Substack Is Not a Neutral Platform

The newsletter platform is the latest tech company to turn a blind eye to anti-trans arguments

Photo: Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

Last weekend, I announced my intent to abandon Substack. I surprised myself a little with the decision. I like my newsletter. I had content scheduled for two or three months in advance. I had been on the platform since early 2018, when I was recruited by co-founder Hamish McKenzie, who promised me that Toast founders Daniel Lavery and Nicole Cliffe were satisfied users. Yet, over the past several months, I had watched as the platform morphed into a haven for online transphobia, and when I hit my limit, I hit it hard.

The names on Substack now — Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Katie Herzog, Jesse Singal, Graham Linehan, Freddie de Boer — are a world away from the ones McKenzie used to sell me on the service, and, though their politics differ, they are seemingly united in their contempt for “identity politics,” “wokeness,” and “cancel culture,” terms which often translate as “trans people talking back to cis people.” Herzog, Singal and Linehan in particular are dedicated to spreading transphobic rhetoric through their work, and Singal and Linehan use their platforms in a such a way as to operate as “harassment influencers,” naming individual trans people who then get swarmed by their followers, as well as engaging in direct conduct that targets have repeatedly characterized as harassment.

Substack is known to be offering six-figure advances to some writers, and since the company won’t name which writers it’s paying, any money it generates could potentially be funding (for example) Linehan’s February 2021 effort to find and publicly shame trans women on a dating app. Yet this is not purely a money issue. A clear network has developed among the anti-trans writers at Substack, who collaborate with each other and boost each other’s work: Singal has a podcast with Herzog, and Herzog’s anti-trans essays are published by Sullivan and cited by Greenwald, etc. This is the look of consensus forming. Substack denies that it plays an editorial role, maintaining that the writers are solely responsible for what they create — and declining to meaningfully moderate the content published by those writers — but it’s nonetheless begun to look very much like a publication, and that publication has a clear stance against trans rights.

Transphobic think pieces are not new, but in America, we’re used to seeing them from the right: Quillette wringing its hands over “how feminism paved the way for transgenderism” or Breitbart’s outrage over Glamour naming a trans woman among its “women of the year.” Discriminatory legislation aimed at trans people, like bathroom bills or bans on trans student athletes, mostly comes from Republicans. The transphobic writers of Substack often present themselves as liberal or leftist; they have mainstream credentials; many of them identify as gay or lesbian; they cloak what are often extreme anti-trans talking points in veils of “being reasonable” or “asking questions’’ or “concern” for women or children or the parts of the LGBT+ community with which they identify. They launder extremist arguments into the mainstream: Singal, for example, (in)famously published an Atlantic cover story about how “children who say they’re trans’’ may be victims of “social contagion,” without mentioning that one of the parents he interviewed was part of an organization aimed at preventing youth transition.

They look, in other words, very much like the TERF movement that has achieved mainstream legitimacy in the U.K., defining the conversation around trans rights and leading to a rollback of those rights. Last September the British government decreed that trans people lacked the right to legally self-identify and in December the British High Court banned gender-affirming health care such as puberty blockers for those under 16. There is every reason to believe that, by allowing this set of writers to define and shape a media consensus against trans people’s humanity and right to define ourselves, we are setting ourselves up for the same progression in the States.

I understand that this fear may seem paranoid to some readers, and that “freedom of expression” or even just the ability to share space with people you dislike are valuable qualities. Yet the rise of what I’d call the Substack TERFs (and TERF-equivalents; admittedly, it is hard to call Glenn Greenwald any kind of a feminist, even a bad one) fits a pattern we’ve seen play out many times: A group of hatemongers appears on some internet platform, and, for whatever reason — its members are too privileged, or its victims are too marginalized, or its beliefs are too silly — they are dismissed as harmless cranks until they’re winning. No one tries to stop them until the day comes when no one can stop them. The mainstream (and the FBI) writes off GamerGate as a nerdy slap fight about video games, and GamerGate winds up being the event that coalesces the contemporary alt-right. Reddit men’s rights activists sound like a bunch of losers upset about their divorces until incels are going on killing sprees. QAnon is the stupidest conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard, and then it starts putting believers in Congress, and attacking the Capitol. Donald Trump is a reality TV star who tweets racist conspiracy theories about the president. Then he is the president.

