In 2014, Ottawa-based writer Amanda Jetté Knox reported that her child Alexis had “come out to the family as a transgender girl.” This event changed Knox’s life, as “Alexis’ journey taught [her] a great deal about courage, compassion and authenticity.”
A few months after that, Knox’s spouse came out as transgender as well. Knox reported to her readers that this realization, too, was “beautiful,” and that she could not be more delighted to now be “gay married.”
In blog posts, Knox described the whole family as “the happiest we’ve ever been,” and wrote that “our world is so full of love and support that it leaves absolutely no room for hatred or ignorance to reside within it.” Indeed, Knox made gender transition her professional focus, “studying research, interviewing experts, giving talks, writing articles” about trans issues. She authored a bestselling 2019 book about her experiences. In newspapers and magazines, she wrote articles under headlines like “The only way to respond to my transgender child’s desperate plea was with love,” “My daughter came out as trans, and it saved my marriage,” and “My wife surprised her coworkers when she came out as trans.” Knox gushed on CBC radio, took the stage at a Microsoft-sponsored event in Vancouver, and appeared on numerous television programs, always relentlessly promoting the same upbeat message of how trans-inclusiveness had brought joy to her household, over which there is now “a permanent rainbow… that unicorns like to prance around on.”
But last week, an increasingly vicious mob campaign against Knox took its toll, and Knox decided to close up her Twitter account. When one of the trolls opened a new Facebook front against her over the weekend, this at a time when she was still grieving the death of a friend’s child, Knox had something of a breakdown and even considered suicide. She had a tough childhood, described in her book, and the mobbings were giving her something that felt like PTSD. “I was severely bullied throughout my childhood,” she wrote on Tuesday. “In middle school, I was set on fire by two kids in front of a bunch of other kids—just for fun. That’s the most dramatic example of many times confrontation and conflict hurt me deeply, cast me out, and left me scarred. After that incident, I took steps to end my life. A few months later, I went to rehab for substance abuse issues. Ever since, I haven’t been great at dealing with conflict. Add to this grief and a pandemic, and I had arrived in the worst place in my adult life.”
If you aren’t on Twitter, and you don’t follow the obscure and sometimes ludicrous machinations of in-group Canadian artists and activists, you might be inclined to think that the mob that came after Knox was composed of religious bigots or alt-right transphobes. Perhaps even members of the Westboro Baptist Church or QAnon. But as some readers will know, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The trolls that targeted Knox were avowed trans activists, just like their target. Amanda Jetté Knox, author of Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family, was excommunicated for being insufficiently supportive of trans people.
There is a predictable pattern in many extreme movements that’s sometimes described as a “purity spiral,” whereby yesterday’s radicals are denounced by onetime fellow travelers as reactionaries. During the early years of the French revolutionary period, the liberal nobles who led the Patriotic Society of 1789 endorsed views that would have been rejected as unspeakably progressive just a few years earlier. But in due course, they were denounced by the Jacobins as stooges of the Ancien Régime and duly marched off to the guillotine. Shortly thereafter, those same Jacobins would be denounced by the Cordeliers, who themselves fell victim to even more radicalized political cults amid Robespierre’s reign of terror. And while such grand historical allegories have their limits, you do see parallels in the rise of gender radicalism over the last few years. In the UK, for instance, a relentlessly trans-supportive doctor and avowed “cis-phobe” named Adrian Harrop was set upon by his one-time allies when he admitted the perfectly obvious fact that, as a gay man, he is attracted to biological males (a common-sense statement that put him at odds with the fashionable dogma, which no one’s brain actually obeys, requiring us to be sexually attracted to others on the basis of their stated gender and not biological sex).
As far as the great gender revolution goes, Knox might be classified as one of those early Jacobins who was all in favour of running Louis XVI out of town, but respectfully balked at slaughtering his family. Her style of argumentation tends to be passive aggressive. In late 2019, for instance, when J.K. Rowling controversially reminded the world that human biology is still a thing, Knox tweeted that “It breaks my heart to see you post something indicating that discrimination against [my daughter] is perfectly fine behaviour.” Based on my own experience, I can attest that Knox wasn’t above riling up a mini-mob when it suited her interests. But she was never one of those rainbow Cordeliers who ran around rhapsodizing about “trans-exclusive” feminists being thrown into grease fires or menacing them with barbed-wire-covered baseball bats.
