UPDATE: I’m leaving this article up for the time being but everyone concerned with the issues discussed here should read this roundtable between Chloe and Allistair at Gamers Against Bigotry. This post at Destructoid also gives some further updates and details about the case, and Allistair Pinsof himself has replied to this article; you can read his response and my reply here. Needless to say, I’m overjoyed Chloe Sagal is well enough to discuss what happened and I look forward to her joining our community very soon. I still welcome you with open arms, sis.
By now word has spread like a nauseating shockwave through the various channels and tributaries of the Internet: independent game developer Chloe Sagal “defrauded” online contributors to her IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign for what she’d called a “lifesaving surgery;” in the wake of the internet-mob-justice bacchanal that followed, Chloe made an apparent suicide attempt on a Twitch.tv stream. She is, as of this writing and to the best of my knowledge, recovering in a hospital.
The outpouring of internet vigilantism that followed was an indistinctly undulating sea of noise, hate, and entitled egoistic rage. But there was one Tweet that bubbled to the surface and got everyone’s attention.
Allistair Pinsof, a journalist at Destructoid, ponderously shuffled up to his Twitter podium to unburden himself and reveal that he knew and spoke to Sagal, and knew “the truth”: Chloe was a trans woman who’d actually intended to use the proceeds from her IndieGogo campaign to fund sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).
He writes that he was freed to do this because Sagal had attempted the very thing that had kept his mouth shut—he alleges that Sagal had told him not to reveal the truth or she would kill herself; since she tried to do so anyway, he used the eminently appropriate opportunity of her hospital stay to tweet to the world Chloe Sagal’s most personal business and position himself as an objective interpreter of her feelings, struggles, and situation. As she lay recovering from the brink of death and eternal night, he knowingly adds incalculable weight to her woes.
He has written at length about the affair here, and has done so in a way that is measured in tone and avoids rank transphobia, but remains profoundly paternalistic and patronising. The more base transphobia is something he saved for Twitter (all conveniently listed here):
“If you are seriously angry at me for calling her a ‘HE’ you can screw off. He is a he in real life. I supported her. Telling the truth now.”
This alone should speak volumes about the actual amount of respect he had for Sagal and should, at the very least, invite scepticism about his motives here, as well as his claims in his essay. I would especially draw the reader’s attention to the following from Pinsof’s essay:
“She just didn’t trust that people would support her for who she is. I told her I do and I still do.”
With undue respect, Mr. Pinsof, I think your Twitter performance rather validates her anxieties. What matters here is the incredulity Pinsof expresses—he seems to ask how could Sagal not believe she would be accepted. Trans people know the marrow-deep answer to that question; it’s written in Pinsof’s own words and deformed judgements of this entire tragic situation.
Let us address one significant moral matter before I dive into the rest of this: a woman has nearly died—she has been, and doubtless will continue to be, suffering from severe depression and dysphoria. In the throes of that depression she made an ill-advised choice: misrepresenting herself on IndieGogo to secure funding for SRS. In the grand scheme of things, this was a certain kind of fraud; but the crimes perpetrated against her were far greater and, without any doubt, validate her strenuous efforts to keep her true intentions secret. For many trans people, SRS is the definition of a lifesaving surgery; we have the misfortune of living in a society where this is not only poorly understood, but actively vilified, pathologised, and morally panicked about. Throughout Pinsof’s writing on the subject there is a very subtle underccurent of judgement and contempt—he writes on Twitter that “[the surgery] was non-vital, in the sense that her body would go on even if her mind couldn’t let it. But I understand you.” The last line was written to a woman criticising the fact that he diminished Sagal’s vital need; I’d gently posit that he does not actually understand.
Not Enough For Heaven
“Faith, here’s an equivocator… who committed enough treason for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven,” drawls the comic porter in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, lamenting the equivocating Jesuits who lied enough to keep their faith against oppression yet were condemned to the fires of Hell nevertheless for their subtle lie. It puts me in the mind of Chloe Sagal, for she too equivocated; she petitioned for a lifesaving surgery—and in this she was quite correct—she simply mislead the public as to which she needed. We can debate merrily ‘til the heat death of the universe about whether this was right, whether Sagal’s use of deceptive speech for the greater good of her survival is defensible or not (as far as I am concerned, it is).
But it does not justify Pinsof’s actions, especially in a public forum where Sagal is not capable of defending herself; Pinsof violated her trust in a way likely to cause hatred against other transgender people. I cannot overemphasise this point: he has contributed to a welter of stereotypes about trans women and publicly invalidated Sagal’s experience by comparing her to “good” trans women who, he feels, have handled their transitions better. In the process he is shaming every trans person who may see their story in Sagal’s, and who’ve known her desperation.
While he might argue that the ultimate cause of all of this was Sagal’s decision to start her campaign, I’d say the ultimate cause was her pain and the society in which we live. Pinsof’s moral and ethical duty to her, and to everyone like her, was to avoid enflaming this situation and providing grist for those who would condemn us. Even as he professes compassion, he paints her as a hopeless “lost cause” who refused all attempts to help and not only had the audacity to commit suicide, but do so publicly.
He says of her, in his essay, “Even after the awful things she has done — scamming good people and broadcasting her suicide — I have a place in my heart to help her,” as if her suicide itself were a sin that should count against her; the broadcasting of it is, so far as I am concerned, irrelevant to ethical consideration. Perhaps she did not wish to feel as if she were dying alone, perhaps it was a cry for help; in either case, Pinsof’s condemnation is ill timed and deeply unfair to Sagal. There may be a time for her to better understand the meaning she makes of this tragedy. It is not now. If indeed Mr. Pinsof “has a place” in his heart to help her, he would have been better off doing so privately instead of publicly humiliating her and then attempting to appear magnanimous, inviting many others to follow along with him in this display of sanctimony.
