Tuesday, December 5, 2017

my Jesse Singal story

Many people know of Jesse Singal as a senior/science editor at New York Magazine. Within transgender communities, Singal has garnered a reputation (particularly over the last two years) for repeatedly promoting ideas that are in opposition to, or which flat-out undermine, trans people’s perspectives on issues that impact our lives. He has done this in the form of seemingly serious-minded articles, but also in more flippant or provocative exchanges from his Twitter account (which he recently shut down).

As a trans author and activist who disagrees with many of Singal’s positions, I have gone on the record (in my own articles and Twitter threads) to challenge some of those ideas and his framing of them. But in this post, I want to talk about my personal experiences with Singal, because they are rather out of the ordinary. While I’ve long found these incidents to be frustrating and baffling, I never thought to compile them all in one place before. That changed last Friday, when Katelyn Burns (who is also a trans woman writer) shared her personal exchanges with Singal in this Twitter thread. [btw, Burns was forced to lock her account for reasons explained here, but the thread has since been archived here and here.] While she had far more interactions with him than I’ve had, some of what she recounts very much resonated with my own experiences. So I figured that I’d share my story here (I will explain more about my reasons for doing so at the end of this piece).

Singal first emailed me on January 9, 2016, regarding an article that he was in the process of writing:

I'm working on a story about the closing of the Zucker clinic. If I emailed you some straightforward questions today, do you think there's a chance you'd have time to answer by the end of the weekend? And it looks like this is probably the best one­stop­shopping article of yours for me to read to understand your stance on Zucker, right? Any other reading you'd suggest?

The “this” link (which appeared in his actual email to me) points to an essay I wrote in 2009 entitled Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations (it began as a keynote lecture for the 8th Annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference). It is a lengthy piece that discusses common strategies that people use in order to invalidate trans people’s identities and perspectives. I do discuss Zucker in the piece, but the bulk of the essay analyzes the ways in which sexualization (i.e., reducing a person to their sexual bodies and behaviors, to the exclusion of other characteristics) is used as a tactic to invalidate and dehumanize transgender people, especially trans women. I draw parallels with how a woman will be taken less seriously, and may even be outright dehumanized, if people objectify or slut-shame her (there is plenty of research demonstrating this). There is a long history of both the media and psychologists/sexologists dwelling on trans women’s bodies and sexual proclivities, and I argued that this essentially has the same effect: It enables people to trivialize and dehumanize us. I’ve since come to refer to this phenomenon as the “slut-shaming” equivalent for trans women. (This will become relevant later in this story.)

Anyway, I gave Singal links to some of my other writings related to Zucker and gender reparative therapy. Then he replied with his own thoughts and questions for me—this is when I first got the impression that he was leaning toward writing a “pro-Zucker” piece. So I painstakingly answered all of his questions in a long email, in the hopes that it might shed some light onto issues Singal may have overlooked or was simply misinformed about. 

Singal’s article, How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired, came out on February 7, 2016. It is a long-read that somehow fails to include any actual transgender voices, including any of my lengthy responses. (Parker Molloy was also interviewed for, but not included in, Singal’s piece, as she recounts here). [note added after publication: Brynn Tannehill was also interviewed for, but not included in, the piece.] Now, if you’ve never heard of Ken Zucker before—as is the case for a vast majority of the mainstream public—then I’ll bet that if you read Singal’s article, you’d come away with the impression that it was a thorough journalistic investigation that uncovered some kind of mass transgender conspiracy to undermine science and ruin one researcher’s career. But as someone whose been involved in trans communities and writing about these issues for almost twenty years, I can tell you that the article was heavily skewed and omitted critical information. For this reason, on February 9, 2016, I published Placing Ken Zucker's clinic in historical context, which was essentially my answers to the questions Singal posed to me via email (although I removed the actual questions he asked, as they hinted at his early pro-Zucker leanings, and I had no intentions of smearing him personally; at the time, I wanted to believe that he was simply misguided, rather than someone with a deliberate anti-trans axe to grind).

