when you actually get cancelled

There’s been a lot of talk about cancel culture lately. Its the 21st century version of the Satanic Panic. There was an open letter released by Harpers Magazine decrying this new climate of what they called censorship and suppression of views that diverge from the mainstream. They never get too specific. But when you see the names of the people who signed this open letter, their actual meaning becomes pretty clear pretty quick.

My new friend Dawn has some feelings about that. She came out as trans and *actually* became the target of the sort of thing the signatories of this letter imagine they’re experiencing. 

The Harper’s letter: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

The response letter: https://theobjective.substack.com/p/a-more-specific-letter-on-justice

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I love you and I am so grateful for all of you. Heads up before we get into this week’s episode. This week, we are talking about transphobia and the workplace. There is discussion of suicide, mental health crises. Take care of yourself, friend. My name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining.

That fucking letter. Maybe when I say those words, you know what I’m talking about? If you don’t, maybe you’re lucky? What a shit show. I’m guessing you’re at least somewhat familiar with the newest right-wing moral panic about cancel culture. Right? A few years ago, it was about quote unquote free speech on college campuses.

Do we give Nazis a place to ask the Jewish question? Do we let trans people get doxed by someone who’s a literal troll for a living? These were questions seriously being debated by a right wing media at the time. And those of us who were like, yeah, we settled those questions a while back. These are not good ideas.

We were painted as the real fascist. Unable to withstand the free exchange of ideas we didn’t like or agree with. And these days it’s cancel culture. What do you mean? I can’t say racist things on Twitter without people coming after me for it. What happened to free speech? Why can’t I call trans women confused men without being called mean or transphobic?

What happened to the discourse? On July 7th, Harper’s magazine published an open letter, titled a letter on justice and open debate. I’m not going to read the full text of the letter here because I value your time. More than that, I’ll leave a link in the show notes, if you want to read the whole thing, but essentially it’s a letter that lays out the terms of this new conservative, moral panic.

It decries attacks on the free exchange of ideas and open debate. It paints a stark picture of intolerance to opposing views, public shaming, and ostracizing of those who have views counter to the mainstream. 

And to people who aren’t familiar with this course, it reads very convincingly who disagree with the idea that we need open debate and discourse over the important questions of the day?

But the letter stopped short of any specificity.

It doesn’t talk about any of the times this has actually happened. And when you start to read the list of people who signed this letter, it becomes clear what they actually need. JK Rowling, who threatened a trans woman into silence using threats of legal action. Jesse Singal who’s writing about trans people has caused incalculable damage to the trans community.

And who’s personally waged campaigns to get people fired from their jobs, for writing things he didn’t like about trans people or calling out their hypocrisy. It’s not exclusively so, but the people who signed this letter are largely people of extreme privilege. People backed by the power of large and rich institutions, people with large platforms and audiences, how fucking rich it is to complain about being silenced to your audience of millions.

What the letter doesn’t talk about. Because they never do are the scores of marginalized voices who have actually been silenced by this kind of stuff often by the same people who signed this fucking letter in the first place. Black and Brown voices, women non-binary folks, trans folks, disabled folks, neurodivergent folks.

And so on. Careers actually destroyed. Lives actually thrown into disarray by a barrage of online harassment silenced by the threat of legal action. Jobs actually lost. Strangely this letter fails to mention any of that. So this week you’re going to hear from someone who actually was a victim of that kind of silencing.

Dawn: [00:04:13] I’m Dawn Ennis. My pronouns are she her hers. I am a transgender woman and I live in Connecticut, sort of halfway between Boston and New York. I’ve been out seven years now. I worked in television news for most of my life. About 33 years. And about a year after I came, came out, I was let go. I was the first one in network TV news to come out as a transgender woman or person.

And unfortunately I think I was also the first one to get fired.

I was someone who knew I was trans since I was four. But even though I was able to live a little bit of my life part time as a girl, my parents basically didn’t believe it or didn’t support it and just didn’t want me to do anything to follow the script. So I kept it to myself until finally, after my father died and that was about 14 years ago.

