The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters
Featured image: Jesse Singal.

The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay

One of the odd-seeming aspects of progressive cancel culture is that many of the figures targeted by mobs aren’t especially conservative in their views. Rather, the victims tend to be heterodox liberals who simply offer a dissenting opinion on one or more compartmentalized issues—since these liberal targets tend to operate in left-leaning professional and social milieus through which a mob can exercise leverage and demand concessions. There are numerous popular writers and broadcasters who promote deeply conservative themes without attracting any notice from cancel mobs—even as lifelong leftists within such niche genres as Young Adult fiction, LGBT theatre, and knitting-trade journalism are excommunicated on the basis of minor verbal infractions.

In some notable mobbings chronicled by Quillette, in fact, the targeted dissenter wasn’t even offering an opinion per se, but merely highlighting facts we’re all expected to ignore. James Damore wasn’t fired by Google because he gratuitously insulted women, but because he pointed out real differences between the sexes. In Canadian literary circles, Margaret Atwood became reviled among a progressive fringe when she argued (correctly, as it turns out) that falsely accused novelist Steven Galloway should have received due process before being tarred as a rapist. If you grovel enough, woke mobs might eventually forgive you for being wrong—but never for being right.

On the issue of gender, a particularly interesting case study centres on Jesse Singal, a mild-mannered and amiable (I’ve met him) New York-based journalist, book author, and podcaster whom Quillette readers may remember from his 2019 appearance on our own show. As early as 2016, well before the culture war over trans rights reached its crescendo, Singal authored a ground-breaking New York magazine exposé on the cynical takedown of eminent Toronto psychologist Dr. Kenneth Zucker (who was subsequently paid more than half a million dollars by his former employer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, as part of a legal settlement relating to its part in that smear campaign). Two years later, Singal wrote an impeccably researched cover story for the Atlantic titled “When Children Say They’re Trans”—one of the most widely discussed features in the magazine’s recent history. In these articles, and on social media, Singal has dealt with the issue of gender dysphoria with care and sensitivity, documenting the challenges faced by those experiencing the condition. And while he is the furthest thing from an actual transphobe, he acknowledges the plain fact that some children who present as trans later “desist” to an identity that accords with their biological sex.

As anyone who follows this issue closely can guess, Singal’s measured approach doesn’t always sit well with progressive activist and journalistic subcultures, wherein the approved view is that any child’s expression of trans identity must summarily be “affirmed” by parents, educators, and therapists. Within these circles, Singal himself has written, “desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as ‘the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids’… But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming.”

We know from experienced psychotherapists in this area that children can present as trans for all sorts of reasons, sometimes related to trauma, sexual anxieties, or comorbid mental-health conditions. In some cases, the dysphoria is permanent, but in other cases, it isn’t (which is why the analogy with sexual orientation is misleading). Certainly, the idea that desistance is some kind of transphobic “myth” has now itself been shown to be a myth: In late 2020, British jurists upheld desister Keira Bell’s claim that the country’s Gender Identity Development Service had improperly rushed her through a medical reassignment process, at age 16, without proper safeguards. At the age of 23, Bell now is recovering from the after-effects of these treatments—including a needless double mastectomy—and confronts a lifetime of possible medical complications.

As we wrote in a recent Quillette editorial about Bell, it won’t just be doctors and politicians whose actions will be judged in relation to the excesses surrounding the transition of young people, but also those many journalists who’ve chosen to prioritize political fashion over journalistic integrity. Singal stands out as one of the few honourable exceptions. Indeed, Bell’s case is exactly the sort of tragedy that he’s consistently warned about over the past five years. To a certain kind of ideologue, such prescience is unforgiveable.

Atlantic and New York skew editorially toward the progressive camp. And every word of Singal’s articles in these publications was combed over rigorously by fact checkers. Yet from reading the social-media abuse directed at Singal, one might think these were self-published transphobic rants. A blistering attack on Singal published by an author who self-describes as an “agendered asexual radical feminist transwoman in a poly relationship,” for instance, went on for an astounding 12,000-plus words, accusing Singal of everything from being “harmful to trans kids” to peddling “bigoted nonsense.” Google Singal’s name and you will find dozens of screeds of this nature.