But Singal then went on to write many more “trans people are destroying/denying science”-type articles, even though our anti-gender-reparative-therapy and pro-affirming-trans-children stances are shared by WPATH (the world’s largest and longstanding transgender health professional organization) and most contemporary trans health providers. One of Singal’s subsequent articles, What’s Missing From the Conversation About Transgender Kids, was published on July 25, 2016. The focus of the piece was “desistance”—this refers to the possibility that young children who cross-gender-identify may eventually grow out of it over time. People who harbor anti-trans agendas love to cite the dubious statistic that 80% of transgender children ultimately desist, but the studies they point to display numerous faulty assumptions and methodologies (as detailed in depth in articles by Zack Ford and Brynn Tannehill). [note added 6-18-18, see also two recent peer-reviewed articles debunking 80% desistance cited here] Anyway, this particular Singal article promoted this “80% desistance” statistic, and (unlike his Zucker piece) this time he did cite trans people who disagree with him, including myself. And here is the passage involving me from that piece:

And when I emailed Serano for the Zucker story, she made the same argument (as an aside, you should read her Daily Beast article about navigating the dating scene as a trans woman in San Francisco). I didn’t end up quoting from Serano’s response, but she posted it online afterward, and it reads, in part: “These children [at Zucker’s clinic] are not necessarily brought in for “gender dysphoria” but for gender non­conformity. I’ve already conceded (as most trans activists & advocates would), many of these gender non­conforming kids will not grow up to be cross­gender-identified.”

I have no qualms with him including my quote in his piece. But the “read her Daily Beast article about navigating the dating scene as a trans woman in San Francisco” line links to the article shown to the right—it’s an excerpt from my 2013 book Excluded (in the book, the chapter goes by the less bombastic title “Dating”). To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the title “The Struggle To Find Trans Love In San Francisco” or the photo, but as a general rule, writers don’t get any input into, or veto power over, the titles and images that accompany their articles; these are determined by editors or other employees at that media outlet. Anyway, I originally wrote this piece in 2009 and it discusses how—in my experiences, and at that time (things have changed a bit since then)—while significant numbers of straight cisgender men were open to dating trans women, the same was not generally true for cisgender lesbians, and I explored reasons for why that may be. 

Now, you may be thinking, “Oh, isn’t that nice of Singal to mention that he liked your dating piece, even though he disagrees with you on desistance.” But think for a moment about the context: He mentioned this in the middle of an article about transgender children and science. Don’t you think that’s a bit out of place? If he really appreciated my writings and wanted to share them with his readers, he could have instead cited my previously mentioned “Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations” essay, which 1) I know he has read (as he specifically referenced it in his first email to me), and 2) would have been far more relevant to the topic at hand. In fact, I’ve written scores of articles/essays about transgender people and issues over the years, on all sorts of topics. Why pick this particular piece? If Singal first learned about me via googling terms like “transgender,” “children,” “Zucker,” “psychology,” “research,” etc. (which I’ve written extensively about), he would have found many of my other writings, but probably not the piece about dating. So did he specifically seek out pieces about my dating habits and sexuality? Or did he read a large swath of my writings and, upon doing so, decided to direct his readers to the piece that had the most sexually suggestive headline and photo? I can’t say for sure. But given the thesis of my “Psychology, Sexualization and Trans-Invalidations” essay (which I know for sure he has read) about how mentioning trans women’s sexualities results in people not taking what we have to say seriously, it seemed (far more likely than any other alternative) that he was purposefully trying to slut-shame me with that citation.

(If you think I’m jumping to conclusions here, hold tight, more evidence to this effect is on the way. But if you are a doubter, just ask yourself this: Imagine that you write about myriad serious topics. And you’ve also written one piece once in the past about your dating experiences. And someone who disagrees with you about one of those other serious matters you’ve written about at great length, in the middle of countering your arguments, tosses in: “as an aside, you should read [insert your name here]’s article about navigating the dating scene . . .” How would that make you feel? Would you assume it was a random flattering comment? Or that there was an ulterior motive behind it?)

