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Katie Herzog’s Plan B

In a new book, Katherine Brodsky explains how members of the ‘silenced majority’ find new audiences after enduring episodes of public mobbing.

· 9 min read
Katie Herzog’s Plan B
Journalist Katie Herzog (left) with her Blocked and Reported co-host Jesse Singal, photographed in 2022 at a speaking event in Boston.

Katie Herzog began her rise to fame as a freelance journalist for The Stranger, a biweekly Seattle newspaper that channels leftist politics and a snarky editorial tone. It’s the sort of youth-targeted “alternative” publication that often runs controversial articles with titles such as Washington Needs a Strippers’ Bill of Rights and In Defense of Shutting Down the Highway: No Business as Usual Until There Is a Ceasefire in Gaza. (Herzog’s own inaugural article was about microdosing LSD.) As with many urban publications of this type, there’s a strong anti-authoritarian ethos, with writers proudly thumbing their noses at society’s prevailing taboos around sex and politics.

But as Herzog learned the hard way when she authored a 2017 article entitled, The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t, there’s at least one issue on which many of The Stranger’s readers proved rigidly doctrinaire.

“I knew almost intuitively that this issue was toxic,” she told me. “But I didn’t know that this was going to haunt me for the next [five] years. If I could go back and tell myself, ‘You’re going to write this one article—5,000 words are going to change your life forever,’ I don’t know if I would have done it.”

You see, detransition isn’t something you’re supposed to talk about in polite progressive company, as it goes against the idea that trans-identified individuals, once “born in the wrong body,” have discovered a timeless truth about their gendered souls—and that truth that must be “affirmed” by everyone in their orbit. To take stock of the fact that some detransitioned people didn’t turn out quite as trans as they once imagined is seen, in some quarters, as a kind of blasphemy. Certainly, the letter D isn’t something you’ll find within the growing LGBTQQIP2SAA-style acronyms that are otherwise inclusive of almost the entire alphabet. It’s easier to ignore it.

Herzog received so much hate mail from fellow progressives that she was moved to write a follow-up piece. It’s one thing for a writer at a left-wing outlet such as The Stranger to get abuse from right-wing Donald Trump supporters. Such hate is worn as a badge of honour. But it’s quite another thing when the attacks are coming from one’s own progressive friends. Shortly after the original article appeared, Herzog attended the wedding of one of her wife’s nonbinary friends. As she remembers it, “I felt like everybody fucking knew, and [then] somebody said something…and I went and hid in the car and smoked weed by myself.”

Some critics burned stacks of The Stranger and sent her a video of them doing it. Others posted stickers around town calling her a transphobe and a Nazi sympathizer. Someone painted graffiti across the door of The Stranger’s offices. Herzog lost friends, and became reluctant to share her name with people she’d meet. It was made clear that she was no longer welcome at her long-time local gay bar—where someone had placed a picture of her Twitter avatar in the urinal for customers to pee on. The atmosphere became so hostile, in fact, that Herzog eventually moved out to a nearby town, where she’s bought a home with her wife.

Herzog had believed that her status as a lesbian—and someone who, at the time, identified as “queer”—would allow her some latitude to write more freely about the subject of detransition. “I was totally wrong,” she now admits. If anything, in fact, her status within the LGBT community made it worse: As Herzog puts it, she’d become a “heretic” within her tribe.

Seven years later, Herzog is now best known as one half of the highly successful podcast and Substack franchise, Blocked and Reported, which she hosts with Jesse Singal (who, as regular Quillette readers will know, has been targeted for his own plain talk about detransition). Her media success, along with the passage of time, have softened the sting of her 2017-era “cancellation” somewhat. But it hasn’t gone away entirely.

The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Part of the healing process, Herzog says, has to do with age. Last year, she turned 40. And unlike many younger media professionals who seek validation from social media, she no longer bases her sense of self-worth on likes and retweets.

She’s also adopted some basic practical measures to help preserve her mental health, such as limiting her Twitter notifications. “There’s literally thousands of people on both sides of the political spectrum telling me shit,” she says. “But I can’t see any of it, so it frees me to say whatever I want because I shut off the noise.”

Herzog admits that insulating oneself from critics in this way comes with risks, as it prevents exposure to the corrective benefits of good-faith criticism. But for the most part, she says, that’s not really the kind of criticism one finds on social media. “What people are mad at isn’t you,” she explains. “They’re mad at a cartoon version of you that doesn’t even exist.”

‘What people are mad at isn’t you,’ she explains. ‘They’re mad at a cartoon version of you that doesn’t even exist.’

The irony is that, notwithstanding all the negative attention Herzog received, her 2017 article ended up boosting her professional profile. To its credit, The Stranger didn’t fall in with the cancel chorus, and even hired Herzog as a full-time staff writer—a position Herzog stepped away from, by choice, in March 2020, when she volunteered to take a furlough during the tough economic times that came with the COVID pandemic.

