Everybody's Talkin' At Me: Talking About Talking With Grace Lavery

DANIEL: Hello, darling! It’s been some time since we last had one of our coz(s)y little chats together about Life. You’ve changed your hair. It suits you tremendously. [Pause for warm reception.] We’ve been talking lately about a number of related, complicated matters — particularly how you and I treat social media differently, how social media treats us differently — and thought it might be useful to us both to continue that conversation jointly and while facing at least slightly outward. Cheating towards the audience, let’s say.

I don’t know if this is how you would put it, exactly, but my sense is that there’s been something slightly stuck about your relationship to social media, and in turn my relationship to that relationship, for a while now.

GRACE: Ha, yes! It has been a while since we had a public chat. We planned to do one a while ago, about conflict in general, but it didn’t materialize. Talking about intimate conflicts is very difficult, and yet I think it’s something that we do well together. When we’ve had some of the hardest feelings, it seems as though we take the most care to speak slowly and kindly. And so Wednesday night, experiencing some conflict remotely— you back in Brooklyn, me in Provincetown, where you’ve since joined me (yay) — it seemed as though we were having one of our extremely careful fights, working out the slow ballet of conflict.

I wanted to start with that because part of what was so hard for me yesterday was the way in which one of our main differences — Grace gets into conflict with anti-trans activists, while Danny floats above them, or sidesteps them anyway — has been weaponized against us. Especially against me—those who hate me, and wallow in that hate every day, have decided that I am abusing you, that your transition and family break were somehow my contrivance. And I realized that those attacks, which were made to hurt me, had spurred in me an embarrassment, even a shame, that prevented me from talking to you about them. So I wanted to foreground that in this conflict in particular, the general question of how we relate to each other was more than usually at stake.

DANIEL: I remember that earlier conversation! I’m glad we gave it a bit more time, if only because I think I often need a little room before I can start to marshal useful or interesting thoughts about a conflict, rather than just a series of feelings or impulses or reactions. I was very heartened by that phone call, because it was immediately apparent that this was going to be a different kind of conversation than one we’d had before. I could sense that we were both patient and determined to find a way through something knotty together, rather than try to persuade one another of something. Or at least not solely to persuade one another.

I was very glad that you had shared that aspect of this particular attack with me, and very grieved and angry indeed that you had been made to feel ashamed and isolated. (I do get formal when I am very angry, I realize. I either get incredibly flippant and bitchy or start sounding like a High Church archdeacon. One mode for when I want to speed myself into quick action, and one mode for when I want to tread cautiously.) And it’s hard to think of a word for that kind of thing. On the one hand, of course, it’s surreal even on a relatively small scale to think of strangers cultivating a theory about our personal life. It’s a bit like how strange it was when John Mulaney announced his divorce a few months back and a number of acquaintances seemed as heartstruck as if their beloved brother-in-law was leaving their own twin sister. And, on the other hand, the idea that someone has cultivated a theory that my monstrous, suppurating family of origin, whose spiritual hideousness makes my skin crawl, is somehow a group of good or at least misunderstood people, and the steps I have taken away from them to be indicators of brainwashing or coercion, is hideous. But I think the thing that’s been difficult between us has something to do with our sense of what to do about such people. I wonder, for example, so I’ll ask you — did you come across these theorists because they were saying these things directly at you, or did it come to your attention some other way?

GRACE: I forget how I encountered this theory for the first time. I’m frequently tagged, but not always. Sometimes friends have sent me tweets they’ve seen, perhaps thinking I could pass them on to the security people we’ve been working with (though I would hope that they would have already seen anything like that). The most recent crop, that caused the conflict, I don’t remember—which sounds evasive. I certainly have vanity-searched my name in Twitter during the recent attacks, perhaps I saw them that way.

DANIEL: I think this is part of where I’m eager for a new strategy – I think in times of crisis or being beset it can be so hard to distinguish between “what do I need to know about for security purposes” and “what simply feels urgent because it’s painful or shocking.” I would not want, for example, any of my friends to pass along such tweets to me, and would speak very sharply indeed to any friend who did so under the mistaken belief that passing along that information could do anything other than disrupt my peace of my mind.