I decided it was time for me to face this fact and to start exploring, it took me a few years. it took me almost, let’s see about seven years of, you know, exploring, Some people call it cross dressing, seeking a therapist, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t trans. I even tried testosterone for five years to try and make me more of a man.

Cause I didn’t want to believe that I was really who I was. But finally my, my late wife took a look at me. In a picture and she says, I can’t believe I didn’t see it. She saw the real me, and she supported me. She didn’t want to be married to a woman, but she supported my transition and it was with her help that I finally came out in 2013.

Callie: [00:06:16] Taking it back to those initial conversations, when you’re working at ABC, you decide it’s time to come out. you know, I’m sure. That process looked much different then, than it might today. So talk me through how that worked back then. Like when did —

Dawn: [00:06:32] Well let me give you the New York Post version. The New York post version is I showed up one night in a dress and a wig and told everybody they had to call me Dawn.

That’s how the New York post portrayed it, that I just suddenly showed up. That’s not how it went, but believe it or not, a lot of people felt that that was okay because it’s in the newspaper. Right.

Callie: [00:06:52] Of course. 

Dawn: [00:06:53] 2012, I went to my bosses and I told them one at a time that I had this, situation that I wanted to address.

I had waited until 2012 because I had been, hired in 2012 as a full time staff member with benefits prior to that. Okay. I worked three years as a freelancer and I was so afraid that if I came out before then, They could just take my name off the schedule and never say it’s because I was trans, they would just say, you know, Oh, we, we have enough people.

So as a staff person, I had the union behind me and I had my benefits and the company really wanted to support me. And I wasn’t the first one at ABC, just the first one in the journalism side of the company. There were people, one of my best friends worked for Disney at one of the parks. So had meetings met with HR, met with executives, but everybody wanted to go real slow with this.

And I did too, and we kept planning it out. So that finally it happened in may of 2013. I had a meeting with the people who worked on my shift and I explained to them personally, face to face what it was going to happen. And they asked me at work, the bosses did to take Thursday off. To work Wednesday as my old self go home and then come back on Friday as me and on Thursday, when I wasn’t there, they had meetings. Three people at a time with an executive from HR explaining what was going to happen when they came back to work on Friday.

Some people knew most people didn’t. I provided a photograph of myself, so they could have an idea of what I was going to look like. And. They told me that everyone was accepting and wonderful, and they were even sorry that they even had to have a meeting about this because they were, or like, you know, whatever.

It’s great, no problems, whatever makes them happy. Friday. I come in, everybody’s happy. We have cake, we’d go to work and we do our jobs. And at the end of the morning, there were flowers delivered to my desk and company had a company wide conference call every morning at 9:00 AM. And at the end, the big executive made a speech and it was a standing ovation.

It was just really accepting and wonderful. people came up and hugged me. One boss said to me, she said, when she finally saw me, she said, now I understand seeing you as you are for the first time. This is just great.

Callie: [00:09:24] Wow. That’s so, so things started out great. 

Dawn: [00:09:27] It was until a week later, I had posted it on Facebook and the New York post decided to do a story about me and they didn’t call me.

They call the company and the company said that I could give my boss a quote. But they wouldn’t be interviewing me. They were going to write the story without my participation, and they just wanted me to give them a sentence. And I just said that was very grateful for all the support I received. And that was my entire quote.

What no one had known was that I had been writing a book about my transition and about everything that had happened. And I had pitched this book around town. It hadn’t been accepted yet. The whole process is very drawn out. If you’re not into publishing, it takes a long time to get a book published. And one of the executives at a major publishing company, Harper Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch was a former ABC news person who wasn’t a fan of mine.

Let’s just put it that way. She leaked the. Confidential pitch proposal of the book with all these details that I had, not put on Facebook, I hadn’t told anyone I was saving for my book and they put that in the house cans of the New York post because Rupert Murdoch owns both Harper Collins and the post.

And this one, the person who doesn’t like me wanting to basically sync my chances because of getting the book published. So a week after I came out there, it is plastered all over the New York post. And let me just tell you. If you come out and your picture is on the front page of the New York post, that’s not a good thing.