And sanctimony it is, for what else can I call this:
“If everyone so hellbent on harming me today could put as much effort in giving Chloe a support circle, she could really have a chance at having a happy life where she is honest about who she is to herself and everyone around her. It’s unfortunate that so much harm, to herself and others, had to occur first, but the optimist in me likes to think it won’t be in vein [sic]…
“But I can’t understand people who will put so much anger out at me before putting an equal amount of support for Chloe and others like her. I don’t expect you to understand my unique predicament but I hope you can put some effort into understanding her’s [sic]”
Let me explain two things to you, Mr. Pinsof:
1) You do not get to decide for a trans person when they should come out. Period. There is no way for me to garland this with pretty words. You simply do not do this. You do not get to decide where, when, and how coming out is “for their own good.” Especially not when she is in the hospital and completely unable to have input on the decision.
I cannot, however, better the woman’s own words, posted not long before her last suicide attempt:
“I also have to say that all this talk about what people feel my gender expression consists of is extremely foolish, and it breaks my heart. Not only is it no one’s business, but you seem to have failed to realize that there have been a good deal of the lgbt who have been killed, or have killed themselves over being outed. Unless someone gives you their permission to talk about it, you never, ever talk about it with anyone but that person directly. It has never been okay to act like that, and you should be ashamed, though that statement won’t be as effective coming from myself. Outing someone who does not want to be outed not only invites physical danger on to that person, but a host of emotional problems when others feel the need to insult them over it. And if anyone is going to make the argument that if they don’t do it, someone else will, don’t bother. You are better than this.”
Indeed, you should have been better than this, Mr. Pinsof.
2) The trans community online and in the trans gaming community is—as you yourself observe—able to provide a home for her. We would welcome her. I would proudly call her my sister. But my first act of supporting her in public is to stand here and set the record straight on who we are, and why what you did to Chloe Sagal was morally wrong. We will be there for her as a community when, heaven willing, she is able to leave the hospital on her own and rejoin online communities. Do not think to lecture us, however, because we hold you accountable and responsible for your words.
For Want of Understanding
Further, I do understand her predicament. All too well. More, in fact, than you know, Mr. Pinsof. I have wanted to commit suicide more times than I care to count—before I transitioned, I remember standing quietly in my dorm room at the University of Connecticut, inexplicably furious, alone, shaking, quietly sobbing and fantasising about putting a shotgun in my mouth and pulling the trigger. Moments like that pockmarked my adolescence and the first few years of adulthood. The bottomlessness of that despair was incalculable. I pray and hope you never have to know what that feels like; in the meantime I ask you not to judge too harshly what those in such a headspace might say or do. In hindsight, I regret certain things I said and did in those heady, pretransition days of ignorance; but I did what I had to in order to survive one day further.
Pinsof himself says that Sagal lives in an unsupportive “small town.” I had the good fortune of starting my transition in a major city; two, to be exact. I ended up coming out and making my “debut” so to speak in Toronto, with a supportive girlfriend and her dauntless mother at my side, smiling and cheering me on. I would not be here today without them—without the fortune I had in meeting them. When I broke down in tears and felt that my life would end, my girlfriend’s mother dropped everything she was doing and raced through the streets of a busy city to be at my side.
In time, my own mother and father would stand with me as well. But for a febrile few months, I was on a rickety bridge over an abyss, my legs knocking and wobbling; I needed people there to hold me up and prevent me from tumbling into that void, vertiginously beckoning me.
Sagal needed that too. And Pinsof seems to say that, for a time, he tried to be that for her. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that, perhaps with good intentions, he tried. But whatever spirit may have driven him, its anima was clearly sapped after a while. He talked her down from one suicide attempt and then, he writes,
“I decided to distance myself from Chloe who sent me emails thanking me for saving her. She also referred to me in postings online. This made me worried as things were growing more personal, so I ignored in fear of where things could lead if I continued communications. I wanted to help her tell her story, not become a part of it, especially after the concerning state of health she announced to me.”
The fact that Pinsof withdrew at that point suggests to me that he misunderstood what was happening, and in his withering condemnation of Sagal he seems to ignore the fact that he pulled back when she was reaching out. When we as trans people are still in the closet and at the cusp of transition, we may—perhaps naively—get attached to anyone who seems even remotely supportive. Could you really blame us? Now Pinsof might be able to understand how betrayed Sagal might feel. She thought he was an ally, a friend—and then he does this.
The most charitable thing I can say for Mr. Pinsof is that he, at some point, meant well and tried to do the right thing; what overrode him at the end was the fact that he did not, and could not, take a trans woman at her word and accept her experience from her perspective—he at last submitted to an angle of vision more readily supported by the non-trans majority.
Nothing about this is easy; I have been in dark places myself and consoled many sisters who have been in even darker places. It is profoundly challenging and sometimes very draining; sometimes I simply can’t do it. But what I never do is take her pain and scatter it to the four winds in the misguided hope that I could crowdsource the responsibility. Even if Pinsof argues that Sagal had made this inevitable by holding a public funding campaign that does not suddenly absolve him of all ethical responsibility to her (and, indeed, to us all). He made a choice only he is responsible for, and his choice may actually hinder Sagal’s recovery.
I will conclude by saying this. For all the chest-beating on Twitter about how Sagal lied or committed a crime or defrauded others, I do not feel lied to. I see in her a sister who was doing what she had to do. Perhaps she could have done it better or in a less risky or misleading fashion, but you will forgive me if I am disinclined to count angels on the head of a pin at this moment.
To those who defend Pinsof and the various social media mobs, all I ask is this: Does your sense of supposed injustice demand a woman’s life as payment?