While the media world wept over Amber and Johnny, a lawsuit filed by a feminist group over prison sexual abuse remained earth’s most ignored scandal
Matt Taibbi June 17
On November 17, 2021, the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF, filed a civil rights lawsuit in California that drew almost no coverage. A press corps gearing up to be outraged en masse by the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp defamation case had zero interest in a lawsuit filed by far poorer female abuse victims.
Janine Chandler et al vs. California Department of Corrections targeted a new California state law, the “The Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act,” a.k.a. S.B. 132. The statute allows any prisoner who self-identifies as a woman — including prisoners with penises who may have stopped taking hormones — into women’s prisons. There was nothing TV-friendly about the scenes depicted in the complaint:
Plaintiff Krystal Gonzalez (“Krystal”) is a female offender currently incarcerated in Central California Women’s Facility. Krystal was sexually assaulted by a man transferred to her unit under S.B. 132. Krystal filed a grievance and requested single-sex housing away from men; the prison’s response to Krystal’s grievance referred to her assault by a “transgender woman with a penis.” Krystal does not believe that women have penises…
After a week spent denounced for reviewing the Matt Walsh documentary What is a Woman?, and for saying things I think will be boring conventional wisdom within a year, I was ready to never go near trans issues again and move to the impending financial disaster. But accident sucked me back. I’d made a point of pride of not reading a line of commentary about Heard-Depp, but listened to an episode of Blocked and Reported that touched on it after it was over, and learned three things that made me furious and think immediately of Chandler.
One, the ACLU, in apparent exchange for a pledge of $3.5 million, ghost-wrote Heard’s offending editorial, and in particular a line about her having “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Two: Guardian writer Moira Donegan declared, “We are in a moment of virulent antifeminist backlash.” Three: Vice proclaimed without irony, “We’ve all failed Amber Heard.” Almost as one, the establishment press declared itself concerned with the suffering of a rich actress. However, there’s a gaping loophole in their concern for women, and Chandler sits in the middle of it.
Let’s talk about “the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out” in the context of this case:
Chandler is the headline legal action in a nationwide battle over whether or not prisoners who self-identify as women, including those with histories of rape or sexual abuse, should be allowed to transfer to women’s correctional facilities. There have been both official and unofficial policy changes on this front in a growing collection of states across the country. These often happen with little to no public debate, because this issue may be the most impenetrable media taboo in America now.
The group bringing the suit, WoLF, has been targeted from every conceivable angle by pressure and censorship campaigns. While we at least heard about protesting Canadian truckers having their GoFundMe campaigns frozen, WoLF didn’t even bother trying to raise money on that platform, “because they just ban you really easily,” as legal director Lauren Adams put it.
They moved to a purportedly speechier platform, GiveButter, hoping they would have “less of a censorious kind of view.” But even GiveButter soon gave WoLF the boot (I reached out to the company, which hasn’t provided public comment yet). “It was just a general fundraiser,” Adams explains. “And they said we violated their community standards. So now we’re on GiveSendGo, which is a Christian crowdfunding site.”
If there’s a better illustration of the upside-down state of politics in 2022 America, it’s a feminist activist group forced to seek cyber-refuge in a Christian fundraising company.
It’s become tantamount to career suicide to be associated with WoLF. In April, one of its board members, Devin Buckley, was disinvited to a speech on British Romanticism she was scheduled to give at Harvard. The author of Buckley’s rejection letter fairly shivered with intellectual fright:
My co-coordinator has refused to extend to you a formal offer to speak at our colloquium. I can’t fight for you on this… Even if I were to push your visit past [the co-coordinator], it will be near impossible to get our two faculty members to sign onto funding your visit once they learn of your online presence…
WoLF has trouble attracting Board members because as a 501(c)3, the names of board members have to be public. Even the group’s advisory council is quasi-secret by necessity. “We have women on our advisory council who have to remain anonymous because they have jobs, or their spouses have jobs,” Adams says. “There are so many people who just can’t publicly associate with us.”
Even people who submit declarations in WoLF’s prison case may not be immune. On May 31st, biologist and Substack author Colin Wright submitted a declaration in the Chandler case essentially testifying to the biological difference between men and women. “Being male or female is an immutable characteristic of each human,” he wrote.
On June 10th, Wright was informed by the online commerce platform Etsy that, after a “comprehensive review,” his account was permanently closed. A letter from the firm’s “content moderation team” deemed him guilty of “glorifying hatred or violence towards protected groups.”
Wright, known for writing on Quillette about gender, science, and speech, and for being one of the few PhDs still willing to publicly endorse “biological sex” — the iron unanimity on the cultural left against this once uncontroversial scientific tenet goes beyond anything I remember from the winger anti-evolutionists of the eighties and nineties — started selling merchandise on Etsy as a secondary revenue stream. His products included stickers and hats marked with the logo, “Reality’s Last Stand.”
Clearly, Wright’s merchandise reflects a point of view about a controversial topic. But his ban came from a company that also sells “Fuck TERFs Skateboarding Cat” stickers and “Fuck J.K. Rowling / STFU TERFs” handmade greeting cards. Etsy did not respond to requests for comment.
The payment processing company PayPal also told Wright it had “decided to permanently limit your account.” This ban chronologically took place before Etsy’s move, and the company denies it had anything to do with his editorial stances. There have been cases where PayPal has been open about suspending service over content, for instance in the historic decision to stop transfers to Wikileaks in 2010 after urging from the U.S. State Department. This instance is less clear, but that’s part of the problem with the content moderation era: the processes are so opaque that even in cases where reasons aren’t announced, service terminations still end up having a chilling effect on speakers.
