Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

A landscape image of Shodan, a feminine face made up of green digital characters against a black background.
Digital Shodan by Chris R (http://twitter.com/offby1)

To all new readers: I’ve written a follow up to this article.

Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by several prominent members of the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.

The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images.
Woman’s place is on the internet– and it’s our responsibility to make it safe for each other. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).

The Tumblr-isation of Activism

I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.

Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.

I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:

“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.

For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”

I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.

But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.

Identity and Politics

In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect

Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,

“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”

“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”

So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?

I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”

The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism

Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.

But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.

The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.

It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.

This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.

Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.

Activist rage is linkbait.

The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.

An image showing two wire mesh human faces staring at each other in an amber/orange field of numbers.
I imagine queer cyborgs might look like this, only cooler.

Ethics for Queer Cyborgs

This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.

This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.

What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.

My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:

Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior.  I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”

I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.

It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.

I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.

A poorly drawn castle on a floating island in the middle of a starry sky with a poorly drawn crescent moon above it.
My old “castle in the air” drawing– it was one of the first things I drew for blogging that symbolised my aspirations

From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts

At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.

What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:

“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”

We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.

I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”

Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.

Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.

Do It In the Name of Heaven

Two badly drawn slugs, one wearing a mockup of a papal mitre and holding a papal sceptre of some sort saying "Eh, the queers are okay, I guess...? Sorta...?" Another smaller slug off to the side, equally poorly drawn, wears a press hat and says "Be on our magazine!"
Yep, the slugs are back by popular demand. Rejoice! But to any who are uninitiated: the slugs are *not* an insult. I love slugs– I just can’t draw caricatures, so I render all people as cute slugs.

I am not a cynic on Pope Francis; though he’s clearly very well managed in terms of PR, I do believe there is a meaningful difference between this pope and his predecessor which has the potential to, perhaps, bear some fruit down the road.”Potential” is the operative word there, however. The Advocate’s bestowal of its “Person of the Year accolade on the pontiff is unconscionable in light of the fact that Pope Francis’ record remains resolutely anti-LGBT; his particular gentle approach is a welcome change in tone, but in practise it merely de-italicises the Church’s standing antipathy to LGBT people. To simply say “don’t judge the queers” is redolent of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” pseudo-compassion that drives a particular strain of prejudice among the spiritually inclined.

Even just considering the narrow band of issues that animate The Advocate’s editors, Francis has not been terribly encouraging– his spirited opposition to Argentina’s tranche of progressive LGBT and reproductive rights legislation says everything one needs to know, and fails to satisfy even the most forgiving of tepidly liberal standards. This is the queer equivalent of President Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and I can only pray that Francis’ record from here on out is less of a disappointment in light of his equally premature apotheosis.

This says nothing of the article’s blithe dismissal of the Church’s resolutely abysmal gender politics, the tin limits of the Advocate’s activist silo being made apparent with the lone sentence they devoted to the question. Francis has, once again, tantalised the appetites of a hopeful commentariat with words aplenty, but continuing policy that leaves much to be desired, for instance allowing the crackdown on American nuns for their “radical feminist” tendencies to proceed, and asserting that he was troubled to see some people

“…promoting a type of emancipation [for women] which, in order to occupy spaces taken away from the masculine, abandons the feminine with the precious traits that characterize it.”

Whither the many women in the LGBT community, trans and cis, lesbian, bi, and queer, who might feel condescended to by the way the Holy Father conceptualises gender politics? And whose chief promise on the question of reproductive justice is that he will simply not talk about it as often? Whether one speaks on the question of abortion access or the right to modify one’s body, it is difficult to square the circle of naming this pope a person of the year for LGBT people so early in his tenure, and the case of queer women makes that abundantly clear if it was not already. Time and again the church’s policies beg the question: in what heaven’s name are these sinful policies being carried out here on earth, exactly? What greater good or higher power benefits from the abnegation of so many?

But there is another issue to consider: ask yourself what the connection is between this rather feckless accolade and the Advocate’s long history of being clumsy (to put it gently) on transgender issues. They are, I would argue, entirely of a piece. The Advocate’s obsequious genuflections to power are made apparent as much by their apologism for various strains of transphobia as it has been by this “Person of the Year” award. I would suggest that each was sired by the same blinkered perspective and the same fascination with the traditional and familiar that has come to define a good deal of The Advocate’s content lately.

They have made some strides that are worth noting, of course– there have been some worthwhile pieces that have highlighted the voices of trans women of colour, and a slightly higher frequency of trans women writing for themselves, for instance. But as with Pope Francis, so too with The Advocate: there is only potential at the moment, and a substantial, worrying record preceding them.

Crowds Are Calling Your Name

A young feminine person with light skin, a tattoo of a skull on her right shoulder, long pink hair and glasses, wearing gloves, a collar, and a corset, looking at a glowing tablet.
Rui, technical genius and cyber-revolutionary, from “Gatchaman Crowds.” We’ll get to her in a second.

“As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy.”

–Christopher Dawson

The cyber conflagration that began with Bachelor producer Elan Gale’s live tweeting of his “epic” takedown of fellow airline passenger “Diane” has now metastasised into that most schismatic of internet events: the hand-wringing-cum-bacchanal with outposts in Salon, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and beyond, either celebrating or decrying the episode. It is easy to roll one’s eyes at this—whether “this” is Gale’s own immaturity masquerading as street justice (aisle justice?), or the proliferation of articles on the subject (my own included).