It was horrible. It was horrible. And my mother was so angry at me for the details I told in this pitch proposal. I hadn’t even talked to her about this pitch because it hadn’t been accepted yet. Why would I risk, you know, alienating my mother, but that was the end of it. She didn’t want to talk to me anymore.

She hadn’t had a problem with my transition until then. But the book was basically a dead and my relationship, my mother was dead. many of my family members thought I put it in the New York post. I would never do that. And, people at work were pretty upset because they felt like there was all these details in the New York post that they hadn’t heard before.

So it was really a weird time. And again, ABC basically said, No comments. No, don’t talk to anyone, no interviews. We’re not providing you to anybody. We’re just gonna let it blow over. And there was an expression that was used. If there’s a fire and fires need oxygen, don’t feed it oxygen. It’ll go out on its own.

Don’t talk in other words. 

Callie: [00:12:06] And how did you feel about that?

Dawn: [00:12:08] Well, it’s very true. I agree. That is one way to handle something, but for me, I felt as if. I had a gag on my mouth. I felt like there was so much misinformation. There was even a person who had transitioned, who was also in the news, who was famous for transitioning.

And she started coming out as her disappointed friend. You know, she, she decided to make some, hay for herself by being on TV and being interviewed about me and how disappointed she was. 

Callie: [00:12:41] Why? What? Why was she?

Dawn: [00:12:43] May hurt it may. It gave her a time in front of the camera. She wanted to be in front of the camera. I don’t know.

What can I tell you? Th th th the whole experience was just horrible because after the first week of having reporters come after me, it doubled and tripled. my wife and, two of my children were ambushed by reporters outside our house. I mean, Just one, one person. This is the worst one, one person actually went up and down our block. We live in a very progressive, wonderful neighborhood in Connecticut. and they went door to door asking people if they knew about the training, we’ll live next door to them. 

Callie: [00:13:21] Jesus. 

Dawn: [00:13:22] And you know what my neighbor said, they said they hadn’t told anybody. It just made the news.

I hadn’t gone out to them and said, Hey, by the way, I’m transitioning. But. They each took to it to a single one. Each one said, we don’t care. Get off property, get outta here. Nobody gave them any interviews or, or quotes or sound bites or anything. And, I live in a great neighborhood and I’m very, very pleased that people, despite not knowing much about what trans transgender was at that time.

They really rallied around us. And that was great. And the schools were great and the boy Scouts and Cub Scouts and the church and the temple, everybody, I, we just, we got a lot of support. I mean, I had a hunker down. what we’ve been doing for the last three months was sort of a little bit like what we did after I came out.

We just basically stayed in the house and didn’t go outside except for emergencies. 

Callie: [00:14:11] Wow. And this was before social media. Jesus. I can only imagine if like. 

Dawn: [00:14:18] And what there was there, but it was very, it was nothing like that. There’s now nothing like it is now. And believe me, I so wanted to tell the story the correct way.

I wanted to answer the New York post. I wanted to be able to explain things and, you know, I wanted to keep my job, which I didn’t end up keeping, but at the same time, all that media attention was just too much for me. So by July 30th or so seven years ago, this month, I had a mental health breakdown and I had to go to the hospital and.

It, it didn’t go well, I detransitioned for a few months because I just, I had a, like a circuit breaker snap, you know? I couldn’t handle it.

Callie: [00:15:07] How did that lead to you losing your job at ABC? Like what, what transpired there? 

Dawn: [00:15:12] You can imagine that people at ABC were thinking. this person is nuts because, you know, first they’re coming out as a woman and then they go back to living as a man. And then, there’s this guy who used to be a woman who used to be a man at the office, and we don’t really feel comfortable around this person.

And, I had to go get like psychiatric testing done and all this other stuff for the company. And, I was in the delusion. I was completely out of my mind in terms of what had happened to me. So a few months later, October of 2013, it’s like a light went off. I got a letter in the mail and it was a package. I had been tested by the national Institute of health.

