Andrea James used to be a respectable, mainstream figure within the trans rights movement. A transgender woman herself, she was (and is) a film producer who carved out an important niche in the very early days of the internet: one of her sites dates back to 1999. Her mission back then was uncontroversial, by today’s standards. She provided “a valuable resource for trans women and men navigating social, legal, and medical transition in the late 1990s and early 2000s” according to a veteran of trans activism, who knows James personally.
By the time I became aware of her, in 2014, she had become notorious in circles where sex research and journalism overlap. What appears to have curdled her is the work of Ray Blanchard, the sex researcher who proposed the theory of autogynephilia, which posits that some trans women are motivated to transition by sexual arousal at the thought of being a woman. It is seen by some trans people as offensive because, in their view, it pathologises and/or sexualises their identity. An apparently smaller group of individuals, most famously Anne Lawrence, believe it accurately describes their own experiences.
Back in the Noughties, Blanchard and the psychology professor J. Michael Bailey — who popularised Blanchard’s ideas in his 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen — became the subjects of a smear campaign that, whatever one thinks of the theory, became abusive. Andrea James was one of the worst offenders. Her behaviour has been well-documented by the medical historian and bioethicist Alice Dreger, who in a 2006 blog post observed that “Ms. James was notable for the way she decided to go after Bailey’s children to extract revenge. She posted on the internet photographs of Bailey’s daughter and labeled her a ‘cock-starved exhibitionist.’”
After she published her blog post, Dreger described in an update how James sent a series of hostile emails, including one referring to her five-year-old son as a ‘precious womb turd’: “She also came to my departmental office (I was not there) and then emailed me, subject line ‘Mommy Knows Best,’ saying, ‘Sorry I missed you the other day. Your colleagues seem quite affable, and not as fearful as you. […] Bad move, Mommy. […] We’ll chat in person soon’.”
These incidents are described in more detail in Dreger’s book Galileo’s Middle Finger, published in 2015, by which point James’s influence appears to have waned. I began reporting on youth gender medicine around that time, and I didn’t get any sense that other prominent transactivists, or LGBT groups, took James seriously. Her name didn’t come up as someone you should talk to, if you wanted to better understand these issues. So why, a few years ago, did she experience a partial reversal in her fortunes?
It all started in 2018, when The Atlantic published a cover story about the debate over youth gender transition — written by me. The story included quotes from a number of people, including teens, who explained how profoundly transitioning had benefited them. However, it also included quotes from detransitioners, and dug into some of the controversy over youth transition. James was outraged that I would shine a light on the subject’s nuances, trade-offs and difficult questions. From some trans activists’ points of view, it is settled science that youth gender medicine works — indeed, saves lives. To suggest otherwise is heresy.
Because of that view, plenty of people criticised the article, some harshly. But James’s response was something else. She was so outraged that she launched a Kickstarter called “The Transphobia Project”. It went live about a year after the publication of my article — which, in the FAQ section, she called “one of the most disgraceful moments in American journalism this century”, and credited with motivating her entire endeavour. As for the endeavour itself, she described it as “an interactive data visualization of the platforms and people creating biased content about gender identity and expression”. James explained how it would work: “Any time someone publishes media on these topics, a score called a t-index is generated for that work. That t-index also gets applied to the creator, any co-authors or editors, the platform where it appeared, and the organizations that support that platform. … Those with a high t-index become more prominent on the chart.”
And yet, nowhere on her Kickstarter does James clarify how her system would determine someone’s transphobia. Indeed, “appearing on the chart does not necessarily mean a person or organisation is transphobic.” In fact, if you look past the various buzzwords, it’s very hard to figure out what, exactly, the then-proposed project would do, other than show how various writers and editors are connected via the publications they work for (hardly a state secret). Yet despite the vagueness of The Transphobia Project’s actual, well, project, James enthuses on her fundraising appeal that it “will help us identify and expose bias, and maybe even get a few people fired along the way!”