But I would not be so quick to dismiss this incident as insignificant piffle, or a joke that got a little out of hand. Nor does it really matter if Diane didn’t exist, as some have suggested. Elan’s behaviour itself, even, matters less than the true acme of our problem: #TeamElan.

By now we have already been witness to several worthwhile treatments of Gale’s little crusade and its many moral deficiencies. Two wrongs don’t make a right, et cetera, et cetera.

What is much more troubling to me, and what has been under-explored in the wake of these online histrionics, is what all of this says about the wider moral landscape of our cyber society and what is increasingly coming to pass for “justice” on the internet. I have long said that relativism and its attendant maladies must be resolutely resisted by anyone interested in making the world a better place, and that we must be unafraid to judge the moral failings of others rather than cower behind a vacuous un-philosophy to justify inaction and neutrality. But when one becomes a judge, she is not entitled to be the jury and executioner; it is one thing to use your moral faculties to identify and name vices and evils, it is quite another to then take it upon yourself to mete out what you consider a just punishment.

These two very separate tasks have become blurred in the information age, whose technology has become an unwitting adjunct to the parallel age of cynicism that is now wracking latter day liberal democracies.

What Gale did was wrong, not chiefly because he denied the humanity of his target in his misbegotten revenge fantasy-made-flesh, but because of what it summoned up online. It was an accelerating catalyst to the unchecked spirits of vengeance that are already animating far too many disaffected individuals online who believe that all means are permitted to avenge whatever one perceives to be an injustice; that one must be judge, jury, and executioner. It suggests that as soon as one comes to the conclusion that an individual they are judging is one of “the bad guys” then the gloves can come off and any punishment may be dealt to them because they “deserve” it. And this is okay, because only “bad people” will suffer these punishments; never mind the frightening opacity that occludes the moral math here. There is neither transparency nor accountability for the process through which one decides who needs to be punished.

Nothing is Unethical; Everything is Permitted

But what exactly did Gale summon up? Consider the following comment on a Los Angelista article by Liz Dwyer that was critical of Gale’s behaviour and suggested that if Gale had been black or Middle Eastern in appearance the response to his actions would’ve been less than sanguine:

“To the writer of this article. You are a joke. The problem with society as a whole is that here are not enough Elans out here being honest. No body [sic] would have given a shit if this was a black man or woman or Hispanic or Asion [sic] or cat or dog… it would have still been funny. Freedom of speech? ‘Eat my dick”. If this comment + Elan being a white male made this somehow more offensive… do the world a favor and go kill yourself please. #TeamElan”

Apparently, in the quest to get people to “act like adults” it becomes necessary to tell people to commit suicide for disagreeing with your methods. Even if Gale’s livetweets documented nothing more than a concoction of his imagination, as some allege, responses like this empowered by what Gale claims to represent are quite real.

The forces at work here are not new; we’ve long been bedeviled by the ageless conflict of means and ends. Depending on how we juggle those interests, we may find ourselves forgetting that the enemies of our moral crusade of choice are human beings. We have been here before. What is new is the way this is all-too-cosily imbricating with the anarchic spirit of the internet, epitomised by groups like 4chan, that enlist any and everyone to traipse in this timeless ethical quagmire. Uniting all of these incidents—including sexist campaigns like those directed at Adria Richards, Anita Sarkeesian, Jennifer Hepler, and other women in the tech industry deemed to be “villains” by certain precincts of the internet—is that sense that no rules need be observed when “punishing” people deemed to be in the wrong.

Diane acted entitled and spoiled with her flight attendants, therefore any and all means may be employed to punish her—including enlisting those same flight attendants in the attempt and putting them back in her line of fire for facilitating the “punishment.” In so doing, Gale seeks to marshal us to a lofty calling:

“…it’s OUR job to tell every Diane to shut up.

It’s OUR duty to put the Diane’s of the world in their place.

We need to REMIND them about the way of things.

We outnumber them.”

We must force the people to be free, one supposes. Or at least force them into their place (as judged by our infallible individual faculties). Note that his credo here is about defeating the enemy, as if we are the last defenders of Middle Earth athwart the Orcs and Goblins. We must tell the bad people to “shut up” and “put them in their place.” We do not need to persuade them, teach them, show them the error of their ways, empathise with them, et cetera. They are implacable foes who can only be dealt with by force. It is a classic pitch for pitchforks that merely summons more entitled, aggressive behaviour into the world under the guise of ending it.

Mob rule through a smart-phone is still mob rule.

Updating the World

The recently released anime Gatchaman Crowds is a rather surprisingly fruitful mirror held up to our society, in this regard. It is perhaps one of the most interesting and well-told cyber-morality tales of our time, and one of the few contemporary television programmes to get the internet “right.”  The show is set in a near-future Japan dominated by the social network GalaX, which rewards people for using their talents to help others. GalaX is a kind of augmented reality Facebook game/network—if there’s a car accident, people nearby are “scrambled” to assist if, for instance, they have medical or rescue experience, changing the bystander dynamic irrevocably.

It is the brainchild of Rui, a cryptic idealist who believes the world needs to be “updated” and that technology can facilitate the creation of a truly just society. It is no coincidence that her solemn belief is that things must be “updated” and not “rebooted”; peaceful, incremental change through democratising technology is her highest goal here. This dream is eventually corrupted by long-time users frustrated with the slow pace of change who want to use the immense power of GalaX to effect a much more immediate and violent metamorphosis, and they are co-opted by the main villain of the season (who, unsurprisingly, wants to destroy the world). There’s more to it, of course, but this is the salient bit that illustrates with its beautiful, almost satiric lens, our present quandary.

