Q&A: Jude Ellison S. Doyle on why Substack isn’t about Substack

Substack is still chugging along as a company and a content management system (although we’ll be leaving here soon). The company, now in a fresh new round of fundraising, has insisted on either ignoring or combatively engaging with the criticism it’s fielded over the last few months — namely, that it does not enforce its community guidelines when it comes to the harassment of trans people, and that it has been (opaquely) providing money to a selection of writers in it’s “Pro Program.” 

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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, a prominent non-binary writer on Substack and beyond, was one of the first people to publicly denounce Substack’s approach. Doyle is now on Ghost, after clearly breaking down what’s wrong with Substack and clearly breaking down what’s wrong with the way New York Times media critic Ben Smith wrote about Substack. 

The conversation is edited for length and clarity.

I know this is rehashing what you’ve already described elsewhere, but can you describe your initial interactions with Substack and how you’d characterize their response to the criticism they’ve received over the last few months?

About a month ago, I wrote a Substack post, explaining that I was unhappy with the direction the company had taken, specifically with the fact that it had become a haven for notoriously transphobic writers. There was a whole constellation boosting each other’s work; the rat king most prominently contained Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Jesse Singal, and Jesse Singal’s podcast co-host Katie Herzog. There were also some fringier figures, like Graham Linehan, who basically does nothing online except harass trans women. But the other group was networked, and had more mainstream credibility, and they were clearly exploiting Substack’s lack of content moderation to push content that was so overtly hateful they would have trouble getting it published anywhere else.  

I had been on Substack since early 2018. They specifically reached out to me, which has been their model since the beginning. There has always been a level of editorial choice in which writers are on there. The comparable authors mentioned in those communications were Daniel Lavery, Nicole Cliffe, and Helena Fitzgerald — feminist women and a trans guy. So to see the company pivot into bigotry was alarming, and I offered to comp my trans readers’ subscriptions while I figured out what to do.

My post wasn’t the only one of its kind, but it seems to have started a forest fire. Substack started to post all of these absurdly defensive public statements, declaring that they would never moderate their content (which they described as a “principled stance,” based on the fact that the writers in question might be “heroes”). When they did clarify their moderation policy, it was only to say that posts repeatedly targeting people in “cruel and unfair” ways were allowed, and so were attacks on “ideologies,” which is a really significant code word, given that TERFs describe trans identity as “gender ideology.”

Chris Best [Substack’s CEO] tweeting “defund the thought police” was kind of the nadir. They made clear that they were just never going to fix the problem, so I left. Their idea of a solution was to offer me a Substack Pro deal. I declined. The idea of staying in bed with them even a little while longer was just profoundly distasteful by that point.

In a recent Medium piece, you write: “‘The Substack problem’ is not a Substack problem. It’s a problem with media writ large. It’s a problem with a world that systematically marginalizes trans voices unless they tell cis people what they want to hear.” I imagine it’s particularly annoying when people online talk about not wanting to hear more about Substack, but perhaps not? Can you expand on this point?

I can understand why some people are tired of hearing about Substack. As a story about publishing, it feels very inside-baseball. A media company has a lot of money, and it’s paying some big advances, but it won’t say who it’s paying; that’s weird and unethical, but it’s not a crisis. When you look at the unrelenting legislative assault on trans communities — bills for forced genital exams in Florida and abducting trans kids from supportive homes in Texas, etc. — it’s really hard to care who gets paid to blog.

The mistake people make is in trying to look at Substack outside of that larger context. If you look at the fact that the GOP has made trans people its chosen wedge issue, with dozens of bills targeting trans kids, and you also look at the fact that the trendiest media company of the moment is making its money by pumping transphobic poison into the atmosphere, with no responsibility to regulate misinformation or hate speech, then you start to see a really scary picture forming, where trans people are an acceptable target for everybody, and more transphobic bills are likely to pass, and there’s going to be a body count.

Covering this as a matter of platforms and writers and advances and deals is a mistake. My goal is not to analyze the publishing business. My goal is to make sure that it’s not safe to target trans people. This is just the one problem I’m close enough to that I can make a difference.

In a recent Twitter thread, you wrote about why Substack can’t just diversify their Pro program and resolve everything, and why ideology matters. There’s a podcast called Diversity Hire, about people of color in media, that makes a similar point. Can you talk a bit about hiring for diversity without accounting for class analysis, bigotry, etc?

Right. Without talking about any particular writers, we can say that one purpose of tokenism is to turn a marginalized person into a weapon you can use against your critics.

