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A hallmark of every dictatorial regime is an inability to withstand scrutiny. From the emperors of antiquity to the tyrants (both tin-pot and tech-savvy) of today, what absolutist rulers throughout human history all have in common is an extremely low tolerance for criticism. No matter the nature of their regime—a Latin American junta, an East Bloc nomenklatura, or an African kleptocracy—among the very first actions that the aspiring authoritarian takes upon seizing power is to silence those who might point out his shortcomings.
“Authoritarian” is the word that first comes to mind upon reading the open letter addressed to the country’s largest social media platforms earlier this summer, calling on them to “Stop the Flow of Anti-Trans Hate & Malicious Disinformation About Trans Healthcare.” Organized by the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, two of America’s leading LGBTQ rights groups, the letter, which was signed by over 250 celebrities including Jamie Lee Curtis, Elliot Page, and Patrick Stewart, faults Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter for “a massive systemic failure to prohibit hate, harassment, and malicious anti-LGBTQ disinformation on your platforms [that] must be addressed.”
Like their effort earlier this year reproaching The New York Times over its coverage of transgender issues, this latest missive on the part of HRC and GLAAD is heavy on adjectives and short on facts. In a glaring tell, the word “dangerous” appears four times to describe various types of constitutionally protected expression. So too does the term “hate speech,” which the Supreme Court, under both liberal and conservative majorities, has continuously refused to recognize as a legal category.
Examples of such “hate speech” that the signatories want banished from the internet include “targeted misgendering and deadnaming,” the latter being the practice of referring to a transgender person by their birth name rather than their chosen one. In a footnote, the letter links to an article declaring that the “relentless misgendering of Dr. Rachel Levine,” an assistant secretary for health and the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed government official, “is violence.” You know, violence, a category that now includes punching someone, stabbing them, and using the name on their birth certificate.
To be sure, deliberately misgendering and deadnaming are rude. But it’s difficult to see how banning such practices from the digital public square would not lead to banning whatever any other group of aggrieved people happens to consider offensive. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is called all sorts of nasty names on the internet. Why should Levine, a public official who routinely uses her platform to push dubious policies regarding the provision of puberty blockers and hormones to gender dysphoric youth, be legally protected from insult but not the dishonorable woman from Georgia? The letter’s organizers unwittingly reveal this slippery slope with their insistence that tech companies “urgently take action to protect trans and LGBTQ users on your platforms (including protecting us from over-enforcement and censorship).” In other words, free speech for me but not for thee.
To justify its call for a vast censorship regime, the letter asserts that online “disinformation and hate” have played “an outsize role in the sharp increase in real-world anti-transgender targeting and violence.” Yet it provides no facts to connect these two phenomena. And it undermines its own claim completely by linking to three of the very videos it claims are provoking violence against trans people—an act that, if we were to take the letter’s argument seriously, would itself constitute a punishable form of “violence.”
The greatest problem with the letter concerns “disinformation,” a deliberately elusive term the cynical purposes of which my colleague Jacob Siegel has exhaustively diagnosed, and which appears nine times throughout the text. By “disinformation,” the signatories appear to mean anything questioning the advisability of what they euphemistically term “medically necessary healthcare for transgender youth”—that is, sex changes for children. But like “fake news,” its MAGA equivalent, “disinformation” is in the eye of the beholder. Take the letter’s bald-faced assertion that “every leading medical and psychological association affirms the safety and necessity of gender affirming healthcare for trans people, including youth.” Britain’s National Health Service, Sweden’s Board of Health and Welfare, and the Finnish Health Authority—all of which have drastically limited the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones on minors after conducting extensive reviews of their effects—would beg to differ.
Last month, a group of 18 medical experts from around the world published an open letter criticizing the U.S. Endocrine Society for its approach to youth gender transition, stating that while “the evidence for mental-health benefits of hormonal interventions for minors” is “of low or very low certainty … the risks are significant and include sterility, lifelong dependence on medication and the anguish of regret.” The troubling reality is that America’s ideologically captured medical and psychological associations find themselves increasingly isolated among their European peers when it comes to pediatric gender medicine, a challenging set of circumstances for American progressives, who are normally urging us to become more like Europe.
Whatever one’s views about the transgender issue and its improbable prominence in American life, pediatric gender medicine is an extremely complex subject. It deserves—indeed, requires—further research and debate, not the suppression of contrary perspectives. If the tech platforms acquiesced to the demands of HRC, GLAAD and their cowed celebrity “allies” (at least I hope that’s why Patrick Stewart’s agent agreed to let his client’s name be associated with something so patently foolish as this), reams of vital scientific data would be banned, as would the work of journalists from across the political spectrum and around the world. With HRC and GLAAD having failed in their high-profile effort to bully The New York Times, and HRC doubly humiliated that its declaration of a “national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people” has fallen on deaf ears, these organizations are now flocking to the last refuge of the desperate: censorship. To deal with the “malicious lies and disinformation” about pediatric gender medicine, they demand, social media platforms must implement “specific mitigations … akin to election and COVID-19 mitigations and rules.” From the people who told you that Hunter Biden’s laptop was Russian disinformation and the lab leak theory was a racist lie, here’s the latest update on “medically necessary healthcare for transgender youth.”
A telltale sign of the dishonest interlocutor is if they oppose your right to question them. Politicians who refuse interviews with the press, public health officials who demonize dissenters, activists who demand the muzzling of opposing opinions—such people are simply not to be trusted.
The censoriousness of today’s LGBTQ+ leadership is a shameful betrayal of earlier generations of gay and lesbian activists and thinkers, who embraced free speech as a matter of principle—and basic survival. People like Frank Kameny, the first gay federal employee to challenge his firing on the grounds of his homosexuality in 1957, and who harnessed the First Amendment to launch a decadeslong fight for equality that culminated with him receiving a formal apology from the government in 2009. Norah Vincent, the iconoclastic lesbian writer who routinely slayed sacred cows, including those among her fellow gays. Jon Corvino, the American philosophy professor and author of What’s Wrong With Homosexuality, who has never shied away from debating Christian fundamentalists who think he’s going to hell. How else would a people who were among civilization’s most despised achieve full and equal citizenship in such a relatively short period of time, but for their embrace of the right to speak?
For a devastating example of what happens when someone who has never had to defend their beliefs before a skeptical inquirer is suddenly forced to contend with one, consider the recent testimony of HRC’s president, Kelley Robinson, before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past June. Robinson appeared as a Democratic witness in support of the Equality Act, a long-stalled piece of legislation that would, among other measures, permit natal males to compete in women’s sporting competitions if they identify as women. Following her testimony, Republican Sen. John Kennedy asked Robinson how many genders there are, a question to which Robinson refused to give a straight answer. A frustrated Kennedy then asked Robinson if “males have an advantage over females biologically in sports.” The whole exchange is brutal to behold:
Under HRC and GLAAD’s new rules, simply posting this video would likely be prohibited as a form of “hate speech.”
Such an embarrassing spectacle—the leader of the nation’s preeminent gay rights organization spouting transparent nonsense at a congressional hearing—would have been unthinkable before 2015. That was the year the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, at which point the gay rights movement achieved its major aim and the professionals who had devoted their careers to it began departing for other pursuits. Alas, what was once a serious cause devoted to the attainment of equal rights for gay men and women has since been overtaken by “queers” who deny that the categories of men and women as most of us understand them even exist.
Freedom of speech was the most important tool of the gay movement, but it’s proving to be a highly problematic obstacle for the queer one. And so, like the proverbial emperor of yore, its leaders admonish anyone who dares point out that they’re not wearing any clothes.