So Long... For Now
Katie Herzog is taking temporary leave from The Stranger.

That furlough was supposed to last only eight weeks. But Herzog never returned to The Stranger. Quitting for good was a big decision, as she knew “there was probably no way I’d be hired by any [other] left-leaning paper in America.”

In her post-Stranger career, Herzog found something she’s grown to treasure—complete editorial independence. “I answer to nobody,” she says. “I think I’m very lucky in this respect. Socially, [what happened in 2017] definitely made my life more difficult, but professionally, it’s only helped me.”

Echoing a theme that one hears from many “cancelled” media figures, Herzog reports that she now has at least as many friends as she once did—perhaps more—but that many of these new friends are online contacts who live in other parts of the world, as opposed to the Seattle-era personal companions who abandoned her. That’s a problem, she says, “because [we all] need community, and gaining friends on the internet doesn’t quite replace that.”

Herzog now feels financially independent as well, thanks to what she describes as the “Bernie Sanders model of funding” that comes with her career on Substack: Instead of getting a paycheck from one or more deep-pocketed employers, she now has thousands of people who pay her as little as five dollars every month.

And yes, Herzog and Singal are still on the gender beat, and make no apologies for it. “[The issue] takes up a big place in society because [while] we’re talking about a small number of [trans] people, we’re talking about policy changes that impact a wide number of people,” she explains. “If you’re talking about something like [gender] self-identification, bathroom policies, or whatever, this might only, on the surface, impact the trans population, but really, it impacts [all] women. [It’s a] niche issue that has wider implications, including the redefining of what sex is, which is hugely important.”

That said, Herzog is careful to note that she regards trans rights as important: “We’re talking about…people who were basically treated with jokes, as clowns, until recently, and so there is a real human-rights issue here.” The problem, as she sees it, is the radicalism and single-mindedness exhibited by trans-rights organizations, many of which once presented themselves as representing the interests of the LGBT community more broadly. In her view, their mission creep can be explained by financial incentives:

You get organizations like Human Rights Campaign, which pivoted away from gay marriage in 2015 after [the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states]. They had all this funding, and so they had to pivot…Part of that [was] just self-protection. You had jobs, you had a giant budget, you’ve got to do something. What’s next on the list [of social issues]?

As a result, what started as a fight to protect trans people from discrimination in jobs and housing has morphed into a push to include trans women in all-female spaces, whether in prisons, changing rooms, or sports. “There’s all these downstream effects that in some ways, I think, will ultimately end up hurting trans people,” Herzog says. “I think most people believe that you shouldn’t be kicked out of your house for being trans. [But] are most people going to believe that a trans [woman should] play on a woman’s soccer team? That’s a different question.”

“It’s become this sort of culture-war [signifier] where if you’re on this one particular side [of the trans issue], you’re on the ‘right side of history’—that’s often how the media portrays it, but that’s not really true.”

Even among trans people, Herzog notes, there’s not necessarily a consensus on many of these issues. Yet only certain voices within that community get signal-boosted by the media, thereby giving news consumers a false impression. The resulting emphasis on trans “affirmation,” Herzog believes, may help drive the process of social contagion by which young people with no previous history of gender dysphoria suddenly declare themselves to be trans.

In an ironic twist, Herzog’s recent commercial and journalistic success sometimes gets weaponized against her: Some of the same people who tried to cancel her in 2017 now argue that her strong media profile comprises evidence that she’s a “grifter” who is simply trying to monetize hot-button topics; or that her example proves that cancel culture simply doesn’t exist.

In this respect, Herzog cautions that she is hardly typical. “I’m the exception to the rule,” she says. “[Yes,] I have absolutely benefited from cancel culture. But most [victims] haven’t; they’ve suffered from it—people who are adjunct professors or working in PR or whatever. Those are the people we should be concerned about.”

From Herzog’s correspondence with the people who write her, seeking advice, she knows that most individuals who become targeted for their opinions end up being truly silenced—as they don’t have the means to continue speaking out after their careers and reputations have been destroyed by a mob.

Ultimately, Herzog’s advice to these individuals strikes a pragmatic tone: “People need to be realistic and evaluate where they are in life,” she warns. “So if you’re an untenured professor, you have three kids, and the likelihood of you getting another job is minimal, be really careful before you speak up. I hate to say this, but don’t let your passion outweigh your material obligations.”

Even for those who are willing to risk their reputations and livelihoods, she says, it’s important to “have a Plan B” for their career and even their social lives. Until you have that, discretion may well remain the better part of valor.

Adapted, with permission, from No Apologies: How to Find and Free Your Voice in the Age of Outrage—Lessons for the Silenced Majority, by Katherine Brodsky.

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