I absolutely understand why a trans writer who’s just coming up would want this money. Trans people are structurally excluded. We are disproportionately poor. If you see a check with six figures, or even the right five figures, and you reasonably believe you will never get another chance at a middle-class income… yeah. I see why you’d take that money.

But what these companies want is to be able to say “we hired one.” From that point forward, if their structures are transphobic — not their problem, they hired one! If people keep getting harmed by the business in transphobic ways — not their intent, they hired one! If people take issue with their bigoted content — why are those people focusing on the negatives, when they could be focusing on the fact that they hired one? If protesters are angry, and they’re making demands, they must just be stupid, or crazy. They must not know how to work within the system. If they were smart, they’d be working with the company, because…

Maybe you don’t hire just one. Maybe you hire that one and their friends. Maybe you make new hires every time a different group criticizes you. It still doesn’t change the underlying problem, which is that Substack is profiting off hate speech.

Substack takes a percentage cut off every transphobic writer I mentioned, whether or not those writers are given advances, and the reason they probably won’t commit to moderating this content is that it makes money. If they had a consistent moderation policy that cut off funding to hate speech, this problem would likely dissipate very quickly, because the forum wouldn’t be a safe space for bigots. But they’re not willing to diminish their own revenue stream by cutting off Andrew Sullivan’s subscriptions. They value him, and his money, more than they value the safety of trans people.

I am lucky that I don’t have to make financial decisions out of desperation. I try not to make them out of greed, either, and I would advise anyone in my position to define “enough” so they don’t get seduced and wake up in a tub of ice missing a kidney. But I have my basic needs taken care of, and I know that me having a nicer car won’t help the kids in North Carolina or Texas. Cutting off funding to hate speech benefits me and others in deeper, more long-term ways.

I had an interaction with Ben Smith where I explicitly asked him about his reflections on his own background and how it influenced his meekly-kind profile of Andrew Sullivan. Why did Smith so badly fail to accurately portray the situation? What could media reporters and critics seek to do more of?

I think Smith came in with a fundamental lack of curiosity about the “trans angle,” which is what I remember him calling it. I got the sense that he had approached me as an obligatory CYA move. I wanted Smith to talk to multiple trans people who were critical of Substack, not just me. I offered to connect him to Annalee Newitz, who had been investigating the business end, or Yanyi, who had a Substack fellowship and left. He wasn’t interested. I told him that there were specific histories behind some of the more objectionable names on that platform, and that I could try to put him in contact with people willing to speak to that. Again, not interested. I kept trying to contextualize Substack in terms of hate speech and the broader rise of organized transphobia. He saw that as unconnected to the business story.

Because Smith saw the “trans angle” as extraneous to his piece, what he’s come out with is this story that is inevitably about the “trans angle,” but manages to get almost everything wrong. Singal has a history of harassing his critics, including calling their bosses, and he’s uncritically quoted as saying that trans people have “called the manager” on him. (He’s using a figure of speech. The managers who’ve been called by Jesse Singal are not.) Smith described Linehan, who’s gotten at least one police warning for harassing a trans woman, as someone who “made fun of people’s appearances.” These are giant, glaring errors of fact, and they come from not being willing to speak to trans people, or to do even the bare minimum of investigating what those people are upset about.

Obviously, not a single trans critic of Substack was quoted. I think only two of us were even interviewed. It speaks to that lack of engagement. Smith wanted to be the authority without actually listening, and bad reporting gets bad results.

What do you think of writers who remain with Substack or are joining Substack now? Or those that say it’s too hard to find another alternative?

I’m not Jesus. You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I can’t absolve you of sin. I also can’t tell anyone to move their newsletter. I think you should, but there’s a thin line between “protester” and “drill sergeant,” and you have to stay out of people’s faces if you don’t want to cross that line.

What I will say is that I’ve been frustrated by some performative allyship. I saw a few cis people make a big deal about Substack’s transphobia being unacceptable, with all these posts about how they wanted to organize and improve the material conditions of the workers and etc. They’d be raging against the machine, and then they’d get bored, and you’d see, like, a little post about how it doesn’t matter because we’re all compromised under capitalism. We’re all compromised, Debra, but some of us moved to Buttondown.

I also don’t love it when high-profile Substack writers talk about “making change from the inside,” or “having conversations,” because if trans people aren’t part of your accountability network, if they’re not being let in on those conversations, I don’t really know what’s being done. “Conversations” reads a little “thoughts and prayers” at this point. There are people working on this, and I assure you they’d love it if a high-profile Substack writer backed them up.

If you take the Pro deal, at this point, knowing what we know about these people, I reserve the right to roast you for all eternity. I am like Jesus in that way, I suppose.

