The Atlantic Has a Transphobia Problem

The Atlantic Has a Transphobia Problem
Screenshot: (Channel 4 News)

On Friday, the Atlantic continued its recent tradition of giving a platform to transphobes and bigots under the cover of “ideological diversity” when it announced that it had hired Helen Lewis of the New Statesman, who will be joining its bureau in London.

Lewis will be, according to a press release from the Atlantic, focusing on “some of the biggest issues shaping a changing world—the decline in democracy, the culture wars, toxicity in public discourse, and feminism.”

Lewis indeed has some views on feminism and what the Atlantic tellingly calls the “culture wars.” Here she is on MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh, where she professes sympathy for Kavanaugh while watching his Senate confirmation hearings: “Nonetheless, I felt uneasy watching him sob and sniffle; it reminded me of the way in which rape complainants feel their characters are picked apart for credibility. A man can be an entitled, drunken, obnoxious misogynist and still not be a rapist.”

But it is her views of trans people and trans rights, which she has written about at length at the New Statesman and in other publications, that have received the most focus since her hiring was announced last week.

In 2017, Lewis came out strongly against the United Kingdom’s move to streamline the process of legally changing one’s gender and allowing what is commonly called self-identification in place of a lengthy bureaucratic process that involves a medical diagnosis from two separate doctors. In an op-ed titled “A man can’t just say he has turned into a woman” published in the Sunday Times, Lewis wrote, “What the government proposes is a radical rewriting of our understanding of identity: now it’s a question of an internal essence—a soul, if you will. Being a woman or a man is now entirely in your head.”

She then brought up an argument that could have come from the mouth of a fear-mongering, right-wing Republican in the United States: “In this climate, who would challenge someone with a beard exposing their penis in a women’s changing room?”

In response to Lewis’s views on self-identification, trans writer and activist Juno Roche told the U.K.-based PinkNews, “Whilst some speculate wildly about what may happen if trans people are allowed far more freedom in relation to self-identification and how dangerous they perceive us to be—as they do that, people, real people, trans people are dying.”

Lewis has regularly positioned herself as someone saying the bold truths that few are willing to voice—an argument that others, like Jesse Singal, have also attempted to use to piously proclaim that they are on the side of trans people, all while raising arguments that trans people themselves have said are a threat to their basic rights, lives, and safety. “I’ve had two tedious years of being abused online as a transphobe and a ‘TERF’ or ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’—despite my belief that trans women are women, and trans men are men—because I have expressed concerns about self-ID and its impact on single-sex spaces,” Lewis wrote in January of this year. In the same piece, she continued a short while later: “The imperial over-reach of a handful of trans activists, in trying to rewrite widely accepted ideas about gender by stealth, has done nothing to improve the lives of trans people.”

As the Atlantic likely realized—or already knew—in the process of hiring her, Lewis is widely known in the United Kingdom for her transphobic views. As the British journalist Edie Miller wrote in 2018 for the Outline, noting that Lewis has “promoted a barrage of anti-trans articles”: “It’s alarming the extent to which, in the U.K., transphobia has taken hold among people who understand themselves to be left-wing.”

While Lewis regularly complains that she gets lumped in with TERFs despite her self-professed support for trans rights, there is a reason—her thinking is largely in line with and gives ideological cover to ideas that have been used to limit the rights of trans people. Consider this piece, where she hand-wrings over two topics that TERFs consistently raise to paint trans women as a threat to what she often describes as “biological” women—trans women in women’s prisons and trans women competing in sports.

Or take her GQ interview with Jordan Peterson, the noxious Canadian professor who has made a name for himself peddling a return to traditional ideas of masculinity, one clip of which was recently circulated online after her hiring, in which she largely agrees with Peterson. “I don’t believe you can be a man born in a woman’s body or a woman born in a man’s body. What I believe is that there are some people who feel alienation towards their bodies,” Lewis stated, before raising concerns about trans children who want to transition.

Hiring people with retrograde ideas in the name of diversity of opinion is not new for the Atlantic. In 2018, the magazine announced it had brought on the rightwing ideologue and National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, a man noted for comparing a black child to a primate, writing that the trans actor and activist Laverne Cox “is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman,” and believing that women who have abortions should be hanged. After an outcry, they quickly backtracked.

But in a memo defending his decision to hire Williamson, the Atlantic’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg explained it was part of the Atlantic’s commitment to “ideological diversity”:

It is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity. It is also my job is to make sure that we are ideologically diverse. Diversity in all its forms makes us better journalists; it also opens us up to new audiences.

This, of course, is a boring and tired attempt to gloss over old-school bigotry as critical thinking. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise.

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