Free Speech, 'The Antioch Review' and an Antitransgender Article

Essay in noted literary journal infuriates many, but college has rejected calls to remove it, citing principles of free expression.

May 6, 2016

The Antioch Review has long been considered a leading literary journal. When Antioch College was revived a few years ago, its new leaders made sure the college would continue to publish the journal.

This week, the Review has come under intense criticism for publishing an article that is highly critical of the transgender rights movement, and the college is now facing criticism for its defense of the journal, based on the principles of free expression, even as Antioch has acknowledged that many find the article to be offensive.

The article that set off the debate is "The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate," by Daniel Harris, who has written several books about gay history and culture.

While Harris notes that transgender people face discrimination, and says he opposes that, he is sharply critical of many of the changes transgender people seek in society.

"TGs have ambushed the debate and entangled us in a snare of such trivialities as the proper pronouns with which to address them, protocol as Byzantine and patronizing as the etiquette for addressing royalty. They insult us with the pejorative term 'cisgender,' which they use to describe those of us who accept, however unenthusiastically, our birth gender, as opposed to the enlightened few who question their sex," he wrote. "Moreover, they shame us into silence by ridiculing the blunders we make while trying to come to grips with their unique dilemmas, decrying our curiosity about their bodies as prurience and our unwillingness, or even inability, to enter into their own (often unsuccessful) illusion as narrow‑mindedness."

Harris -- who could not be reached for comment -- is particularly critical of transgender people who alter their bodies. "While I fervently support TGs’ rights to transition and to do so without fear of reprisal, I believe that the whole phenomenon of switching one’s gender is a mass delusion," he writes. "For one, the physical manipulation involved in transforming oneself into a man or woman is apparently different in kind -- or so the transgender community presumes -- from the nips and tucks undertaken by the trophy wife or celebrity, antiheroes of a materialistic culture with whom the TG, having taken advantage of the same merchandising of the body promoted by commercialized medicine, bears a strong and unfortunate resemblance."

As the article has circulated over the last few days, reaction has been strong, with many of those sharing the piece asking why it was published.

A statement endorsed by 2,500 writers, editors and librarians (many of them at academic institutions) says the piece by Harris "calls into question the very identity of transgender people."

The statement adds: "As writers and editors ourselves, we find a serious lack of judgment behind the writing, publishing and publicizing of this piece, and we are shocked that The Antioch Review, a journal of such stature, would choose to publish it. As people who care about language, we are particularly troubled by the article’s righteous celebration of ignorance about how nouns and adjectives work, and the author’s desire to blame trans people and their allies for rejecting nouns that have no descriptive or identifying purchase ('transgenders') in favor of adjectival uses that correctly describe people: trans men, trans women, trans people, gender nonconforming humans. It is deeply troubling that The Antioch Review promotes this sort of bigotry. We can find no redeeming aesthetic or political justification."

A petition launched Thursday urged Antioch College's leaders to take actions to demonstrate they are not hostile to transgender people. The petition calls the essay "hate speech" more typical of "the realm of sensationlist [sic] supermarket rags that lie about people for sales."

On Thursday, the college published a short statement on the Review's website: "It has come to our attention that an article published in the Winter 2016 issue of the Antioch Review is stirring debate in our campus and alumni communities and within the broader transgender community. Daniel Harris’s views are his own and, based on the response of some readers, are deeply offensive to many transgender individuals and supporters. Antioch College does not condone or always agree with the ideas and viewpoints expressed in the Review. We do, however, have confidence in the Review’s editor and editorial process, and support a key Antiochian value -- the free expression of ideas and opinions, even when they run counter to our own. As a college, we encourage our students, faculty and the broader community to engage in critical thought and dialogue around important issues, including this one. We believe commitments to the ideals of free expression and support for LGBTQ human and civil rights are not incompatible."

Judging from the comments posted later Thursday on the Review's Facebook page, the statement may not end the controversy. Most of the comments criticized not only Harris, but the Review and the college.

"Hey, can someone from Antioch Review please explain how 'free expression' excuses having published what you published? Free expression doesn't prohibit you from exercising editorial judgment. Your editors read that piece and either couldn't tell how bad it was, or didn't care. Either way, I'm stupefied by how oblivious you're acting about this," said one comment.

Another comment said: "Free speech is undoubtedly important, but that's not what this is about. It's about hate and transphobia and false equivalencies and archaic arguments about gender and the editor deciding that this was the right horse to back, and then the college's decision to do the same in its announcement of the new issue. To jump on the free speech train is to throw up your hands and say, 'I'm not listening.' Granted, this statement is likely a quick line of defense put together by the Antioch College publicity team to stop the bleeding, but for the editors not to make a statement is pretty damning. It lets us know that the free speech, which is really hate speech, is endorsed by those who run the journal itself."


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