While this slut-shaming incident really bothered me, I didn’t make a fuss about it at the time. I was more concerned (as both a trans activist and a scientist) with the misinformation that Singal and others were spreading about desistance and transgender children. So on Aug 2, 2016, I published Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates—it’s a long-read, because I wanted to address many of the complexities and nuances that often get tossed aside in mainstream takes on these matters. In my piece, I critique Singal’s articles (and similar pieces by other authors) for their faulty claims and framing, but I never went after him as a person. Notably, I did not suggest that readers read up on his dating habits! 

My essay was generally well-received; the media outlet Vox even interviewed me about it (see: The debate about transgender children and “detransitioning” is really about transphobia, which was published August 9, 2016; for the record, for reasons I’ve already explained, I was not consulted on that title). I received a few negative responses on social media, as happens whenever anyone publishes any article (especially if it’s about trans-related issues), but not any more than usual. That is, until sometime around August 12, 2016, when my Twitter notifications were suddenly flooded with social conservatives, TERFs, and (to a lesser degree) people who have detransitioned, all of whom were virtual-yelling at me for supposedly denying the existence of people who detransition. Even though I never said or insinuated either of those things in my Medium essay or Vox interview (this is plainly obvious if you read the actual pieces). Turns out that this backlash was largely attributable to an alarmist tweet (or tweets, I don’t remember if it was more than one, and I cannot access them now that he shut his Twitter account down) Singal posted wherein he falsely claimed that this was what I was saying. In other words, he flat-out spread lies about me

note added 6-29-18: since publishing this, Singal has re-activated his Twitter account, so I was able to obtain this screen-shot of his alarmist lies about me:

This is how I responded upon learning about this (click the tweet to read the entire thread):
This wasn’t some random person online who was propagating lies about me. This is a senior editor at a major media outlet, and someone who tries to position himself as a “rational objective voice” on these matters. Singal is extremely familiar with my writings and positions, and I’m sure that he read my essay (if he did not, then it would have been extremely irresponsible for him to make such outrageous public statements about it!). I am convinced that he knew full well that he was misrepresenting my views, and that he did this on purpose (on his Twitter platform which, according to the Wayback Machine, had over 23K followers at the time) in order to sic a social media mob on me. And this wouldn’t be the first time that he did such a thing: In the aforementioned Katelyn Burns thread, she says about Singal, “I was one of hundreds of trans people trying to explain why he was wrong. He singled me out and quote tweeted me with the GG h/t before blocking me.” If you are unfamiliar with what “GG h/t” means, it refers to #GamerGate—as Singal well knows (given that he’s written numerous articles about it) adding that hashtag to any tweet would elicit a horde of men who oppose “social justice warriors” and have a well-documented history of doxxing, smearing, and harassing women and minorities. This is not only an extremely shitty thing to do to someone, but it’s also an extraordinarily unprofessional move for a senior editor of a major media outlet. It’s also extremely hypocritical for Singal to engage in such behavior, given that he also fancies himself a critic of internet toxicity, online mobs, and “witch hunts.”

There are two more incidents that I want to share. Sometime around February 9, 2017, Singal tweeted a video (I believe; once again, I am unable to verify the precise content of the tweet) from someone who claimed that trans women are pressuring cisgender lesbians to sleep with them by calling them “transphobic” if they do not. Here are threads from Katherine Cross and Noah Berlatsky reacting to this incident (many others on social media were reacting to this too, it’s just that these are the two threads that I saved the links for and have easy access to as I write this). I don’t know of any trans women who are going around saying such things—this is a famous TERF myth, akin to manufactured fears about trans people preying on women in restrooms). What some of us have said is that anti-transgender prejudice often influences desire (not that “if you don’t sleep with trans women you’re prejudiced”). Here is Cross making this case, and Berlatsky makes similar points via an analogy with anti-Semitism. 