So desperate has this campaign of character assassination become that some critics now casually throw in flat-out lies about his personal behaviour. A trans writer and activist named Julia Serano, for instance, accused Singal of “slut-shaming” on the basis that he once linked to Serano’s own Daily Beast article about a trans woman’s frustrations trying to date lesbians. Following the publication of Singal’s Atlantic piece, an enraged Serano expanded the attack, suggesting vaguely that “I know several other trans women who’ve had similarly bad experiences with him.” Samantha Riedel, another trans writer, situated Singal’s work within the machinations of a conspiratorial “closed Google listserv,” in which a “pernicious and concerted” cabal of “elite cisgender media figures” seek to prevent authentic trans narratives from emerging. On no real evidence except the aforementioned accusations from Serano, Riedel then went on to claim that “Singal has a bizarre history of antagonism with trans women who attempt to correct his inaccurate statements.” (There was also a link to a since-deleted anonymous claim that, as Riedel quoted the defunct source, “any trans people considering being a source for Singal [should] proceed with your guard up, as he will likely treat you more like a science experiment.”)

In January 2018, a popular parenting columnist named Nicole Cliffe tweeted that Singal is “obsessed with trans women! It’s creepy”; that Singal is “weirdly fixated on trans women”; and that Cliffe “can smell the [trans-fixated] grossness coming off this guy.” When a commenter asked Cliffe for proof, she responded that “so many of the trans women I know from online have wound up w emails and DMs and invites to coffee/lunch to set the record straight and have wound up blocking him to get some space.” When other commenters asked for more information about this supposed legion of unnamed “trans women,” and pointed out that Cliffe’s claims sounded libelous, she deleted the entire thread, much like the purported anonymous source linked to by Riedel.

As Singal candidly wrote in 2019, if in fact he “had been using my journalistic perch at New York magazine and the Atlantic to try to get dates with trans women—or anyone—in a skeezy manner, then that would of course be something that could (and should) derail my career.” But “none of this ever happened…It’s a lie.” Then he added:

It’s now been almost a year and a half since Cliffe leveled these allegations against me and not a single shred of evidence has popped up to support them. Cliffe’s actions also did a psychological number on me. I know that might sound overly dramatic, but take a moment and imagine someone in your own professional field who is much better-known and more successful than you are publicly announcing, to all your professional peers (and a huge audience of online rubberneckers as well), that you’ve committed an act that, if true, would mean you should be banished from your job and forever treated as a pariah. That’s what she did… I had genuinely never seen a fellow journalist of Cliffe’s stature behave in this way on Twitter: It was completely inappropriate—like something even a particularly sociopathic middle-schooler would understand to be immoral—and almost certainly did long-term damage to my reputation and career.

Singal’s critics have also spread the rumour—on no evidence—that he threatened to out a trans person; that he’d “just fire out DMs asking trans women about their dicks” (also no evidence); that he sent out “dick pics” on Grindr (no evidence); and that he’d “sexually exploited” “at least a dozen trans women” (no evidence of even one, let alone a dozen). When a trans journalist named Jay Edidin claimed Singal had behaved abusively to him online in 2016, Singal proved he was lying by publishing their correspondence from that period, which indicated that they’d actually had a completely respectful conversation. Author Lauren Hough claimed that an anonymous trans “friend” had been “driven off Twitter” by Singal’s direct messages. Hough offered no evidence, despite the fact that this would have been precisely the sort of interaction that, if it had actually taken place, could easily be documented with screen shots (much like all the other claims, which similarly involve text messages and other retrievable digital artifacts).

In several cases, Singal’s anonymous accusers publicly asked trans women to contact them with their anti-Singal stories. Not one named individual has come forward.

