VIDEO: With Katie Herzog on the Expansion of LGBTQ Identity and How it is Wielded in Political Discourse
Any regime of political discourse that subordinates the merit of an argument to the identity of the person advocating it is inherently unhealthy.
At first glance, this discussion — with famed lesbian writer and popular podcast host Katie Herzog — may seem relevant only to a limited audience. Our focus is on the increasingly expansive and amorphous definition of “LGBT identity” and how it is now wielded, and weaponized, in political discourse. As two people whose lives and identities have been shaped from our earliest childhood memories by the experience of being gay in a society which, particularly back then, was hostile and discriminatory in all sectors — legal, cultural and psychological — we share our perspective on how this movement and the understanding of LGBT identity has so radically changed in recent years.
But I would like to invite readers to consider that this issue, far from being a niche discussion, has broad, even universal, relevance to how our political discourse is being conducted. In particular, how various claimed marginalized identities are understood is playing a significant role in shaping the rules of political debates generally: determining which factors are assigned undue weight when decreeing how various people are and are not allowed to express themselves, and the often-baseless criteria that are used to determine which arguments bear the most validity and who is considered to have the upper hand in critical political debates (evaluative criteria based on everything except the substance of one’s ideas).
The most recent event prompting mine and Katie’s decision to have this discussion is an outbreak of censorship and deplatforming demands aimed at the writers who are thriving most and have built the largest readerships on Substack. I recently reported on the growing hostility within corporate media outlets toward the fact that journalists and writers on independent platforms like this one and Patreon are able to earn a healthy living and build their own independent (and often quite-large) audience by reporting and analyzing free of the cumbersome corporate discourse constraints that plague them — something that they and their collapsing industry are struggling to achieve for reasons they ought to spend more time examining.
But over the last two weeks, various writers on Substack who have had great difficultly building an audience — meaning convincing people that their work is worth reading — have begun claiming that they are victims because, unlike those of us who have built a large and independent readership, they have failed to do so due to their “marginalization.” Several have demanded that Substack remove and deplatform many of us on the ground that we are “anti-LGBT writers” who are stoking dangerous harassment campaigns against marginalized people like them.
The extreme irony of this spectacle would be hilarious if its stench were not so suffocating. Two of the writers casting themselves as marginalized members of the LGBT community who are being persecuted by the likes of myself, Andrew Sullivan and Katie Herzog are people who spent years publicly identifying as white, cis straight people who were in long-term heterosexual marriages. One, Vox’s film critic Emily VanDerWerff, is a recently out transwoman who for years identified as a man, married to a woman in a heterosexual relationship. And the other, Jude Sady Doyle, is one who for many years self-identified as a feminist woman whose primary cause was battling the patriarchy through fanatical support for Hillary Clinton, who is married to a man and has a child: the type of identities and marriages society has long venerated and to which it has always accorded full and equal rights (the first of these, Vox film critic VanDerWerff, last year publicly accused her then-colleague Matt Ygleisas, now one of the Substack writers identified as a persecutor, of creating a “less safe workplace” for her because he signed the anti-censorship Harper’s Letter).
After a lifetime of identifying as cis people in heterosexual marriages, these two writers very recently announced that they are, in fact, trans. And because of this recent announcement, they evidently believe that they are not only entitled to catapult toward the top of the LGBT marginalization mountain but to take the rainbow flag they picked up roughly seven seconds ago and use it to bludgeon those of us — myself, Sullivan, Herzog — who have actually experienced multi-pronged and deep-seated oppression of every kind (legal, societal, familial, emotional, psychological and cultural) not since last Tuesday but our entire lives. A similar dynamic is often seen with people who have gone through their entire lives identifying as white, heterosexual, CIS people in opposite-sex relationships, enjoying all the benefits that affords, who suddenly announce they are gender non-binary or bisexual (often from within the safe confines of their heterosexual relationships), and then begin castigating those of us whose lives have been shaped from the start by these societal challenges, and continue to be, as being their oppressors. Despite their conceit, they do not speak for anyone other than themselves, but their vocal and visible media presence creates the illusion that this mentality is much more widespread than it actually is.
With this recent outbreak of bitterness at Substack, several of them have announced that they are taking their dozens of readers to another platform in protest of the fact that Substack allows such evil oppressors as us to be heard. The bizarre experience of being castigated as an oppressor of LGBT writers by people who appropriated this identity very recently is disorienting, offensive and infuriating, to put that mildly. I do not question the legitimacy of their self-proclaimed identity, and I support the full panoply of legal rights and societal respect that they are due. But I most definitely question their right to weaponize this newly declared identity against those of us who have been living openly and publicly under that banner our entire lives, before we even knew what it was let alone were cognizant of the option to opt in or out of it.
But what all of this illustrates are the warped and distorted rules governing how our contemporary political debates are now conducted. While various marginalized identities still trigger great discrimination, suffering and even danger in certain venues in the world, in other key elite centers — academia, media, liberal cosmopolitan enclaves, elite political debates — they confer great advantages, naturally fostering the incentive to claim it. The more marginalization points one can assemble, the more rights a person is assigned, the more deference they are due, the more inherent soundness and moral righteousness their political arguments are assumed to carry. Anyone who participates even minimally in political discourse in these venues knows these are the prevailing rules, and anyone who denies it is being dishonest. That’s the reason there have been so many cases of white straight people in academia and media getting caught falsely assuming marginalized identities that are not their own.
Any set of rules for political discourse that subordinate the merit of an argument to the identity of the person advocating it is one that is inherently unhealthy and distorted. And that framework, undoubtedly growing in strength in elite U.S. precincts, is also producing a wide range of incentives, distortions and pathologies for how marginalization and its various identities are understood.
Katie is an extremely smart and independent-minded thinker. Despite having what I regard as rather banal liberal politics (she was an ardent advocate of the moral imperative of voting for Joe Biden), her courageous dissent on a wide range of issues made her a hated and disparaged outcast in left-liberal circles. Her columns for the Seattle-based, leftist alt-weekly The Stranger stoked so much hatred for her that posters of her face were placed all over the city declaring her a fascist sympathizer, and was even pasted onto the urinal of one local gay bar. But independent platforms like Patreon and Substack have empowered her to thrive in her journalism career more than ever, now that she is free of the repressive constraints of institutional journalism (I cannot recommend her podcast Blocked and Reported highly enough, which she co-hosts with former New York Magazine journalist Jesse Singal, who has been the target of a disgusting, years-long defamation campaign doled out as punishment for the most benign and good faith questioning of some of the most radical changes ushered in by the trans movement: a movement that, as I recently detailed, all of us support in its fundamentals).
The 90-minute conversation I had with her about all of these issues and our personal experiences with them was wide-ranging, free-flowing and, I think, quite compelling. Journalists who are both able to speak freely without fear of recrimination or job loss and have smart and original insights to offer are hard to find these days. Katie is most definitely one of those: