Right-wing extremists and racists aren’t the only ones being censored. It can happen to ANY of us.
Recently, I was reminded of just how easy it is to be silenced in America now.
A few weeks ago I published an article on Medium (linked here on my blog) about the impact of transgender inclusion on the rights of women and lesbians. I felt it was a timely and topical subject, and as a gay woman of color I obviously have a vested interest in this issue.
So, you can imagine my shock when, less than 24 hours after the article appeared, Medium’s Trust & Safety team removed it for violating community rules. I was further warned that repeated violations would lead to possible suspension of my account. My crime? Posting “hateful content.” (before continuing, I would encourage you to read the article yourself).
For perspective, I have more than 1,000 followers on Medium and have published nearly 70 articles on this platform. I’m a Harvard educated lawyer and am on the Board of Advisors of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. I’m also a published author and a TEDx speaker. In fact, much of my writing focuses on bringing people together around our shared values and interests. In my entire career, I’ve never been accused of using hate speech or advocating hateful positions. Yet now I was being silenced for expressing my legitimate concerns about an issue that affects me and others in my community.
This incident is laced with many ironies, not the least of which is that I’ve spent much of my life feeling invisible and not having a voice. Growing up black and gay in the 70s and 80s was an alienating and often heartbreaking experience. Thankfully, as America has been forced to reckon with its insidious legacy of racism, sexism, and homophobia, the landscape has changed. Barriers have crumbled and hearts and minds have opened. I now enjoy a thriving legal career in the entertainment industry. I have a white partner and a biracial son. We happily live our alternative lifestyle in a red state that is overwhelmingly white and Christian. The past two decades have empowered me and helped me find my voice.
But now I fear that I’m in danger of losing my voice again. I worry that I and millions of other women are becoming invisible — not at the hands of right-wing extremists, but by people who claim to promote tolerance, inclusion, and equity.
Medium’s content curators purportedly removed my article because it “disempower[ed]” and excluded others based on “protected characteristics,” i.e. biological men who identify as women. Yet they had no qualms about disempowering and excluding me — a member of not one, but three “protected” groups — from their online community.
Further, I was silenced for expressing my belief that inclusion of biological men in women’s sports and prisons, and other historically protected spaces potentially undermines the rights and safety of biological women and lesbians. Yet the act of deplatforming my article was, itself, proof of the marginalization I lamented in my article.
When I shared the incident with a left-leaning friend, she cautioned that conservatives, Nazis and right-wing extremists have created a dangerous environment for transgender Americans. While this is undoubtedly true of some fringe elements on the Right, I’m neither a Nazi nor an extremist. Why should my legitimate concerns be conflated with fringe elements with whom I have nothing in common? If an article that raises thoughtful questions and concerns on behalf of other protected groups can be characterized as “hateful content,” then what is the threshold for hate?
You don’t have to be gay, female, or a person of color to appreciate the danger this poses to all Americans. If the boundaries of prohibited speech keep growing, then we can effectively be silenced by anyone who disagrees with us or is offended by our opinions. All they have to do is call us “hateful.” But if we live in constant fear of offending others, then how long will it be before we’re too afraid to say anything?
Freedom of speech is one of our most cherished rights. While designed to protect us from censorship by our government, it’s indelibly woven into the fabric of American society. The free and open marketplace of ideas is what makes our country unique. It’s enabled groundbreaking innovation and thought and empowered historically disenfranchised groups.
Given my unique background and experience, freedom of speech holds a special place in my heart. After all, where would I be today if voices that made others uncomfortable had been muffled? Moreover, what will the future hold for all Americans if we continue on this path? Without unfettered freedom of speech, attempts to foster inclusion become illusory and performative.
Protecting this sacred right is neither easy nor painless; it demands our constant effort, vigilance, and above all, our selflessness. What we safeguard for ourselves we must also be willing to safeguard for others, even those with whom we vehemently disagree.
Unfortunately, Medium and a growing number of platforms and legacy media outlets aren’t willing to do the hard work. They’ve decided that freedom of speech should be sacrificed if it makes others uncomfortable — even if the people expressing themselves have lived in discomfort most of their lives, and in many cases still do. They’ve elected to trade one of our most fundamental rights for tolerance that’s often selective.
These well-intentioned guardians of “safety” fail to see that true tolerance must be expressed not just by our words, but also by our deeds. The noble goals of inclusion and equity become meaningless if we arbitrarily sacrifice these principles when it suits us or those with preferred agendas. Selective tolerance isn’t progressive; it’s regressive.
True tolerance also requires that we be on the same page about the rules of free speech. We’re entering an era of increasing social conflict, but we can’t navigate this challenging landscape and resolve our differences if the boundaries of free speech keep shifting, often without warning.
For now, I write with a giant question mark over my head. Will I be branded a TERF on Medium if I continue to advocate for the rights of women and lesbians? Will I unwittingly offend others with the subject matter of my next article? Will it be “the one” that terminates my account?
The only thing I know for certain is that this is no way for anyone to live in a free society. If we can spend billions of dollars to fight for the freedom of people in a country 5,000 miles away, surely we can find the courage to defend this precious right at home. Let’s spend less time talking about inclusion and more time practicing it.
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