So after I came out, national Institute of health, saw my story and they wanted to find out what it was to be transgender. And they asked me if I would take part in a study. I had to go down to Bethesda for a week and live in their hospital and do all these psychological physiological and really invasive, physical testing.

I mean, very invasive and just humiliating. But at the same time, I thought, all right, this is for the greater good. We want scientists to understand what it is to be transgender. I mentioned before how the New York Post had turned me into this crazy person. Well, they got pictures of me in NIH with my Teddy bear and they put that in the paper and ABC, basically, it was just getting crazy because, I, I, someone leaked to me, documents.

There were emails from some of the bean counters, we’ll call them, to executives basically complaining that Dawn Ennis was getting more headlines than the main anchor of the ABC world news tonight. So what I understand that have happened was they just started a campaign to basically find a way to get rid of me.

So all of the people around me were basically asked to send their bosses information. Dawn was spent X number of minutes in the bathroom. Dawn was X minutes late for work, Dawn didn’t, do what the boss said. Dawn made this remark about the boss. So imagine all the people around you writing things down that you’re saying or doing or not doing.

And they even took my assistant. This was the one that just blew me away. And my assistant was basically put in charge of forming a paper trail. So. When they called me in, in June of 2014, I had already re transitioned. I had come out as myself again, I told them, I said, I had found my way back.

I was much happier. They were happy that I was happy, but to them transitioning and then de transitioning and then re transitioning was just too much. And they were tired of the headlines and they presented this entire like book of all these things I had said and done, and they said, look, we’re just going to let you go.

And the union was like, well, we’ve got a union contract. We have to worry about, we can’t just fight for one person. So, you know, it looks like they got you and you’re just gonna have to, you know, take it. And I got a lawyer and the lawyer wanted to fight them. Lawyer is a trans woman, Jillian Weiss, great lawyer.

Callie: [00:18:27] Yes! I’ve had her on the show. 

Dawn: [00:18:28] Jillian’s wonderful. And Jillian took on the case and she warned me. She said, it’s gonna take a long time. We’re going to fight this cause it’s wrong. Even if they say they’re not firing you for gender transition, that’s what this is all about at its heart. And you know what happened?

Well, I did get fired. I knew I was going to get fired. I tried to not get fired. I tried to kill myself. I tried to end my life. I had a copy of Time magazine with Laverne Cox and the cover, the transgender tipping point. In my hands. And I stood in a train track waiting for the train to kill me and a friend called me and asked me, why did I call her to say goodbye?

Like a voicemail saying goodbye. She said, what are you doing? And I said, I’m waiting for a train. And she says, get off there, get off the tracks now. And I listened to her. I didn’t think I just did what she did and I didn’t get hit by the train. But I did end up at Bellevue, which is a New York city mental health hospital.

And when I was supposed to be at work, getting fired, that’s where I was and they still fired me in abstentia. And I got some help. I got psychiatric help. And I found out that what I needed to do was stop waiting for other people to validate me my job, my, my wife at the time. And thank God I was really bad at killing myself because my kids would have nobody.

If that was the case. we lost my wife three years later. And I’ll tell ya. I’m a much different person now. I got the help I needed. I needed to learn to love myself, to put my kids ahead of my own needs and to put my needs ahead of my job and my job didn’t it find me. It was really a hard lesson and, this was the point where I basically was supposed to be fighting ABC in court and said, well, now we have to go in for the long haul and try and get.

a case. And I said, my little boy asked me when I got home, how come the fridge is empty? How come we don’t have any money? How come we don’t have any food? And you know, it was summertime my wife, a school teacher, wasn’t working, wasn’t collecting paychecks. I was no longer working at ABC collecting those six figure paychecks that we had basically expected would continue until I was dead.

We didn’t really do a lot of savings. We blew through our savings that summer. And by the end of the summer, I said, we’re going to have to just settle. And I can’t describe. Under the agreement, how the settlement went, but I can tell you about everything else. The settlement was reached. And Jillian and I talked about this just about a year ago.

We said probably 2019 was when we finally probably would have finally got to court and maybe would have won, but it would have taken a long time time to drag that out. Because again, Disney is the most powerful company in the world, in terms of entertainment. And they have really good lawyers. So. I took what I could.

