I’ve only been close with one transgender person in my life so far, and she happened to be somewhat famous. Her name was Octavia St. Laurent, known by many from the iconic film Paris Is Burning. There’s nothing I can write here to convey how effervescent and lovely she was, so instead I’ll just state the facts.
Octavia lived about a half hour away from where I attended college in Connecticut. My campus-leader boyfriend hit it off with her after she came to our school to give a lecture on HIV for an event he organized one day. The chemistry was instant and Octavia quickly became something of a den mother to us. She schooled my boyfriend and me on safe sex, emotional wellness, and the importance of being our authentic selves. She gave us sassy yet wise life advice and told us mind-blowing stories from her salacious New York days. She never talked with us about her journey to becoming Octavia. She had nothing to prove; she just was Octavia.
One time the three of us got stuck in traffic for two hours during a thunderstorm, and Octavia and I passed the time by singing and harmonizing to Toni Braxton’s “How Could an Angel Break My Heart” (the Babyface duet version, of course) on repeat. Though it seemed insignificant in the moment, this has since become one of my all-time favorite memories. An 18-year-old white boy from rural Connecticut and a trans woman of color who happened to be a legendary LGBT icon, bonding over nineties R&B together in a Honda Accord. It was a lesson in just how not different we all are.
Octavia passed away at the end of my junior year. This was over a year after my boyfriend and I had broken up and we all lost touch, but the news fucked me up. I regretted not keeping in contact and not acknowledging that although she was a strong, nurturing figure to us when we knew her, Octavia was fighting for her health behind the scenes. I cried for days.
I realize now that briefly knowing Octavia was an incredible gift for the development of my character. I cared about the T in LGBT from my earliest gay days, because I had someone there to translate that T into an H for me. Human.
Redefining Realness is a movingly honest account of one woman’s journey. It’s elegant yet raw. It’s the type of story that, even having known Octavia (who I was delighted to see quoted at one point in the book), I had never actually heard before in such authentic detail. I’m much better for having read it.
You can imagine the visceral reaction I had, then, when not even 24 hours after finishing Janet’s book and subsequently reminiscing over my favorite Octavia memories, I came across a severely transphobic rant by Gavin McInnes published by Thought Catalog. If you don’t want to read the piece, just know that it’s a hot mess of misinformed hate speech.
At first I felt enraged toward McInnes for writing something so offensive. But I got over that quickly, as I realized that he’s entitled to think and write whatever the fuck he wants, no matter how horrible it is. So then I just felt disappointed. So, so, so, so, so disappointed in Thought Catalog for publishing it.
For giving hate such a major, influential platform.
I have something of a history with Thought Catalog.
The story starts in 2010, a few months before I moved from my small town in Connecticut to New York City for grad school at NYU. Please note ahead of time that I was 22 years old and remarkably callow.
Faced with a lot of free time that summer, I decided to write a book.
This was random, as I majored in music during undergrad and always had my heart set on singing. When it came to writing, I merely had experience crafting longwinded Live Journal essays that were never intended for an audience. They were self-serious and “deep” and little more than personal therapy.
But then I discovered Chelsea Handler books and fell in love with the sensation of laughing via written storytelling. I soon got into the deeper, more literary humor of David Sedaris. And then I read this hilarious and engaging memoir in essays called Bitch is the New Black by Helena Andrews. I proceeded to read every humorous memoir I could get my hands on until I started to hear my own voice developing in my head.
Once that voice started screaming, it was decided: I had to write one of these collections myself.
Based on the deluded belief that my writing was far too quality to be given away for free on the Internet, I shaped my essays in private, trusting that when I was finished I’d somehow just send it to a random publisher and it’d become an instant bestseller because that’s how life works.
I got about sixty pages into my book project before grad school started and I shelved it. Living on my own in the city for the first time, interning at a music label, and having my pretentious views of the world shattered kind of took precedent. I had some life to live before I could write about it.
Though I didn’t want to publish my work on the Internet, I started blogging during the summer between grad school semesters upon reluctantly accepting that book deals generally aren’t just given away to first-time authors with absolutely no platform.
