Jen Gerson: The cancellations will continue until transphobia improves
There was a time, not so long ago, when journalists used to pin complaints like this to the newsroom wall.
Admittedly, readers of The Line, I have been struggling to find a topic to write about. The emotional come-down of the U.S. election, the (ongoing?) limbo of awaiting final results, as well as the comparative calm of the Canadian political scene has left me a bit antsy. But, alas, verily when the blessed amongst us do humble ourselves before the Gods of Journalism, so do they respond with the manna of inspiration, and this week was no different.
Firstly, to explain how this little gem fell into my lap, some context is required. While I was avoiding the interminably dull task of invoicing our fine writers of The Line the other day, I threw out a position that some might find controversial.
That is, I find the trend towards identifying women by terms like "birthing people," "menstruators," "front-hole possessors" and "uterus bearers," to be both reductive and offensive. I have no objection to finding more inclusive language for circumstances in which we want to acknowledge trans and non-binary people (ie; a phrase like "pregnant people" seems clunky, but inoffensive to me); but to date, all of this new language reduces the class of "women" to either a biological function or a bodily part.
HMS-CME @harvardmed_cmeGlobally, ethnic minority pregnant and birthing people suffer worse outcomes and experiences during and after pregnancy and childbirth. These inequities have been further highlighted by #COVID19. Watch this panel discussion on #MaternalJustice. https://t.co/RcflQQapQo https://t.co/N5m2s2SRdi
Pregnancy is a particularly sensitive topic for a lot of women because, for most of us, the process is terrifying. To go through childbirth is the most profound loss of bodily autonomy imaginable and many women I know struggle with the after effects of feeling as if we've been treated like interchangeable breeding sows by some doctors and nurses. If a doctor started calling me a "birther" or a "uterus-bearer" while stretching my cervix apart knuckles-deep with two fingers, my response would not be welcoming.
I also don't think it's a coincidence that linguistic shifts that re-frame an entire biological sex class as "breeders" only ever seems to target one sex. Very few well-intentioned and committed activists are waging war online over the definition of "men."
A lot of this is misogyny gilded in progressive language. And very few women want to stand up to the misogyny on the "pro-woman" team, nor suffer the consequences of pissing that team off. So most stay silent until they see a tweet like the one above, at which point they flood my DMs with private statements of support and relief. I'm happy to serve as a psychological outlet in that regard, but I'll show you in a moment why they're so afraid to say what they think.
Anyway, this is all just my opinion. I’m not married to it. If the trend comes around to allowing us to call all "male-bodied" people "dicks," I might reconsider the position entirely. But we all know that Wrong Opinions Are No Longer Allowed On The Internet and therefore a doctor jumped in with one of the most delightfully fatuous replies I've ever received.
The good doctor lacked the courage of his Twitter convictions and made private his tweet, so I will have to provide it for you below.
And my response.
Now I don't take Twitter terribly seriously. You win some, you get mobbed some. It's not healthy to let yourself get too wrapped up in the daily boxing match and, over the years, I've gotten better at simply forgetting what we were all fighting about. I likewise expected our good doctor to take the L.
He did not.
Instead, he tracked down several organizations that I have or had worked for as a freelancer and sent them the following letter, re-printed here in full:
I am writing concerning one of your occasional writers and panelists, Jen Gerson. Yesterday on Twitter, Jen Gerson retweeted a tweet from Harvard Continuing Medical Education on maternal health outcomes in minorities that used gender inclusive language. Her tweet was a transphobic response to this inclusive language. I have attached a screenshot.
In response to this tweet and several replies after, I wrote a response outlining that the terms used in this tweet are specifically designed to identify people who may miss out on necessary medical care and disease screening because their current gender identity doesn't align with their sex at birth, and that this language isn't about changing the language she uses, but ensuring the historically marginalized trans men and women get access to care they normally don't receive. There are lots of data available to show worse outcomes and barriers to access to care for trans people. The terms she takes issue with are not gender identity terms and would not be used in conversation or in patient education. They are used for medical education and research.
I am a gay man and a pharmacist that works in public health policy. Rather than accept feedback from a member of the LGBTQ2+ community and a health professional, she chose to retweet me with an uninformed comment, knowing that retweets would just send twitter trolls after me (I have only a few hundred followers), and she retweeted additional transphobic and uninformed responses to her retweet.
I have major concerns about her behaviour. As a journalist, she has a responsibility to not perpetuate discriminatory practices, nor spread her transphobic views amongst her followers. She should adhere to standards that promote balanced and evidence-based analysis of issues.
As a journalist, she should also have the skills to recognize feedback from subject matter experts and adjust views accordingly. She could have also taken the time to explore the evolving research around gender-based inequities in healthcare and trans health, and see how the medical community is trying to address this. Instead, she chose to mischaracterise the term as a gender identity term, which it is not. It is a term used in medical literature to ensure all relevant people are included in specific research studies or programs. She also has not taken the time to understand the healthcare landscape to understand trans health.
I am not alone in my experience in this Twitter exchange. She continues to use cyberbullying tactics on people who try to provide additional information to help her understand the issue she is misinformed about. It's a very disappointing and discouraging situation.
As an occasional writer and panelist, I would hope that there are mechanisms in place to address discriminatory behaviour and cyberbullying at your respective organizations. I would also hope that you adhere to journalistic standards that require journalists on your network or in your papers adhere to an evidence-based process for providing information to your viewers, rather than perpetuating harmful misinformation and stigma.
I hope that this email will promote a wholesome conversation at your networks and newspapers about journalistic standards, discrimination, and health equity.
Dr. Bradley Mitchelmore, BSc. (Pharm), ACPR, PharmD, RPh
The email was forwarded to me by several news outlets. And before anybody gives me hell about this: Yes, I am including Dr. Bradley Mitchelmore's full name in this. If you want to go around getting a mouthy female journalist fired because she was mean to you on the Internet, then your words and actions are fair game for public scrutiny, my dudes. As a freelancer, I don’t have the luxury of a gentlemanly détente. The only way to neuter this form of attack is to expose it.
I've chosen to publish this for three reasons: firstly, because the letter is unintentionally hilarious. Campaigns of online harassment — the sorts of tactics that include organized mobbing, and, oh say, surreptitious attempts to get a person fired —are, indeed, serious matters. Likewise, allegations of "cyberbullying" are things that we ought to take seriously, especially when they come from teenagers who are cutting themselves. But for an adult male professional to make an allegation of "cyberbullying" because I called him a "semen squirt" on Twitter and people happened to agree with me is funny no matter how you want to cut it.
It tells us a lot about the state of the culture that an adult thinks he can gain credibility and power by weaponizing both his identity and allegations of transphobia to settle a personal affront to his pride.
The second reason I'm publishing the letter is because he's probably quite right: he sent this email because he knows it probably will be effective in some quarters. Several of my clients sent me a note to warn me that the email was circulating. But others did not.
There was a time, not so long ago, when journalists used to pin complaints like this to the newsroom wall. The more vicious, self-important, and immature the letter, the better. These are trophies. If you do journalism for a living, you're going to collect a whole slew of them — you should be collecting a whole slew of them. But in order to have the power to laugh these things off, you need to know that you exist in a culture that maintains the ability to discern legitimate complaints from mere ego-wankery. You need to be confident that your bosses will have your back; that you're not going to be subjected to a silent internal inquiry because you said or did something controversial.
It's not natural for any of us to be unable to speak what we believe to be true. And when the institutional cultures collapse, what we're left with is a whole lot of very smart, very brave men and women who feel like they have no choice but to vent the unbearable tension of their own silence through private chats and direct messages. Because us bitches know what's good for us.
The last reason to publish this letter is because it offers a pretty clear and candid example of why The Line exists. I've wrestled with that inner tension, and the need to be free won in me. I would like to make the claim that this was some kind of moral victory, but it wasn’t. Freedom won because I have the luxury of being uncancellable, and I'm uncancellable because I'm ultimately accountable to my readers — not to a small collection of editors who might be swayed by juvenile emotional manipulation. And I can only continue to be uncancellable — and to expand that freedom to others — if The Line continues to grow and become financially sustainable in the long run. So, yeah, I’m going to use this letter to fundraise. Shamelessly.
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If you don’t, Dr. Semen-Squirt wins.
(*An earlier version of this article suggested Dr. Mitchelmore had deleted his tweet. Rather, he had made it private. The text has been updated to reflect the difference.)
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