trans people are always the canaries in the coal mine
we called substack's nazi problem nearly three years ago
Starting in January, two of my three weekly posts here will be paywalled. More details to come (including a sneak peek at the very cool work I have planned for this space), but I’m running a sale for all of Sagittarius season (my season, baybee). If you buy a paid subscription during Sagittarius season you get 20% off forever.
I also want to add that if there is ever a financial barrier for you and you need sliding scale rates or a comped subscription for any reason, please email me. I won’t ask any questions.
I was proud to be one of the signatories to the open letter of Substackers Against Nazis. I think it is important that publishers on this platform attempt to hold its leadership accountable regarding content moderation and to ask hard questions about the reality of what a hands-off approach means for a site.
It’s one thing to believe in free speech and open debate; it’s quite another to enable hate speech that leads to real-world violence and oppression. “The correct number of newsletters using Nazi symbols that you host and profit from on your platform is zero,”wrote at his popular Substack, .
As the open letter, which was spearheaded so diligently byat and stemmed from the reporting of which appeared at The Atlantic, stated:
From our perspective as Substack publishers, it is unfathomable that someone with a swastika avatar, who writes about “The Jewish question,” or who promotes Great Replacement Theory, could be given the tools to succeed on your platform. And yet you’ve been unable to adequately explain your position.
Out of Your League is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It’s been heartening to see the way so many Substack authors have gotten behind the push to interrogate whether it is conscionable to give white nationalists the tools to profit off their abhorrent beliefs. I have watched as people have had real discussions about whether remaining on Substack is a viable option if leadership doesn’t address these concerns.
And I’ll be honest—I feel a little bit ambivalent about the whole thing. Because of course Substack has a Nazi problem. It was always going to have a Nazi problem. Trans people could have told you that years ago.
When Marisa first posted a note on her feed expressing a desire to organize Substack authors to take action against the platform’s Nazi problem, there was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to be involved. I emailed her and said as much. But I also said that I did not have much hope that the founders would take any meaningful action. After all, I was here in 2021 for the “trans stuff.” It’s the reason I left the platform for two years.
The open letter against Nazis on the Substack included this paragraph:
Your unwillingness to play by your own rules on this issue has already led to the announced departures of several prominent Substackers, including Rusty Foster and Helena Fitzgerald. They follow previous exoduses of writers, including Substack Pro recipient Grace Lavery and Jude Ellison S. Doyle, who left with similar concerns.
I’d like to add some context to the latter two writers mentioned here—both are trans authors who ultimately left Substack because its founders were happy to continue allowing anti-trans content to flourish. And not just flourish—profit.
Doyle left first and broke down why in great detail.
Those [problematic] bylines themselves are not the problem. Self-publishing platforms can’t control who signs up. Substack isn’t [just] a self-publishing platform, though. It curates its writers. It pays them, sometimes massively, and it makes choices as to who gets paid well and who doesn’t. We’ve seen instances of tech companies allowing hate group leaders to acquire huge followings through negligence, from white supremacist YouTube stars to a President who has to be banned from Twitter for trying to start a civil war, but those were cases where the platforms failed to keep bigots out. Substack is actively bringing the bigots in. Then it’s giving them paychecks.
As Doyle goes on to note, the money to pay the Substack Pro advances comes from other publishers on the platform, like Doyle. And like me. And like you: “Substack takes a small percentage of my subscription money, and that money goes to fund the writers they view to be better investments.”
Substack founders responded in a post: “We make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.”
Doyle left for Ghost. So did I, and a host of other trans people. Some trans people opted to stay, which was their prerogative and I do not fault them for it. Lavery chose to remain on the platform and take a Substack Pro advance, something a lot of people in the trans community felt betrayed by. They worried that Lavery (as well as Danny Lavery) were being used as tokens to shield Substack from accusations of transphobia and bigotry. See, we platform both trans AND anti-trans voices! Free speech! Equality!
Giving the Substack Pro deals to trans writers like the Laverys also meant that cis people who might otherwise be trans allies felt comfortable with the decision to remain on the platform. Eventually, however, Grace Lavery left Substack too.
“A little less than a year ago, I accepted a Substack Pro deal for a significant amount of money to publish on this platform for a year,” she wrote in January 2022. “Today, I’m walking away from that contract and shutting down my account.”
The worries that Doyle and other trans writers had a year prior, which Lavery decided to allow Substack to prove wrong, ended up being well-founded. Radical bigots have migrated here because they saw that Substack allowed others with harmful beliefs to thrive openly; the lack of response to anti-trans writers would naturally mean a lack of response to other kinds of hateful beliefs.
Now, approximately two-and-a-half years later, we are back here again, this time with Nazis (some of whom will undoubtedly have overlap with anti-trans voices). And while it’s been incredible to see so many authors rally around the cause of denouncing white nationalists being allowed to publish and find success on Substack, I can’t help but feel a little salty about the whole thing.
Because when it was trans people asking for solidarity, we did not get the same kind of response. There are a lot of caveats here, of course. There were fewer people on Substack at the time. There wasn’t a feed or notes function, which meant the community-building aspect wasn’t as robust as it is now. But overwhelmingly, it was trans writers like myself who left Substack to try to publish elsewhere and we lost out on a lot of growth opportunities as a result.
I spent two years at Ghost, leaving Substack at a time when it was picking up a lot of momentum. I lost out on years of building a following and a steady income here, toiling away at another platform that felt like sending newsletters into the void. And sure, you may point out that I chose to come back here and that’s true. I did. I came back here because, as I said earlier this week, it was the only way I was going to have a chance to make this newsletter something even remotely financially viable.
It has always felt like trans people were screaming into the void about Substack’s lack of content moderation and the voices they allow to flourish and profit here. People agreed that it sucked, but no one seemed very motivated to try to do anything about it. Because when it’s trans people who are impacted, it’s always much easier for everyone else to ignore. The people Doyle raised concerns about back in 2021 are still here; they never left.
But that’s how it always is. Trans people, we are the canaries in the coal mines. We’ve been screaming about the way attacks on our rights are harbingers of things to come for everyone else for at least a decade now. As Chase Strangio from the ACLU has said, right-wing politicians and cultural figures “use trans people to mobilize a voting base to erode everyone’s rights.” The problem, of course, is that most people don’t feel motivated to care enough until it begins to affect people beyond the trans community.
This post is not meant as a critique of the Substackers Against Nazis campaign—as I said, I happily participated in it and I believe it is important. Nor is this an attempt to make a larger movement about myself. It’s more a reflection on a pattern we see over and over again. It’s a curiosity on why people seem to care so much less about issues when it’s trans people being targeted, even those who would call themselves allies.
Just something to think about.
In the meantime, I eagerly await a response to our open letter from Substack’s founders, while also somewhat cynically expecting nothing because that’s what they’ve given every other time they’ve been pressured. I hope they prove me wrong.