A screenshot of the GalaX world from Gatchaman Crowds showing several cute avatars wearing masks gathered around a virtual table and having a meeting.
The Neo One Hundred.

The rogue users of GalaX, known as the Neo One Hundred, are motivated by high ideals; they too wish to make the world a better place. But so wracked are they by cynicism towards the powers that be, as well as what they perceive to be Rui’s naiveté, that they believe the only way forward is through violence—particularly against the state, no matter the cost. As the show climaxes, their reign of terror sees Japanese government buildings laid to waste and civilians forced to evacuate in their thousands to flee the devastation that begins to inevitably spiral away from state targets.

It is a parable for our time, complete with clear jabs against a certain nameless, masque-wearing group of cyber revolutionaries, and the ethic of terror shared by some of their number. As the show’s heroes fight the Neo One Hundred and their new dark patron to save both Rui’s affirmative vision and the world, it would be hard to mistake which side #TeamElan might be on. The show’s climax is the perfect illustration of what lies at the end of Gale’s road; the logical conclusion is terror, justified by the idea that the result will be worth the cost. As always, however, such reckless confidence lacks a fail-safe. There is no provision if one’s judgement happens to be wrong.

We do indeed live in a society where traditional order is at best unreliable and at worst outright corrupt, bigoted, and oppressive. The mistrust thus engendered will manifest differently depending on where one stands on the social ladder, but manifest it will. That cynical posture feeds the arguments of those who say only more anarchic solutions can prevail against the petty, quotidian injustices of everyday life. When combined with the power endowed by online interaction, crowdsourcing outrage and street justice is easier than it has ever been in human history—with devastating consequences to match the expanded horizon. The allure of Anonymous-style politics as evinced by Elan Gale is that any of us can dispense justice if only we disabuse ourselves of a few useless niceties. Neither responsibility nor humility need apply.

Anonymous is indeed instructive here as the variety of actions that have passed under that franchise name illustrate both the rich possibilities of anarchic collective action, and the dark potential therein. Some Anonymous actions represent the resurgence of a collective moral fabric that enshrouds and protects those left behind by the sclerotic structures of state and corporate enterprise, such as their instrumental roles in bringing the horrors of Steubenville to light, or shielding women who fought back against Hunter Moore’s misogynist virtual crusade. What these actions have in common is that they were initiated after it was clear civil society had either failed or simply did not meaningfully exist for the people in question; there were people who had committed clear crimes but who had, due to the Byzantine and opaque interactions of the virtual world with older civil institutions, slipped through the cracks. Far from slandering the innocent or inviting cyber mobs on the heads of others, there was a peaceful effort to protect, shield, and cast light upon what others had left behind.

There was no call to dispense extra-judicial “justice,” no call to mobs to attack and put these bad men “in their place”– although limited action was taken against Moore, to be quite sure, and I can hardly condone the publishing of his parents’ information. The clarifying, disinfecting light of their work instead compelled accountable authorities to do what they ought to have done in the first place; in these cases, those calling themselves Anonymous knitted society back together. They did not put out a call to arms to torch what was left.*

Elan Gale, however, took the Neo One Hundred route, demanding that people punish rather than restore– that they bludgeon someone with a torch rather than merely shining a hopeful light on a moral failure.

The approbation Gale has received, even from many on the left, should be nothing short of alarming. It presages a world with no meaningful court of appeal save the ravenous appetite of public opinion; woe betide you if the crowd calls your name and finds you wanting.

This is not the apotheosis of democracy; it is its ultimate perversion.

*The original version of the article was productively critiqued by several friends who encouraged me to expand on, and make more nuanced comments about Anonymous, which I have tried to do with this update; the affected paragraphs are in the final section.

**It was indeed a hoax. Though, as I said in the article, that’s immaterial to the larger point being made. The response Gale summoned up online was decidedly real.

The Politics of Small Things

A mockup of the cover of Richard Dawkins' autobiography, its title and subtitle edited to read "An Appetite for Honey: The Making of White Male Sadness" and the black and white photo of Mr. Dawkins edited to show him scrutinising a small jar of honey.
This delectable (one might even say ‘sweet’) work of satire is the doing of Heina Dadabhoy (@futilityfiles)

There is a familiar cadence to the bursts of Twitter mobbing that have become the defining spasms of cyber-politics these days.

Someone in a position of privilege says something mildly foolish, they are called out on it, and then the privileged individual’s response rises to the level of something genuinely concerning and worth talking about.

It is as if some activists excel at chipping away at the wafer-thin façade of public personas to reveal the monsters beneath. While I sometimes find the methods dubious, the unmasking is often as not a public service. We should be made aware of the latent prejudices or hidden failings of many in our commentariat and we’re the better for it.

So what did we learn from the now hilariously infamous Honeygate, the latest Richard Dawkins micro-scandal to rock social media and set virtual tongues awag? Someone close to me described the reaction to the initial Dawkins honey tweet as “tilting at windmills,” and I admit I’m actually inclined to agree with them. It is hardly the worst thing Richard Dawkins has ever said, and had the words been uttered by anyone else they would hardly have occasioned such an outcry. Had my father said it, I might have even agreed with him (while of course privately snickering about honey-based whinging). But what made Dawkins’ tweet so irritating to those of us who’ve had to field his barrage of pop-sociological ignorance for so long has been drawn into stark relief by his response to the, in his words, “puerile display of sniggering frivolity” that occurred on social media. As ever, the response of a man like Dawkins to public criticism is considerably more revealing than the initial “offence” that occasioned the criticism.