GRACE: I realize — this has been a consistent position of yours.

DANIEL: And I have not name-searched since 2012 at least. I feel very strongly that that leads at best to boredom and frustration and at worst to totally useless pain.

I think this has been one of the key reasons it’s seemed to you like I’ve been absent or unavailable to help you in more critical moments — because I’ve had a fear that you will seek out painful information for reasons I can’t fully understand. So it sometimes feels like I’m trying to build up a little seawall to protect some parts of our private life while you’re diving into the sea, and I don’t always know how to balance it.

I will confess, it remains baffling to me that you will not block and mute monstrous people who say hideous things about you and me, who clearly have no interest in treating you like a human being. It goes against my every instinct.

GRACE: I understand that!

DANIEL: Does that — the name searching, or the people who want to swap your position with the Ortbergs’ — feel distinct to you from the types of public debate that you sometimes talk about as being an extension of your work as a teacher at a public institution?

They do seem different to me, although you know I have been reluctant to participate in both of them, and I wonder if you see it that way too.

GRACE: I used to see them as different. Or at least I had hope that they could be. I always wanted to pay respect, for example, to the anonymous account who claimed (I believe probably honestly) to be an undergraduate student, concerned with questions relating to women’s sport and to safeguarding. Or to Kathleen Stock, who, objectionable as I find her conduct and her opinions, is a colleague whom I have always tried to treat as such. These relations — of student and of colleague — are not personal, in my mind. They are not people I would avoid in the playground. They are, rightly or wrongly, people with whom I consider myself to have a professional relationship, who address me in my professional role. If I were a lawyer, or a medical doctor, there would be no expectation that I would simply restrict my advice or care to people who treated me respectfully. Often the people who most need advice and care are those least liable to treat caregivers respectfully.

The problem is that those I have tried to accommodate have all, without exception, joined in the most foul and degrading conduct. When Graham Linehan, for example, first accused me of “grooming” students last year, a certain tranche of gender critical activists stood up to him, a fact which was decisive in removing him from Twitter and restricting his capacity to hurt people. A few months later, though, Kathleen Stock, who had defended me against Linehan, repeated essentially the same lie, insinuating that there were “repulsive” and unstated reasons for my advocacy of patient-directed care for trans teenagers. The undergraduate student I mentioned earlier for was one of the people accusing me of abusing you this week.

I suppose the view I’m forced to adopt is that the possibility for reasonable conversation—for discussion of some of the genuinely difficult policy issues raised by “transition on demand and without apology,” which remains my emphatic position—depends upon feminists across the so-called “debate” repudiating the hate campaigners who deal in such slurs. But if anything the momentum appears to be in the other direction.

DANIEL: I’m interested in the doctor/lawyer analogy, in part because I think most doctors and lawyers conspicuously avoid giving advice or getting into legal/medical conversations with strangers on Twitter, but it seems like you think most of them feel professionally obliged to engage with any comers — I just don’t think that’s true.

GRACE: That’s an important difference, but one of the general distinctions between a professor and other kinds of professional is that I’ve got very little interest—actually no interest—in the individual situation of the people I’m working with.

DANIEL: We’ll leave doctors and lawyers to the side, then!

And I think the Linehan intervention was a very important one, but I also agree with you about the momentum — it does seem like the most hideous types of transphobia have successfully monopolized more and more of your attention, while also causing you a great deal of additional pain, the longer you’ve attempted to keep the lines of communication open.

GRACE: I’m not trying to persuade you of anything here. And as you know, I’ve decided to close down my Facebook account and radically to restrict my Twitter use. I can’t get away from it entirely, because I need it to promote my work, but as you know there are things that I can do and have done

DANIEL: And we have, of course, had conversations about this in the past, and it has seemed like the more you received similar counsel from other people, the more determined you became not to listen to it, which made me feel that the best thing I could do was take a step back and not push you.

I’m curious to hear a little more about what it’s felt like from your end, as you mentioned earlier having a sense that I moved “above” or “around” a lot of this.

