A writer’s post and its consequences divide Latin American literary circles
By Benjamin P. Russell
When Colombian writer Carolina Sanín described the tension she believes exists between feminism and transgender activism in a video for the news site Cambio, she was doing what is expected of her as a columnist: expressing her unguarded views on a topic of her choosing. Her previous monologues for the website had touched on everything from social media pronouns to Christopher Columbus to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
But with her Oct. 30 post, titled “Identity, women and the next world,” Sanín, 49, landed at the center of what she has portrayed as a United States-style controversy over political correctness, one that has divided literary circles in Latin America and raised questions about the limits of free speech.
In the video, which was longer than her usual Cambio submissions, Sanín expressed her support for the rights of transgender people, who are often a target of violence and discrimination in the region. She also said that “equating completely the identity of trans women with women who are born women erases the historical experience” of both groups, and that transgender activism can reinforce gender stereotypes.
“Now girls feel that when they don’t adjust completely to what is expected of a girl or adolescent women it means they are actually males,” Sanín says in the video.
Many of the views Sanín expressed were not dissimilar to those expressed by author J.K. Rowling, which have led actors from the “Harry Potter” movies to distance themselves from her. Her perspectives also track, to a point, with so-called gender critical beliefs that center on the differences between biological sex and gender expression. Sanín had written about some of these issues before, notably for a 2017 article in Vice called “The world without women,” and has been labeled by some as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF.
She anticipated the video might have repercussions for her personal and professional life, and said so at the beginning of the post. Initially, the video made few ripples. Then, on Nov. 4, Sanín tweeted that Almadía, a publisher that contracted the rights to publish two of her novels in Mexico, had canceled plans for publication because of her “questioning of identity politics.”
Controversy erupted as writers from across Latin America, including some of the region’s most prominent novelists, reacted vehemently, applauding or denouncing the publisher’s decision, as it was described by Sanín. Almadía has not responded to requests for confirmation or issued any statement about the incident.
On Twitter and in earlier interviews with Mexican media, Sanín suggested that she had started to have doubts about the status of her agreement with Almadía months before publishing the video, as communication with the publisher started to break down earlier this year. She said her former agent, who negotiated the contract, relayed the news of the cancellation and that the publisher had “not explained a thing to her.”
Mónica Ojeda, the author of “Jawbone,” which is shortlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature and touches on themes of womanhood and adolescence, tweeted that she was “loving Almadía more than ever.” Others, including Argentine novelist Mariana Enríquez and Mexican writer Margo Glantz, whose work serves as a reference point of feminist thinking in Latin America, were among those who questioned the wisdom of canceling Sanín’s contract while also expressing their disagreement with the substance of her ideas.
“It caused misunderstanding that in turn caused noise and confusion,” said Glantz of the cancellation of the contract, adding that Sanín’s views have long been well known. She said that Almadía had always treated her “impeccably,” and that she considers Sanín a friend.
When Enríquez, who has earned a reputation as a strong advocate for transgender rights, in part through the representations of sexuality and identity in her writing, tweeted her support for Sanín, she was labeled by some on Twitter as a TERF herself.
On Nov. 9, Linterna Verde, a nonprofit based in Colombia that monitors public opinion on social media, issued a statement saying it was not possible to conclude that Sanín’s post had led to an increase in toxic language toward transgender people online, as some had used their work to claim. Sanín declined to speak to the Times on the record, saying that her views had been distorted and that, for now, she believed that continuing to try to explain herself would be counterproductive.
According to Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the upcoming book “Cancel Wars,” about free speech on college campuses, the vehement discourse on transgender issues makes sense given the mix of misunderstanding and hate speech transgender people often face. Ben-Porath noted that transgender voices in the public sphere are “newer and emergent, and therefore I think they are more protective of their boundaries.”
“There is a lot of fear in this discussion,” said Ben-Porath, “Fears about safety, but also fears about losing rights. What we’re missing is trust, and a belief in some shared vision for the future.”
In responding to the controversy, Sanín has repeatedly expressed her solidarity with transgender people. But some experts view the substance and tenor of her video as reflecting common anti-transgender tropes. Many of Sanín’s views fit with a “propagandistic discourse” in which mistaken ideas about transgender identity are replicated across borders, said Danila Suárez Tomé, a fellow at the Institute of Philosophical Research at the Argentine Society for Philosophical Analysis.
“It’s completely normal to not understand what’s happening when categories we’ve been using are suddenly overtaken,” said Suárez. “But reacting to that in an uncurious way, in an unscientific way, isn’t the right response.”
Suárez rejected Sanín’s notion that feminism and trans activism are inherently in tension, and said a “paradigmatic shift in our understanding of sexual identity” had in fact come, in part, also through the work and advocacy of feminist groups and thinkers. She noted recent gains for women’s rights in Argentina, which has had a pioneering gender identity law, based on self-perception, on the books since 2012.
“We have empirical evidence that feminism and trans activism don’t repel each other, but rather strengthen each other,” Suárez said.