And yet the campaign continues—as does the suggestion that Singal’s accusers possess some hidden trove of evidence that proves all their claims. Just this week, video-game developer (and former Congressional aspirant) Brianna Wu told Twitter that “I have my own Jesse Singal stories I’ve never shared publicly. One day I will. And I have receipts.”

But not quite yet, because Wu’s mysterious sources apparently remain too distrustful of the otherwise “credible journalists” who could break the story of Singal’s alleged transphobic evilness. On Monday, Singal himself responded by tweeting that “Brianna [Wu] should share these stories immediately. I think it’s really important to get to the bottom of this.” Katie Herzog, Singal’s podcast host, even helped raise more than $10,000, to be donated to a charity of Wu’s choice if Wu would provide the claimed “receipts.” Wu still hasn’t given us a single name.

Meanwhile, a writer named Mx. Dianna E. Anderson has produced a widely circulated J’accuse thread in which it is stated that “a lot of trans women flagged creepy/boundary crossing behavior [by Singal] that felt, to them, dehumanizing, [and] quickly flagged this up through the whisper network of trans women.” As you might guess by this point, not a single piece of evidence was presented by Anderson. But none is needed, we are told, because “this kind of behavior is squishy and hard to pin down,” especially since many people are “disinclined to believe trans women.” In lieu of actual proof, Anderson provides a lengthy indictment of Singal’s published work, all of which, Anderson assures us, raises “red flags” about his beliefs and character. The implication is that anyone whose viewpoint is contaminated in this way must surely have committed personal sins to match.

When they receive pushback on their Twitter threads about Singal’s non-existent crimes, many of these activists will add self-pitying flourishes, describing themselves as oppressed truth-tellers, beaten down by pro-Singal trolls, and gutted by the fear that they will never get a fair hearing for their tales of perfidy. Some will make their accounts private, or even go dark altogether for a period. And yet for all their passive aggressive tactics, every single mob member listed above has their own prominent media or corporate platform from which to continue spouting misinformation. And none, to my knowledge, has suffered any substantial consequences for engaging in what those outside this cultish milieu will recognize as a malicious and willfully dishonest propaganda campaign.

Anderson is about to publish a book about “the history of nonbinary gender, told both as a memoir and an academic study.” Wu is a well-known software CEO. Lauren Hough has a new book coming out with Penguin Random House. Nicole Cliffe is a Slate columnist. Samantha Riedel is a VICE writer “working on her first manuscript.” Julia Serrano has published four books and appeared as a speaker at over 60 colleges and universities. Zack Ford, the writer who thinks that talk of desistance is “pernicious junk science,” is now a press secretary for a prominent progressive judicial advocacy group. These people have big bullhorns at their disposal. If any of them actually had the goods on Singal, a freelance journalist with little in the way of institutional backing (notwithstanding the clique of “elite cisgender media figures” whose shadowy protocols Riedel warned us about), you can bet we’d know about it.

One reason I’ve highlighted the outsized influence of Singal’s critics is that their large social media followings serve to distort our understanding of views within the trans community—most of which, by my observation, is populated by perfectly reasonable and fair-minded people who would be just as disgusted by the onslaught of lies directed at Singal as anyone else. These include Quillette-published activists such as Scott Newgent, Buck Angel, and Debbie Hayton, all of whom understand that, in formulating policy, the rights of trans individuals to live in safety and dignity must be balanced against the rights of other groups. Too often, their voices are drowned out by those who view the issue of trans rights through the Manichean lens of blessed dogma and wicked heresy.

The mob hasn’t yet taken Singal down. His Singal-Minded Substack is doing fine despite efforts to get it cancelled, and he has a new book on the way (unrelated to gender issues, I should add). But even though the mob has been unsuccessful, the flagrantly dishonest nature of its campaign against Singal raises alarm bells about where the doctrinal baseline on gender now sits in progressive circles. The critics I have catalogued are writers, pundits, and public speakers whose views on gender inform millions of minds across the United States. If this is how they try to take down someone such as Singal, a journalist who’s meticulously sifted through the available evidence to ensure that all sides are being heard, what does that tell us about the intellectual integrity of the case for affirmation-based gender treatment more generally?