The title of his piece says it all: “My Honey Trap: Why Doesn’t Anyone Believe in Public-Spirited Concern?”

And it is, at last, here that the hypocrisies of Dawkins’ belief system become gobsmackingly offensive. It is not because anything he says in the article is strictly wrong, it’s that it reveals Richard Dawkins to be a man whose “public concern” is limited to the petty, stopping well short of things that actually matter. His myopia blinkers him to the myriad ways in which he takes a sledgehammer to civil society and the dignity of its citizens.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees

The example with which he opens the article—his ill fated attempt to get a financial institution to make a minor convenience change to its website—seems representative of those things that animate Richard Dawkins-as-citizen. For him, public service means gently easing the lives of the comfortable in small ways. Occasionally, this will rise to the level of more noteworthy, practical significance, such as his lament for the family whose child was forced by airport security to go without necessary eczema cream. Strictly speaking, these are fine things to be concerned about; I too would like certain frequently-used websites to be updated with certain convenient modifications, and I too applaud those who send kind and informative feedback to institutions to make that happen.

But Dawkins seems to ennoble this with elegant laurels that are woefully oversized considering the trivial situations he lists, and smug condescension lies murmuring just beneath it all. Consider how he economically describes the exchange between himself and that customer service representative:

She thought I wanted satisfaction for myself in particular. It appeared to be outside her comprehension that somebody might take the time to make a public-spirited suggestion to help other people.

“Well, I’ve been on your website trying to get a bank statement, and I’d filled in the whole form before I was told that the system was down anyway. Could I suggest … ”

“My apologies for that, Richard, let me help you now. What exactly is it you require?”

“Er, no, I don’t think you understand. I’ve already got what I personally needed. I want to report the difficulty I had, so that you can make sure other people don’t suffer the same inconvenience in future.”

“Richard, please tell me what is the date of the bank statement you need, and I’ll have it sent to you.”

“No, I already have the bank statement I need. I’m trying to help other people in my situation … ”

I might have been speaking Volapük. She simply didn’t understand a word of Voluntary-Public-Spirit.

I suspect that the problem here has less to do with her and more with the narrow suite of options for helping customers that she was given by her company. It isn’t that she cannot comprehend the idea of helping others or that she is an insensible spectre to the light of public spirit, it’s simply that her company likely does not allow her to accept that kind of feedback and perhaps she was not used to hearing it via that particular channel. Dawkins isn’t wrong to wonder at why things are structured this way—but if he were to truly get to the bottom of it he might be forced to confront the idea that the entire private sector is built on an individualist myth that rewards self-interest and selfishness, an ideology mirrored in its vision of customer service, and epitomised by the classic slogans “the customer is always right” and “the consumer is king.” I suspect that confronting those challenging notions would be a lot less comfortable for Professor Dawkins than upbraiding a poor customer service rep in the pages of The Guardian for being resistant to his civic-mindedness.

This is, in many ways, Dawkins’ biggest problem: he addresses social problems in painfully narrow fashion and is utterly blind to social structure. He would rather blame faulty individuals (or even  a mass of them) than think about truly social questions—and yes, society is more than merely a collection of individual foibles.

To put an even finer point on it, it is why Dawkins is able to write an article like this without a scintilla of irony or self-awareness, after many years of ranting at the barricades of public discourse in an especially racist, sexist register, and doing far more violence to our polity than a thousand confiscated honey jars or scores of broken bank websites. By being deliberately inflammatory and disingenuous about ethnic minorities in Britain—such as blatantly race baiting through his odious tweet mocking Muslims for not having more Nobel prizes to their name—he is rusting the radiant copper statues of civic virtue and corroding our discourse. He cheapens debate by fully adopting Twitter’s pithy idiom in his pop-sociologising about religion and its adherents, breathelessly pearl-clutching at “puerile” social media one moment, and dismissing a population of billions as idiots the next.

A Matter of “Principle”

Throughout this tempest in a honeypot Dawkins asseverated that the material loss of his honey was not at issue, it was the principle of the matter; security theatre and its pointless quotidian humiliations, he seemed to say, was what he was really complaining about. In this way “Bin Laden won,” by ensuring the death of civic trust and freedom through the thousand cuts of doffed shoes, belts, and zipped plastic bags of not more than a quart in capacity.

Principle is beautiful. It is the marble colonnade of democracy, the elegant flourish of calligraphy on parchment that spells out our rights and duties as citizens. But principle must animate something, some substance, some material reality in order to be worth the parchment upon which it was so lovingly written.

Dawkins must complain about principle here because indeed that is all that is at stake for him. For a woman thought to be Muslim, by contrast, who must endure sexual humiliation every time she passes through an airport checkpoint, the distinction dissolves painfully into the irrelevance of immediate bodily harm. It is indistinct for her precisely because the principle is the harm that was caused to her, it is the loss of her dignity, it is the human right absconded with by that selfsame security theatre. And her condition is one that is constructed and buttressed by the words of men like Dawkins who conveniently forget their pretensions to civic-mindedness when opining in grand forums about the supposed backwardness and inherent threat posed by people who are perceived to be of the Muslim faith.

