible.
As an editor, I have had to make some tough decisions. The journal I ran had experienced its low points; there were times when it had struggled to stay afloat, when I wasn’t certain it had any readership at all, let alone a dwindling one. While we didn’t receive any submissions as overtly bigoted as Harris’ piece, we did receive submissions that made us pause, submissions that tackled difficult issues — abuse, rape, suicide, pornography. Some pieces tackled these issues more subtly than others; some were publishable because those issues were handled in a careful way, a way which made it clear that the piece was not simply a soapbox masquerading as an essay, but a genuine attempt to enter into a meaningful dialogue. And some pieces were not subtle, and were not publishable because, for whatever reason — the writer’s personal agenda, or their ability to negotiate difficult topics — they were offensive.
Sometimes, these submissions weren’t obviously offensive, but someone on our team cringed at a certain sentence, or picked up on a tone that made them uncomfortable enough to ask whether we, as a journal, wanted to be associated publicly with that tone, that perspective — because, like it or not, we would be associated with the material we chose to publish.
Put simply, literary journals are judged by the quality and tone of the work they publish — and Harris’ essay was not well written, not thoughtful, not respectful, not considered. The author’s personal agenda and biases are on display, front and center, and in publishing this piece, Antioch Review at best lent itself to be associated with Harris’ bigotry, if not outright condoning such hate. I cannot believe that they were innocent of this fact.
This editorial oversight is particularly egregious when you take into account the current state of civil rights for transgender individuals. Transgender people are, as Cleis Abeni points out, “subjected to some of the worst disenfranchisement possible in the United States.” Cleis, a non binary, transgender, black feminine person who has written on the topic of transgender issues for The Advocate, continues, “we are routinely denied safe, well appointed housing; we are shut out of well-paying, safe jobs where we are free of bigotry; we have trouble accessing affirming healthcare; and we are denied safe access to public accommodations like restrooms that reflect our true gender.”
Just last week, the state of North Carolina was pushed to respond to the Department of Justice’s position that its bathroom law — a law which requires individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex given on their birth certificate rather than that which corresponds with their gender identity — was a violation of the Civil Rights Act (North Carolina refused to back down, incidentally, and it is likely that a federal judge will now have to step in to rule on the matter). Also last week, the Chicago Tribune reported on the creation and evolution of the term transgender, sharing the surprising statistic that the word has appeared in the Tribune no less than 120 times in 2016 alone.
In order not to understand that transgender rights are, perhaps, one of the most important civil rights issues of our time, one would have to have one’s head well and truly in the proverbial sand. Harris’ piece is so obscenely tone deaf to the current conversation that I’d even go out on a limb here and say that it requires willful ignorance.
I identify as a cisgender lesbian; while the overt transphobia and underlying misogyny of Harris’ piece are upsetting to me, I’m not affected in any direct way by his commentary, and I don’t seek to speak for the trans community. But I know and love many people in the trans community, and have witnessed the very real hurt that this essay has caused.
Damien Phillips, a trans male studying at the University of Kentucky, articulated his response to me: “It’s this sort of pseudo-intellectual talk that hurts more than someone just using brazen crudity and calling us trannies, faggots, shemales . . . The fact that [Harris] is trying to use “academia” to reinforce his hateful notions just drives the point home further that absolutely every nook and cranny of society hates us and who we are,” he says. “It makes me sick, it makes me cry, and honestly, it’s this sort of rhetoric that makes me feel utterly hopeless and like killing myself. By having this kind of material supported and encouraged by the Antioch Review just makes me feel completely disheartened at what the future holds.”
Despite its title, Harris’ article is not a debate; it is an obvious and outright attack on a group of already-marginalized people. Many will, no doubt, disagree, claiming Harris’ right to free speech. I’d rather describe it as hate speech. Had Antioch Review truly wanted to engage in any kind of meaningful conversation, then this publication should have been accompanied, at the very least, by a clear disclaimer, an upfront disavowal of the content, rather than a late attempt at an apology. That they used this article to promote the journal, to attract readers, is shameful; if the editorial team had hoped that this publication would make Antioch Review appear edgy and unafraid, then they made a serious error in judgment.
Their subsequent call for debate from the trans community and its many allies is, as Oliver Bendorf says, “no debate at all. It is bait. It is a sharp open hook, waiting for our mouths, waiting for blood.” Any attempt to enter into dialogue would be a fruitless, frustrating exercise. To paraphrase the inimitable Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Indeed. Antioch Review has shown us who they are, and we get to decide what to do with that knowledge.
Bendorf concludes: “The world of editing and publishing is rich and vibrant, and there are so many venues, so many editors, who use their power for good in our community.” Antioch Review’s lack of editorial ethics has had real world consequences that they must now face. Instead of becoming a notorious publication, they have become a pariah. And rightfully so.