GRACE: I meant the cultural and political momentum, not the momentum in my own life. My guess would be that in the early days of J.K. Rowling’s turn to the GCs, she would have been appalled by Linehan. Maybe that’s naive. But I see people whose conduct used to be basically reasonable turn to the most disgusting modes of engagement, and I don’t really know why. Because they can, I suppose—there’s something Lord of the Flies about it.

DANIEL: I think that’s true. Eventually the disgust turns to delight. I can’t really think of how else a person who might ordinarily behave sanely at, I don’t know, the supermarket, would go clackity-clack-clacking on the Internet to say, “I bet when this stranger broke ties with his abusive family, it was his wife who was the real monster.”

GRACE: Looks like I’ve got two questions to answer here. The first concerns responses from other people. It is true that I have gotten, mostly unsolicited, advice from a lot of people about social media: don’t feed the trolls, don’t engage, it is a form of self-harm, you are exposing yourself to risk. I have never found that line of thinking persuasive, because I simply have never found that my periods of being off social media have felt easier, or inclined people to stop lying about me.

And as you know, perhaps this is arrogance — I mean of course it is; perhaps it is additionally unjustified — I think I’m good at arguing with people. By which I mean, first, that I am better than most at changing people’s minds. I receive messages to that effect not infrequently. But also, that I am making the case: that if, as I fear, things are going to get much, much worse for LGBT people in the UK and the US, at least some of us will have made the arguments publicly, and some familiarity with them can be drawn upon.

I realize this sounds naive, of course. But I do believe in persuasion — I’m sort of professionally obligated to do so.

DANIEL: I feel like there’s something here for us to hash out in the middle. It’s not as if I want you to close up the big tent of your mind and go wall yourself up away from anything harsher than a “You’re beautiful and perfect, Gracie darling.” And I share your belief in your gifts of persuasion, I really do. I think, for example, your intervention against the Chrises (Reed and Castiglia) was necessary, powerful, useful, and good. I’m so proud of how you stepped in.

GRACE: The question of your position in this. Of course it goes without saying that, pre-transition, you were subject to an enormous quantity of hate. I only know part of that but it sickens me, and every time you bring it up it becomes clear to me how much it has hurt you. But I do think it receded, as you transitioned, and as you wound down the Toast, and as you took steps to block and mute people. As a result we have sometimes made the decision that i should front certain aspects of our relationship: though the important statements about the Ortberg/Menlo situation were made by you, I shouldered a lot of the day-to-day advocacy, and got into the weeds more than you could. I’m glad I was able to do that for us, but I think it was then that people began to claim I was controlling you. First on that one website that a friend of ours alerted me to, and then on Twitter, where it seemed to come from people associated with the Ortbergs. So that’s how I see that having happened, and I don’t have any regrets at all about how we handled that.

DANIEL: Yes, I think of that work as basic self-protection — it’s not that I don’t receive hate now, although I agree it’s decreased with time, but I do have a number of strategies in place to reduce how much of it swamps my doorstep. I understand why you have bristled at equating argument on social media with self-harm; I don’t think that’s always the case, and I understand the distinction between arguments you’ve had, say, with Stock, and mere name-calling, for example. But it has seemed like a problem of scale. I wonder if that’s where my own assumptions have come into play. It often seemed to me like you had no set amount of time or energy that you wanted to devote to arguing with TERFs online (of which there is an endless supply and therefore no natural, external endpoint), and so you would give as much as was demanded or extracted from you until you were exhausted or insulted past all point of recovery. I often feared you would wade into these things without having a sense of when you would be done for the day, or the week, or the month. Did it feel that way for you, too?

