Several hours after publishing an interview with legendary theorist Judith Butler, the Guardian has deleted several paragraphs where Butler and interviewer Jules Gleeson critically discuss the gender critical “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (TERF) movement, a right-wing ideology that opposes transgender rights and privileges “biological sex” over gender. Such a sizeable deletion post-publication, without an editor’s note, is very unusual.
In the deleted section of the interview, Butler made the point that anti-trans feminists are allying with the right wing over their dislike of “gender” and transness, despite their seeming political differences. “Sometimes [members of the anti-gender ideology movement] claim that ‘sex’ alone has scientific standing, but other times they appeal for divine mandates for masculine domination and difference. They don’t seem to mind contradicting themselves,” said Butler. “The trans exclusionary radical feminists and the so-called gender critical writers have also rejected the important work in feminist philosophy of science showing how culture and nature interact . . . in favor of a regressive and spurious form of biological essentialism. So they will not be part of the coalition that seeks to fight the anti-gender movement. The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times.” Butler also cited the high rates of physical attacks on trans and genderqueer people. (You can read the entirety of Butler’s deleted paragraphs here.)
According to Gleeson, a few hours after the interview was posted, she received an email forwarding her a note from the Guardian’s “Reader Complaints” department that indicated the complaints had already been escalated “up the chain” of Guardian editorial hierarchy and the editors had already had a “long discussion” to which Gleeson was not privy.
The concern centered on the phrasing of Gleeson’s question about feminists engaging with far-right gender ideology. Gleeson’s question cited this summer’s Wi Spa incident, where a viral video of a customer complaining about someone with an exposed penis in the women’s section of the spa led to violent anti-transgender protests: “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?”
Gleeson didn’t know when she wrote the question that indecent exposure charges had been filed in the Wi Spa case against a registered sex offender. That doesn’t change the fact that the Wi Spa video was a flashpoint for violent transphobic protests resulting in physical attacks on journalists, and the arrest suggests that the trans woman who was initially blamed for the incident and received death threats from Proud Boys and others was telling the truth when she claimed to be uninvolved. Wi Spa is still an instance of “some within feminist movements . . . becoming sympathetic to far-right campaigns,” as Gleeson said in her question. However, the update to the Wi Spa controversy, as well as rendering the chain of events at Wi Spa confusing to a casual reader, implies that malicious action from the prosecuted sex offender sparked the riots. Said Gleeson in a statement provided to Lit Hub, “I can see why the new developments took Wi Spa from a weak example to a counterproductive one.”
According to Gleeson, the editor who had emailed her proposed adding information about the arrest as a correction, but Gleeson expressed wariness of summarizing the Wi Spa situation in such a way that could be read as acknowledging the fiction of trans women as predators. Then, the editor said other editors thought the question which cited Wi Spa and Butler’s accompanying answer should be removed in their entirety. Gleeson was surprised, especially given the fact that Butler’s answer—which did not mention Wi Spa at all—had been widely praised on Twitter. Gleeson suggested the question be revised to remove mention of Wi Spa entirely, instead citing another instance of “gender critical” feminists siding with the right wing regardless of other opposing views: the right-wing lobbying group The Heritage Foundation hosting a gender critical feminist panel, despite the fact The Heritage Foundation is anti-abortion. Gleeson provided a revised version of the question to the editor, but the Guardian deleted both question and answer anyway.
For Gleeson, interviewing Butler was a project of demystifying an often-mischaracterized thinker, as well as bringing Butler’s seminal ideas into the present day. The question and answer about anti-gender feminists and right-wing thinkers was not just a short aside. It placed Butler’s understanding of identity, the center of the interview, in relation to their biggest critics—and current-day political debate. “The whole interview is addressing the confusing ways identity appears (and can’t seem to not appear) in politics,” Gleeson told me in a Twitter DM. “The earlier questions deal with how this appears mostly on the left. But the final section is important because Butler has attracted some really unsparing criticisms from various perspectives which are ‘anti-gender.’”
“What this means on the left and right has some differences . . . They have different answers to how we can do it, but they think ‘gender’ is mystification, and only ‘sex’ is real. Which requires them to cast Butler as ‘pro gender’, effectively, when all [Butler] said is that gender causes trouble, [that] you can’t avoid any problems by trying your best not to talk about it,” said Gleeson. “[So] it seems obvious the right and the left which are ‘anti gender’ have to appear together, in this closing section.”
Interestingly, though the Butler interview was commissioned and published by the Guardian’s US site, the post-publication editorial conversation was had entirely by Guardian UK editors. (Gleeson’s understanding is that the situation was “escalated up the chain of Guardian editorial hierarchy and out of Guardian US control.”) The Guardian UK has previously drawn ire from the Guardian‘s US staff by publishing an editorial which repeated various scientifically dubious transphobic talking points.
Prior to the publication of the interview, said Gleeson, the interview went through several rounds of edits, and several other questions and answers were cut. No concerns about Wi Spa or Butler’s answer were raised during those edits. The reader complaints which prompted this edit came from the very trans exclusionary radical feminists critiqued in Butler’s answer.
“I was fully expecting [some nonsense]. Habitual bigots online are going to do their thing, and usually respond to pieces without even reading them,” said Gleeson in her statement. “What’s been more unexpected was how quickly the publication folded. I was expecting the Guardian US to stand by me as a writer, and while I have received apologies from their side, this has been a draining and consuming episode that I didn’t expect.”
Butler has emailed the Guardian inquiring about their choice to cut the answer, but has received no response. Currently, a note appended to the Guardian article reads: “This article was edited on 7 September 2021 to reflect developments which occurred after the interview took place.”