The Canadian human-rights litigant formerly known as Jonathan Yaniv—a trans woman who now goes by the name Jessica, but whom we will refer to simply as “JY”—is a unique figure among those who follow the debate over transgender rights. In 2018, this self-described “global internet personality” and “social justice warrior” contacted numerous Vancouver-area aestheticians seeking Brazilian-wax services—a process Wikipedia describes as “the removal of all pubic hair from the [female] pelvic region, vulva, labia, perineum and anus, while sometimes leaving a thin strip of hair on the mons pubis.” As reported by Joseph Brean in Canada’s National Post, JY seems to have sometimes used the name “Jonathan” when first making contact (an act of self-“deadnaming,” as it were), revealing only later in the conversations that the “Brazilian” in question would be performed on a client who is legally a woman, albeit a woman who has a penis and testicles. Predictably, some of the aestheticians indicated that they either didn’t have the expertise to perform their trade on such a client, or resisted the idea of having a male-bodied individual in their work area (which may also be their home, with children on premises)—at which point JY responded with human-rights complaints.
JY’s human-rights campaign was taken seriously by provincial officials in British Columbia, at least at first. One tribunal member assigned to the case opined in May, for instance, that “waxing can be critical gender-affirming care for transgender women,” even while conceding that such waxing comprises “a very intimate service that is sometimes performed by women who are themselves vulnerable. JY’s complaints raise a novel issue around the rights and obligations of transgender women and service providers in these circumstances.”
But over time, JY’s actions began to arouse suspicion. When some of the women received legal representation from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, for instance, JY withdrew the associated complaints—a course of action that the human-rights tribunal called out as “improper.” Some began to suspect that this was a cynical shakedown, especially after Anna Slatz of The Post Millennial, having become frustrated by the media’s reluctance to report on this issue, began a systematic investigation into Yaniv’s background. Even one of Canada’s most uncompromising (and controversial) trans activists, Morgane Oger, criticized JY for exploiting their cause, and expressed sympathy for the “single moms scraping a living together waxing people’s genitals for low wages, now forced to defend themselves.”
More recently, recordings, screenshots and other evidence have emerged that appear to show JY allegedly describing South Asians as “turban fuckers,” engaging in sexualized chat with girls in their mid-teens, sending naked photos to fans of a music band whose web services JY once managed, being arrested for brandishing an illegal weapon, taking photos in public bathrooms with others visible, pestering girls about tampon usage, accusing immigrants of being dirty and dishonest, and confessing to doxxing at least one rival. Some of those who have crossed paths with JY describe this individual as a sexual fetishist who is obsessed with the act of menstruation. While JY occasionally has made vague claims to the effect that some of the most incriminating evidence is the work of hoaxers, Oger reported earlier this year that she also had heard numerous personal testimonials that reinforce the allegations against Yaniv.
In theory, none of this material is relevant to JY’s human-rights case, which is focused on the narrow question of access to waxing services. In practice, however, it seems unlikely that human-rights officials would be willing to hand a victory to a complainant who has been so widely accused of these behaviours. For those who have been victimized by JY, the best result would be a decisive rejection of JY’s claims at the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, and some assurance that JY will not victimize others in the manner of a vexatious litigant.
More broadly, we hope the case might catalyze a candid discussion among lawmakers in regard to the policy of unfettered gender self-identification that is now becoming the law of the land in Canada and other jurisdictions. Some progressive pundits have attempted to dismiss the entire JY saga as a phantasm appearing within a right-wing “transphobic fever dream.” But this is preposterous. The trans community is no different from any other community: While the vast majority of people will be sincere and well-intentioned, there always will be bad apples who exploit the law to engage in unsettling behaviour. JY exemplifies the perceived threats to women and children when male-bodied individuals can declare their gender to be whatever they like, at any time, with no checks or balances.
JY may be an outlier within the trans community, just as Oger says. But the very purpose of our legal system is, in many cases, to protect vulnerable people from such outliers—since we hardly need protection from the vast bulk of citizens (whether trans or not) who present themselves in good faith. Moreover, to argue about whether JY is “really” trans, or acting out the part of a woman for prurient reasons, is beside the point: Since a policy of unfettered self-identification defines a woman simply as someone who claims to be a woman—full stop, end of story—then even a male-bodied person who is completely (and even transparently) insincere must be treated as fully female. In the UK, in particular, this policy has put women at risk of violent sexual assault—as in the notorious case of Karen White, a middle-aged pedophile and sex criminal who was housed with female prisoners.
But the saga of JY also carries a lesson for social-media companies, especially Twitter, since JY has weaponized the issue of gender as part of a campaign against other users—typically women—often culminating in (shockingly successful) efforts to de-platform the targeted individuals. Indeed, Lindsay Shepherd, one of the co-authors of this article, had her Twitter account suspended for several days in just such an episode. But for the fact that Ms. Shepherd is a public figure who was able to rally support online, she might still be permanently banned.