GRACE: I mean, yeah. And that’s fundamentally the problem, and it’s why I’m stopping. A couple of weeks ago some anonymous GC account started grilling me, inserting question after question, repeating talking point after talking point. I’m both impressed and horrified by the degree to which they maintain dossiers on everything: every single argumentative move can be directed to a mostly-misleading article with a scientific-sounding name; any time anyone brings up harassment there’s the picture of the obviously fake “kill J.K. Rowling” sign from London Pride. And one wishes that some actual feminist had done the same for those of us countering this bullshit. It is utterly machinic, and mostly made-up, but it looks credible enough and it just takes a little more work than one wants to do, to really engage it. And then one remembers: hang on, is this person really trying to prove that I’m an abusive spouse by reference to an obscure 2005 study of gay pornography? And the absurdity of the situation really lands. “It’s not fascism to think that men cannot become women.” No, it isn’t—it really isn’t—but when you’ve persuaded yourself that those trans women are a marauding cabal of rapists and misogynists who need to be suppressed as crudely as possible—yeah, that’s fascism.

The reason why I brought up the Canadian was because at some point they extracted from me a half-remembered paraphrase of Wittig’s understanding of women as the class oppressed by fascism, and then the entire GC internet entertained themselves for days about this crazy idea this tranny was spouting, without seemingly any recognition of the fact that as recently as five years ago it would have been universally recognized as a basic premise of radical feminism. Stock egged that one on, too.

So in answer to your question: yes, it is fatiguing, and when one is engaging an opponent who will stoop to any depths in their attempts to degrade and libel me, and who celebrate their ignorance as a badge of honor, I think I have to concede defeat, to be honest.

But I’m still going to promote my book, which is available for pre-sale from the Seal Books website!

And look I mean, here I am in Provincetown, where most people look to me like cis gays and lesbians, and I have rarely felt so welcome a place in my life. I think one thing the internet inclines me to forget is that we are not, in 2021, debating whether trans women are welcome in women’s spaces, or in lesbian spaces. Those debates were fought and resolved decades ago. We are currently trying to work out whether and how to accommodate the vocal minority of women and lesbians who don’t want to be around trans women. Worth remembering that the 2018 anti-trans group that hijacked London Pride was called “Get the L Out,” not “Exclude the T.” Probably those people will leave the LGBT community, find their own bars and dating apps. I am fairly confident that their loss won’t cause a massive exodus of cis lesbians away from trans-inclusive spaces. That confidence comes from existing in places like Provincetown, which have nothing in common with gender critical Twitter, thank the good gay goddess.

Dr Gracelav, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Log the Fuck Off

DANIEL: I’m curious if that’s felt either undesirable or impossible for you — previously when we’ve had this kind of conversation you’ve also framed this as either being off Twitter entirely or gearing up for a perpetual round of daily battles, and I wonder if the alternative just doesn’t appeal to you, as it does to me.

And I remember that shift too, and I think you’re right to think of that time (when you were handling the day-to-day and public-facing aspect of our work trying to get an investigation of my father and brother’s work going) as a real turning point – I had incredibly little patience and resilience for dealing with other people at that point, and was deeply grateful for that kind of protective care and absorption you took on.

But it would no more occur to me to try to talk to that kind of person than it would to try to talk to my relatives. I don’t want to save souls. I don’t want to dramatically rescue someone who hates me from their own twisted worldview. I want to save my energy and my talents and my compassion for other people, and other conversations.

I’m glad that your book is coming out. I’m glad that you’re taking a break from Twitter, although I remain cautiously optimistic, since I’ve seen you announce a retirement before and then change your mind. I hope this one sticks.

GRACE: I don’t want to save souls either. I just want there to be an actual record that can be used to explain to people: what I mean when I say, for example, that George Eliot was someone who experienced a kind of transition; or why understanding “women” as a social class, rather a self-evident biological entity, has been such an important dimension of feminist thought. Those are arguments worth having, and arguments that my research and training makes me well equipped to discuss. But when those conversations turn to conversations about my sex life, or the usual personality assassination, it’s impossible.

And then also, I’m not leaving Twitter! I’m going to stay around on Twitter and use it to promote my book! Which is available for pre-order on the Seal Books website!

but anyway I love you and I’d rather be a lover than a fighter xoxo

DANIEL: THE UNSINKABLE GRACIE BROWN. I love you too. Let’s go to the beach with Lily.