I Am Leaving Substack

Here’s Why

To subscribers- I will return next week with new pieces sent out on Ghost.

I’m leaving Substack. Now let me tell you why. 

A little over a year ago I started Notes on the Crises. Writing about the Coronavirus crisis felt absolutely urgent, and I decided to immediately jump in. I also quickly found an audience, thanks in large part to journalists (and friends) who promoted and discussed my work. Substack was an attractive platform to start writing Notes on the Crises, because it required little setup. The site could easily and painlessly distribute my writing, and support paid subscriptions. I had also heard good things about it from my boyfriend (now fiancé) who was familiar with many queer writers who used it for their own newsletters. A few months into writing this publication, I was profiled in Bloomberg, which led to a level of success I could never have imagined. 

Having produced a hit with Substack, I was willing to be a positive “success story” for the website’s PR. I was happy to be featured by their podcast. Over time however, my willingness to contribute to Substack’s positive image has dropped markedly. Major journalists and opinion writers with pre-existing platforms began to leave large publications with editorial oversight for Substack. They largely or fully attributed their departures to “illiberalism” or persecution because of their “ideology”. Their immediate Substack output tended to revolve around the supposed excesses of “woke culture” and “cancel culture”. These writers seem to treat obscure internet controversies as far more important than the actual life-threatening crises we’ve been experiencing for the past year. It began to be embarrassing to be associated with “Substack”, when this is the reputation they’ve been taking on.

While annoying, I wasn’t particularly concerned about these developments because I thought that this was an open platform with plenty of writers I disagreed with. However, it’s become clear that Substack is specifically seeking out these big named writers. In some cases they’ve paid them large six figure advances to move to Substack. It doesn’t take much effort or intellect to spend your time denouncing movements for justice, and now there is big money to be made doing it. 

Even worse, during the controversy over Substack’s “Pro” program, it’s become clear that Substack doesn’t take the role of content moderation seriously. I can understand wanting to take a relatively “hands off” approach to moderation, when these publications are supposed to be “our own”. However, there must be limits — which Substack itself acknowledges when it commits to following the law. It isn’t “cancel culture” or “thought police” to have a policy that does more content moderation than the absolute minimum standard of “we will avoid legal liability for what is published on our platform”.

Yet, targeted harassment of individual marginalized people, especially trans people, goes on openly on this website without any action taken by Substack. Graham Linehan, a retired comedy writer who was kicked off Twitter for targeted harassment and transphobia, uses his Substack exclusively to target trans women. He has multiple pieces targeted and doxxing specific trans women in particular. That even this behavior doesn’t lead to censure from Substack is a sign of how little the service cares to protect people from abuse. It indicated the complete failure of the moderation policy they’ve put to paper, but never into practice. 

In the context of the debates over Substack many have invoked the equal or greater sins of other media companies and publishers. I agree with many of these comments and do not judge people who stay on Substack, and feel that they can’t go anywhere else. I also agree with Anne Trubek that this business strategy makes Substack akin to a book publisher which gives famous — and “controversial” — authors book advances. In my view, following this analogy, I am a relatively large author, in business with a small but growing publication. By leaving Substack I can reverse some of the positive press that I’ve attracted to Substack, and contribute to the pressure on Substack to change its business practices. I have the ability to make a difference in this situation that I would not have by refusing a big book advance from a major book publisher. 

More personally, I can’t ignore that Substack is particularly benefiting from and encouraging a culture of anti-trans bigotry. They’ve done this at a time when there is a powerful movement to roll back the bodily autonomy and healthcare of trans people. Just last week, Arkansas Senate passed a law banning gender-affirming healthcare for trans kids, including reversible (and medically recommended) puberty blockers and hormones. If the governor’s veto is overruled, this will kill and irrevocably harm trans children — and it is the point. This year, over 80 similar ‘model bills’ aiming to roll back trans rights and outlaw treatment have been proposed in numerous state legislatures.

Some of Substack’s mostprominentwriters are contributing to this climate of bigotry. Other prominent Substack writers are feeding it by disingenuously defending their commentary and coverage of trans issues. Their contribution is all the more troubling coming from writers who style themselves as “center-left”, thus legitimizing bigotry that would otherwise be associated with Trump and the Republican Party. This is exactly how transphobia entered the mainstream in the United Kingdom, leading to a harsh rollback of trans rights there.

Given this growing ecosystem of anti-trans writers and their defenders, I can’t in good conscience continue doing business with Substack. My fiancé is trans, the professional editor I hired to edit Notes on the Crises is trans, and many other people I care about are trans as well. I hope that I would still leave Substack even if I didn’t know any trans people personally. However, the reality is that I’m much more aware of the pain this upsurge of criminalization is causing trans people than I otherwise would be. I know all too well the ignorant folly of the arguments that are being used to sow doubt, confusion and fear among non-trans people. I would never take part in propagating these dangerous canards, and can’t associate myself with people making a career from it.

As a result, I’m choosing today to contribute to the campaign to impose some costs on Substack for these decisions. For now, I am moving my publication over to Ghost. Ghost is a non-profit which is not interested in growing quickly. As a result, I have far more trust in them than Substack. They are also cheaper than Substack for those who have substantial bases of paid subscriptions. Importantly for me, they allow for far more customization. Over the longer term, I am planning on building my own website where I will have room for many different types of content (including a podcast!) At that point, I will have also have more control over Notes on the Crises. In the meantime, I have to take a week or so off so that the people at Ghost move my newsletter to their system. I plan to come back from this brief hiatus with a more consistent publication schedule from here on out. After that, nothing should be different for readers or subscribers. Thanks once again for your patience, and all you’ve done to make Notes On the Crises such a success.