When Dawkins appropriates that Muslim woman’s putative life experience and perverts it into a simulacrum that enables him to tut-tut activist and thinker Rebecca Watson who complained, rather politely, that it was unwise and unkind for male strangers to proposition women in a hotel lift at 3AM, he forgot the language of “Voluntary Public Spirit.” Indeed, one wonders if Watson was speaking Volapük.

By mocking women, including atheist and sceptic women who are part of Dawkins’ own political stratum, simply because they try to convey the unique social realities of an experience Mr. Dawkins himself does not, and cannot share, he lets loose a rather generous, malodorous pile of leavings upon the very idea of civic spirit. A glitchy bank website isn’t worth an atom of a fig when compared to the fact that we, Dawkins’ female fellow citizens, have a profoundly different relationship to the world of night, to dark alleys, lonely streets, and 3AM lifts. Yet which does he ennoble with the flowering garlands of “public spiritedness”? That says something in and of itself.

Where was he, one wonders, when his fellow “Horseman” Sam Harris called for Muslims to be “racially profiled”? If ever there was an hour for our civic minded superman to duck into a phone box and emerge to reveal his colourful, democratic tunic, it was surely then.

Or perhaps he could have found that beautiful language of civic virtue when that same woman he attacked reminded us of why those very institutions Dawkins takes for granted fail her, and why her free speech remains a right she has to fight for on a daily basis, often athwart hordes of Dawkins’ own fans emboldened by the imprimatur he lent to their hatred by dismissing Watson so sneeringly. He might wonder at the civic mindedness of the men who send her things that are far worse than “puerile sniggering” as well.

Yet it is, in the final analysis, the fact that honey is ineluctably a liquid that sees Dawkins gesturing to those great marble columns and that calligraphy on parchment, and that is worth getting one’s back up.

We all have a lot to learn about citizenship and building a more perfect union of sovereignly equal peoples and individuals; we will not learn it from a man who uses mighty rhetoric to cover up his perennial failure to accept any responsibility for the things he says. There is, Mr. Dawkins, such a thing as duty—and I would much rather you used it to combat institutional prejudice that makes me fear for my life and bodily integrity than to help make my bank website run a little more smoothly.


My approach to Cathy Brennan has long mirrored my approach to Ann Coulter; I generally refuse to dignify their deliberate attempts to cruelly incite. Rising to meet their hate, which is deliberately designed to provoke outrage, feels like a vindication of their strategy; what they desire most is attention, and giving it to them hardly feels like a victory for those on the side of the angels. However, after seeing a relatively sympathetic article about Brennan in the online magazine Bustle— which apparently misgenders a trans woman and which some of my friends have fairly derided as a “puff piece”– I felt there are some matters which merit clarification.

During the interview she clearly set aside the instruments of her usual rhetoric and put on her most reasonable mien. Unsurprisingly, nothing she says justifies her behaviour, and much of what she does say is premised on assumptions that have no basis in our shared reality as women.

It is that latter point that Brennan struggles with and the primary reason that reconciliation between those like her and the rest of the feminist movement is likely impossible; she simply refuses to believe that trans women are women, and structures everything she believes around that misapprehension. This keystone holds up everything she and her fellow travellers believe about trans politics. I have no illusions about convincing Brennan, but for the sake of anyone who might have been persuaded that Brennan’s contribution to this debate arises from something other than a particularly heartless form of prejudice I would submit the following in response to some of her points in this interview.

Notes on an Avant-Garde Definition of “Conservative”

First and foremost is this particular argument which lies at the heart of much “feminist” transphobia:

“The laws also codify the idea of innate gender identity, Brennan said. In pushing the idea that whatever gender a person identifies as overrides their biological sex, it “enshrines into law the idea that gender is innate.” This is an essentially conservative idea, and “it’s not advancing the cause of women’s liberation, which is what I’m interested in as a feminist. This ideology — I understand that it’s rooted in equality, but it has the effect of marginalizing women.””

This is breathtaking. It is especially gobsmacking for a feminist to argue something so painfully opposed to most feminist understandings of patriarchy and biological essentialism.

Let us be clear about what is being argued here: Brennan’s suggestion is that if one is assigned a sex at birth, forcibly, by doctors and parents on the basis of nothing more than a cursory glance at a biological fact, and then one is forcibly raised to live up to that role, backed by the full faith and violent credit of patriarchy, it is essentially conservative to then reach a point of consciousness that says “no, I am not a prisoner of my birth biology,” and identify differently from a gender that everyone around you says is “innate,” “biological,” “ordained by God,” et cetera. This courageous act is what she deems conservative, not the chorus of voices in patriarchal institutions that have long tried to pathologise and marginalise us for our asseverations of self.

Indeed, this is what transphobic feminism never seems to grapple with: how do they theorise patriarchy’s long, abiding legacy of discrimination against trans people? How do they reconcile their assertions with the fact that trans women are victims of the same types of harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, street violence, exploitation, and objectification that cisgender women are? How is it that after being condemned by conservative, patriarchal religion, (lest we forget, the erstwhile Pope Benedict once likened us to climate change), the patriarchal nuclear family, and patriarchy on the street, does one come to the conclusion that what trans women are is “essentially conservative”?

Far from being “innate,” most trans people argue that gender is the very opposite, with our lives and our numbers as empirical proof of the same. Whether one likes it or not, we defied our assigned sex at birth, and we exist. Rather insistently, at that. It is certainly true that some trans people redound to reductive arguments about innate brain sex or genetics, but I and many others have argued that this should not be the basis for our claims to rights and justice.

