BY HANK REICHMAN
Alice Dreger, the controversial author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice, an exciting and important defense of academic freedom in the sciences, who last year resigned a position at Northwestern University to protest the university’s censorship of sexual content in a faculty-sponsored publication, is once again a target of the censors. A few months ago, the blog site Everyday Feminism contacted Dreger because they wanted to reprint her popular essay, “What If We Admitted to Children that Sex is Primarily about Pleasure?” They negotiated some terms and the piece appeared a few days ago. And then it suddenly disappeared. [It remains available at Pacific Standard, the site that first published it and from which it went viral.] Here’s how Josette Sousa, Everyday Feminism’s program coordinator, explained it in an email to Dreger:
What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission from it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention and we looked into them. We then realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.
HUH?! They actually pulled an article that they had agreed to publish on one topic, because somebody complained about other publications by the author that the site hadn’t published and that were on another topic entirely? It strains credulity. And let me quickly add that I’ve read the essay that was removed; it’s both delightful and sensible and, especially if you’re a parent worrying about how to break the “birds and the bees” to your children, a very helpful resource.
Here’s the background. As readers of Galileo’s Middle Finger know, Dreger has been involved in debates over the nature of transsexualism and her views have offended a small group of highly vocal trans activists, who have relentlessly sought to discredit, harass and silence her. They claim, of course, that she is “anti-trans” — in short, a simple bigot. Now I’m no expert on trans issues, but I do know that by reading Dreger’s book I gained far greater understanding of and sympathy for trans and intersex individuals. Indeed, the book helped move my own position from one of vague sympathy based almost entirely on my overall gut bias for tolerance to one based on a more informed and nuanced understanding of the transsexual and intersexual phenomena. If that’s “anti-trans” what then might “pro-trans” be? How can someone whose writing and work promotes deeper and more widespread understanding of the great variety of sexualities be labeled a sexual bigot?
As Dreger put it today on her blog,
A number of my fellow feminists have pointed out that today, women like me can be subject to silencing simply on the basis that they have supposedly said something that is anti-trans rights, even if they have not. Anyone so labeled also gets labeled a “TERF”: trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
But it does no good. Because as soon as you assert anything that someone with the trans identity card claims is anti-trans, you are stripped of your rights to be a sex-positive feminist talking about sex ed at a feminist website. At least in the case of “Everyday Feminism.”
This “zero tolerance” approach on the left is like some kind of Monty Python satire of activism. It would be funny if it did not lead to the right pointing out how the left isn’t actually thinking, it’s just playing a game of identity politics go fish. Who has the most oppression cards? They win!
In March something similar happened to Dreger. The Lambda Literary Foundation nominated Galileo’s Middle Finger for a Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Nonfiction category, but almost immediately withdrew the nomination after pressure from anti-Dreger activists. As Dreger noted, in an open letter to the Foundation’s executive director, the whole affair was dripping with irony:
In my book—as in the earlier article that led to the misery that led to me to doing that book—I had traced out what happened in 2003 to J. Michael Bailey’s book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, when it had been named a finalist for a “Lammy”: A group of transgender activists upset with Bailey for writing about autogynephilia—a sexual orientation that reasonably motivates some natal-male’s transition to women—had launched a campaign against the Lambda Literary Foundation.
As you know if you’ve read my book, in 2006, I interviewed Jim Marks about the incident. Marks is a gay man who at the time of the Bailey book storm held the position you now hold at the Lambda Literary Foundation: Executive Director Marks told me about first hearing an objection to Bailey’s book from Professor Deirdre McCloskey, a prominent academic and transgender woman. McCloskey told Marks she thought Bailey’s book nomination for a Lammy was “like nominating Mein Kampf for a literary prize in Jewish studies.” She demanded it be withdrawn.
Marks told me he was “a little taken aback by the campaign of a university professor to a kind of Orwellian non-history.” He also said that the Foundation “would clearly have [had] grounds for removing a book that was in fact hostile to the Foundation’s mission.” But Marks was hearing from transgender people “who supported the book and urged us to keep it on the list.”
Marks asked the committee to re-vote on the book and they voted to keep it on the finalist list. McCloksey and her two chief collaborators in the smear campaign on Bailey, Lynn Conway and Andrea James, upped their efforts. As I and Dr. Anne Lawrence (a transgender woman) have explained, the real “problem” was that Bailey’s book put forth ideas about women like McCloskey, Conway, and James that they didn’t want disseminated. They wanted to kill the book to stifle the ideas and stories in it, presumably also to stop others from talking about autogynephilia.
At the time of this mess, writer Victoria Brownworth, who was on the committee, said she saw the withdrawal as akin to censorship. But facing increasing harassment, the committee voted a third time, one vote flipped, and Bailey’s book had its finalist status withdrawn.
So, Dreger continued, when she learned that her own book had now been nominated for the very same award, she hopefully “figured the Foundation knew this would happen and was prepared to weather the storm.”
But no. You caved. And quickly—much more quickly than the Foundation did under Marks in 2003. In spite of all the LGBT people who have actively praised my book, who have thanked me for the work, you quickly caved to a small group of bullies who have proven time and time again that they will do anything they can to get attention and to force everyone to adhere to their singular account of transgenderism, even when it negates the reported childhoods of gay and lesbian people, even when it denies the reality of many transgender people and attempts to force them into closets because of their sexual orientations.
In that letter Dreger concluded that the Lambda Foundation’s behavior was “pathetic” and shameful. The same now can be said about the so-called feminists at Everyday Feminism. As Dreger notes,
Once upon a time, we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, “I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.” Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.
I hope she’s wrong about that, but given her experience, I’m sympathetic. In any event, whether Dreger is right or wrong (or somewhere in between) about the nature of transsexualism is hardly for me to judge; but her views on the subject clearly deserve a hearing, as do her views on the entirely different subject of educating children about sex. It’s a simple issue of censorship.