Only a few years ago, TERFs in the U.K. looked like a handful of moms complaining on a message board. Today, they’re the mainstream face of British feminism, they’ve converted the most famous living British writer to their cause, and every trans child in the U.K. is suddenly unable to access puberty blockers unless they can convince a court to show mercy. Organized transphobia has made fewer advances in the United States — America is a racist country, and our mainstreamed hate groups operate primarily along racial lines — but there are currently dozens of bills in state legislatures aimed at restricting or criminalizing care for trans children, who already attempt suicide in huge numbers: Over half of trans boys, 41.8% of non-binary children, and 29.9% of trans girls, according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There are no two sides, there is no argument; there are trans people, who exist, and the bigots, who think we shouldn’t.

Those efforts are given credence by writers like Singal, whose most famous work involves portraying trans children as confused and an anti-trans conversion therapist as a martyr. They are furthered by a media consensus that frames trans humanity as a “debate” rather than a matter of life and death. It is customary, here, to point out that trans journalists are underrepresented, and that we are not the people tapped for $250,000 blogging deals or Atlantic cover stories on childhood transition, and this is true; it’s also true that, as many have written, trans people are a tiny minority (only about 0.6% of the population) and so media is hugely important in teaching cis people about our lives. Yet this implies a “both sides” solution, wherein hiring both trans journalists and transphobic journalists would fix the problem. It wouldn’t. By framing trans life and humanity as an argument with “sides,” we reaffirm the most pernicious myth about trans people: That we are making up our identities, that we are deluded or brainwashed or on a political crusade to destroy “real” gender, that our trans-ness is a “belief” or an “ideology” rather than who we are. There are no two sides, there is no argument; there are trans people, who exist, and the bigots, who think we shouldn’t. Only one of those groups is right. Only one of them has any points worth hearing.

Substack disclaims all responsibility for shaping the discourse around trans people, saying it does not make “editorial decisions.” Yet co-founder Hamish McKenzie himself writes that “writers hold immense cultural value because they influence how almost everyone on the planet thinks.” How could anyone say this without also acknowledging that providing platforms and a payment mechanism to bigots will influence more people to become bigoted, and to enact those bigoted and harmful beliefs? Determining which writers deserve advances is an editorial decision.

What really matters, one suspects, is the “immense economic value” McKenzie mentions in his sentence’s next clause: The money to be made off publishing inflammatory content matters more than the impact it will have. There is a massive audience to be gained from publishing and broadcasting bigotry. The Joe Rogan Experience, which frequently hosts transphobic rants by Rogan and/or his guests, is the #1 podcast on Spotify, which paid over $100 million to acquire it. Prior to being banned from Twitter, white supremacists like Milo Yiannopoulous and former BuzzFeed staffer Tim Gionet (aka Baked Alaska) were able to acquire massive audiences there; Yiannopoulous netted a $250,000 book deal, in the same range as some Substack advances. (His book was eventually pulled due to scandal, while Baked Alaska was eventually arrested for taking part in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.) Meanwhile, Alex Jones of InfoWars made $20 million in 2014 (no further data is available after that year) and the cable division of Fox News generated $1.49 billion in revenue in the last quarter of 2020 alone. Inflammatory content generates discussion, eyeballs, and cash, and there is a real financial benefit to publishing the least responsible stuff you can find. But mainstream news outlets typically consider themselves obligated to inform the public. They balance the financial incentives of controversy and contrarianism with the understanding that hate speech is untrue, misleading, and dangerous to the public they serve.

Substack is not a mainstream news outlet, and seemingly does not see itself as possessing any public obligations. It operates purely on market logic, and justifies the hatred on its platform with the cover of “free speech.” But, though free speech is a constitutional right, getting paid to speak isn’t — and Substack is necessarily underwriting the careers of the writers it allows to use its platform. Substack’s laissez-faire approach to bigoted speech is not uncommon for tech startups — Twitter, too, once billed itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” a stance which led its platform to become synonymous with disinformation and harassment campaigns — but we have seen it play out too many times not to know where it leads.

Trans rights are under attack, and the more money corporations pour into elevating anti-trans voices, the more difficult it will be for trans people to make ourselves heard over the very loud cisgender people portraying us as sick, broken, deluded, or violent. As a white, middle-class adult, I am and always will be shielded from the worst of this, but the impact on children, on the many trans people who live in poverty, or on the Black and brown trans women who are being killed in greater numbers every year will be lethal. I have to believe these things aren’t inevitable; that some of the death and suffering can be prevented. I’m looking into the future Substack has written, and I’m clicking “unsubscribe.”

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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