I fell in love with blogging once other people started telling me how hilarious I was, and by the time I graduated in 2012 I was prolific. I measured my worth as a writer in laughs and reasoned that if my blog wasn’t funny, then no one would give a shit. But I was writing about my life, and my life wasn’t always a joke. Sometimes it hurt or sucked or just confused me. So I eventually allowed myself to write about that stuff, too.
Once I achieved a vague balance of hilarity and introspection, several readers of mine started tweeting and sending me links to Ryan O’Connell’s work on Thought Catalog. “This guy’s stuff reminds me so much of you,” they’d tell me in various phrasings. “You should write for this site, too!”
I read Ryan’s work. He published pieces at a rate faster than most people publish tweets, so some of it was fluff while other pieces were absolutely brilliant. I placed my focus on the fluff because, frankly, I was jealous. My readers were right—Ryan and I were similar. Except he was Internet-famous and had a book deal while I had a tiny (though dedicated) following and was nowhere near being a safe bet for a publisher.
Recognizing that Thought Catalog had a massive online presence, I decided that maybe I should go for it. I submitted an old blog post of mine called “Not OK, Cupid.” Within a couple hours, I got an e-mail from an editor at the time, Stephanie Georgopulos, who informed me that they’d love to run it (for free).
Being published on TC led to a spike in readership on my own site, so I did it a few more times. I noticed that with each new post I’d get maybe a thousand new hits and a handful of Twitter followers. It was validating and exciting at first, but then I started reading some of the content on the site that wasn’t written by the small handful of great writers (Ryan, Stephanie, Nico Lang, Gaby Dunn, and some others) whose work I admired. I noticed that much of everything else was unedited, uninformed, unaware, and generally sophomoric.
The low editorial standards of TC made me self-conscious about my own work, so I stopped writing for them and instead decided to focus on my own site and my manuscript.
A few months later, Stephanie reached out to me through my blog e-mail, totally unaware that I was the same Nicolas who’d submitted a few pieces to the site already. She loved my latest post and tried to sell Thought Catalog to me as a place to republish it for more exposure.
Feeling particularly validated that an editor had found my blog on her own accord and specifically reached out, I agreed, reasoning that, “So what if this isn’t a ‘quality’ site? It’s expanding my reach and I need to build a platform.”
I wrote for TC on and off for over a year after that. Throughout, I focused on my craft and submitted to many more reputable publications, but when the rejections poured in, being published on TC was always a bittersweet consolation prize.
My most recent pieces for Thought Catalog were posted just last month, weeks before they decided to run Gavin McInnes’ hate-fueled diatribe.
Their choice to publish that piece has made this long-time-coming decision of mine easy: I’m done. It’s over. I deserve better. Octavia’s memory requires more of me. We all deserve better.
The next time I get published outside of my own blog, I want to be proud of the accomplishment. I want to be able to say, “This publication has standards.” At the very least, I want to be able to say, “This publication doesn’t troll for clicks by publishing harmful, misinformed rants by raging transphobic assholes.”
But beyond my own writing career, what I’m more upset about with this whole thing is the fact that McInnes’ piece remains out there and continues to attract thousands of views and shares.
As the experiences I’ve recounted in this essay attest, I haven’t always been an educated, smart reader. I grew up in a small town where many issues (like trans ones) simply aren’t discussed. I was a naïve 22-year-old and an even more naïve 18-year-old. If Thought Catalog had been around back then, I can almost guarantee that I would have read it and taken it seriously.
Whether or not the editors want to acknowledge it, Thought Catalog has major reach and influence. In today’s world, social media presence is power. And with nearly half a million Facebook followers, Thought Catalog has got a fucking lot of it. And to quote Spider-Man, because apparently it’s come to that, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Thought Catalog routinely evades this responsibility (not to mention editorial integrity) by crouching behind their indifferent slogan, “all thinking is relevant.”
Problem is, that’s not true. McInnes’ 1950’s-esque hate speech is not relevant.
It’s straight up fucking dangerous.