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Updated Apr 3, 2023, 10:39am EDT
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Inside the Guardian’s civil war over trans coverage

Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images
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The News

The wars at The Guardian reached one of their periodic peaks in September of 2021, when the philosopher Judith Butler said in an interview with the paper that “anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times” and railed against feminists who call themselves “gender critical” and who they called “Terfs,” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.”

A few hours later, The Guardian’s top editors in London cut those comments. Tweets multiplied, and what had been a cold war in The Guardian’s newsroom — between older and younger feminists, Brits and Americans, liberals and progressives — grew hot.

Only one person seemed to have the stature to broker the peace: The Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, whose previously unreported efforts produced a phone call between Butler and Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, and a modified correction.

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Know More

I spent a week in London in March to look back at the bitter conflict inside The Guardian, and to ask a timely question: Is The New York Times, fighting its own internal gender and labor battles, about to follow the same path?

Klein’s peace mission offers a snapshot of the profound fissure on the British left in general, and The Guardian — one of its central institutions — in particular. And the stakes are high, for progressive journalism, for specific policy questions, and for broader ones about how trans people are seen on the left, their status in society, and what rights they have..

But a decade ago, The Guardian was not a controversial place to be a transgender journalist. One such journalist, Freddy McConnell, told Semafor that when he was hired by The Guardian in 2013, he felt comfortable as a trans man. The Guardian encouraged him to write about his experiences. He hosted a video roundtable for young trans people, wrote a column, and was asked to work on the paper’s style guide.

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Trans rights seemed a natural next step at the progressive institution. When The Guardian’s sister paper The Observer published an op-ed by Julie Burchill describing trans people as “dicks in chicks’ clothing,” it quickly apologized and removed the article.

One colleague whose advice McConnell sought on his column was Hadley Freeman, a star celebrity and style columnist who had written glancingly and favorably about trans people.

“I went to her because she was a columnist, and I wanted to chat about writing,” he said. “I didn’t even consider her views on trans people.”

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But growing conflicts burst into the open in 2017, when Prime Minister Theresa May announced the government would begin studying potential reforms to the country’s Gender Recognition Act which would allow anyone over 18 to legally change the gender on their birth certificates more easily. That change crystallized the growing unease among the new group of self-described “gender critical” feminists, many of them center-left women who saw in the changes a stealth attack on women’s rights.

Most of the national press, led by The Mail and The Times, grew increasingly hostile to trans campaigners’ views. But at The Guardian, Labour’s split began to play out as internal politics. A group of Guardian and Observer columnists who had been defining voices of the country’s women’s rights movement emerged as key voices of a feminism that re-emphasized “biological sex.”

They included Suzanne Moore, Susanna Rustin, and Freeman, who wrote in 2018 of “trying to think of anything more patriarchal than telling women to stop fussing about vaginas at a Women’s March.”

In the workplace, relationships like those between Freeman and McConnell began to break down, replaced by subtweets and heated internal meetings. McConnell became the center of Guardian coverage himself in 2019 when he conceived and gave birth to two children.

In the days just before the coronavirus pandemic, the conflict spilled into public view.

Following several gender critical pieces including an op-ed by Moore, 338 staffers signed a letter criticizing The Guardian’s skeptical shift on trans issues. The letter was intended to be private, but quickly leaked, exposing the inner fissures at the paper to the public.

The publication’s gender critical voices were also starting to push back against the criticism.

Following the 2020 letter, Moore loudly resigned from her position at the paper. In a typo-ridden email in March 2020, Moore lashed out at some Guardian colleagues who signed the letter.

“I am devastated and will leave / mAnd you can declare your victory. You have pushed out a working class women ( I am longer that for sure } I just make the point that some of us have had to fight harder than others. We weren’t all born to ti. . I have endless emails of support from within and without the paper f So many women are unhappy htere,” she wrote.

Much of U.K. media, which almost universally sided with Moore, feasted on the controversy. On social media, activists hounded prominent gender critical writers at the paper.

