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Amazon workers petition and two quit over anti-LGBTQ book sales

The company's latest move shows what employees say is a reversal in Amazon’s earlier policies.
Image: Packages are scanned while moving along a conveyor belt at the Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville, N.J.
An Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville, N.J.Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

At least two Amazon employees have resigned in recent weeks to protest the company’s decision to continue to sell a book they say frames young people who identify as transgender as mentally ill.

The resignations come after a complaint posted to the company’s internal message board in April drew the support of over 467 Amazon corporate employees, according to a copy obtained by NBC News. As of last year, the company employed over 1.3 million people worldwide and is the second-largest employer in the U.S.

The complaint by workers points to a decision Amazon shared with Republican senators in March that claims it had “chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.”

The employee-led petition calls for the removal of the book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” by Abigail Shrier. In it, Shrier explores what she calls a “trans epidemic” of young girls identifying as transgender. The book is currently listed as the first, second and third bestsellers — for the hardcover, softcover and Kindle editions — in Amazon’s category of “LGBTQ+ Demographic Studies.”

"Irreversible Damage," by Abigail Shrier.Regnery Publishing

While Shrier denies that her book frames LGBTQ identities as a form of mental illness, employees at Amazon pointed to a passage where Shrier writes, “Many of the adolescent girls suddenly identifying as transgender seemed to be caught in a 'craze' — a cultural enthusiasm that spreads like a virus.” Shrier goes on to define craze as a “crowd mental illness.” Elsewhere in the book, Shrier likens therapists who affirm the gender of transgender patients with affirming a young person’s anorexia by agreeing that they are fat. “We wouldn’t think such a therapist was compassionate. We might think she was a monster,” Shrier writes.

One of the employees who resigned over Amazon’s decision to continue to sell the book, Selene Xenia, a software engineer who identifies as trans and worked at Amazon for seven years, said she left in June after learning the company would still carry the title. She was happier with a decision Amazon made several months before to stop carrying another book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” because of its framing of transgender identity as a form of mental illness. But she says this latest move by Amazon to continue to sell “Irreversible Damage” went too far.

“The book literally has[craze] in the title and considers being transgender a mental illness in many senses throughout the book,” Xenia said.

“I found it extremely hypocritical for Amazon to say that it would stock this book and not another similar one,” Xenia said. “It looks like Amazon had to remove that particular book for PR reasons, not because they felt morally obligated to.”

Shrier said in a statement: “This issue won't go away just because some disgruntled Amazon employees wish it would. And banning the book won't help these girls or anyone else.”

She added, “My book goes out of its way to honor the experiences of transgender adults, never disparages them, and never implies that the trans identity is a mental illness.”

Shrier testified before Congress against the passage of the Equality Act this year, which would provide nondiscrimination federal civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in issues like employment, housing, credit and education. The bill passed the House in February and now awaits a Senate vote.

In response to the news in May that some employees opposed Amazon's carrying the book, Shrier wrote on Twitter that “anyone who thinks my book 'advances a narrative of transgender identity as a disease' hasn't read it, or is a bona fide idiot.”

Cecelia Fan, an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement that the company is dedicated to providing access to diverse viewpoints.

“As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to written speech and a variety of viewpoints is one of the most important things we do — even when those viewpoints differ from our own or Amazon’s stated positions,” Fan said. Last year Amazon blocked the selling of a self-published e-book that claimed the harms of the coronavirus were overstated, but reversed its decision after Elon Musk tweeted that the company’s decision was “insane.” Amazon has also removed books by David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as books by George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party.

Amazon is among the world’s largest online booksellers and decisions it makes about what to host and not host on its marketplace can have serious consequences for the distribution of a book, said Morgan Weiland, an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society whose work focuses on technology policy and constitutional law.

When Amazon workers posted the complaint in April on the company’s internal ticketing system, The Seattle Times reported that Amazon’s director of book content risk and policy posted on an internal message board that leadership had met with an LGBTQ+ employee resource group and reviewed the book. Amazon officials concluded it did not violate the company’s policy on selling books that frame LGBTQ+ identities as mental illness.

“If Amazon wants to be content neutral, they should say that," Weiland said. "If they are going to have policies, they should enforce them. They are bound to get into trouble when they don’t enforce their policies consistently."

In an internal thread from the complaint obtained by NBC News, multiple employees raised concerns that the book is listed as a bestseller and turns up as the first result when searching for books on transgender topics on Amazon.

“Due to our success and scale, our customers will come to us seeking to educate themselves about their transgender children,” one employee wrote. “We have a responsibility to make sure that we do not use our powerful market position to amplify the harm this book causes.”

Summer Lopez, the senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend writers’ free speech, said in a statement that while employees are free to oppose a book’s content or debate a company’s policies, selling a book is not equivalent to endorsing it.

“As so much of our information landscape becomes siloed and fractured into ideological bubbles, it is ever more essential that major booksellers maintain the right to offer a diversity of perspectives, so that the public can read, be informed, and assess the validity of the ideas presented by any book for themselves,” Lopez said.

“The best way for critics to dispute or delegitimize the ideas in this book is to confront them publicly with facts and counterarguments, not censor them from circulation.”

Health care professionals who specialize in serving transgender and gender nonconforming youth say books like Shrier’s are troubling since they may be read by parents as general resources.

“My concern is that people would look to this book for guidance about these things rather than the professional societies, including my own, which all observe and have for some years that gender affirming care for youth is medically necessary and that there is a scientific basis for providing such care, which in some cases is lifesaving for young people,” said Dr. Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center and the president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Last year Target decided to pull “Irreversible Damage” from its shelves after backlash from activists. But the company reinstated the book the next day after critics claimed that its removal suppressed Shrier’s free speech rights. Shrier said in an online interview in March that Target had stopped selling the book again. Target did not respond to requests for comment.