The Antioch Review’s Transphobic Essay Isn’t About Free Speech

Last week, The Antioch Review, a notable journal in the literary community, published an essay by Daniel Harris titled, “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate.” The piece’s openly transphobic, antagonistic language was met with an online petition denouncing the essay for self-described members of the literary community to sign. The petition has since reached more than 4,000 signatures. Antioch College released a statement in response to the controversy, and in a move that’s as problematic as it was predictable, decided to use that good ol’ “free speech” argument as a justification for keeping the piece.

The thing about the Antioch College’s statement regarding the monumentally trash transphobic essay is that it wasn’t surprising: it was a textbook academic response to marginalized communities naming the violence they’ve experienced within an academic (or literary) space.

Many of us have heard, read or had it used against us before: the ghost of “free speech.” And yes—I do mean the ghost of it, because the way it’s so often used nowadays is a bastardized trope, side-lining nearly every nuanced conversation about language, voice, space and power that centers marginalized people. Rarely does free speech champion or become a banner for the then (and still) controversial, resistance-focused rhetoric of radical activists of color.

So why does the free speech dialogue follow such predictable patterns and coalesce in such predictable places?

Because the conversation—no matter how objective it claims to be—is still operating in the context of a world in which inequality and oppression persist. The same people who have a monopoly on power, access, language, space and so much else, also have a monopoly on how freedom of speech gets defined and where and when it applies. And lately, this has been painfully evident in the literary community at large. Not just with the latest gaffe in The Antioch Review, but in many, many other instances as well.

If social, political and economic hierarchies didn’t exist, maybe an unnuanced “free speech” argument would actually fly. But because individuals and institutions experience power differently, “free speech” can’t be discussed like it’s a uniform concept. This is especially true given that many of the individuals and institutions in power who claim their “free speech” has been violated often do so while simultaneously devaluing, decentering or altogether ignoring the voice and work of marginalized people. So many of these old-guard literary spaces seem to just be sheltering violence under the guise of some magical objective intellectual plane that simply doesn’t exist. Antioch College refers to it as, “a key Antiochian value—the free expression of ideas and opinions, even when they run counter to our own.” Which sounds really great… except for when an “idea” or “opinion” can cost someone – or many someones, or generation after generation of someones – their very lives.

That’s the reality for trans people in this country, and specifically Black trans women. Our trans siblings are being murdered in atrociously disproportionate numbers. That violence is the result of lots of things: blatant transphobia, toxic masculinity, racism, classism to name a few. It’s also the result of anti-trans writings such as Harris’ essay published by The Antioch Review and defended by both the journal itself and Antioch College. Was that essay the knife that stabbed 25-year-old Black transwoman Maya Young to death in Philadelphia? Certainly not. But it is an essay that makes space for violence and gives it air to breathe. It is an essay that lets violence stretch its legs and find its stride. It’s an essay that feeds anti-trans legislation and public harassment.

Harris’ essay isn’t an actual weapon, but I’m a Black woman living in America, and I know that there are many ways to kill someone.

Harris’ choice to perpetuate an antagonistically biased narrative about a community of people he isn’t a part of and The Antioch Review and Antioch College’s choice to protect the right for that narrative to exist on an institutional platform are, to me, inexcusable. Multiple trans writers have written their own responses, and I encourage you to read them all. This isn’t about free speech; this is about how language and power influence each other, how giving space to words translates onto actual bodies. Again, actual bodies.

It baffles me that writers and editors and people in the larger literary community could have such an insufficient grasp on how words have shaped both death and survival in the past, and continue to do so now. But then again, these old guard literary spaces—just like the “free speech” conversation—were founded in the context of a white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist society. So maybe it shouldn’t baffle me at all.

In the words of Toni Cade Bambara:

Words are to be taken seriously. I try to take seriously acts of language. Words set things in motion. I’ve seen them doing it…I’ve felt them doing it. Words conjure. I try not to be careless about what I utter, write, sing. I’m careful about what I give voice to.”

Header image credit

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work is focused on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She is also a Callaloo Fellow, and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published through Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Read more about Jacqui

Join the Conversation