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Amazon staff demand ban of books calling transgender people mentally ill

Spencer Soper and Ella Ceron, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

A group of Amazon.com Inc. employees plans to march in Seattle’s Pride Parade on Sunday to protest the online retailer’s sale of books they consider anti-transgender — an action that threatens to erode the company’s image as an inclusive employer.

In recent months, several hundred staffers have been pushing the e-commerce giant to ban books like “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.” They say such titles dehumanize trans people and dismiss their identities as mental disorders, which runs counter to the recommendations of almost every major medical group. Employees say the books could confuse vulnerable teens and their parents who turn to Amazon seeking information.

“It’s pretty jarring to see books that are promoting that trans people should not transition in the LGBT book section,” said Lina Jodoin, who transitioned two years ago and quit her engineering job at Amazon last month in protest. “It just hurts on a personal level.”

The internal backlash began more than a year ago via employee chat rooms, then spilled into public in March when more than 400 workers signed a petition demanding that senior management stop selling certain books and convene a panel to determine whether the titles violate Amazon’s policies against hate speech. The activism ratcheted up earlier this month when about 30 workers belonging to a group called No Hate at Amazon participated in a “die-in” during a Pride celebration at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

To date more than 600 employees have signed the petition and about 20 workers have quit the company due to the sale of titles they say misrepresent what it means to be transgender, according to a member of the group. Several other transgender employees are also planning to quit after they complete certain gender-affirming treatments, a complex and personal process that can take years and could be disrupted by switching jobs and insurance plans, said the person, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The planned demonstration during the Seattle Pride Parade, which is expected to attract as many as 500,000 observers, will be No Hate at Amazon’s most visible protest to date. Three months ago, Seattle Pride organizers also dropped Amazon as a corporate sponsor, citing its support of lawmakers and organizations that support anti-LGBTQ legislation.

 

“We respect that many people care deeply about this topic, and we remain committed to providing an inclusive work environment for all of our 1.6 million employees,” Amazon spokesperson Maggie Sivon said in an emailed statement. “As a company, we believe strongly in diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a bookseller, we’ve chosen to offer a very broad range of viewpoints, including books that conflict with our company’s stated positions. We believe that it’s possible to do both — to offer a broad range of viewpoints in our bookstore, and to stand behind our values as a company. When reviewing a book against our content guidelines, we consider the specific content of that book and we invest significant time and resources to ensure our guidelines are applied as consistently as possible.”

Deciding what items to ban is a constant challenge for Amazon, which typically declines to yank products until public pressure threatens to dent its reputation. In 2015, the company pulled Confederate flag merchandise from its web store but only after Walmart and eBay banned them first. Amazon is frequently called out for selling Nazi memorabilia and other merchandise deemed antisemitic, such as Christmas ornaments celebrating Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp. More than half the goods sold on Amazon come from independent merchants, who post their own merchandise on the site through online portals, making the sprawling online marketplace difficult to police.

For example, Amazon last year stopped selling the book “When Harry Became Sally,” saying it dismissed transgender people as having mental disorders. But a Bloomberg reporter found the book on the web store this week while reporting this story. It was removed after the reporter asked Amazon about it.

Employees are struggling to understand why Amazon banned that book but continues to carry other titles with similar themes. They suspect a backlash from Republican lawmakers may have given the company pause. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for one, accused Amazon of censorship after it stopped selling “When Harry Became Sally.”

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