We should not be held hostage to what some of us say when trying to win some measure of reprieve from a violent system: sometimes mouthing the words “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “I have a woman’s brain in a man’s body” is what one needs to access healthcare, a place to live, or the support of parents who would otherwise turn you out of your home. When every other door is slammed in your face, what would you do? We as feminists have ample analysis to understand this; why is that analysis always shut off when trans women enter the frame, and why do a minority of cisgender feminists suddenly and naively take what they see at face value, in a manner redolent of the crypto-misogynist who says that women make less money because we choose to spend more time with our children?

I must confess, I have never been able to follow the logic of those who argue that trans people are inherently conservative or biologically essentialist in our essence. Consider Brennan who argues:

“Our whole lives we are raised very much aware of our vulnerability as women, so I don’t understand why when a man says he’s a woman, all of a sudden the penis is no longer (an issue) … Men rape women and girls in bathrooms all the time, so it’s not like women’s concerns about that aren’t reasonable. And these laws are broadly enough written to justify the entry of anyone into a (women-only) space.

If they’re excluding you because you’re male, well, I’m sorry, but you are male. Deal with your reality. We didn’t create that reality, that reality exists.”

In other words, if you have a penis at birth and it leads to you being assigned “M,” then there is no way to escape that; you are a man for life, irrespective of any number of possible social interventions, with one’s penis being the all determining truth of the matter. (The reverse being true for those assigned “F,” presumably).  Is this the grand argument against biological essentialism? How is this view, that one’s physiology at birth is the all determining truth, the full “reality” of one’s gender, not what is inherently conservative?

Our Lives, Our Truth, Our Womanhood

What is “reality” is the brutality of patriarchy for many women—for when it comes to that fist in women’s faces, patriarchy makes no distinction between cis and trans women. The other key fact ignored by Brennan in the foregoing is that trans women are raped too.

Theoretical debates about trans women prevail in some spaces, but the reality of our existence prevails in the real world of the street, the late night bus, the dark alley, the bedroom. No amount of Brennan’s averring that we are men would have spared CeCe MacDonald, Islan Nettles, Erycka Morgan, and countless other women who have suffered or died at the hands of men. It does not spare trans women of colour from being stopped and frisked by police officers who use condoms as “evidence” of prostitution. It does not spare those same trans women from being raped by cisgender men in holding cells and prisons. It does not spare trans women from being murdered by boyfriends who demonstrate the same entitlement they would over the life and body of a cisgender woman—taking it to an especially vicious extreme because transgender women are, in too many cases, even more disposable. It does not spare us from being the target of internet harassment campaigns designed to silence women—much of my own work has centered around this, and the recent hate campaigns directed at Carloyn Petit and Laura Kate Dale remind us that feminist trans women incur just as much hate for speaking out as cisgender feminists do. I myself was run off of moderating a community forum because of stalking, misogynist threats, and the odd rape threat.

Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us, even if our individual tormentors may deride us as “men” or fixate luridly upon our anatomy by calling us “chicks with dicks” (merely repeating the objectifying gestures extended to all women), they will unequivocally treat us as women.

Thus, asking us to use men’s accommodations is the equivalent of saying that it is acceptable for us to go somewhere we’ll be beaten up, sexually harassed, and possibly raped. Whatever inconvenience this poses to Brennan’s ideology, trans women are not treated as men by patriarchy.

That reality exists.

It is, in a sense, degrading that I must even write this– an article that lays bare scars, bruises, bodies, and wounded hearts– is this lurid pornography of the spirit what it takes for someone like this to accept, however grudgingly, that in spite of her hailstorm of arrows we are inexorably sisters in this struggle? Why must I even be placed in the position of proving our womanhood by proving that patriarchy has hurt us through delineating how it hasIt is beyond lamentable that this has become necessary.


Finally, a brief word must spared for Brennan’s suggestion that her lawsuits and stalking are reserved only for those who go out of their way to harass her. As her recent suit against Jacobin magazine makes abundantly clear, Ms. Brennan will use legal instruments to attack anyone who merely disagrees with her. Jacobin’s crime was to publish a critical article by transfeminist Samantha Leigh Allen which picked apart the fundamentals of Brennan’s beliefs as I have done here. Like me, she did not attack Brennan but criticised her ideas and, yes, labelled them “transphobic.” This, apparently, counts as slander.

Meanwhile, a cis friend of my partner and myself is being hauled to court for mildly criticising Brennan on Twitter. Another friend, whose work centres around bringing gender equity to the internet, has been attacked by Brennan and her allies for being a trans woman.

Furthermore, as I write this, radical feminist journalist Laurie Penny has had to put an article about Brennan’s politics on ice because of a possible lawsuit, after a day of enduring her attempts to get her fired.

Concluding Thoughts

I want to make myself absolutely, unequivocally clear: no one, whether trans or cis, woman or allied with women, should harass those whose transphobically harass us. There is no place for threats or hateful words directed at Brennan or any of her fellow travellers. I do not condone such behaviour. We accomplish nothing by merely summoning more cruelty and indignity into the world, whatever power differences may prevail amongst the participants.

But I am speaking up now against Ms. Brennan’s ideas because her work seems to chiefly consist in stopping other feminists from doing theirs. She is harassing our community and trying her hardest to silence women—every person in my professional circle that has faced some sort of action from Brennan is a woman, whether cis or trans, and we can now add one of our most prominent young feminist writers to that list, apparently. Every single one of these people, myself included, has important feminist projects that we are working on and constitute our life’s work—any criticism of Brennan is incidental. But it would appear that she makes it her full time job to harass us and anyone who might speak on our behalf against her, which invariably means that most of her work involves attacking and silencing women and girls, most of whom are feminists.

