Hello. Allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Katie Herzog. I’m a freelance writer for The Stranger. You may know me from such hits as Woman Takes LSD For A Month or Women Goes To Exercise Class For The First Time Ever. More likely, you know me as the author of The Detransitioners, a feature that ran in the last issue of The Stranger.
Here’s the backstory, for those of you fortunate enough to be unaware of this messy episode. I highly recommend that you read the piece before lining your litter box with it, but, in short, detransitioning is when a person who has transitioned to a gender other than their sex at birth later transitions back. It’s rare, but it does happen. As I said in my article, there are lots of reasons people may detransition—sometimes it’s for medical reasons, sometimes it’s because of the way trans people are abused in society, and sometimes it’s because that identity no longer feels right or they’ve found more effective ways of dealing with dysphoria. That’s what the piece was about.
It’s a controversial, complicated subject and during my reporting, I spoke to seven detransitioned people, as well as doctors, therapists, activists, and trans people who are happy they transitioned and would never fathom transitioning back. Many of those conversations made it into my piece. I tried to get a balance of voices speaking about a very complex issue, and one that I knew was particularly sensitive. Before it was published, two trans people were invited to read the piece and give their feedback, which was, in fact, entirely supportive.
For the first 24 hours after my article was published, the response was surprisingly nuanced. The comments section on Facebook and The Stranger were actually kind of refreshing. People were having conversations, but for the most part, they weren’t attacking each other—or, for that matter, me. But on the second day, the shit storm began, and since then I have been inundated by vitriol, hate mail, and threats—and not all of it, by the way, from strangers.
Much of the ire directed at me seems have originated from a Facebook post written by Danni Askini, the executive director of Seattle’s Gender Justice League, a nonprofit advocating for trans rights. Danni told me that she doesn’t have many problems with the content of the article, but she alleged on Facebook that Tricia Romano, the former editor-in-chief of The Stranger, and I lied to her—that we promised her the story would not run until after July 7th, the deadline for the filing of Initiative 1552, an anti-trans bathroom initiative currently being pushed by a group in Washington state. (As of a week before the filing deadline, the advocates have self-reported that, as of June 24, they have 150,000 of the 330,000 signatures required. Last year, the group received 170,000 signatures in the last two weeks.)
Danni and I have since spoken, explained ourselves, and seem to have come to somewhat of a peace. She even followed up her original Facebook post with another one saying that I’m not actually a monster, and I thank her for that. However, any effort Danni has made to de-escalate or walk back on her claims hasn’t stopped the tide of outrage directed towards me so I’m going to tell you exactly what happened.
In late May, I reached out to Danni via email to see if she’d be willing to speak for my piece. Soon after, we talked on the phone, and during that conversation, she said that she would be willing to talk to me on the record—and to help me find other sources—if I agreed not to publish the article until after the filing deadline for Initiative 1552. She thought that my story could be co-opted by people with an anti-trans agenda and used to justify supporting 1552. I listened, sympathized, I told her that I understood, and that I would talk to my editor but that it ultimately wasn’t up to me. I am a freelance writer. I don’t set The Stranger’s editorial calendar. That is up to the editor-in-chief, who at the time, was Tricia Romano. Then, I did exactly what I promised: I relayed her concerns to Tricia (who has since stepped away from The Stranger for reasons unrelated to this) and asked her to speak to Danni, which she later did, in person. I wasn’t there for that conversation so I won’t speculate as to what was discussed, but Tricia later told me that they talked it out, Danni was aware that it would either be published in late June or early July, and that I should proceed with my work. And that’s what I did.
(Tricia’s claim, by the way, is substantiated by the emails between her and Danni, which Danni posted on Facebook. In them, you can see that Tricia clearly lays out potential dates, including June 28th, the date the piece was eventually published. I’ll let Tricia defend her decision to publish on the 28th herself but this does bring up interesting questions about the media’s obligation to step into political battles like 1552. I am personally opposed to a bathroom bill in Washington state, but as a reporter, is my job to influence politics or just to cover them? It’s a debate that’s worth having in another time and place.)
