Opinion | Esquire’s Cover Boy and Our Culture of Shame

I have an embarrassing secret. One I have long feared the internet would out for me.

So allow me to out myself: In 2004, I campaigned for George W. Bush.

To see me now — a trans woman living in Brooklyn, with “Infinite Jest” on my nightstand and “This Is America” on repeat — it’s hard to imagine me campaigning for Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney. But growing up, it could not have been a more natural choice.

I grew up in Fairfield, Maine. My hometown has a population of 6,563. It is 97.5 percent white. I drank coffee out of plastic foam cups before school, and in the summer all the teens in my neighborhood would meet down at the Kennebec River and go fishing, even though the river was too polluted for us to eat what we caught.

In a town that tiny you don’t pick your friends based on interests. It’s about who’s around. So when a fervent conservative friend asked if I wanted to campaign for Bush after cross-country practice I said of course.

Standing on the sidewalk at the only intersection with a red light, we divvied up our signs and began to shout. “Bush for President! He’ll keep us safe!” I may have lacked a nuanced worldview, but I knew 9/11 wasn’t good. A man in a truck honked his horn in support. A woman rolled down her window and shouted: “No more war! Bring our troops home!” I was a naïve kid, happy to hang out with a friend.

Fifteen years later, my views have changed dramatically. I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. I believe that every person in America deserves health care. I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to the destructive damages of addiction. I’m terrified of climate change and believe we should end the use of fossil fuels. All my friends are gay.

Still, I harbor an intense fear that part of my past will be used to invalidate the person I am now. I’m afraid of what my friends would think of my campaigning for Mr. Bush. Would I lose their trust? Would they fear that I secretly support war or xenophobic views? Would they believe me if I told them that campaigning for Mr. Bush was one impolitic moment on a long journey of understanding who I am?

Things are far worse for Americans younger than me — those who don’t know a world without the internet.

The one on my mind this week is Ryan Morgan, a 17-year-old from West Bend, Wis. He’s the cover boy of the latest issue of Esquire — the subject of a story called “An American Boy” by Jennifer Percy. Morgan is a white, middle-class teenager growing up in a conservative home with parents who support President Trump. He’s a sneakerhead who loves video games and the Green Bay Packers. He hates how politics are dividing his friendships. “Last year was really bad.” he tells Esquire. “I couldn’t say anything without pissing someone off.”

In Wisconsin, white people account for 87.3 percent of the population. In the 2016 election, President Trump took all of the state’s 10 electoral votes. Ryan Morgan may not be the American boy some want, but he is the American boy who is.

Still, his presence in Esquire sparked rage online. Zara Rahim, a spokeswoman for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, called out Esquire for running the story during Black History Month. “Imagine this same ‘American Boy’ headline with someone who looks like Trayvon talking about what it’s like to have your mother sit you down to tell you how to stay alive,” she wrote on Twitter. Others echoed the complaint.

One can debate whether the article should have run a month earlier or later, or whether Esquire runs enough stories about teenage boys of color. But few if any of those criticisms actually engaged with the story itself: Was the portrait wrong? Did it add value to our understanding of America in this moment?

While many in the press attacked Esquire, others went for Ryan Morgan. Some suggested he needed to be punched. Some suggested sending him hate mail. Others just swore.

If in 2020, he chooses to go to college, the Esquire story and the reaction to it will come up during his interview. If in 2025 he finds himself online dating, it will be right there, on Google, for any potential dates to find. People change, pictures don’t.

Katie Herzog is a gay journalist who knows exactly what it feels like to wear a digital scarlet letter. In 2017 she wrote an article called “The Detransitioners” for the independent Seattle newspaper The Stranger. In the piece, she reports on people who’ve transitioned to a different gender and then transitioned back. The piece was met with visceral hatred. Ms. Herzog received hate mail, including videos of people lighting her article on fire.

I was part of the pile on. In a now deleted tweet, I called her “trash.” I feared that her piece somehow discredited my own identity. In fact, it was just adding nuance to a debate in queer culture.

She agreed to get on a call with me after I apologized.

“I don’t go to queer spaces anymore,” she told me. “My ex-girlfriend publicly called me out, and then when I saw her in public she just turned her back on me.” The reaction shook her. Everything in her life has changed since that article. “If I go out and order food, I’ll lie about my name.”

And Katie Herzog is an adult with strong views about the world. Like myself at 17, the teenager on Esquire’s cover clearly doesn’t have strong political values or ideas; he seems to have adopted those of the people around him, maybe simply because he wants to fit in. Indeed, he talks about softening his positions to avoid being ostracized: “It’s better to be a moderate, because then you don’t get heat.” He is currently being shamed for being uninformed, for being a normal teenager.

Digital shaming is arguably the only punishment that does not have a statute of limitations. Do we really want to live in a culture like this? Where no one has the room to grow or change or become a new version of him or herself? I’d like to think that the differences between me in 2019 and me in 2004 is a sign that we all can. The question is whether we can give one another the generosity to do so.

Ms. Kanner (@robynkanner) is a writer and designer living in Brooklyn.

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