When The Transphobia Project’s Kickstarter launched, Donald Trump was still president, and liberal institutions were understandably preoccupied with his frequently ugly attempts to get journalists harassed and fired. James’s project didn’t hide the fact that it had similar goals, but, perhaps because James was going to target morally bad journalists for harassment and firing, rather than morally good ones, a cohort of progressives decided to hold her up as a champion in the noble fight against transphobia.
Kickstarter, for example, highlighted The Transphobia Project on its “featured projects” page, and published an article about it in the official Kickstarter Magazine by Rebecca Hiscott. In Axios, the respected tech writer Ina Fried published an article headlined, “Exclusive: Using data to track transphobia in media”. It was effectively a press release. The website Journalism.co.uk published a similarly hagiographic writeup by Daniel Green, which was subsequently promoted by Harvard’s Nieman Lab, one of the most important media-criticism institutions in the country.
None of the articles mentioned that the woman they were championing had once publicly called her enemy’s young daughter a “cock-starved exhibitionist”. None reached out to me for comment, despite James noting that my article had inspired the whole project (though Green, to be fair, posted part of my response at the bottom of his article after I complained). Nor did they interrogate James’s self-professed credentials. (I contacted all the authors — as well as Mike Allen, cofounder of Axios — to ask why they had failed to dig up James’s history of intimidating behaviour, and whether they planned any followup. I didn’t hear back from any, save for a brief note from a Journalism.co.uk editor who didn’t respond to my queries except to note that they wouldn’t be writing about James further.)
A close read of James’s proposal, combined with knowledge of her background, raised serious questions about whether she had the experience or technical chops necessary to pull off The Transphobia Project. And yet various outlets produced prime examples of a growing genre of journalism, geared not at establishing the truth, but at showing you’re on the right side of a raging controversy.
Probably partly because of this coverage, James’s fundraising was successful: 252 backers provided her with $23,302, more than ten times her $2,000 goal. The estimated delivery date, still visible on her Kickstarter, was July 2019. More than four years on, the Transphobia Project still doesn’t exist, and there is no sign James will deliver on her nebulous promises.
But even if The Transphobia Project remains unrealised, James has been busy. In the past four years, she has vastly expanded and updated her website, Transgender Map. And what she has added is not more data analysis of transphobic networks, but rather shockingly detailed webpages on what appears to be every enemy she has accumulated in recent years — an ever-growing list. — These pages include personal information not only about them, but also about family members who are almost always wholly uninvolved in the fight over sex and gender.
The page dedicated to one editor at a mainstream site — who doesn’t appear to ever have written anything about transgender issues, but has edited pieces James dislikes — not only lists their spouse’s name but is, in fact, one of the spouse’s top Google results. The journalist Helen Lewis, a friend of mine, said that her page initially included photos from her first wedding, which James took from Flickr. When Lewis made the page private, James noted the change. Indeed, she seems to keep a very close eye on how her victims respond to their pages. Many of the entries also include caricatures that James has commissioned, likely at considerable cost, given the sheer number of them. In one of the creepiest cases I found, James commissioned a cartoon of not only my podcast co-host, Katie Herzog, but also her wife, who is unconnected to any of this. UnHerd also has its own page, listing many of its contributors and editors.
Many of the people featured have been deeply disturbed by it. “Does anyone know who runs the TransgenderMap website?” asked Prisha S, a detransitioner, on Twitter. “There are web pages about detransitioners with personal info and hate. The page about me is the longest. Whoever runs it seems to hate me a lot. It’s freaky, honestly. Can anything be done?”
Being featured didn’t really bother me initially. But I did become concerned when I received an upset email from my brother asking why the site was showing up near the top of his search results. It transpires James had compiled the most detailed biography of me that exists on the internet, the vast majority of which had nothing to do with my output on youth gender transition. Bringing my family into her perceived conflict with me crossed what felt like a line that would be obvious to most people. The page included the full names of my mother, my father, both my brothers, and everything she could find about all of our work histories. She even included the date my mother died. While accuracy isn’t James’s strong suit — at one point my page stated I am half-Hindu — it felt like an intimidation tactic: Look how much I know about you.