Indeed, Singal himself has shown that many well-known, prominently platformed activists in this area now have embraced tactics that we associate with 8chan, QAnon, or even NXIVM. Just this week, Michelle Snow, who hosts a podcast called What The Trans!? and has been published in New Statesman, was caught sending out private messages to critics, threatening to tar ideological opponents as child abusers. Within these circles, this sort of openly trollish campaign of abuse has been normalized as an acceptable advocacy tactic—even as these same activists will claim, in the same breath, that incorrect word choices can inflict unfathomable psychic damage on transgender individuals.

To take one final example, consider popular author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, who describes Singal as a “professional transphobe[e] working to roll back trans rights.” Doyle also claims (incorrectly) that Singal supports “anti-trans conversion therapy,” and has recently repeated the lie that Singal has engaged in “repeated, harassing, often threatening contact, particularly with trans women”—with the only proof offered being that such allegations are “widely discussed.”

Indeed, Singal’s views are so pernicious, Doyle contends, that Substack must be held to account for its role in abetting his work. And when Substack recently tried to tamp down the situation by putting money on the table for Doyle’s Substack, too, Doyle refused on the grounds that “children are dying,” and “Singal’s work has ceaselessly promoted misinformation, stigma and transphobic abuse of trans children specifically, and has worked to legitimize our current all-out legislative assault on those kids.” Doyle says the Substack money could have been put to good use in delivering opportunities for Doyle’s daughter; but then adds, apocalyptically, that mere money could never “bring a single dead trans kid back to life. No amount of money will ever do that. I have friends who are raising trans kids. I cannot go and look them in the eye and tell them their child’s life matters less than my child’s.”

It is Doyle’s right to give up income in the name of purported high principle. But the real goal doesn’t seem to be the protection of dysphoric children, who are unlikely to benefit from Doyle’s morbid, self-valorizing fixations anyway. Rather, the point is to excommunicate, silence, and demonetize one of the few journalists who’s actually researched the science that should guide our treatment of dysphoric children, and published his description of that science in two of America’s best magazines.

In the current climate, Doyle is hardly delusional to imagine that the mobbing of Singal might be leveraged as a means to force Substack and other self-publishing outlets to deplatform non-compliant viewpoints on gender more generally. A dominant theme of Substack’s critics is that the site has become, in the words of one former Buzzfeed writer, a hub for “right-wing culture warriors and TERFs” (the latter acronym being a progressive term of abuse for those who dissent from prescribed gender dogmas). Similar pressure tactics already seem to have worked on Amazon, which is now banning “TERF” books. So why not roll the dice with Substack, too?

As noted above, there is a certain ruthless logic to the way progressive mobs choose their targets. Singal attracts uniquely vicious lies because he is seen as a uniquely high-value target: His bylines have been featured in publications that mob members themselves grudgingly admit as influential and prestigious. He is not some Tucker Carlson type, speaking to conservatives within their own silos, but rather a liberal whose words are read by other liberals. Like all cults, this one despises the learned apostate far more than the ignorant unbeliever.

Yet Singal is also properly seen as a vulnerable target—because he is a freelancer whose most widely read work is commissioned at the pleasure of editors who have their own reputations to protect. And like most of these editors, Singal is sensitive to the lies that now pollute every Google search of his name—for he knows that at least some of his friends and colleagues will believe them.

The trolls know that if a strategy of character assassination works against Jesse Singal, it can also work against every intelligent, principled liberal who dares speak out in favour of a balanced approach to gender dysphoria—no matter what platform they use to publish their work. And on this one point, I am prepared to admit, they are one hundred percent correct.

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Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette, a host of the Quillette podcast, a regular op-ed contributor to the National Post, and a book author.