On February 22nd, Texas governor Greg Abbott sent a now-infamous directive to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The directive states that, per Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assertion that “‘sex-change’ procedures” constitute child abuse, DFPS is ordered to start formally investigating it as such. The banned procedures listed in the directive include surgeries and hormone blockers. Paxton also said that Texas law requires mandated reporters, like doctors, teachers, nurses, and other professionals to report signs of this child abuse (e.g., any teenager who is undergoing gender-affirming treatment) to the authorities—or face criminal prosecution. Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, responded that, in issuing this directive, Texas Republicans have “acted far beyond the scope of their legal authority in an effort to transform Texas law to punish transgender people and their families and to deputize the general public to assist them in that unauthorized endeavor.”
Texas Republicans chose that moment—just before the Texas primaries—for a reason. Both Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton were facing viable primary challenges, with Ken Paxton’s seat under particular threat from Bush dynasty scion George P. Bush. Paxton’s office is immensely corrupt; caught in a tangled web of bribery and other abuses of power, he has been dodging federal charges his entire time in office. It’s hard to imagine how he’d fare without the self-protective advantage that the Attorney General’s office confers. In this context, it’s obvious that Abbott and Paxton’s instrumentalization of transphobia is not only bigotry but also naked self-interest: it’s a survival move.
Threatened, Abbott and Paxton felt around for a weapon—and a wedge issue was close at hand. The initial groundwork of this maneuver was laid by fringe narratives from “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (TERFs) and the far right. But in their campaign to mainstream the ideology that backs trans hatred, those bigots have not been entirely alone. They have been able to count on the help, conscious or not, of popular, liberal-minded writers—among them a cisgender, self-appointed expert on all things trans: Jesse Singal. Behind a veneer of empathy and concern, Singal has supplied anti-trans narratives that the right has found appealing. Singal would insist that he is not personally transphobic. Nevertheless, his writing on the subject has contributed to the wave of transphobia that is already beginning to have concrete ramifications for policy, endangering the well-being and the lives of trans people.
For those unaware, Jesse Singal is a journalist and former editor of New York Magazine’s science vertical. He has a Master’s in public affairs, and has (ironically, as we will see) written a book on the failings of “fad psychology” and the replication crisis. Many of his writings—such as 2016’s “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired” in The Cut and a 2018 Atlantic piece, “When Children Say They’re Trans”—have echoed transphobic narratives that have flared up in the U.S. and U.K.
Trans people, of course, have faced hatred in America for a very long time, but we were not always at the heart of the culture war. There was a brief moment in the mid-2010s when the far right had been resoundingly defeated in the gay marriage battle and was on the back foot. In that short interregnum, pop culture declared—in retrospect, prematurely, even naïvely—a decisive victory. A small number of trans women were cast in lead roles on TV and were the subject of sympathetic media profiles. Backlash was extant, but it seemed enormously outmatched by the shifting cultural tide. At the same time, however, the American trans community was hearing whispers from online friends, signs that reaction was gathering strength in the U.K. But for a year or two, in the U.S., it seemed like the culture war just might pass us by.
During this pre-Trump breather period in early 2016, Singal wrote his article for The Cut, reporting sympathetically on the firing of Dr. Kenneth Zucker. Zucker is a disgraced sex researcher and clinician who specialized in gender dysphoria in children. His clinic at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Child Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), was closed in 2015 following an internal review. The Centre’s investigation determined Zucker and the GIC were providing services that ran contrary to current standards of care. Specifically, they found he was providing interventional therapeutic services to dysphoric children, pushing them to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. This contravened the increasingly accepted methodology known as the “Dutch approach,” a conscientious “watchful waiting” in use across Europe that also allows for medical intervention where appropriate, as well as the gender-affirmative model often employed by U.S. clinicians. (Zucker also put out studies that crossed into the bizarre, like this one that rated the physical attractiveness of trans children.)
A 2008 NPR article documented Zucker’s practices, with his own cooperation. The example is given of a child named “Bradley:”
“Whenever Zucker encounters a child younger than 10 with gender identity disorder, he tries to make the child comfortable with the sex he or she was born with. So, to treat Bradley, Zucker explained to Carol that she and her husband would have to radically change their parenting. Bradley would no longer be allowed to spend time with girls. He would no longer be allowed to play with girlish toys or pretend that he was a female character. Zucker said that all of these activities were dangerous to a kid with gender identity disorder. He explained that unless Carol and her husband helped the child to change his behavior, as Bradley grew older, he likely would be rejected by both peer groups. Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast.”