Do you know who else has made this case? Me! In my “Dating”/The Struggle To Find Trans Love In San Francisco piece I mentioned to earlier. You remember, the essay that Singal loved so much that he couldn’t stop himself from bringing it up in the middle of an article about transgender children? That one! The idea that anti-trans prejudice might negatively influence desire is the main point of that piece! The fact that Singal was now championing the exact opposite viewpoint proves that he did not especially care for my “Dating” piece, but he cited it anyway in order to slut-shame me. 

(Alternatively, I suppose that he might have truly liked my “Dating” piece, but nevertheless chose to champion the opposing “trans women are shaming lesbians into sleeping with them” view in order to piss off his transgender critics and/or whip up social media mobs against us. These possibilities are not mutually exclusive. And frankly, I’m not sure which possibility would be more disingenuous or disgusting.)

One final anecdote: On May 26, 2017 (after all the events I just detailed occurred), Singal sent me this email:
Working on a piece I'd like to get some of your thoughts on that touches in part on questions of informed consent for younger gender dysphoric people -- already had useful on-the-record convos with [THREE TRANS WOMEN WHOSE NAMES I’VE DELETED]. Hoping to avoid mistakes I made in the Zucker piece, but I also realize/acknowledge that we've had an unfortunately spar-y relationship on Twitter etc., so I wanted to first ask your permission before sending the question. No worries if you're not interested, of course.

Frankly, the “we've had an unfortunately spar-y relationship on Twitter etc.” remark ticked me off. I never followed him on Twitter, and I’m almost positive that I never once @-ed/replied to him on anything. We never had any kind of “relationship”; what we did have was him publicly slut-shaming me, lying about my views, and siccing anti-trans internet mobs on me, and me simply responding to those events and trying to set the record straight. 

Anyway, I replied that I was too busy right then (which happened to be true), but that I’d be open to answering questions in the future if he was truly working to avoid past mistakes. I highly doubted that he was sincere about that, although I wanted to leave that possibility open, as occasionally (however infrequently) people do change. But I have subsequently learned that Singal received a book deal two months prior [March 2017, according to Publishers Marketplace] for a book about “half­baked psychology” that specifically mentions “recent work on gender identity” [i.e., presumably not the older work by gender-reparative-oriented researchers like Zucker et al.]. So it seems as though his avoiding-past-mistakes claim was not entirely genuine.

But here is the thing that really stuck with me after that last email exchange: He was so nonchalant about it. The tone of his message felt as though we were old pals who had simply had an argument or two in the past, but he was now sorry about what happened and wanted to reconnect. I mean, he slut-shamed me, lied about me, and whipped up an online mob against me, when I had done absolutely nothing to him, except for disagree with his public writings and claims about trans people and issues (i.e., I stayed within the realm of what’s considered “appropriate” public discourse). How could he not see that I’d be angry about all the things that he did to me? And sure, other people have publicly slut-shamed me, purposefully misrepresented my views, and/or tried to stir up online outrage at me, but not a single one of those people had the gall to hit me up for an interview afterwards! 

Upon reading Katelyn Burns’s Twitter thread last Friday, this all suddenly made sense (or at least, some sense) to me. Burns described these strange back-and-forth exchanges with Singal, where he’d alternately be nice and friendly, but then other times be mean or belittling. (Or at least, that’s how I interpreted those exchanges.) This is difficult to talk about in a public setting, because most cisgender people have a simplistic view of anti-trans prejudice: a person either hates trans people (i.e., they are transphobic) or likes them (and therefore is presumed to be non-transphobic). But over the course of my life, I’ve met quite a number of men who have a sort of love/hate relationship with trans women, where they are intrigued or fascinated by us, while simultaneously being resentful or repulsed. And I’m not implying sexually here—there is no evidence of that in this case, plus even if there was, I would never slut-shame or deride a person for that. No, what I’m talking about is men (and it’s typically men) who want to both interact with or be close to trans women, while also displaying a compulsive tendency to disparage or hurt us. (I suppose that some men treat cisgender women in similar ways, so I’m not claiming that this is some kind of a trans-woman-only experience; all I’m saying is that this is a phenomenon that I, and other trans women I’ve shared conversations with, have observed.) 

