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PEN America’s new president is no free speech champion

Jennifer Finney Boylan speaks at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala. Credit: Getty

December 12, 2023 - 1:25pm

This week, free speech organisation PEN America elected Jennifer Finney Boylan as its new president. Boylan, a New York Times columnist and longtime LGBTQ activist, takes up the position at a moment when freedom of expression is under intense pressure from both the Left and Right. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Boylan said: “Look, people are going to see in me an LGBTQ advocate, but that’s not my job as PEN president. My job is to fight for freedom of speech for everybody, including people I disagree with.” 

This is, indeed, what the role calls for. But is Boylan the right person for the job? 

Boylan’s own record on freedom of expression is a rather spotty one. In July 2020, the activist was a signatory of the Harper’s Magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, which declared that “[t]he free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” and warned that a creeping culture of “censoriousness […] will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.” In short, a promising outing for a future president of PEN America. 

Unfortunately, the NYT columnist withdrew as a signatory just a few hours after the letter’s publication, tweeting an apology that was more grovelling than what Boylan acknowledged was a “well-meaning, if vague, message” ought to warrant. It turns out the new PEN president felt uncomfortable sharing space with certain other signatories, among them the author J.K. Rowling. “I did not know who else had signed that letter […] I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company,” Boylan tweeted. “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.” 

In other words, our new free speech champion “read the room” and slunk away from a common-sense position supporting free and open debate. 

Just one month earlier, Rowling had issued a public statement clarifying her views on sex and gender identity — namely that gender identity isn’t sex and that there are times and places where this difference matters. 

Boylan, who identifies as a transwoman, responded with a bad-faith refusal to engage — accusing Rowling of debating Boylan’s “right to exist” — and a rather ham-fisted attempt at public shaming (“I’m in a house with two 20-somethings who are sobbing uncontrollably. They grew up with your books. You could have been a beacon of hope. Instead, you did this.”) 

Boylan’s tenure at GLAAD, which has taken a hard turn towards censorship since shifting from the LGB to the T circa 2015, is not particularly encouraging either. Boylan and GLAAD seem to share a fondness for the shameless exertion of peer pressure to shut down uncomfortable conversations about the conflicts surrounding gender identity. 

Perhaps PEN’s new president would prefer to do the talking. “Has my experience of womanhood been identical to that of other women my age?” Boylan asked, in a 2019 Times column that drew a questionable parallel between transition and immigration. “Of course not. I speak, sometimes, with a hint of a foreign accent, a vestigial trace of the country where I was born.” 

This column was apparently inspired by the 30-hour detention of a nine-year-old schoolchild at the US border, an injustice Boylan compared to the “accost[ing]” (read: misgendering and criticising) of a fellow trans activist, Sarah McBride, by two feminists on Capitol Hill. Boylan characterised this incident as “den[ying] the humanity of transgender people”. 

“On the surface, it might seem as if the detention of Julia and the cruelty of transphobes is unrelated,” Boylan wrote. “But both hatreds, in fact, rise from the same dark spring.” 

Forgive me, but one of these things doesn’t seem like the other, and Boylan’s track record of wildly misrepresenting critics with dissenting views on gender doesn’t bode well.  

As the letter Boylan signed and then unsigned concluded: “If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.” 

Will PEN America?


Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.

elizamondegreen

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Android Tross
Android Tross
7 months ago

“I’m in a house with two 20-somethings who are sobbing uncontrollably. They grew up with your books. You could have been a beacon of hope. Instead, you did this”.

What a great laugh to start my day.

I try to suppress schadenfreude, but my sympathy for two bawling Gen Z idiots and a censorious SJW with a martyr complex is near absolute zero. The more these organizations stick with appeals to the emotions rather than engaging in substantive debate the more difficult it is to suppress that feeling. Boylan strikes me as that kind of person whose contemporaries quickly tire of her, so she has to keep making younger and younger acquaintances to give her that boost of feeling popular and hip, while distancing herself from the kind of matured and developed minds who see through her shallow intellect and vapidity. How easy it must be to act the hero in front of the eternally coddled and ignorant.

Anyway, this is par for the course with PEN. Another formerly respectable, old-school liberal organization succumbs to nonsense posturing by hyping a box checking leader with zero real qualifications. Here’s to hoping the organization goes down in flames and something worthwhile takes it’s place.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  Android Tross

Simply brilliant summary (and i’m not given to hyperbole).

David McKee
David McKee
7 months ago
Reply to  Android Tross

“Two bawling Gen Z idiots and a censorious SJW with a martyr complex..”
Wonderful! Sums it up beautifully.

Peter D
Peter D
7 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

“Gen Zidiot”, love it

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Android Tross

I’m not sure we need whining about substantive debate from the folks who think Andrew Tate and Alex Jones are intellectual role models.
Although enjoying the distress of others is right on brand for you.
“the kind of matured and developed minds”
Well, at least you gave me a laugh with that…

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

Your comment is dissonance personified.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Aye, well you thought the original post was “simply brilliant” (you may wish to be slightly less simpering in future) so we know what your opinions are worth…

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

My comment concerned the fluency and validity of the case put forward. You have yet to demonstrate anything other than the equivalent of froth on champagne that falls flat as soon as it reaches the fresh air of reasoned debate.