It is true that transgender people often face discrimination online, and Twitter’s policy against the “misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals” no doubt was motivated by a desire to protect users from hate. Though Twitter does not release comprehensive statistics regarding the number of users it suspends, or its reasons for doing so, it seems fair to assume that many banned accounts truly do traffic in genuinely odious and transphobic content. But the expansion of hate-speech prohibitions to cover content that “dehumanizes” others has created a surreal playing field in which JY is free to treat Twitter as a free-speech zone, while critics—many of them women who are concerned about the implications of JY’s conduct and claims—are routinely censored, or even banned.
What’s worse, this selective attack on one group of predominantly female users is now at risk of being normalized. In Canada, JY’s de-platforming campaign has been ignored, dismissed or even cheered, by some progressive journalists (a particularly troubling example being Vice reporter Manisha Krishnan, whose article appeared before Shepherd’s reinstatement) who seem happy to condone the de-platforming of women, so long as they are deemed to be ideologically heterodox.
As part of our research, we tweeted out a request for information about Twitter users who were suspended temporarily, or banned outright, because of their interactions with JY. We also asked for screenshots, or other forms of proof, to include in our database. This was a necessarily imperfect form of information-gathering (and, ironically, one that was not directly accessible to those Twitter users who were disciplined most severely for their interactions with JY). But even this limited initial outreach yielded almost 40 accounts that were suspended or banned. In the interests of transparency, we have posted the list here, and invite anyone with additional information or leads (including information that casts doubt on existing entries) to contact us. We will update the list as we receive more information. JY apparently has boasted about getting “hundreds” of feminists banned from Twitter. Whether this boast is true or not, we would be surprised if the names initially listed were anything but the tip of the iceberg.
As readers can see, the list contains several well-known individuals—including Canadian activist Meghan Murphy, founder of Feminist Current, who saw this problem coming years ago—but also many anonymous users. Where the real identity of the user is known, and the user has indicated consent to be named publicly, we have included their name. As noted above, the vast majority of the accounts seem to have belonged to women, though we could not ascertain the exact proportion. Where possible, we also have quoted from any relevant Twitter post that the company indicated was related to the user’s suspension or ban. However, a handful of correspondents noted that they were not even told why they were suspended or banned, though the punishment came immediately after engaging with Yaniv. Moreover, several of the listed cases are too complex to fully summarize in spreadsheet format, including that of Alicia Hendley, who was banned, then readmitted, then banned again.
Some of the cataloged posts do seem highly caustic, and even hateful. Readers may reasonably agree or disagree with Twitter’s decision to discipline these users. But it should be noted that many of the identified posts seem to have arisen during interactions that featured JY provoking interlocutors with equally appalling comments. In the case of Ms. Shepherd, for instance, the male-bodied JY had bragged about having a “tight pussy,” an asset JY described as operating in contradistinction to Ms. Shepherd’s own sex parts, which JY speculated had been dilated as a result of childbirth. (For the benefit of those few readers who might be interested: Ms. Shepherd did indeed recently become a mother, having delivered a child earlier this year by means of Caesarean section.)
We also have listed the approximate date on which each suspension or ban occurred. JY seems to have become focused on the tactic of banning social-media critics as early as 2012. But JY’s efforts in this regard rose sharply in 2018, when Twitter shifted its content policies, and the former “Jonathan Yaniv” began to present more frequently as female, or shifted back and forth sporadically between “Jonathan” and “Jessica,” depending on the interaction. Some users who have contacted us believe this latter tactic was used as a bait-and-switch to entrap critics into acts of misgendering, which could be weaponized through reports to Twitter.
Being a corporation and not a government agency, Twitter is of course completely free to enact any content-regulation rules it pleases. It should also be noted that social-media companies and lawmakers have long wrestled with the proper policy balance in this area, and so even the most enlightened and fair-minded approach would still run headlong into the practical problems associated with enforcement. There are approximately 260-million Twitter accounts, and one can only imagine the sheer volume of user complaints that are sent to the company daily. Given the time pressures at play, it must be tempting for the company to enforce a hard and fast rule of suspending anyone accused of misgendering, in any context, simply as a time-efficient means to process complaints. In some cases, serial complainants such as JY may develop contacts within Twitter’s bureaucracy. JY has, on several occasions, suggested this is the case, and also claimed to have developed a foolproof method of “reporting [critics] to Twitter in a certain way with certain verbiage” so as to ensure suspension.
A week ago, we reached out to Twitter for comment. So far, no response has been forthcoming. But we will update this article if and when this changes. As noted above, we also are committed to update our database to reflect credible information we receive in regard to the treatment of Twitter users who have interacted with JY—including the possibility of listed accounts being restored.
The larger discussion of how trans rights and women’s rights will be reconciled in coming years lies beyond the scope of this article. But regardless of how this debate is resolved, we believe it should be a point of agreement that individual users—from activists such as Murphy, who rely on social media to promote a feminist message, down to ordinary women who use social media to opine freely about issues of the day—should not be systematically purged at the behest of a single troll with a long and troubling record of offensive behaviour. For Twitter to allow this to happen makes a mockery of its oft-touted campaign to prevent the “dehumanizing” of its users.
Lindsay Shepherd is a Fellow at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
Jonathan Kay is the Canadian editor of Quillette.
Featured image: Photo of JY in a public bathroom, described by JY on Twitter as a “selfie.”