I have no desire to psychoanalyze Singal from afar—I have never met him in person, and I have no idea what goes on in his brain—but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he fell into this category. It would explain his impulsive need to insert himself into almost every trans-related issue—it’s not just transgender children, but obscure TERF talking points, the Rachel Tuvel/“transracial” debate, etc.—while almost always coming down on whatever side dismisses trans women’s perspectives. It would explain his lack of empathy towards trans women and his obliviousness over why we might be angry with him (for men who display these tendencies, in their minds, they like us, so they are unable or unwilling to see how their actions may hurt or invalidate us). Finally, it would explain why Singal seems to be generally aware of, and interested in, whatever trans women are discussing and doing online, yet he does not seem to be similarly interested in current affairs and conversations occurring within trans male/masculine communities. 

I said at the outset that I would eventually explain why I decided to write this piece. Believe me, I had way better things to do with my last couple days than re-live my past encounters with Singal, and I’m certainly not looking forward to the inevitable blowback that I will receive from him (and possibly others). I’m pretty sure that he’ll respond in one of two ways. He’ll either turn this into a “he said/she said” thing, and litigate all the small details, not seeing/addressing the forest (i.e., the crappy way he treats trans women) for the trees. This is how he responded to Burns; that post went up while I was finishing up this piece, and while I will not be linking to it here (as a general rule, I believe trans women, but also, in this case, there are too many overlaps between her story, my story, and what I am starting to hear from others), but it is worth mentioning that Singal f***ing added the tag “GamerGate” to his Medium post refuting her!). Alternatively, knowing that Singal is a big fan of the Dregerian narrative of supposedly powerful trans women who (despite being a marginalized population who is not taken seriously by society) somehow manage to conspire to organize witch hunts, destroy science, and ruin people’s careers (in fact, Singal pretty much lifted this narrative for his “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired” article), I would not be surprised if he took a page from that same playbook once again.

Well, I am not a part of any vast conspiracy. I did chat with Katelyn Burns after reading her thread on Friday, and upon learning that there were other stories similar to what I experienced, I decided to come forward. Hopefully, if other trans women have had similar experiences with Singal, this will make it easier for them to share their stories too.

And to be clear, I am not writing this in an attempt to “bring him down” or “ruin his career.” If I did, I would have come up with a far more provocative, headline-grabbing, search-engine-friendly title than the generic “my Jesse Singal story” I ultimately settled on. I do not think that he is an awful person through and through, or that he should be permanently banished from society. All I’m saying is that he seems to have a history of treating trans women rather shittilly. (Or disrespectfully, or unprofessionally, if you are looking for a non-profanity-laden euphemism.) If Singal continues to prosper as a writer/editor, good for him, I will not interfere provided that he stops inserting himself into trans women’s lives and issues. But since he seems compelled to do so, with no evidence of relinquishing any time soon, I feel that it is incumbent on me to share my story and this history, so that people don’t fall for the “I am a neutral outsider objectively analyzing transgender people and science” act he’s been putting on.

Finally, some of you who read this may be disinterested in all the transgender-related issues that permeate this story (i.e., issues that personally impact my life, but not yours nor Singal’s). And you may be inclined to put yourself into Singal’s shoes and say, “Dear lord, this transgender woman is making accusations that could ruin his reputation and livelihood as a writer!” If this is the case for you, I would remind you that I am a writer and this is my livelihood too. I also have a reputation, one which Singal has tried to smear on multiple occasions (via slut-shaming, spreading lies about me, and siccing online mobs upon me). If, after reading all this, your immediate knee-jerk reaction is to believe Singal, and discount me (and Burns, and any other trans woman who reacts to this piece and/or steps forward), then I have a few social psychology books about how prejudice works that I’d be happy to lend you . . . 