Last edited 7 months ago by Steve Murray
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Let me know when the reasoned debate gets started, old boy!
However, as you seem to consider the extremist ramblings of a deeply disturbed person to be ‘simply brilliant” due to their “fluency and validity” then you are probably not qualified to say, are you?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

Being “qualified” is something which is quantifiable. Champagne by the bottle is also quantifiable, and you’ve had too much. It’s an affliction from which you’ll never recover.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“Never recover”?
You’ve obviously never drunk champagne! Might explain why you are so miserable!

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
7 months ago

Have you read Orwell’s esssay on PEN ?

Mrs R
Mrs R
7 months ago

Champagne Socialist, are you Scottish by any chance?

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
7 months ago
Reply to  Android Tross

*him would be the pronoun. Just look at the picture. Men can’t be women.

Last edited 7 months ago by Alison Wren
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
7 months ago

PEN America is a leftist advocacy group which supports writers who agree with them and lean left as well. It’s been this way for quite some time. There’s nothing about what it does to advocate for ‘free speech’.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago

Boylan is a man pretending to be a woman, who is now heading a “free speech” organization. In today’s world, your speech CAN be free IF IT IS OK SPEECH – if it follows the “received wisdom” about trans, Israel, etc.
Boylan should step down from PEN.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
7 months ago

Good points except for “freedom of expression is under intense pressure from both the Left and Right,” which is only half correct.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

I have no idea what PEN is.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. ((With apologies to Starship Enterprise crew.))
Neither do I but you have to, at least, smile at the twists, turnings and squirmings of the Woke.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago

This “Jennifer” guy is obviously getting in on the grift, since publishing has been taken over by actual women – who have driven the industry into the ground. No wonder self-publishing has exploded.

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago

““I’m in a house with two 20-somethings who are sobbing uncontrollably. They grew up with your books. You could have been a beacon of hope. Instead, you did this”.

I wonder what a strong woman’s take on this would be? Oh hello, luckily Eleanor Roosevelt let us know:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.

Perhaps Ms Boylan secretly harbours transphobic beliefs…?

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
7 months ago

I can make this simple: Boylan is insane.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

I think the disturbing testimony from the trial in Manchester says more than I could about the damage that Rowling and her fellow anti-trans radicals have done. Horrendous.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

As damaged goes, you’ve cornered the market.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Unfortunately not. There’s a dead girl in Manchester and her blood is on Rowling’s hands and the other radicals who hate trans kids – including yourself no doubt.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

The blood is on the hands of those who can’t cope with people who transition, and that does not include JK Rowling. Nor does it include myself. Once again, your demonstration of cognitive dissonance and prejudice is an insult to the girl you refer to.

Last edited 7 months ago by Steve Murray
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It’s a cheap, rhetorical, blame game tool used by people with questionable intellect.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Neither you nor Rowling get off that easy, sunshine.
The hysterical climate surrounding the trans community has been created by you people and the young lady in Manchester is just the latest victim.
You must be very proud….

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago

You’re lying. You’re a compulsive liar.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

I get offended when a 50 year old trans man who teachers at a local university is allowed to swim competitively against 13 year old girls, and change in their dressing room, and somehow this makes me responsible for the death of a trans person in another community.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

That exhibitionist males are valorized by the trans movement tells us everything that we need to know. It’s a movement of perverts and pedophiles.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Thompson

See, at least Paul is honest. He hates trans kids and is terrified of them and would be happy to see them all killed.
Jim, you should just be honest like Paul.

Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
7 months ago

Why are you here? If it was to engage in rational arguments with people who don’t share your opinions, fair enough. But all you seem able to muster are lies and ad hominem attacks. Seems a bit of a waste of subscription money.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dulle Griet
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Dulle Griet

As soon as someone presents a rational argument i will engage them.
All I see here is bigotry and stupidity and that needs to be confronted.

Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
7 months ago

If it’s bigotry and stupidity, show it to be so by confronting it with rational argument.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Dulle Griet

Why bother? These fools deserve nothing but scorn and mockery. And that is what they will continue to get.

Why? You think you’ve got something smart to say? Let’s hear it…

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago

Perhaps you can quote a passage where J K Rowling has expressed hate for trans kids or suggested they should be killed. I am unaware of any evidence for such an assertion.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Nor has such an assertion been made.
Learn to read, sport.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
7 months ago

No, you’re just hiding behind innuendo.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago

Rowling told the truth. No child is born in a body with the wrong plumbing. All trans are deluded psychopaths.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago

Like most librul chumps, your ignorance is exceeded only by your interest in publicizing it.

Dave R
Dave R
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Thompson

Diplomatic suggestion, please, regarding future posts from His/Their Fizziness? Simply ignore him/them. And its posts. Something about feeding trolls….

Good day to all.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Dave R

Good luck with that, slick!
I’m the only interesting one here. Without me its a just a bunch of old farts spewing about how they hate trans kids and the BBC, and how much they love Donald Trump and Andrew Tate!

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago
Reply to  Dave R

Thanks for that reminder. Trolls.