“There have been organizations who’ve made promises,” says Wright. “They said, ‘We’re pro-free speech,’ only have to have them update their terms-of-service and retroactively start banning people,” says Wright.
The Etsy ban is definitely connected to content, but even Wright can’t say for sure his participation in the California case played a part, noting, “I’m constantly writing articles and Substack things about gender.” However, his declaration “was a more of a firm step in a legal case. It’s a big case in California.”
Chandler is a big court case, but not the only story. Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, and Connecticut are some other states that have enacted announced or unannounced changes allowing prisoners to transfer to facilities in line with their declared gender identity. Often, as in the case of New Jersey, reforms come in response to lawsuits filed on behalf of transgender inmates who, it must be said, often really do experience particularly brutal treatment in men’s prisons. “I was terrified I wouldn’t make it out alive,” said an unnamed litigant in the New Jersey case.
However, a state’s failure to make prison less of a hellscape for inmates of all types — and as a former prison teacher I can report the varieties of physical, mental, and even financial abuse all inmates experience are almost too numerous to count — doesn’t add up to a logical pretext for these particular sweeping reforms. This is particularly true if states aren’t even insisting that prisoners actually transition, or remain on hormones, after transferring.
In Chandler, WoLF introduced testimony from Michelle Norsworthy, a self-described transwoman who was gang-raped in a male prison and once successfully sued for the right to have sex assignment surgery while incarcerated. After being picked up on a parole violation in 2018, California housed Norsworthy in a women’s facility because she had completed a surgical transition, “having female genitalia,” as her declaration read. Now one of two transgender declarants in the case, Norsworthy described being effectively been put back behind bars with men, writing (emphasis mine):
When the first group of ten male inmates were transferred into women’s prison under SB 132, I observed all ten of those “transgender women” behaving in a male-typical manner; most stopped taking hormone therapy (so they could resume physical erections), and right away began to have sex with women
Chandler also included a declaration from Ayanna Green, a “44-year-old woman, female at birth, a lesbian, and a mother.” If Green is anti-trans she has a funny way of showing it, writing, “I have lived peaceably with several post-op transwomen — people born male who socially and medically transitioned to become women, with vaginas — and found them to be beautiful human beings who… want to rehabilitate and heal.” Her gripe, like that of virtually all the plaintiffs in this case, is that a law intended to help transgender people can be appropriated by inmates who could be female in dress only, in some cases even retaining male names. From her declaration:
Most of the cross-dressing men claiming a “transgender identity” and granted transfer… are sex offenders, most are heterosexual men who want to be housed with women to get penis-in-vagina sex, most stop taking any feminizing hormone medications right after getting into women’s prison, they all refer to themselves as men when speaking to the women inmates, many have threatened to “fight you like a man” to women inmates, many have threatened to rape us, and they all have working penises that they are using to have sex with female inmates.
The Green declaration highlighted a growing schism on what was once the political left. The ACLU just proudly announced an attempt to challenge Chandler with other “LGBTQ organizations.” It’s weird enough to see the ACLU — which historically has used most careful language in defending everyone from Neo-Nazis to NAMBLA — issue a press release bluntly describing a feminist organization like WoLF as “bigoted.” It’s weirder still when the complainants are women, many with extensive histories of sexual abuse, suing on behalf of a community that is disproportionately LGB, as 42% of incarcerated women identify as lesbian or bisexual.
“It’s a huge disproportionate number,” says Adams. “Almost half. So it’s concerning when you have these publications who are supposed to be speaking for this population, who are dragging them for even speaking up about documented incidents.”
In a fascinating development this week, the New York Times ran a long story by Emily Bazelon called “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” that read suspiciously like Timesian interpretation of work by oft-denounced people like Jesse Singal, Katie Herzog, Wright, and even Abigail Shrier. The paper described a working group of clinicians trying to develop standards of care on behalf of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) who, among other things, wondered if the “rise in trans identification among teenagers” could be the result of “social influence.”
The piece also flatly said hormone treatments can “permanently alter” bodily characteristics like voice depth and breast development, and quoted researchers who suggested that teens and preteens undergo “comprehensive diagnostic assessment” and demonstrate “several years” of persistent identification with another gender before proceeding to medical transition. Even mentioning these ideas a year ago was a cancelable offense.
Anyone who knows how the media works knows an establishment supertanker like the Times flying this kind of feature is usually an indication of a major shift in elite political attitudes. It’s also often a precursor to a sudden outpouring of more permissive discussion of a previously taboo issue in other establishment outlets.
Predictably, this Times piece stressed the dangers of giving certain talking points a wide berth because “right-wing politicians” will turn them into “political dynamite,” for now preserving the fiction that only Republicans are pushing back on these issues. But the worm is turning, and everyone knows it, which is probably why the reaction to the Times article was so furious (“Imagine thinking this is the time to publish that piece,” seethed the ACLU’s Chase Strangio).
A prison case like Chandler will be the last taboo to fall, as that issue getting real coverage would punch a big hole in the mania. Even if you believe that transgender people need a full complement of rights and better protection in prison, and I’m in that category, there can’t be that many people willing to stand up and argue in favor of housing un-transitioned inmates with penises and criminal sex-abuse records in cells with women. Can there? If agitating against that is bigotry, what’s progress?