In Queers We Trust. All Others Pay Cash.
A note about being... here.
|Jude Ellison Sady Doyle||Mar 12||77||1|
First, an announcement: If you are trans, you do not have to pay for this newsletter.
Second, and at more length, an explanation:
In the first months of 2018, I received an email from Hamish McKenzie, asking me to consider writing for his new platform. I had never heard of Substack, at that point, and nor had anyone else. I was one of the first writers ever to get an invitation to contribute. That has changed, and so has my relationship to the platform, to the point that I have major ethical concerns about continuing to take Hamish’s offer.
The product Hamish pitched me in 2018 — sort of like Tinyletter, but paid; sort of like Patreon, but without bonuses; sort of like Medium, but an email — frankly did not sound like a safe bet for a serious writer. I don’t write for free, and at this point in my career, I don’t do it cheap, either. Substack could not guarantee me any money or readership; all it had was software for selling subscriptions, and they’d take a chunk of money out of my subscriptions in exchange for giving me early access to a then-in-beta platform. I needed to be paid for my work, I said, and I had several other jobs, so my involvement, if I agreed to get involved at all, would have to be pretty minimal.
There were writers who could make money out of this, Hamish assured me. If you worked at it full time, with at least four posts a month, preferably multiple posts a week, you could almost make as much as a real job. Specifically, in the introductory email, he mentioned two names: Daniel Lavery, whose post-Toast newsletter was just about their only successful product, and fellow Toast founder Nicole Cliffe, who was about to start a newsletter about skincare.
A feminist cis woman and a trans guy, who made their names in the “feminist blogger” subculture of the ‘00s and early ’10s, as I did; those were the marquee names at Substack in 2018, and that’s why they reached out to me. I was sold on this platform with the idea that our values and core audiences were in sync. I know for a fact that other colleagues of mine were also enticed to sign on with those two names; somebody may have been enticed with mine, though I doubt I’m Toast-level enticing.
What Cliffe and Lavery think of being used this way, I don’t know. Here’s what I think: Three years down the line, I’m still a feminist, I’m out as a trans person, and in the time I’ve been writing here, Substack has become famous for giving massive advances — the kind that were never once offered to me or my colleagues, not up front and not after the platform took off — to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.
Glenn Greenwald started his Substack by inveighing against trans rights and/or ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, is currently using it to direct harassment at a female New York Times reporter, and has repeatedly used his platform to whitewash alleged rapists and domestic abusers. Freddie de Boer is an anti-“identity politics” crusader who became so infamous for harassing colleagues, particularly women, that he briefly promised to retire from the Internet to avoid causing any more harm; he’s currently using his “generous financial offer” from Substack to argue against “censoring” Nazis while pursuing a personal vendetta against the cis writer Sarah Jones. Matt Yglesias, who publicly cites polite pushback from a trans femme colleague as the Problem With Media Today — exposing the woman he named to massive harassment from Fox News and online TERFs alike — reportedly got a $250,000 advance from Substack. It’s become the preferred platform for men who can’t work in diverse environments without getting calls from HR.
Those are just the assholes. Increasingly, Substack is tolerating and funding extreme trans-eliminationist rhetoric: They host Jesse Singal, a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry. I would list Jesse’s targets, but at this point, I don’t know a trans woman in media who doesn’t have a story. Graham Lineham is a transphobic bigot so extreme and abhorrent that he’s been permanently banned from Twitter, Medium, and basically every platform but the one I’m using to talk to you right now. He reportedly considers Substack a major source of income.
I’m not even listing all the problematic bylines here. (Andrew Sullivan! Bari Weiss!) Those bylines themselves are not the problem. Self-publishing platforms can’t control who signs up. Substack isn’t 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.
So where is Substack getting the money to pay the TERFs? Simple: From me.
Substack takes a small percentage of my subscription money, and that money goes to fund the writers they view to be better investments. I give them my money, and they use that money to pay men who have, in several instances, stalked or harassed either me or people I care about. This money is extracted, not just from me, but from many early Substack recruits who were enticed to contribute unpaid or drastically underpaid labor on the basis of names like Lavery and Cliffe. Or, for that matter, mine. To whatever small extent, I built Substack’s legitimacy as a platform used by professional writers, and I did this by signing up at at time when they didn’t really have many professional writers. I gave Substack my trust, my name, and my credibility, and it used that credibility to platform hate groups aimed at eliminating me and everyone I care about from the face of the planet.
This is a very clear instance of how patriarchy and capitalism function together: Value is extracted from gender-marginalized writers, who are expected to work on bad and frankly insulting terms, and the wealth generated by those writers is then given to a select handful of mostly-white men who ceaselessly attack and seek to erode those workers’ civil rights. I don’t support it. I don’t think any trans person should support it. Yet, by using the platform, I am inevitably enmeshing myself in that system of oppression, working for the people who are working for our destruction.
Coexisting with this knowledge is the painful truth that I think the actual work I do here is good. It might be some of the best writing I’ve done in recent years. My particular voice — idiosyncratic, conversational, prone to oversharing and going long — tends to work well in an informal context like a blog or a newsletter. Especially now that I’m transitioning, I need a place to put those more intimate and direct pieces, and the newsletter has become my favorite place to do that. I think this is probably the purest showcase for who I am as a writer, and I don’t want to lose it.