The culture of fear thus created where nearly everyone I know who puts pen to paper is afraid of even mentioning Brennan’s name is anathema to any ethical democratic discourse, and given the disproportionate silencing of women at work here it is a culture that is misogynist in its dimensions. This is not debate, this is not evenhanded or balanced; this is a brutal campaign that is making the life of people I love harder, and is, in some cases, putting trans people in serious danger.

How else could I describe her very public and (in the true sense of this word) slanderous campaign against an innocent trans girl being led by the right wing “Pacific Justice Institute”? Without a shred of evidence, she is attempting to gin up a national campaign to harass and exclude a young girl, going so far as outing her, for no reason other than her gender and the fact that Brennan does not approve of every place she exists as that gender.  For her to ally with powerful, monied forces in the harassment of a child, is without excuse and it is persecution.

That is reality. And this must stop. As feminists we have enough to deal with without constantly dodging this decidedly unfriendly fire, especially when it targets our young.

Amber Scott’s Sword of Burning Gold: Inclusion in an Incursion

A decidedly dramatic painting of a crimson demon, wielding a titanic sword slashing at a baying white dragon; in the midst of the carnage, some adventurers-- two women and a man-- fall through the rubble of the building the falling dragon shattered, tumbling into an abyss below

This article is crossposted from my latest feature for the Border House; that version can be seen here.

What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre,  has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to charges of blood drinking Satanism. The game remains gunshy about introducing content that might be deemed something less than family-friendly. Even its excellent Book of Exalted Deeds compendium—a supplement geared towards elaborating the concepts of virtue and divinity in D&D—came with a “Mature Content” warning sticker. The offending content was, well, a boob, along with a frank discussion of torture (and why it was morally unjustifiable).

This flinching instinct on the part of D&D’s inheritors, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, has kept LGBT characters far away from public acknowledgement in the game’s content. “Family friendly,” that delightful euphemism for wilful ignorance of and prejudice against sexual minorities, has become the catchphrase of the granddaddy of RPGs.

While my love for D&D was immense and filled with innumerable fond memories, many immortalised on a shelf groaning under the weight of 2e and 3.5e books, I lamented the fact that such a fantastic genre should be hamstrung by senseless timidity. It was not just the issue of LGBT inclusion, of course; the writing had ossified, the taken for granted dimensions of the setting had become set in stone, routinized and underdeveloped. Flashes of brilliant creativity were smothered in the gloom of playing it safe as the controversial Fourth Edition went to press.

Enter Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. For years I’d ignored it blithely, thinking it was a low rent, grittier D&D that had nothing new to offer, save a nostalgic continuation of the 3.5e ruleset. How wrong I was. The long, in-depth second look it deserved from me was occasioned by a friend’s breathless Facebook post about a trans woman character being introduced in the game’s latest adventure module.  A lesbian trans woman, married to a half-Orc Paladin of a Lawful Good goddess. My attention was well and truly piqued.

From Representation to Creative Flourishing

It is a common complaint amongst those determined to preserve a patriarchal status quo that characters ought not deviate from a white/male/hetero/cis norm unless there are “good narrative reasons” for doing so, whatever those might be. Curiously, nothing ever seems to fit the bill for such people; any deviation from that norm immediately occasions passionate metaphors about shoving things down throats and other vaguely sexual musings. But for those of us who, in good faith, worry about tokenisation occasioned by well-intentioned efforts at inclusion, there is a legitimate concern about ensuring that, say, LGBT characters are drawn to be people first and queer second, lest they be defined entirely by one facet of their identity.

Paizo gets this balance just right, in my view.

An image showing the cover of The Worldwound Incursion. A green Orcish woman with short black hair, wearing resplendent gold armour and bearing a sword and shield dominates the cover, while in the background a white dragon fights a red demon in a dramatic battle.The 73rd issue of their Adventure Path modules—self-contained cycles of adventures that provide detailed information about settings and campaigns a DM can use to start a plot for her players—The Worldwound Incursion by Amber E. Scott might well serve as both illustration of inclusion done well and an example of what that inclusion can look like in the specific medium of a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. (Cover at left; art by Wayne Reynolds).

The eponymous Worldwound is a scar in the world of Golarion, spewing forth demons and other hellish beasts who break like a tide against the increasingly beleaguered defenders in the nation of Mendev. Divine wardstones help keep the fiends at bay, but when one of them is sabotaged, one of the great citadels of the nation—the crusader city of Kenabres—falls to the horde. It is into this maelstrom that your adventuring party is thrust. Spared from the invasion by a virtuous dragon’s last minute intervention, your party and a few NPC citizens of Kenabres awake in an underground cavern—you must find your way back to the surface and do what you can to ease the fate of the fallen city.

One of these NPCs broke her leg in the divinely cushioned fall from the surface, Anevia Tirabade, a forthright rogue of a woman who served the city as a scout and archer. The story from here on out is very well treated by Ms. Scott; Tirabade is one of three NPCs of varying strengths and personalities with whom your party must work, negotiate, and assist. The mechanics of this, and the story possibilities that emerge, are a delight to read; one’s imagination really takes flight with the help of the complicated entanglements Scott writes for each character— the other two are Aravashinal, a blind wizard whose membership in a secret society drives a subplot, and Horgus, an arrogant noble whose gossipmongering about the other two could bring about the downfall of the group.