No, I won’t be arguing here that the modern intra-progressive culture war over gender is a replay of the French Revolution. But historical movements great and small often follow predictable patterns. In their early energetic phase, they gather up the diverse energies and passions of different constituencies, all motivated by a sense of common purpose. Then, following early victories, the esprit de corps ebbs, and positions of power are taken up by overreaching zealots and profiteers who seek to purge other factions and entrench their own power and influence.
Something like this has been playing out in the field of gender politics, which was fuelled in the 2000s by a wide coalition of progressives who wanted to see transgender people get the rights and dignity they deserve. It was a laudable and largely successful campaign. But it overshot the mark in recent years, and some activists now are demanding that sexual dimorphism itself be rejected as a transphobic myth. Fortunately, this radicalism peaked in 2018 and early 2019, and is now slowly being rolled back through sensible government reforms, a more balanced editorial environment in the mass media, and a vigorous grass-roots pushback from feminists on university campuses and other civil spaces. Needless to say, the avant-garde scholars and activists who’ve made this their lives’ calling aren’t happy about these developments. And it is in this context that the mobbing of Knox may be usefully understood.
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Because Knox deleted her Twitter account, we have no record of the blow-by-blow that led to her departure. And Niko Stratis, the self-described Toronto-area “trans lady” who claims to have “started the fight” with Knox in the first place, has purged the original thread. But from the jousting and blustering that took place over May 12th and 13th, it’s clear that the overarching grievance against Knox had been building up since her book came out—which is that she is a famous cis white woman “taking up too much room” and gaining too many followers in a domain that, as detractors see it, rightfully belongs to trans people. One observer described the fight as being “about Amanda not maximizing the use of her platform to shift the limelight onto trans writers, or address systemic inequality in literature.” Andrew Wilmot (“Ace/enby. They/them”) justified the mobbing on the basis that Knox had resisted calls to examine “aspects of her privilege.”
At one point, Knox openly pleaded with the de facto ringleader, an indigenous trans poet named Gwen Benaway, describing the stress she was enduring. Benaway, unmoved, responded that “mental health is very real, but the move to cis innocence… is disingenuous, absolutely cis privilege in action, and extreme cis fragility.” (These discussions tend to be full of language like this.) Benaway, who reports struggling with her own “overwhelming depression,” additionally accused Knox of abetting “transmisogyny/oppression” as a means to “silence and shame/critique trans folks,” a tactic that Benaway described as “very cis”; and then complained that “every trans woman who publicly does this work”—i.e., the work of tweeting criticism at others—“ends up dead, socially isolated and endangered.” Ironically, this was four days before a suicidal Knox ended up in an Ottawa-area emergency room.
When Knox gave up the fight and simply abandoned her Twitter account, it briefly appeared that Benaway had prevailed. And at least two active trans accounts that had vigorously defended Knox—@CateSpice and @ahoymeghan—published grovelling apologies for having backed the wrong team. (The latter, in particular, run by Meghan Jane McKie, published one of those detailed, jargon-riddled self-indictments that really do read like something out of a Soviet show trial.) But the victory proved fleeting. It had been one thing to “punch up” when the target was online to defend herself. But with Knox now the subject of pity, the mood changed quickly. And by May 14th, Benaway was complaining publicly that she herself was now being targeted by a pro-Knox mob acting in opposition to the original anti-Knoxxers. In a particularly scathing and widely circulated fusillade, an account named @dev_deets (“very she/her”) admonished Benaway, “We literally cannot succeed without cis allies. Trans folks will never be a majority. That’s reality. [So] maybe don’t lose your shit when an ally makes a mistake, or writes a book that outsells your obscure poetry.”
Whether or not Knox had intended it, her sudden departure from Twitter had been a strategic masterstroke. Broadly speaking, suffering and victimhood tend to be the currency of the realm in these rarified social-justice subcultures. Benaway, who’d helped lead the campaign to block Meghan Murphy’s speech at a Toronto public library location last year, now looked like she’d turned her bullhorn against a trans ally. It made all her melodramatic denunciations of “TERFs” seem hypocritical. And on May 19th, Benaway followed Knox into Twitter oblivion, deleting her account without ceremony or fanfare.
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The fights that take place within radical movements in their vibrant phase of growth are typically about ideas, goals, and strategies. And the LGBT community, in particular, has been wrestling for decades with the best way to present the biologically and psychologically intermingled issues of sex, gender, and attraction to the larger public. But the internecine fight I’m describing here wasn’t really about “gender ideology” (if we’re even allowed to use such a term): Every one of the aforementioned Twitter combatants, including Knox and Benaway, are fully orthodox members of the trans activist community. This wasn’t about who gets to play in what sports league or use what bathroom, because everyone involved in the discussion is fully on board with male bodies in female spaces. The entire argument was about whether one particular trans ally had become too famous at the expense of more worthy and authentic competitors.
Indeed, to the extent that there was any ideological dimension at all, it could be argued that it was Knox, not Benaway, who had the stronger claim to doctrinal purity. The whole thrust of the modern trans-rights movement is that “trans women are women,” full stop—a formulation that, if true, would make it completely irrelevant whether Knox were (as Benaway kept reminding everyone) merely a cis interloper in a trans activist subculture. And this signals a curiously regressive aspect of the leading progressive edge in the gender-studies field: Over time, the old (by which I mean, say, 2010) ideal of equality between trans and non-trans has given way to a more quasi-mystical philosophy that exalts gender identity as a spiritual force marking us from birth with a sort of ersatz divine grace.
By this conception, trans and non-binary individuals are elevated into a priestly class tasked with channeling and interpreting their inner mysticism for the benefit of the cis masses. (Something very similar has played out in the field of Indigenous reconciliation, with “settlers” therein cast as muggles. But I do digress.) And that role is severely compromised when a lowly cis muggle like Knox is permitted to walk among trans wizards.
If you look at Knox’s blog, you’ll find that her writing about trans issues, though sentimental and repetitive, is at least sincere and straightforward. She is an ordinary person writing about her life for an audience consisting of other ordinary people, which is why her book was so successful. Contrast this with the gender-Talmudic verbiage contained in Benaway’s work, which comes off as gibberish unless one reads it under the presumption that her inveterate priestly status serves to infuse the text with hidden wisdom. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a 2017 speech Benaway delivered to a Queer Canada meeting in St. Catharines, Ontario:
Queer erasure and consumption of Indigenous bodies mimics its erasure and consumption of transsexual bodies. Our art forms and embodiments become Queer play. Our transgressions become their fantasy. Our gender variance becomes their answer to the persistent heteronormativity of Queer spaces. Yet actual trans bodies remain absent or regulated to the sidelines. Queer men don’t date trannies. Real lesbians don’t sleep with pre-op transsexuals because they don’t want to lose their gold star. The relationship between settler colonialism and transphobia is rarely discussed, but ever present. If Queerness imagines a relationship to Indigenous bodies which is not rooted in our actual bodies, it also denies a relationship to transsexual bodies by actively erasing our presence.
Most trans people I know are ordinary men and women who, like the rest of us, are just trying to get through life without getting food on their clothes or filing their taxes late. They don’t lecture lesbians about their ideologically mandated need to get on board with the penis (or as poet Benaway puts it in her elegantly Yeatsian way, “suck my tranny dick”). Instead, they talk about subjects like baseball, computers, and dogs. But Canada’s government-subsidized book publishers and academics find these topics dull, and tend to be far more dazzled by essays on the persistent heteronormativity of Queer spaces. So it should surprise no one that Benaway has won many awards, despite remaining a completely obscure figure among the Canadians who’ve flocked to buy Knox’s book. Benaway also has been named a fellow in the Department of Transgender Studies at the University of Victoria (think Evergreen State College, but much harder to get to) and regularly gets interviewed by national networks anytime they need someone to bash around Meghan Murphy or some other muggle.
In short, denouncing the persistent heteronormativity of Queer spaces is what Benaway does for a living. It’s how she puts food on the table. And so you can see why, for entirely practical reasons, she might be horrified by the idea that some cis mom from Ottawa would presume to write a book about being nice to trans people that ordinary people would actually understand and buy, and which contains nary a single chapter on the persistent heteronormativity of Queer spaces. Next thing you know, they’ll be translating the Bible into German, French, and English.
As much as conservative culture critics love to tee off on the rise of gender ideology, it isn’t really rising anymore. For the last year, it’s been shrinking. And the fights we’re more likely to see in this area will be less about deposing the Ancien Régime, and more about which gender Jacobin gets the spotlight on an ever-smaller stage.
Featured image: Amanda Jetté Knox.