I know now that it was a shock for Danni to see the article published before the Initiative 1552 deadline, and for that, I am truly sorry. I hate that this has caused her distress. But not only did I not mislead Danni or anyone else, I contacted her multiple times while I was working on this piece and she never responded. I tried to get her perspective and her voice and—had she called me back—I certainly would have told her the publication date. Frankly, I thought she knew.
The Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo has also posted critiques of my article on Facebook. In fact, she’s previously stated that she won’t be writing for The Stranger any more and cited my story as indicative of a crisis of "editorial integrity" at the paper. As a reader and a fan of Ijeoma’s, I’m sorry to hear that. The feeling, however, does not seem to be mutual. She writes of my article: “It was written by a cis woman without the knowledge and language necessary to responsibly report on the subject in a way that would not feed into the narrative of anti-trans bigots. The piece quotes a doctor widely discredited for junk science, with a well-known anti-trans bias."
Ijeoma doesn’t specify how my “knowledge and language” are insufficient, but as for the “discredited” doctor she is referring to, I’m guessing she might be alluding to James Cantor, director of the Toronto Sexuality Centre, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Here is that passage from my piece, in full:
There have, however, been almost a dozen studies of looking at the rate of "desistance," among trans-identified kids—which, in this context, refers to cases in which trans kids eventually identify as their sex at birth. Canadian sex researcher James Cantor summarized those studies' findings in a blog post: "Despite the differences in country, culture, decade, and follow-up length and method, all the studies have come to a remarkably similar conclusion: Only very few trans-kids still want to transition by the time they are adults. Instead, they generally turn out to be regular gay or lesbian folks." The exact rate of desistance varied by study, but overall, they concluded that about 80 percent trans kids eventually identified as their sex at birth. Some trans activists and academics, however, argue that these studies are flawed, the patients surveyed weren't really transgender, and that mass desistance doesn't exist.
"The desistance myth was promoted by reparative therapists, concern trolls, and charlatans," trans advocate Brynn Tannehill wrote on the Huffington Post. "It's time for the 80 percent desistance figure to be relegated to the same junk science bin as the utterly discredited link between vaccines and autism."
Indeed, some of the studies cited by Cantor had sample sizes as low as 16 people and were more than 40 years old, and one was an unpublished doctoral dissertation. But the most recent study, published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, followed up with 127 adolescent patients at a gender identity clinic in Amsterdam and found that two-thirds ultimately identified as the gender they were assigned at birth.
As you can see, after I quoted Cantor, I followed up with a direct refutation by a trans person and then noted potential criticism of the research. But the idea that Cantor has been “widely discredited for junk science” or that he has “a well-known anti-trans bias” is pure fiction.
I reached out to James Cantor directly and here’s what he had to say about this:
I don’t recall any recent memes about me being discredited .... A documentary about my research (titled I, Pedophile) received excellent reviews and was nominated for best documentary this year. Nonetheless, even if I were somehow discredited, how does that change the results of studies published when I was six years old? Are there any studies missing from my list? If we take out whatever study(ies) for whatever reasons, do the remaining studies paint any different a picture? When you get right down to it, we are being asked to ignore the results of every single study and instead to believe a result that has been shown by not a single study.
Just because Ijeoma or anyone else doesn’t like what the doctor says doesn’t mean that it’s false. Ijeoma then added to her post, “Danni Askini even had a lengthy conversation with the writer of this piece outlining concerns. Those concerns were apparently ignored."
That “lengthy conversation” between Danni and I lasted for precisely 14 minutes and 8 seconds. Furthermore, Danni’s concerns were not ignored. As I said above, I took them to my editor, I asked her to speak to Danni, and then I addressed them in my piece. Here’s one example:
Cass's story has also been repurposed by the alt-right site Breitbart, which likens transitioning to being "mutilated by sex-change surgery." There are real-life consequences to this kind of press, especially now, when the rights of trans people have become a political flash point. Currently, Just Want Privacy, an anti-trans group, is gathering signatures for Initiative 1552 in Washington State, which, if passed, would force trans kids in public schools to use the bathroom of their sex at birth. Pushed under the guise of protecting the safety and privacy of women and children, what bathroom bills inevitably do is harm trans people, who are put at risk when forced to use bathrooms that may not match the gender they present. Bathroom bills also fundamentally demonize transgender people by perpetuating the myth they are somehow predatory or violent, when in reality, trans people are far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators. In fact, according to the US Department of Justice, at least half of transgender people have experienced sexual violence. Rates are even higher for trans women of color.
