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Death of Media

The Guardian’s Censoring of Judith Butler Part of a Pattern, Current and Former Staffers Say

'The British editorial staff seem to be allowing transphobia to crop up even where it's not even relevant.'

Judith Butler
Heartland Festival

This piece by journalist Eoin Higgins was originally co-published by The Flashpoint. The Flashpoint, like Discourse Blog, is part of the Discontents media collective. To subscribe to The Flashpoint for 20% off, please click here.

The Guardian’s decision to pull a quote critical of transphobes from gender theorist Judith Butler is part of a pattern at the paper of hostility to trans rights, current and former staffers say.

“The British editorial staff seem to be allowing transphobia to crop up even where it’s not even relevant,” Jules Gleeson, author of the censored article, told me, adding that “it almost feels like transphobia is getting shoe-horned in for its own sake.”

Gleeson is not on staff at the paper, but her remarks reflect the consensus from the staffers I spoke to, all of whom needed anonymity due to NDAs and fears of reprisal. Their accounts paint a picture of a newsroom dominated by transphobes who use a plethora of tactics, including using the company’s UK union to insulate their bigotry from accountability, in order to maintain control over The Guardian’s editorial direction on gender.

‘One of the dominant strains of fascism in our times’

Butler’s comments in the interview with Gleeson on the anti-trans movement—they said the ideology represents “one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times” and that transphobes “will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism”—angered trans rights opponents. Hours after the interview was published, The Guardian pulled the offending section. You can read the original here.

Editors from The Guardian’s UK department told Gleeson that the question preceding Butler’s remarks was based on shoddy reporting on a controversy over an alleged exhibitionist sex crime in the women’s locker room at Wi Spa in Los Angeles.

But the question itself didn’t have anything to do with the new reporting on the scandal. Rather, Gleeson had focused on the violent protests outside of the spa after far-right demonstrators, including fascist gang the Proud Boys, attacked trans rights activists.

It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. This year’s furore around Wi Spa in Los Angeles saw an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organized by the Proud Boys. Can we expect this alliance to continue?

The Guardian told me in a statement that the question “failed to take account of new facts regarding the incident at Wi Spa, which emerged late last week after the interview took place and the piece was written.”

“In light of those developments, the question regarding Wi Spa in the interview should have been reviewed again prior to publication, but this did not happen,” the paper said. “This is a departure from our usual editorial standards.”

“This particular question omitted the new details that had come to light, and therefore risked misleading our readers,” The Guardian continued. “For that reason we decided to remove both the question and Judith Butler’s answer.”

Activist Emily Gorcenski found that explanation unconvincing, she said on Twitter.

“Does it somehow make it ok that fascists, enabled by Terfs, stabbed someone, just because weeks later someone was charged in the incident??” she tweeted.

A ‘militant and obsessive anti-trans activist’

The Guardian’s vocal UK coalition has long had a documented influence over the newsroom.

In 2018, the UK newsroom published a transphobic attack on trans rights as a paper editorial. The unsigned piece, according to sources at The Guardian, was written by lead opinion columnist Susanna Rustin, who was described to me as a “militant and obsessive anti-trans activist.”

The Guardian’s US newsroom pushed back with a piece calling out the editorial for having an “unsubstantiated argument only serves to dehumanize and stigmatize trans people.”

Two years later, in 2020, 338 Guardian staffers signed a letter to Guardian Editor-in-Chief Kath Viner complaining about the paper’s ongoing “pattern of publishing transphobic content.”

As Buzzfeed reported at the time:

The letter, which was organized over the last few days in response to a column by Suzanne Moore that has been widely criticized as anti-trans, said the staff were “deeply distressed” by the resignation of a transgender member of staff who said they’d received anti-trans comments from “influential editorial staff” and who criticized the publication of the Moore’s column at the editorial morning conference.

In response, Viner and Guardian chief executive Annette Thomas sent an all-staff email defending the paper’s commitment to “a wide range of view on many topics” and chiding the letter’s signatories for attacking “colleagues whose views you do not agree with, whether in meetings, on email, publicly or on social media.”

‘Change course’

According to current and former staffers I spoke to, transphobes are the “dominant faction” in the UK newsroom’s leadership and have used that institutional power in the “long running dispute” over trans rights at the paper.

Rustin, the lead opinion writer whose 2018 editorial sparked the Guardian US’s pushback, tried this summer to use the paper’s union against those critical of transphobia in the newsroom.

In a June 24, 2021 email to her National Union of Journalists chapel rep—a union head—Rustin claimed that she and other anti-trans staff were “experiencing difficulties at work in relation to gender identity politics” including “feeling anxious” and “sleepless nights.”

Citing a June 10, 2021 ruling from “the president of the Employment Appeals Tribune … that gender critical beliefs are a philosophical belief, holders of which are entitled to protection (from discrimination),” Rustin wondered whether opposition to these views could have a “chilling effect.” The email section I was leaked is reproduced below.

Rustin did not return a request for comment.

Editor-in-Chief Viner is aware of the tension between anti-trans staff and those in favor of trans rights, sources say, but is “holding off on having a meeting about it until everyone can be there in person”—a convenient prerequisite during a pandemic.

With all the controversy over trans rights at the paper, and the most recent flare up over her article, Gleeson told me she hopes that The Guardian US won’t bear the brunt of the heat from the so-called “editorial failure” the paper blamed the retraction on.

“This seems like it might be part of pinning all the blame on the US team, when really the redaction (censorship) has clearly caused far more ‘readership backlash’ than any other possible option,” Gleeson said. “In other words, the British editorial staff need to own up to their own mistake, and change course.”