In other words, Dr. Zucker’s therapeutic treatment involved using parental discipline and coaching to get children with gender dysphoria to conform to their gender assigned at birth. That is conversion therapy.
There is absolutely no evidence that therapy like this works; in fact, it vastly increases the risk of both suicidal ideation and actual suicide attempts in people who undergo it. Conversion therapies can include outright physical abuse and corrective sexual abuse. While Zucker’s version might seem more innocuous, the kinds of techniques practiced at the GIC are based on the same harmful set of assumptions: that transness is undesirable, and that clinical practices should be geared towards discouraging transition. Trans people and advocates want conversion therapies banned—and experts concur that such “reparative” methods, which are premised upon combating deviancy, are psychologically torturous.
Yet Singal seems intent on rehabilitating Zucker’s reputation. His 2016 article for The Cut is transparently sympathetic to Zucker’s point of view, written in a tone indignant at Zucker’s implicitly unfair firing. It adopts a strange framing: it insists that the claim that Zucker’s practices were tantamount to conversion therapy is merely the work of “activists” who were out to smear Zucker and had “tarred” the GIC clinic for its “cautious” stance. (Singal dismissively and disdainfully refers to sources that contradict his narrative as “activists”—i.e., ideologues. Doing so allows him to discount and dismiss contradictory expertise.)
Singal never explains why Zucker’s methods don’t qualify as conversion therapy—because, I suspect, attempting to do so would have proved fatal to his thesis. Confusion around these claims has been compounded by the fact that the original Centre review of Zucker’s clinic did, in fact, contain a major error: an unfounded allegation of abuse. This mistake, which resulted in a settlement for Zucker, opened up the space for apologists like Singal to dismiss criticisms of the clinic entirely. Unfortunately, these missteps discredited the review and furnished a convenient pretense for Zucker’s full exoneration.
What is not unfounded, despite Singal’s disputation, is that Zucker practiced “curative” methods that were indistinguishable from conversion therapy. This alone is reason for condemnation; again, conversion therapy in itself is abusive. As others have conclusively demonstrated, Singal’s work, in the Zucker article and elsewhere, leaves out key facts, employs misleading rhetoric, and casually dismisses criticism from experts—as well as the medical and scientific consensus on the subject. His framing is misleading enough that I am comfortable calling it dishonest.
One reason we can confidently assert that Singal is distorting the narrative (whether consciously or in accordance with his own biases) is because he did consult people capable of fact-checking him for the article—he simply didn’t use their input. Singal interviewed multiple trans women for the piece, including trans writers Julia Serano and Parker Molloy, but their comments appear to have had little impact on the final draft. After it was published, both writers spoke out about several inaccuracies of fact and framing. They had addressed these points in their interviews and were ignored. Molloy’s response offers a nuanced critique of Singal’s pro-GIC arguments; Serano’s rebuttal contains crucial historical context about “how both ‘gay conversion’ and [Zucker’s style of] ‘gender reparative’ therapies share the exact same strategy of coercing gender non-conforming children to behave in a more normative manner.”
That interview was, it appears, the earliest contact between Singal and Serano, and he did not take her criticisms well. According to her, he lied about her views on transition to outrage his Twitter fan base. This would become an example of an alleged pattern of behavior by Singal. First, he is critiqued by trans people or allies. He misrepresents their positions to incite backlash online, or simply screenshots or quote tweets them to direct harassment their way. Trans writer Emily VanDerWerff said her experience with being misrepresented and harassed included “death threats, rape threats, invitations to commit suicide, [and] constant misgendering.” Singal contacts critics, threatening to sue. He contacts their employers. He sends them abusive emails. When someone reports a fact about him that he finds unflattering or releases a critique he doesn’t like, he frivolously threatens to sue and demands publications issue corrections—then howls about not getting them on Twitter. At this point, it’s a little bit of a joke on trans Twitter that every trans writer or academic, no matter how minor, is eventually subject to a Singal meltdown and volley of threats.