In that same vein, what should our readers be doing in order to push Substack?

I would love it if there were a group of people able to answer this question with concrete demands. Right now, I’m in communication with a lot of different people, and there are a lot of asks.

I will say that, to me, these are not people who want to be “pushed.” They have resisted structural change at every point down the line. Their corporate communications lean very hard into the idea that protecting bigotry is a core value — “principled” “free speech” “heroes” who hate “thought police” and trans people are their target market, not trans people, and not allies.

So I would leave, if I were you. I would walk out that door, because staying just gives them permission to keep failing you. Buttondown is the cheapest service with the best customer service; Ghost makes prettier newsletters. That’s going to take you a day, a few weeks, tops, and you’re out.

If you do think they can be pushed: I believe, after talking to trans people like Annalee Newitz who have been doing this a long time, that the conversation will not be possible until Substack is transparent about its finances. There is a whole hidden architecture of grants and advances and insurance coverage, and the writers on the Pro deals are only the tip of the iceberg. Until we know who they are funding and what they’re paying them, we can’t discuss Substack’s accountability for hate speech in clear terms.

Substack’s contract is also something we all need to be clear on. The NDAs are supposedly formidable. If you’ve been paid by Substack, you can’t tell anybody you’ve been paid unless Substack gives you permission. Why is this secrecy necessary? What else are Substack Pro writers not allowed to say? Why does the “free speech” company buy silence? We need to see the contract to know exactly how shady this gets. 

So we need greater transparency, and we also need to be clear that one or two sacrificial lambs are no substitute for real accountability. Graham Linehan is a wingnut who’s been kicked off every other platform — it would be very easy to toss him off Substack, too. It’s alarming that Substack won’t do that. But even if they did, we need a content moderation policy that applies to their most famous, powerful, “mainstream” users just as much as it applies to any random Internet villain — we need Glenn Greenwald to play by the same rules as Graham Linehan or some lady in Poughkeepsie with a candle blog. The rules against hate speech and harassment have to exist, they have to be clear, and they have to be consistently enforced no matter how much money or press someone brings in for Substack.

In your Medium piece, you also write: “A cis person wrote it, so it seems objective. A cis person chose whose voices to elevate, and the missing trans people won’t catch the reader’s eye. I’m just asking questions, transphobic writers say, over and over. What I’ve learned, in the past few weeks, is just how much you can warp a story by asking the wrong questions.” We’re called The Objective in part because of what you describe here. Now that you’ve come to these conclusions, what further thoughts do you have on objectivity, if any?

I mean, when I wrote that, I was at the end of my rope. I was also saying something that most trans people have known for a long time. One major undercurrent to this story, that I don’t think I’ve spoken about clearly before, is that I’ve been out as a trans non-binary person for less than a year. I’m still finding my footing in many ways.

This process has been both draining and illuminating. I’m very visible in my awkward 13-year-old-ness, and this is the first time I’ve had to do press while thinking about that. You know, you’re on the phone with a reporter and you can’t tell whether he’s bored with your argument or just distracted by how girly your voice is. People don’t know what a non-binary person is, so you have both people calling you “she” and people reporting that you “transitioned to male.” I’m becoming increasingly aware of myself as a discomfiting presence. People have to wrap their heads around me before we can talk.

So the fact that I’m being treated badly by some reporters because of my identity stands out more to me. It’s new. It’s been amazing to talk to certain outlets who were very professional with me two or three years ago, when they saw me as a white, straight cis woman, who are now completely hostile and dismissive. You seek me out for a quote and then you treat me like I’m a hobo who barged into your office. I know why it’s happening, because it didn’t happen before.

I certainly did not want to become the public voice of trans-ness on some hot button issue, or have to publicly define and defend my own existence, within a few months of coming out. Like, give me the full twelve-month grace period, Jesus.

But what this process has driven home for me is exactly how hard it is for marginalized communities to get the truth out to reporters. First of all, you have to explain what you are, and push through people’s discomfort with even talking to a person like you. Secondly, you have to be calm and rational and charming and persuasive enough for them to think you’re “one of the good ones;” if you push back even a little, you’re suddenly a crazy radical, and they nope out. Thirdly, after you’ve done all this work of disarming the reporter’s transphobia or racism or whatever, you have to answer questions that are probably badly constructed, and don’t reflect a deep understanding of the issue.

Somehow, through all these structural barriers, you have to make your point. The system is constructed to prevent you from getting that point across. So what this has hopefully done is made me more aware of all the voices we’re not hearing, and all the points that aren’t getting made. This isn’t just happening to me, and it isn’t just happening to trans people, either.

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