Ijeoma, according to a separate post, also took issue with my Facebook page. And I can see why—I take issue with it too. It’s a fucking mess. After my piece was published, readers from all sides started commenting on my page. Some were supportive of the article, some weren't. TERFs and radfems baited trans folks into argument and vice versa. After some thought, I decided not to get involved. I feared that any kind of moderating would lead to further accusations of bias, so at some point, I stopped reading the comments at all. The things being hurtled were brutal and every time my phone beeped the knot in my stomach grew tighter. So I turned it off. But it wasn’t just my discomfort at play here: I believe in free speech, always and absolutely, even when it’s nasty shit I disagree with written all over the internet. That might make me a bad social media manager—or even an imperfect ally—but it doesn't make me a bad reporter.
There are, of course, other criticisms of my piece, some of which you may think are valid. The trans activist Julia Serano—who also declined to be interviewed when I reached out—posted a lengthy blog post of her own, although, as some detransitioners have pointed out, every time Serano has written about detransition herself, she has neglected to quote anyone who has actually gone through it.
Some people have also complained about “nonbinary erasure,” and, sure, I get that. Nonbinary people want to be represented too. But this article wasn't about nonbinary identities: It was about people who transitioned from male to female or from female to male and then transitioned back.
Other folks are opposed to my use of the term “detransition” at all, but it is the term used by the detransitioners themselves. I know this because I asked them.
I wrote this article because I believe the detransitioners who spoke with me deserve to be heard. They are human, and their stories are valid and real. Still, some readers have alleged that I made them up, that none of my sources exists, and that I am a phony and a fake. I assure you, I am no good at fiction, but if you don’t believe me, here, you can see them for yourself:
There are more. For all the negative comments, I’ve gotten just as many positive. For all the hate mail, I’ve gotten just as many thanks. Here’s one letter, excerpted with permission:
It was such a pleasure and a relief to read your article and totally recognize what you were talking about. Yes, these are the women I know. Yes, these are some of the pressures we're under. Yes, the current political climate has added lots of layers of complication for us. Thank you for taking the time and doing the work to "get" all of that. Thank you for not using us as a symbol for something else. Thank you for actually listening. Thank you so much.
I see on social media that you've been besieged by a torrent of truly histrionic backlash for an article which in no way warrants that response by any reasonable standard. I hope and trust that your editors were anticipating this and are behind you all the way. I know writing and publishing this article must come at some personal, social cost to you, so I really appreciate your putting yourself out there by telling this story.
I remember a time when hard truths about the realities of transition could be publicly spoken—and often were, by trans people themselves—so I know that the truths you portrayed can co-exist with a healthy trans culture. Not this misogynistic, neurotic, goosestepping red guard nonsense version of trans culture that fills the comment threads and queer scenes these days, but one that really is about making space for nonconformity and space for people who get gendered as "Others"—trans or not—to more safely live our lives in as outrageous and/or dignified ways as we want. I believe you've done something toward making that world.
Thank you for that.
So there you have it. The whole, messy truth. Some trans people may have been hurt by my work, and for that I am sorry. I am also sorry that Danni felt misled. I am committed to understanding the community’s concerns, and that’s why I plan to attend a meeting between leaders of the community and The Stranger in the coming weeks. But I never intended to hurt anyone. I think that’s clear from the writing. I don’t have the reach of Ijeoma Oluo—her first post about me was shared over 1,000 times, although she didn’t actually link to the article so people could read it for themselves—and I know that no matter what I say, my reputation has been tarnished beyond repair among many of you.
But I stand by my reporting. My piece, whatever its flaws, was balanced and many of the issues my critics claim I ignored are addressed in the article itself. I featured voices from all sides of this difficult conversation—a conversation that is already taking place online and in real life. All of my claims are backed up by either interviews or research, and when that research is disputed by the trans community, I pointed it out. I did my job here. I am not an activist. I am a journalist. And I don’t intend to stop being one because of this.
Now, please, just read the fucking piece.