Recall that one of James’s goals of the Transphobia Project was “get[ting] a few people fired along the way”. The updated version of Transgender Map seems to be operating with very similar motives: the pages seem designed to trigger negative personal and professional repercussions.
“The first time my 11-year-old daughter googled me, this was the first thing that came up,” said Lisa Selin Davis, a friend of mine who has also written at length about gender identity and youth transition. “It includes the names of my children and two family members… It’s designed to silence and humiliate us. I can handle it, but it’s a little heartbreaking to me that my kid had to see this instead of anything else about me.”
Another one of James’s victims is Paul Garcia-Ryan. He is a therapist who trained at a leading gender-affirming clinic in New York City. He is concerned about the quality of care that gender dysphoric youth receive and is seeking to improve it. He recently spoke at the first conference held by the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (SEGM), a group with similar aims, in New York. (I was in attendance as well.) This alone was enough to rouse James’s ire, and soon Garcia-Ryan discovered his newly published page, which falsely describes him as an “anti-transgender activist” and explicitly instructs any minors who find themselves in his care to break off their therapy with him.
“Efforts to damage the reputations of clinicians creates a chilling effect amongst medical and mental health professionals, deterring them from speaking up, even when their concerns are grounded in legitimate scientific, medical, and ethical considerations,” Garcia-Ryan said in an email. “Clinicians hold an enormous responsibility and thoughtful work with gender dysphoria requires professionals to be courageous and stand firm in their clinical integrity.”
James has targeted a number of other responsible and careful clinicians in the field of youth gender medicine. She has also created a page for Gordon Guyatt, a legend within the field of medical research. He is one of the founders of evidence-based medicine, a (genuinely) lifesaving movement to improve the quality of medical research. Because Guyatt spoke at SEGM, he’s now a transphobe, according to the unerring moral judgment of Andrea James. He is tarred as an “anti-transgender activist” — ironic, given that when I asked him about the claim that questioning the evidence for transgender medicine is itself transphobic, he replied: “You’re doing harm to transgender people if you don’t question the evidence.”
But James’s website is more about rage than reason. Really, all it takes to land oneself on it is to have said something publicly that she disagrees with, or to have associated, in any way, with any institution or any person she dislikes. For example, she has a page dedicated to a European academic — a far-Left trans man who couldn’t be more in favour of trans people’s dignity and right to medically transition — simply because he has published some (rather excellent) work criticising certain mainstream strains of trans activism, including on this website. This is someone who has dedicated years of his life to radical trans activism, and now his second-highest search result in Incognito mode on Google Chrome is a webpage that suggests he is enabling transphobia.
Garcia-Ryan’s page ranks highly if you search his name, too. That’s the whole point: to scare people off talking about this issue. I’m telling you a tiny fraction of the stories I’ve heard from individuals targeted by James, many of whom don’t want to come forward. In short, very little has changed since Alice Dreger published her first long expose of the Michael Bailey affair back in 2008: “Almost universally those who wrote to me [about their run-ins with James] — including sex researchers — asked that I not ever quote them or mention them by name,” she wrote. “They feared being attacked by James, as Bailey and others had been.”
For that reason, and because of my own involvement, I have been deeply conflicted about writing this piece. But it’s a perfect 2023 story, in a way. It epitomises an approach to social justice and to journalism that is so anti-intellectual, and unforgiving that it’s impossible to imagine it making the world a better place. But perhaps most disturbing is that there’s no accountability. No one can control whether they’re included on James’s site. There’s no one to appeal to other than James herself, and she has proved herself time and time again to be unreasonable. (I emailed James about this piece. She sent a brief response, which didn’t address any of my points, and has not commented further.)
But our information ecosystem doesn’t reward reasonableness — it rewards reaction and outrage. And particularly when the subject is social justice, media outlets are all too eager to abdicate their basic responsibilities as guardians of the truth.