I got what I could to get my family fed and comfortable, and it wasn’t a heck of a lot. I’ll be honest. And, I just started looking for work. I started looking for other jobs and when I went to NBC, where I had worked before, one of their big name correspondence sent an email saying they didn’t want that crazy person working there and didn’t want to work with me because the word had got out through the paper that, you know, I was some kind of nut job.

So that was the end of my television career. 

Callie: [00:21:47] Wow. 

Dawn: [00:21:48] Yeah, it really sucks. And I’ll be honest. What I’m really happy about is that I was able to find something else. The Advocate hired me. I started as a freelance writer and I became the news editor. I worked for LGBTQ Nation for a while. I’ve been with Outsports more than a year and a half now.

I found my way. And the teaching job is wonderful. I love teaching. And, now I’m writing for Forbes.com and I write for the Daily Beast. And as a magazine here in Connecticut, that not only you, I write for their magazine Connecticut Voice. I’m actually on the air as a TV correspondent. Now they do a show every season, once the season, and that’s a lot of fun.

And, I also have a podcast and a talk show, but. Honestly, after losing, my kids, mom to cancer, I, found the real job I was supposed to always have, which is to be a mom. And I’m, I’m pretty good at it. I love being a mom. 

Callie: [00:22:41] Gosh. And so knowing that entire backstory, I can only imagine the feelings that, that Harper’s letter brought up.

Dawn: [00:22:55] It was amazing to me. That people didn’t ask, who else was signing this? Why wouldn’t you not ask? I mean, and also a cursory look, it seems innocuous, right? Who would be against open debate? Well, of course we should have open debate. We want people to not be canceled. We don’t want canceling, but if you look at what it really says, if you peel back the onion, you’ll see that this is basically a cover.

This is a cover. For people who want to hurt us and who want to be able to be unpunished for publishing controversial opinions like trans women are men? Yeah. It hurt a lot. It hurt a lot. And I had private conversations with Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is both a friend and a mentor. I talked with Joy Laden.

I didn’t speak to Matthew Iglesias, but I just hope that. In the blow back that they all suffered, that they learned a lesson of don’t just, you know, sign something because it looks good. Do some digging. That’s what I did with the second letter. That’s come out this response to the Harper’s letter. And I think if you asked me the letter that was published today is what they should have signed in the first place. A response that stands on its own without having to even read the Harper’s letter.

Callie: [00:24:21] Well, thank you for, for sharing your story. I am so sorry for all that you have been through, 

Dawn: [00:24:26] Don’t be sorry, because here’s what happened. A lot of people told me that in seeing my story traipse through the news media, they learn important lessons. I feel bad that I had to suffer them, but. Other people were able to avoid the missteps that I had happened to me and that I made.

So in some way, I feel like there was a purpose to this. And if other people didn’t have to go for what I did, then that’s a good thing. 

Callie: [00:24:52] Big, thank you to Dawn for sharing her story. And thank you, my friend for listening. If you want to read the Harper’s letter and the response that Dawn mentioned I’ll have links to them, both in the show notes, I was proud to be one of the signatories of the response letter.

Dawn is the managing editor of Outsports.com and hosts a podcast called the Trans Sporter Room which I’m obviously a big fan of the wordplay. There 

I’ll have a link to that show in the show notes as well. You should check both of those. Things out. If you want to help keep this thing going, help me keep telling important stories like Dawn’s please consider heading to patreon.com/queersplaining and making a per episode donation to help support the show.

Any amount helps and is greatly appreciated. 

If a regular donation doesn’t work, you can make a onetime donation at paypal.me/queersplaining. I know times are tight. Not everybody can do that. So a share of a shout out on social media is legitimately a big help too. 

Before I go, I want you to know that if you’re lost. You’re hurting. You’re scared. Do you feel like no one cares and no one understands you need to know there’s a community out here that loves you cares for you knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you are where the of love. If you’re struggling, please, don’t be afraid to reach out.

Until next time friend, my name is Callie Wright and this is Queersplaining.