The Guardian has come under fire this week after a writer accused the paper of significantly editing her published Q&A with gender theorist Judith Butler following complaints from those the author described as “habitual bigots.”
Author Jules Gleeson says the British media company responded to criticism of her piece by removing a large chunk of the interview — in which Butler criticized trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs — rather than siding with their freelancer.
“Habitual bigots online are going to do their thing, and usually respond to pieces without even reading them,” Gleeson said in a statement to HuffPost. “What’s been more unexpected was how quickly the publication folded.”
The episode highlights both the anti-transgender sentiment woven throughout certain parts of the British media ecosphere and the concept that was erased from the article: the noted alliance between some anti-transgender activists and far-right conservative groups.
Critics on social media suggested the change to the piece amounted to censorship of Butler’s ideas on gender ― a characterization The Guardian rejects.
“We have not censored Judith Butler but addressed a failure in our editorial standards,” a spokesperson for The Guardian said in a statement to HuffPost.
At issue was a question about anti-transgender activists.
It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. This year’s furore around Wi Spa in Los Angeles saw an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organised by the Proud Boys. Can we expect this alliance to continue?
The full, original interview can be read here.
In their response, Butler did not discuss the Los Angeles incident specifically but appeared to agree with the question’s premise (Butler uses they/them pronouns.)
“It is very appalling and sometimes quite frightening to see how trans-exclusionary feminists have allied with rightwing attacks on gender,” they said. Butler also went further, linking TERFs to fascists.
The Wi Spa incident began in late June, when a woman claimed on Instagram that an unknown “man” exposed himself in a women’s section of the establishment, touching off what became a violent debate over trans rights. The accusation was not substantiated, but it went viral in conservative sections of the internet that eventually sparked a violent protest at the spa on July 17. On one side of the protest were anti-transgender activists, joined by members of the far-right Proud Boys. On the other were advocates for transgender people, who reported being sprayed with chemicals and physically confronted by spa opponents and police.
Weeks later ― a few days before Gleeson’s interview with Butler was published ― police in Los Angeles arrested a 52-year-old suspect in connection with the woman’s claim of indecent exposure. It is not clear what the suspect’s gender identity is or what specifically may have transpired at the spa.
For years, anti-trans activists have claimed that allowing people to use spaces that align with their gender identity ― a changing room or a bathroom, for example ― puts women and girls at risk, in part because bad actors may seize on the opportunity to enter those spaces and threaten those inside. Researchers say there is little to no evidence of this being a real, widespread problem that might justify curtailing the rights of trans people. (California law also stipulates that businesses must allow people to be able to use the restroom or changing area that aligns with their gender identity.)
The Guardian’s U.S. site covered the Wi Spa protests, including the role of the Proud Boys, a misogynist gang known for violent anti-trans rhetoric.
Yet because Gleeson’s question did not include the detail about the arrest of a suspect, Guardian managers decided it should be removed along with Butler’s entire response rather than updating the piece by adding the information. Gleeson told HuffPost she did not previously know about the development in the case.
“This particular question omitted the new details that had come to light, and therefore risked misleading our readers. For that reason we decided to remove both the question and Judith Butler’s answer,” a spokesperson for The Guardian said in a statement. “As it was only this one question that referred to the Wi Spa incident in LA, the rest of the Q+A remains in place.”
The newspaper went on to note that Butler “has written for us several times in the past.”
Regardless of what actually happened at the spa, the dramatic interaction between protesters and counter-protesters was well-documented. The Guardian, however, declined to comment further when asked by HuffPost why a story that had appeared on its U.S. site was not fit to mention in a Q&A.
Gleeson now views the Wi Spa incident as a “counter-productive” example of anti-trans and far-right alignment. Knowing what she does now, she said, she would have chosen a different one.
“There were many episodes I could have focused on to make this same point about the convergence of far-right and ‘gender critical’ feminist viewpoints,” she said, using a term for trans-exclusionary activists.
After her interview with Butler was published, Gleeson said that “it became very clear very quickly” that she was “interacting (indirectly) with the British team.”
Like other British news outlets, The Guardian has faced its share of criticism over the way it handles transgender issues. Some of that has spilled out into the public sphere, as when hundreds of Guardian staffers signed a letter to the editor in early 2020 decrying the news outlet’s “pattern of publishing transphobic content.” In 2018, a trio of reporters and editors accused The Guardian of “promot[ing] transphobic viewpoints” in an editorial of their own.
But The Guardian maintains a separate U.S.-branded site, and Gleeson said she was made to believe that her interview with Butler would be developed with the U.S. editorial staff.
The debacle highlights a key difference between left-leaning thought in the U.S. and the U.K. ― transphobia is not generally considered to be compatible with feminism in America, whereas in Britain, the situation is murkier.
In its statement, The Guardian affirmed support for trans rights.
“The Guardian remains committed to reporting on the rights of trans people in the U.S. and globally, including the worrying attacks on trans people and their allies by far right groups,” it said.
Gleeson told HuffPost that she hopes her experience will bring more attention to Butler’s thoughts on gender theory and the way trans issues are portrayed in the media.
“I hope The Guardian demonstrates that commitment by allowing criticism of gender critical feminism very soon,” she said.