I also don’t want to lose the income. I honestly can’t remember what percentage Substack takes, but it’s low, between seven and fifteen percent. Until recently, I’ve never had enough subscribers for it to matter. That’s my fault: The platform couldn’t offer serious terms, so I never took it seriously. The jobs that paid a competitive upfront rate — columns, books — always came first. I didn’t post multiple times a week, or even once a week. I didn’t post the political analysis I had an audience for. I wanted to write about horror movies, so I did. What I wanted, when I felt like it: That’s what you could get out of me for free.
Yet media is a precarious place to work. I’ve lost seemingly secure jobs for reasons beyond my control — a department got axed, a grant didn’t get renewed, a friendly editor was replaced by one who wanted to go in a different direction — and if you work freelance, which I typically do, you can’t file for unemployment when that happens. This place is my unemployment office. I’ve gotten to the point that I could use Substack to cover the rent if I lost all my other jobs. It’s not a quarter-million bucks, but it matters.
So I have a choice to make, a choice that neither I nor any gender-marginalized person should ever have to make: Either I walk away from a necessary income stream and creative outlet, or I stay and allow my work to fund abuse, harassment, misogyny, and a movement that wants trans people silenced, impoverished, invisible and dead.
Here, upon reflection, is the compromise I have reached: No trans person should have to pay for this newsletter, or any product on Substack. If you are trans and you want to get behind the paywall, respond to this email or send one to sadydoyle @ gmail dot com, with your own email address and, preferably, a link to a social media profile. (I regret that I have to verify, but I expect quite a lot of harassment to follow this announcement, and I want to cut down on the number of TERFs getting through.) I will give you a lifetime comp. If you are already paying, I will freeze your payments. I want to take your money away from these people. You, unlike me, do not have to fund your own destruction.
If you’re cis, I’m still asking for your support — financially, if you subscribe, and morally, if you don’t. I am only in this position because Substack chooses to fund and host transphobic bigotry. This is not a situation I created, and it is not one I control. I signed up for a side hustle. I did not agree to work for the startup equivalent of Fox News, and I certainly did not agree to fund Fox News. Only Substack can remedy this situation, and it can do it only by shutting down platforms it’s gotten a lot of money from and cis male voices it values a lot more highly than mine.
To be clear: There are also cis feminists taking major advances from Substack. They are not the ones threatening to quit; they are not freezing their subscriptions to deny Substack a (considerably bigger) chunk of change; they are not the ones most directly or severely impacted by the kinds of hate Substack is promoting, even though several of the men I’ve cited above, like Greenwald and De Boer, are misogynists and rape apologists in addition to their other problems. Other trans users of the platform, including Grace Lavery, have spoken up before me (Lavery is currently directing all her Substack income to a LGBT+ center) but, with a few very welcome exceptions, I do not see those cis feminists weighing in or taking material steps to pressure the platform in the same way.
That cis silence puts trans people at risk. It allows trans people to be cast as loose cannons or spoilsports for not wanting to enrich platforms that promote hate against us. It’s not acceptable, and since I spent many years of my life being perceived as a cis feminist, and have ties to that community, I feel the need to call it out by name. I believe the interests of trans people and cis women are aligned within patriarchy, and that feminism and trans liberation are mutually necessary, but that solidarity only works when you work it. I am directly asking those cis women to step up and throw their weight around. They will listen to you. They will not listen to trans people. If they listened to trans people, TERFs would not be receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from this platform.
The subscription freeze is a stopgap measure. It’s pursuant to (a) Substack overhauling its content policies or (b) Substack reaching an arrangement with me wherein I keep using the platform without giving it money, or (c) me finding a different but suitable home. It should be obvious to the clever start-up entrepreneur that there’s a niche for a better newsletter platform. This one, for the moment, is not keeping its promises.
Hamish doesn’t respond when I say these things on Twitter, by the way. You’d think he would. I know he has my email.
UPDATE: Several really lovely readers have e-mailed me to ask how they can support me without contributing to Substack at all, or offered to chip in $50 to cover the cost of a comped subscription. I think that’s a fair request, and it’s been a frequently repeated one, so if you’d like to switch things up, you can Venmo me at @Jude-Ellison-Doyle.
UPDATE #2: Hamish McKenzie has written a blog post justifying Substack’s decisions. There is no work done to address the ethical questions about Substack’s business model. Seemingly in response to the question of why the platform funds extreme bigots who are banned elsewhere, he writes that “we think it would be a mistake to shy away from making these calls [to recruit and pay advances to TERFs]. No writer who says anything important is universally loved; and in fact, sometimes those who engender the fiercest opposition are the ones most deserving of support. This is why the free press is important. A hero can be thought a villain, and a villain a hero.”
In essence, Hamish believes that history will decide whether trans people are human beings deserving of civil rights. Or, at least, this is what he’s arguing on behalf of the company he co-founded. He intimates vaguely that there are “other companies,” in essence telling trans writers to stop using Substack if we don’t want to work for and with people who believe us to be subhuman.
There are other companies. I’m going to one of them. I’m auditioning two platforms and will hopefully have transferred all subscriptions over to the new domain by the end of the week.
Hamish McKenzie has made no effort to communicate with me, either publicly or privately, since this post was published.
UPDATE #3: I’ve selected my new platform and moved my subscriptions over there. If vou’ve been linked to this newsletter from outside, you may not see it, so if you’re in the mood to subscribe, please do so at jude-doyle.ghost.io