[note: If you appreciate my writings and want to see more, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. While I will *not* be opening this up for public comments, I will post updates on this story here, in ye olde comment section, whenever they arise. Starting with this one.

    Shortly after this piece went live, Katelyn Burns/@transscribe announced that she had to lock her Twitter account because conservative media interlopers started quote-tweeting her. (So if you already follow her, you can access it; if you do not, you cannot access the thread, at least for the time being.) Neither she nor I have a high enough profile that right-wing media outlets are following our every move. If I had to venture a guess, I'd bet it was a result of Singal tagging his post with "GamerGate", which he knew full well would attract alt-right/anti-SJW types, who may have in turn spread the word about her thread. I am only speculating here, but this is the simplest explanation (one that does not involve anyone purposefully contacting right-wing media outlets about trans women speaking up).

    Relatedly, perhaps in response to this post, Singal removed the "GamerGate" tag from the Medium piece in which he refutes Burns. So I'm glad that I took a screen-shot of that, which you can view via this tweet:

    Someone else shared this news with me, and the fact that Singal replaced the GG tag with the tags "Katelyn Burns" (presumably to increase the likelihood that his post comes up in internet searches for her name) and "online rumors":

    Because apparently Singal's perspective is "objective" and "scientific", whereas trans women's realities are merely "online rumors". Also, in those screen shots, you will notice that he ended his post with: "...but I take these claims very seriously and they are all completely false."

    to which I commented:
    can I also add, "I take these claims seriously" and "they are all completely false" are inherently contradictory statements. so is "If I tagged Burns into a GamerGate conversation it was obviously accidental" and then tagging the post you make that claim in w/ a GG tag!!!

    and also:
    it's the perfect microcosm of the Singal story: 1) says he takes us seriously, but also that we're lying, 2) posts someplace (e.g., Medium w/GG tags) that ensures trans-haters will find & amplify, 3) covers tracks so it's not obvs to cis ppl that he likes f-ing over trans women

    Finally (and unsurprisingly), other trans women have contacted me with similar stories (particularly of him repeatedly contacting them and pressuring them for interviews, but then not using any of what they said while simultaneously belittling their views). For anyone who wishes to do so, I am open to talking & promise confidentiality; I will not non-consensually share anyone's story. Some trans women are understandably concerned about being outed, or potential retaliation. But if anyone else does come forward, I will post links to that here.

  2. The Atlantic published yet another Jesse Singal fearmongering anti-trans/GNC children article. I responded in two threads:

    1) this one delineating Singal's long history writing about this topic (and treating trans women shittily): https://twitter.com/JuliaSerano/status/1008759249323765760

    2) I live-tweeted Singal's latest Atlantic article, highlighting its many biases & disingenuous/distorted framing: https://twitter.com/JuliaSerano/status/1008818007814967296

    In the wake of this article being published, two other trans women shared their negative experiences with Singal:

    1) Here is Katherine Cross sharing her story:

    2) Cat Fitzpatrick mentions Signal threatened to sue her for politely disagreeing with him:

  3. Jezebel just published an article that details messages from some private online group of about 400 public intellectuals (including "best-selling authors, Ivy League academics, magazine editors," and "award-winning journalist(s)," but no transgender people apparently), where Singal & other members discuss his work and trans communities' reactions to it. Here's the link to that article:

    While many of these messages are clearly uninformed and condescending toward trans people & perspectives, I wouldn't bother mentioning the piece here except for the fact that, in one of the messages, Singal explicitly talks about me, and the Vox interview that I mentioned in this post. He said that interview drove him "bonkers," which would explain his motives for blatantly lying about me then. Given all this, I found it necessary to respond to this revelation, via this thread: