Earlier this year I wrote an op-ed for the New Statesman in which I used the publication of Sheila Jeffreys’ new book as an opportunity to weigh in on the divide between certain radical feminists and certain transgender people. I had been watching this debate for months, but didn’t feel compelled to throw my own hat in the ring until I read Jeffreys’ book, which is in many ways the successor to Janice Raymond’s 1979 The Transsexual Empire.
The post went live at 4:30 AM. I had no idea the New Statesman was going to link the article to my twitter account, and at 4:33 I received my first bit of feedback: “What Tim R. Johnston has to say about feminism is irrelevant. I can’t believe NS published this mansplaining bullshit.” It was accompanied by this photo, which is hilarious, though not a very good likeness:
Things didn’t get much better as the day went on. By noon I had made it onto Gender Identity Watch’s radar; by dinner I was the topic of some colorful posts on GenderTrender that included my picture and email address. Several weeks later, while I was preparing to take the stage for a talk at a national trans health conference, I was approached by the conference organizers and told that they had received anonymous threats from radical feminists. I was warned to be on the lookout for people trying to spark aggressive confrontation and told security was being increased during all presentations. Nothing happened, but I did find out that someone had also contacted my boss, demanding that I be fired because I am a “threat to women everywhere.”
We all know that comment trolls are the worst people on earth (my favorite proof of this is the first comment on this list titled “14 Breathtaking Pictures that will Restore your Faith in Clouds,” Kay Schott, I don’t know who you are, but you really hit it out of the park with that one), and that you should “never read the comments,” but this was my first experience dealing with internet blowback and it was terrible. I closed my twitter account and vowed to never touch this topic again.
Then I started thinking about how this book might be received by young or uncritical readers. I remembered a time in my life when I desperately wanted to be straight. One night during the height of my confusion I opened Netscape and Asked Jeeves for information on homosexuality. I ended up on NARTH’s website reading about reparative therapy, overjoyed at the possibility that I might be cured. I internalized a lot of NARTH’s pseudoscientific homophobia, and I have no doubt it set back my coming out by months if not years. I’m terrified that a young person struggling with their gender identity might read Jeffreys’ book and have a similar experience. That’s why I’ve just published a longer review of the book in Hypatia clearly calling it out for what it is: poorly argued fear mongering that has the potential to seriously harm transgender people and their allies.
So, my fellow feminists, please repost, link, like, and retweet this review, or write your own, so that when someone turns to google to find out about this Sheila Jeffreys person, there are some critical voices in the mix.