Judith Butler’s Censorship by the Guardian Shows Who’s Really Being Silenced in the Fight for Trans Rights

Hint: It isn’t TERFs.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

14 September 2021

Miquel Taverna (Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone unfortunately even vaguely acquainted with the attack lines of Britain’s small but virulent transphobic movement will recognise that proclaiming you’re being ‘silenced’ is one of their favoured tactics. From the likes of writer Suzanne Moore asserting they are being censored in multiple op-eds for the Guardian, to the Times columnist Janice Turner screaming about living in an “Orwellian nightmare” because of the pushback she received from being able to publish weekly tirades about trans rights in one of Britain’s biggest broadsheets. 

‘Gender critical’ feminists (a misnomer of a title given their desperation to cling to bio-essentialist conceptions of gender) claim they are being ‘silenced’. We know this because they tell us, frequently, through every outlet that will give them a platform. 

They are being silenced, they say, when they are published in the likes of the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour and on Newsnight. They are being silenced as prominent academics enjoying a rise in profile thanks to profiteering from a hatred of trans people; they are being silenced as they are paid large amounts of money to publish incoherent tomes on the matter; they are even being silenced on the digital platforms on which they have amassed thousands of followers and face absolutely no repercussions for obsessive campaigns against individual trans people, who they deem too much of a threat to their agenda. The gender critical cohort have managed to be silenced all the way up to the halls of political power and influence policy, including a reversal on the planned reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

With such a skewed definition of what the word actually means, it’s no wonder that the gender crits are so quick to censor others without a second thought. This ugly little truth was neatly demonstrated last week when a spurious outcry from transphobes – let’s call them by their name – caused a large section of a Guardian US interview with gender theorist Judith Butler to be pulled from the internet. 

Butler had been interviewed by writer Jules Gleeson for a planned new digital series called ‘Gender Now’. The chat, unsurprisingly, probed the concept of gender and the specific forms of transphobia that have greeted the growing movement for trans liberation in recent years. One section, in particular, seemed to spark ire. 

When asked about the uneasy relationship emerging between transphobic groups and rightwing conservatives, Butler said: “The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism, one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people.”

Butler’s answer was shared widely, pulled as a standout quote by both transphobes and trans liberation supporters alike, albeit for very different reasons. Yet hours after the interview was published, suddenly their answer – and Gleeson’s – was wiped from the copy. At the bottom, an editor’s note appeared stating: “This article was edited on 7 September 2021 to reflect developments which occurred after the interview took place.”

According to a subsequent investigation by VICE, online outrage from the ‘gender critical’ movement led the Guardian’s UK head office to “fold” under pressure and pull the section. 

In explanation, the paper released a statement claiming that a reference to ‘Wi Spa’ – an ongoing controversy in the US that has sparked anti-trans protests, after a trans woman was charged with indecent exposure at an LA spa and later revealed to be a registered sex offender – in Gleeson’s question to Butler was a “failure in editorial standards”. 

“We have not censored Judith Butler but addressed a failure in our editorial standards,” the statement read. “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. 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. Judith Butler has written for us several times in the past.” 

This response, quite frankly, is bullshit. Butler’s answer gave no reference to Wi Spa – it was irrelevant to the meat of what they were saying. There was no chance of misleading readers. Gleeson herself told VICE that she’d offered to revise or remove the question, while explaining she could not “endorse” cutting Butler’s answer altogether. 

“Unfortunately,” Gleeson said, “Guardian editors decided to go ahead with their decision to censor Judith Butler.”

I am not a Guardian editor (and almost certainly never will be), but speaking from my own experience, it is unprecedented to retrospectively edit an interview, to this degree, on such tenuous grounds. What’s more, it seems even this brief foray into platforming trans voices has been too much for the top brass to stomach – journalist Eoin Higgins noted that following the controversy, it appears the ‘Gender Nowseries has now been scrapped. 

What does this incident tell us? Not anything we don’t already know, to be honest, but something that does bear repeating anyway: while the UK’s cluster of transphobes might be a minority, they are powerful. They have the ears of those who run our media, often they are part of our media, and they pair this with a lack of shame or the ability to reflect on the contradictions of their own behaviour. Radicalisation will do that.

The editorship at the Guardian have, once again, shown themselves willing to risk the reputation of their paper and disregard normal editorial protocol in order to plant their flag firmly in the camp of the transphobes. Judith Butler is one of the most high profile thinkers on gender in the western world and yet even they are not safe from the censorship and suppression that dogs trans voices in the public eye. 

As research shows, the UK media is fixated on trans people, with reporting around them being both repetitive and overwhelmingly negative. Now we have seen what happens on the rare occasion a trans person is given a platform and uses it to deconstruct the transphobic lobby that has such dominance; they are censored. 

Once more, we have seen that in the battle for trans liberation one side is being subjected to the violence of silence. It’s just not the one that regularly sees itself invited onto national news to claim they have no voice. 

Moya Lothian-McLean is the politics editor of gal-dem and a freelance journalist. 

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