A person close to Freeman, who declined to speak for the record, told Semafor she believed Viner and other editors generally shared her skepticism of trans activists, but were scared of criticism from younger pro-trans staffers. The person said Freeman first spoke to Viner about writing about trans issues in 2015, and came away with the impression that Viner agreed with her view.

Freeman resigned in 2022, complaining in a letter first reported by Private Eye that editors at The Guardian had rejected her proposal to investigate a U.K. charity that became the center of a media firestorm after it was revealed that it was giving chest binders to children against the wishes of some parents.

Freeman said she had been discouraged from interviewing prominent gender critical women, including the author J.K. Rowling and others. And a person with knowledge of the situation also said that after Freeman left, the paper refused to run any of the celebrity interviews she had conducted, and assigned other reporters to conduct the interviews again to avoid publishing the columnist’s byline.

The Guardian “has become internally dysfunctional, with writers and editors alike all terrified of saying The Wrong Take,” she wrote Viner in her resignation letter.

The pro-trans side wasn’t any happier. In a note to Viner in 2021, McConnell said that he was frustrated that Guardian leadership did not do more to push back against a report in The Spectator’s gossip column that highlighted his critical tweets about an Observer column on trans issues.

“I need some reassurance that Guardian management is aware that no feminists are being ‘hounded’ or ‘silenced’ and that, in fact, the power in this terribly public spat lies almost entirely on the gender critical side,” he wrote.

Viner declined, through a spokesperson, to be interviewed, but laid out her views in a 2019 email to McConnell, noting that the paper had published voices on both sides of the issue.

“That I think is what the Guardian is about: pluralism,” she wrote. “I would imagine that we run lots of articles that you disagree with — we run lots that I disagree with, and I’m the editor.” (The Guardian also brought in external mediators as part of a “dialogue project” in 2022.)

Despite Freeman and Moore’s departures, however, their wing of the debate is widely viewed internally as ascendant. In early March, an internal memo announced a new working group on “equality and equity between women and men” that would “encourage open and respectful dialogue between those with differing beliefs and experiences.” It will hold an event on April 19 titled “untangling sex and gender.”

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Max’s view

In my conversations with some gender critical journalists, I was taken aback by how comfortable they felt openly expressing their disdain for trans women and making broad generalizations about them as a group.

Perhaps this is partially because they’ve been vindicated by the government. Technically, the gender-critical camp prevailed  in one way several years ago: The U.K. did not pass changes to the GRA.

And some in the U.K. were eager to draw comparisons between the row at The Guardian and the Times’ recent blow up, predicting a similar split among liberals and liberal allies in the media here.

But the more I looked at the situations, the less convinced I became that the infighting on the British left can transfer to the more polarized, post-Trump American landscape.

The fuel of the American right today is “us vs. them” cultural war issues, including debates around trans rights. And some of the loudest Trump supporters in Republican politics and conservative media are also the most vocal in their derision of trans people. At the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, one pro-Trump pundit called for transgenderism to be “eradicated.”

Those aren’t comfortable bedfellows for American liberals, even ones who may share some of Freeman’s reservations about trans rights. And so America’s polarization may keep some of the infighting at The Times and other American institutions inside the tent, as Viner tried and failed to do at The Guardian.

Perhaps the only thing The Guardian has going for it, staffers said, was that it doesn’t have Slack. The organization is still doing everything the old fashion way: Lengthy reply-all email threads.

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Room for Disagreement

In a statement, a spokesperson for The Guardian defended the paper’s coverage.

“As a media organisation we believe in covering the most complex subjects of the day in a balanced, pluralistic way including different perspectives, and never shying away from difficult debates,” the spokesperson said.

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Notable

  • At the heart of Britain’s gender wars is Mumsnet, a sui generis parenting website where the backlash took shape, Katie Baker wrote in Lux.
  • Several trans contributors to The Guardian, including McConnell, have publicly announced that they will not write for the paper “until it changes its trans-hostile and exclusionary stance.”
  • Freeman spoke at length about her decision to leave on the BBC’s Women’s Hour podcast in December. “The fact is, only one side in that argument demands censorship,” she said.
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