Singal’s behavior is unprofessional, to say the least. Julia Serano, when targeted by Singal, felt she had to temporarily leave social media for her safety. Another one of Singal’s trans targets was fired after he repeatedly contacted her boss. Singal’s habit of consistently and viciously attacking his critics poisons the well; it deflects any chance of real criticism, since it allows him to claim that any given critic simply personally dislikes him. He has, of course, helped ensure that this is the case by treating them poorly. This bad behavior extends beyond minor Twitter slap fights—it’s also a means of warping the conversation, punishing and dismissing dissenting voices before they can even speak. Leveling threats and directing abuse at sources and experts in this way goes beyond mere unprofessionalism—for a journalist, it’s genuinely unethical.
I’m hesitant to mention this because speaking up about this habit of his may feed into it. Perhaps I’m letting Singal off the hook by changing the subject, as he is wont to do, from his bad journalism to his interpersonal spats. But when we talk about Singal’s role in propagating anti-trans ideology, the flak he directs at his critics and how it shapes the narrative matters.
Singal’s fascination with dysphoria and transition in young people was in evidence in “When Children Say They’re Trans,” his 2018 cover story for The Atlantic. The piece profiles various subjects: “Claire,” a child experiencing gender dysphoria, and her concerned parents, along with several adults who eventually detransitioned.
The article centers the conversation on the small number of people who “desist”—who decide, after a period of uncertainty, that they are not trans. These cases do, indisputably, exist. But the issue is one of emphasis: Singal’s disproportionate focus on counterexamples is harmful to the innumerable trans children who do not “desist.” Foregrounding and overstating the prevalence of “desistance” supplies bad-faith actors with a pretense to delegitimize the many, many young people who are experiencing real dysphoria, who are very commonly ignored, disbelieved, and second-guessed when they try to assert their identity.
In her response to the Atlantic piece, Columbia sociology professor and gender and sexuality expert Tey Meadow writes: “To position [his subject] as a ‘desister’ in the way Singal did is to participate in an inherently stigmatizing discourse with a very particular and damaging social history… The relief Singal depicts at the resolution of [Claire’s] gender transgression belies both his and Claire’s parents’ investment in a cisgender future for Claire, not necessarily an authentic gender future.”
(I also put “desist” in quotes because, as Julia Serano points out, the term has a specific meaning in criminal psychology: to stop an offensive, anti-social behavior. Meadow also describes its origin—the term was “adopted by conservative clinicians as a descriptor for gender-nonconforming children who grow into cisgender adulthoods.”)
In any case, “For trans people, the question is not whether desistence/detransition is real,” writes Emily Gorcenski in her critical response to Singal, “the question is whether desisters/detransitioners, who are cisgender, have an undue influence on the healthcare policies that affect people who are transgender. Put another way, why is it seen as more of a tragedy if a cisgender person gets the wrong healthcare than if a transgender person does?” Gorcenski’s rebuttal goes on to dismantle the article’s numerous statistical misinterpretations, reliance on unreplicable studies, and illogical extrapolations. Its outsized focus on a particular kind of desister prioritizes the voices of people who are not trans—people who, after a period of (I want to emphasize, normal) exploration, came to the conclusion they were cis.
In addition, an erroneous lumping-together of homosexuality and transness mars both Singal’s work and studies on desistance in children. Most such studies don’t even study gender-dysphoric kids—they study gender non-conforming kids. As Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at UCSF’s Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic, told KQED, “The methodology of those studies is very flawed, because they didn’t study gender identity […] Those desistors were, a good majority of them, simply proto-gay boys whose parents were upset because they were boys wearing dresses. They were brought to the clinics because they weren’t fitting gender norms.”
These study designs conflate gay and trans people, while implicitly presenting gender non-conformity in both groups as being in need of “fixing.” Singal makes the same mistake, using “desistance” to refer to both transition and gender dysphoria in children. Doing so makes for a slippery definition of “desistance” that allows Singal to pretend it’s a great deal more common than it is. Such poorly designed studies have contributed to the myth that a full 80% of trans children will desist. Brynn Tannehill, a board member for the Trans United Fund, remarked on these serious methodological flaws in The Huffington Post in 2016: “It’s time for the 80 percent desistance figure to be relegated to the same junk science bin as the utterly discredited link between vaccines and autism.”
As I’ve covered in The Bias, outmoded models of transness and homosexuality placed both on the same spectrum of rejection of gender roles, so they’re often discussed and studied together. In 1990, Dr. Zucker himself wrote a guest chapter in a clinical psychiatry book, in which he discussed the ethics of conversion therapy in light of historical failures to distinguish between gay and trans children. Zucker wrote:
“At least two goals—Elimination of peer ostracism in childhood and the prevention of transsexualism in adulthood—are so obviously clinically valid and consistent with the medical ethics of our time that either, by itself, would constitute sufficient justification for therapeutic intervention. The primary goal of avoiding adult homosexuality is considerably more problematic, especially if this is attempted for religious rather than clinical reasons.”
Zucker’s endorsement of therapy designed to prevent “transsexualism” in adults is grotesque. Singal’s article in The Cut is almost farcical in how much it had to omit to make Zucker look reasonable. I can’t find any indication that Zucker’s thinking has evolved beyond the above statement, and judging by a more recent paper of his from 2018 that still contains apologia for trans conversion therapies, I think it’s unlikely he’s changed his mind.
In the same month that The Atlantic released “When Children Say They’re Trans,” Science published an article reporting on controversy around a paper by Dr. Lisa Littman, the sole research at the time on trans “social contagion” and the notion of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.” (That paper was retracted for methodological flaws, then later republished with corrections.) Singal’s Atlantic article also included a discussion of social contagion as a possible influence on trans kids’ development.
“[P]arents are worried that their kids are influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria,” he wrote. Singal’s arguments often follow this pat structure. He brings up a concern, founded or not: e.g., parents are worried about social contagion. He presents a counterpoint that is portrayed as a matter of subjective feeling. (The next line in the piece: “Many trans advocates find the idea of social contagion silly or even offensive given the bullying, violence, and other abuse this population faces.”) Again, he relies on the inexpertise and stridency connoted by “activist.” He neglects to mention that some of those “activists” he alludes to are experts in their field, aligned with mainstream science, and often scientists themselves. He then says there is “anecdotal evidence” of social contagion, as reported to him by a clinician.
In flagging concerns about social contagion, Singal has, as it has been pointed out by Zack Ford, reiterated talking points from parents and organizations that oppose or question transitioning. One, a hate group called 4thWaveNow (mentioned more than once on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Watch”), appears to have first appropriated the social science term “social contagion” and applied it to the belief that gender dysphoria spreads among friend groups like a disease. (The more anodyne explanation is that queer people hang out together.) The idea that social contagion might usefully apply to trans people did not come from the scientific literature, clinical observation, or reports from trans people about their experience; it originated on the 4thWaveNow website. Lisa Littman’s study on ROGD was an attempt to validate the existence of trans social contagion, coming years after its invention by 4thWaveNow. Both social contagion theory and ROGD paint a desire to transition as an effect of peer pressure, a fad rather than a real desire. Littman’s study drew the subjects of the study primarily from 4thWaveNow and other anti-trans sites. (Hence why the paper was originally withdrawn—asking a hate group whether a bigoted conjecture they invented is real isn’t science.)
The invention of the term “ROGD” appears to serve two goals. “Social contagion,” outside of the context of the discussion of trans people, is a wholly neutral term. “ROGD,” however, shifts the focus to individual trans people and their dysphoria, subtly problematizing transness. It treats transness like a communicable pathogen. Second, it’s a term that roughly means “transgender social contagion” without the hate group baggage. Methodologically sound studies find no evidence ROGD exists.
While Jesse Singal does not use the pseudoscientific term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” in his Atlantic article, his reporting appears to have drawn from the same spurious source as Littman’s study. According to members of 4thWaveNow, Singal consulted with them heavily while writing his Atlantic article—to the point where they say they were informed of decisions to remove mentions of 4thWaveNow’s input and citations in the Atlantic article, late in the editorial process. They claim the families profiled were 4thWaveNow members. Singal also omitted that the three detransitioners he profiled were active in anti-trans circles—a rather pertinent fact that he declined to share with his readers.
Littman’s study and Singal’s articles are often used in tandem to launder the origins of social contagion and lend it an air of authenticity. In a letter pushing back against the American Academy of Pediatrics’s refusal to authenticate the spurious condition of “ROGD,” an online “gender critical” group cited Singal’s article on Zucker. Singal, effectively, laundered Zucker’s beliefs, which were then used by extremists to substantiate their claims against gender-affirming care. (For an explanation of why I characterize “gender critical” transphobia as extremism, please see my article in The Bias, which covers the ideological ties between transphobes and the far right.)
When the medical consensus is unfriendly to Singal’s conclusions—like when a coalition of experts, including the American Psychological Association, releases guidance that “supports eliminating the use of Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) and similar concepts for clinical and diagnostic application given the lack of rigorous empirical support for its existence”—he is snide and dismissive. “It’s pretty disturbing the American Psychological Association would lend its imprimatur to a statement like this that pretends nothing like [Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria] could possibly exist and that it’s inherently harmful to suggest social influence affects gender identity,” he tweeted. When challenged on this apparent support for using an unproven diagnosis in a clinical setting, he pointed out that he himself has said ROGD shouldn’t be used as a diagnosis, given the lack of data. Singal speaks out of both sides of his mouth. He cultivates multiple contradicting opinions within his own body of work, deploying them as needed to rebut his critics when held to task.
Of course clinicians should not be using a model of gender dysphoria which has no clinical evidence to support it. That is not ethical, and it’s not science. But to Singal, this seems to be immaterial; his response is, most frequently, to direct flak at experts (often by egging on his aggressive Twitter followers). Off the leash of an editor, he is comfortable referring to medical professionals and scientists who challenge his beliefs as “crazy.” His opponents are regularly characterized as irrational or disingenuous. It is unfair, apparently, to read Singal’s words and identify his biases. But those biases are clear.
The reason that “activists” are concerned about the blanket use of “social contagion” and the related ROGD is that the application of these terms to trans children, based on a single, flawed study and anecdotal evidence, can be used to deny gender-affirming care to those who genuinely need it. The consequences can be as serious as the suicide of a young person. It’s much safer and more life-affirming to support children in asserting who they are—even if their self-understanding evolves! A six-year-old child should not be forbidden from wearing a dress just because that same person at 26 might not like to wear one. Exploration is normal. Tey Meadow’s response to Singal’s Atlantic piece suggests we should approach gender non-conforming children “with care, patience, and an openness to allowing them to fully and uncritically explore all gender trajectories without fear of adult disappointment or retribution.”
However, even adults turn gradually into new people they couldn’t have imagined being. That process is perhaps more visible in trans people, and I think this is where some of the angst comes from—the fear someone will change and then, horror of horrors, change again. But transition shouldn’t be seen as disfiguring. It’s the same kind of becoming that all organisms experience as they grow up, age, and die. What is normal and beautiful in humanity is also normal and beautiful in the part of humanity that is trans.
Many people, Singal included, bristle when labeled transphobes, disavowing the label because they don’t categorically oppose limiting rights for trans people. Singal defends himself as someone who merely disagrees with the ontological claims trans people make about themselves. But it’s fallacious to claim that he can’t be a bigot because he can maintain a respectful demeanor for the duration of an article. (Although, as we’ve seen, he can’t elsewhere.) I think the mistake here is seeing hatred as purely a matter of affect. Love is perhaps more of an action than a feeling. That belief of mine is informed by my experiences as a person with multiple marginalizations, as well as my personal ethics. Hate works the same way. There are a lot of bigots who think that if their mistreatment is unemotional, based on “facts,” then it’s not bigoted, and so work very hard at convincing themselves and others they have no feelings about the objects of their hate.
But there is more to not being a transphobe than a lack of affect. Emotionless transphobia is not objective; it’s simply cold-blooded. So yes, I think Jesse Singal is a transphobe. But he is only one of many transphobes, and many of those express an even more venomous, unadulterated bigotry.
So why is Singal worth criticizing? To begin with, he boasts a platform of considerable size; he is one of the most prominent journalists writing on the issue. Leaked messages have revealed his participation in a listserv of around 400 elite journalists and editors, who could often be read praising him and jumping to his defense. Legitimized both behind the scenes by influential figures and outwardly by the publicly reputable brands of liberal media outlets, Singal is able to peddle anti-trans narratives that are partially cloaked by a bad-faith, “just asking questions” style of faux rationalism.
This appearance of good faith and benevolence masks Singal’s transphobic underlying logic, which is much more subtle than the flagrant bigotry on regular display on the right. He hedges his claims and imbues his narratives with the appearance of rational debate, obscuring problematic premises and logical contortions. He maintains, as Gorcenski puts it, “a facade of being outwardly supporting of trans rights.” His sleights-of-hand are therefore that much more palatable to a wider audience, appearing reasonable to the liberal conscience.
They also appear reasonable to the reactionary conscience. Singal’s apologia for Zucker was an early manifestation of his fascination with the “problem” of trans children and their bodies. That perceived “problem” is what actual anti-trans legislation is aimed at “correcting,” as seen in the Abbott memo and elsewhere. The right has pivoted from an earlier emphasis on fearmongering around trans people’s use of gendered bathrooms to the present portrayal of gender-affirming care as systematic child abuse. Their recent invocation of the term “groomer” encapsulates this. Of course, no direct line can be traced from Singal’s work to any specific instance of reactionary transphobia. The right would have produced similar hatefulness if Singal didn’t exist. His role would still be filled if he were not around, but it’s worth critiquing him for taking it.
That said—his keystone articles provide examples not only of Singal’s own distortions and biases, but also of how transphobes happily latch onto his arguments. Anti-trans ideologues in right-wing media have picked up on Singal’s coverage and used his claims as evidence for some of their favored narratives: namely, trans malevolence and the ostensible totalitarian dominance of social justice and cancel-culture “hysteria.”
The National Review cited Singal’s article on Zucker as an example of a dictatorial social-justice “show trial.” An article by Ben Shapiro in The Daily Wire also referenced Singal while covering Dr. Lisa Littman’s study on social contagion. In an article in The American Conservative titled “Totalitarian Trans War On Reality,” reactionary writer Rod Dreher prefaces commentary from Singal by saying, “Jesse Singal is one of the best journalists writing about the trans issue. You should follow him. He’s on the left, but he recognizes how corrupted journalism has been by trans activism.” Dreher provided exhaustive coverage of the Zucker article and the reaction to it, and cited it many times as support in transphobic articles. (The often-bizarre Dreher is a prominent voice in his own right—he appears to be one of Singal’s biggest fans. Other articles of his feature titles like “The Tyranny of Transgender Ideology” and “The Trans Boot in the Face.”)
In The Federalist, Singal’s coverage of trans people in his Atlantic article is characterized in the following way: “exceptionally balanced and thoughtful […] Singal is protective of his subjects and their stories and at no time indicates any form of malice or disapproval toward the trans community.” One National Review post links to Singal’s view and states: “Jesse Singal has a great Twitter thread debunking the junk ‘science’ used by transgender activists to justify the unjustifiable in children’s health care.” This is why Singal matters: no matter how vehemently he may disavow the right-wing’s fondness for his work and claim he’s being misinterpreted, consciously or not, he is helping to perpetuate ambient transphobia and buttressing the ideology of rampant bigots who seek to do real harm.
Again, Singal would be the first to protest that he is deeply supportive of trans rights; perhaps he sincerely believes that he is. But his self-perception is of little consequence when his work provides a framework that props up bigoted assumptions. I can think of half a dozen thinkers in the same vein as Singal: figures like Glenn Greenwald, Katie Herzog (with whom Singal hosts a podcast), and Bari Weiss. They insist on their own rational-mindedness while delivering what are essentially right-wing conclusions wrapped up in contrarianism and sophistry. Occasionally, those types also write something poisonous about trans people, although it’s not their beat in the way it is Singal’s. Other casuists like Abigail Shrier make even more direct contributions to the hate campaigns; her book Irreversible Damage likely codified the form that hatred against trans men will take going forward. It’s as harmful as anything Singal’s written.
Framing and emphasis matter. As Meadow remarks, “The frames journalists use to discuss these controversial issues are themselves political and moral decisions, and ones of great consequence.” The ways that these conceptions unfold in the mainstream are salient for agenda-setting, and thereby for real, concrete outcomes. Singal’s Atlantic article, in one instance, “was cited in a legal brief filed by seven state attorneys general in a federal lawsuit seeking to roll back a trans person’s access to healthcare,” as the GLAAD Accountability Project has documented.
It is well-understood by media critics that mainstream outlets have commonly played a role in legitimating pernicious narratives by their insistence on presenting “both sides” of a debate. As Jo Livingstone puts it in The New Republic, the choice to publish contrarians like Singal and Bari Weiss “is often justified by what has traditionally been seen as a self-evident, platonic good: a diversity of opinion.”
Media outlets display a devotion to false equivalence in their attempts to maintain a spurious air of neutrality; in reality, they end up laundering and reinscribing pernicious ideology. Meanwhile, the perspectives of trans individuals and writers and their allies often do not have access to the same platform and reach. Media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has documented the pattern of both-sidesing on the issue and the elision of actual trans voices. Within another of his articles for The Cut, “What’s Missing From the Conversation About Transgender Kids,” Singal pulls this same maneuver, “framing the issue of transgender healthcare for children as one of a heated debate, omitting that the debatees are often cisgender adults,” as Gorcenski described it. (Singal also later admitted that he, quote, “done goofed” in catastrophically misinterpreting the evidence in that piece.) With misleading framing and the insinuation of circular and self-justifying logic, Singal and those like him are able to skew the debate with the illusion of fairness. It’s then a simple maneuver to paint those who attempt to contest the narrative as unreasonable, illiberal, “footstampingly insistent” social justice ideologues.
As a trans person living in Texas, when I think about where this path has led us, what I feel is rage. And justifiably, I think. When trans people speak out with emotion, Singal and his ilk are quick to condemn them as irrational. But anger is a rational response to a campaign of pseudoscience and lies that has resulted, predictably, in even more harm to trans people. The Abbott memo is a major escalation in hate as expressed through policy. The blame for this cannot, of course, be laid at the feet of one set of disingenuous writers. But Singal has gleefully played a role, and his efforts have been demonstrably appealing to the right. “Moderate” anti-trans narratives are a stalking horse: “increasingly the very means by which to launder extremism and conspiracy theory into democratic institutions, with disastrous results,” writes historian Jules Gill-Peterson in an explanation of this process for The New Inquiry.
Political interests needed a common enemy, and the culture war has provided them one, with the help of many unqualified dissemblers. Of course a handful of media figures are not the sole drivers of anti-trans hatred (as Glenn Greenwald has cynically mischaracterized journalist Eoin Higgins’s arguments in the latter’s coverage of transphobia). But there are media biases, media incentives, and, in some cases, outright media hate infrastructures that have facilitated these ideologies and those who peddle them. Blame lies with the propaganda outlets of the right, but also with the respectable mainstream press, which has elevated voices like Singal’s and helped stoke a moral panic in the process.
It is especially galling to me that this moral panic threatens to harm not only myself, but so many others like me. Trans suffering alone is sufficient cause to condemn transphobia—but we are all connected, and transphobia costs everyone. The same hatemongering over trans kids is now being used to keep corrupt Texas politicians in office. I think there is some urgency, therefore, in pushing back, even on transphobia that appears moderate by comparison.
Greg Abbott’s directive to DFPS to begin ripping children from their homes isn’t the first horror that trans people have faced at the hands of the state, and it won’t be the last. There is much, much more transphobic legislation under consideration across the country. The State of Missouri is already attempting something similar; last week, Idaho passed a bill intended to criminalize the provision of gender-affirming care. 2021 set a record for anti-trans legislation. Those who seek to more deeply inscribe hate in law and policy are gaining confidence. Anti-trans hate crimes have reached record highs. We must put a stop to this here.
To that end, we must hold the media—which helped create this crisis, which regularly passes over trans perspectives, which disseminates transphobic distortions—to account. Jesse Singal is both a propagator and a reflection of mounting public anxieties that have accompanied the increasing public visibility of trans people. Singal didn’t invent transphobia, and he’s far from the only transphobic contrarian in the discourse. But what the media says and does is enormously consequential. There are vicious bigots who are eager to seize upon any ideological rationale that might facilitate their campaigns of hatred. Media outlets must stop platforming ideologues who—whatever their excuse—are undermining the perspectives and concerns of trans people. Time and again, we have seen our legitimacy questioned, our identities derogated, and, in the end, our lives placed under genuine threat.♦
M.K. Anderson is a nonbinary writer from Texas. You can support her writing at patreon.com/qualiaredux.