The genius of this module, I believe, lies in its strong emphasis on relationships and the deep elaboration that Scott gives to the myriad ways they impact the story, even as Kenabres crumbles. Rare is the writer who captures the fundamental humanity of apocalypse (beyond clichés about survivalism, at least), and Scott certainly rises to that challenge. The depth of these relationships, the conspiracies, triumphs, and tragedies they all entail, emerge as rewards for good investigative roleplay—and it is only here that Anevia’s story emerges.

One discovers that Anevia Tirabade is a trans woman who is married to a Half-Orc Crusader named Irabeth. Irabeth Tirabade is, in this campaign, helping to organise the resistance against the demonic horde. There is a beautiful and romantic story behind Anevia’s transition that is inextricably bound up with the love shared between the rogue and paladin, there for the taking if one wishes to learn it. But it is neither the focus of the story nor Anevia’s raison d’etre for being in it. Like Amanda Downum’s Savedra Severos, Anevia is a trans woman who is many years post-transition and whose role in the present story is akin to that of her cisgender counterparts—being a person of some power and influence in Kenabres pitching in after its destruction.

Anevia’s story is presented neither as a joke, nor as the driving motivation of her character. Like all trans people, her transition was merely instrumental in helping Anevia live a liveable life; her true adventure lay in the work she did for her adopted hometown, and the labours she would come to share with her wife. She is now part of the resistance and thrust into the epicentre of a renewed crusade against the forces of Hell, all of which are entirely orthogonal to the fact that she happens to be a lesbian trans woman. This is inclusion done well; Scott’s backstory for Anevia does not render her invisible as a trans person, but it also does not centralise that aspect of her as being the only worthwhile or interesting thing about her. Instead, it threads through her life in a seamlessly realistic way.

Anevia Tirabade, a human woman with short dark hair, sporting a wounded cheek. She wears brown leather armour, and has a bow with a quiver full of arrows slung across her back and her a sword in her left hand. She walks with cane made from a gnarled branch, and her left leg is in splints. She looks quite determined.
Anevia Tirabade, being awesome, as is her wont.

She grew up as part of her mother’s criminal gang, dysphoria leading to asociality on her part, even as she both learned to pick pockets and escape into art about strong women heroines. When at last the forces of law broke up the gang, Anevia’s mother sent her away to a temple of Desna, where a priestess would raise Anevia as her daughter—initially as a disguise, albeit one rather eagerly donned by the young Anevia. Her foster mother let her set off on an adulthood of adventuring, like the women from the stories Anevia so loved, with her blessing for this new life. On that long series of adventures in which she lent her services to other temples of Desna, she would meet Irabeth and fall head over heels.

I shan’t indulge in telling the whole story but it’s very sweetly written (aside from pronoun mangling when discussing the pre-transition Anevia, but it’s a forgivable lapse considering the audience; it’s still a dramatic and graceful step in the right direction).

The one artistic suggestion I might make is as follows. After falling for Irabeth, Anevia, according to the text,

“had revealed herself to actually be a man… but this didn’t matter to the paladin, who had learned to value a companion’s personality over her appearance. In fact, Irabeth had spent a fair amount of her personal wealth (including selling her father’s sword) to fund the purchase of an elixir for Anevia, one that would shift her physical gender to match the rest of her.”

(Okay, so maybe I will recount a bit more of their adorable love story). But the point is that it is rather unfortunate to recycle the “actually be a man” language which, although well intentioned in its use here, probably engenders more confusion than not amongst those unfamiliar with trans people. Generally speaking, any talk of ‘actually’ being one’s birth sex tends to be the spearpoint of a lot of transphobic arguments, and it’s best not to legitimise that.

When I have written trans people into my sci-fi and fantasy settings, I’ve always made sure to give them a unique name (“transgender” and “transsexual” being too deeply ground in our own world’s political and medical rhetoric to be truly distancing). One Pathfinder playing friend, writer Katie Berger Tremaine, suggests calling trans people “Arsheans” after one of the empyreal angels devoted to, amongst other things, diversity of gender expression. (That angel, Arshea, is another of Ms. Scott’s inspired creations and merits their own article).

The Fundaments of the Inclusive Adventure

One of the more darkly hilarious criticisms levelled at Irabeth and Anevia was that they were improbable due to being “too many identities at once.” This bizarre charge, being the inverted version of the vituperatively bigoted joke that says one must be a “disabled black lesbian Muslim” to get ahead in the world, is merely another irksome spasm of privilege and the myopia it inculcates— but it merits special comment nevertheless.

Behind the slur lies the idea that such people do not exist—that one might be a lesbian, or trans, or biracial, but surely not all at once; that is merely a fantasy of leftist diversity maniacs, after all. Yet, we actually do exist. As I joked more than once on Paizo’s forums to people making such prejudicial criticisms, Anevia and Irabeth’s story is actually all the more affecting because it maps onto the contours of my own life. After all, I’m a lesbian trans woman in an interracial relationship, myself. And given Irabeth’s biracial heritage as a half-Orc who struggled against racial prejudice and aspired to fit into human dominated institutions—she is also someone in whom I saw a rather lot of myself. It’s the kind of story not often enough told, and Ms. Scott captured it with aplomb.

It is here we return to the question of creativity in writing and the benefits of artistically-crafted diversity (as opposed to hamhanded tokenism): it makes stories better, more original, and more interesting. While transphobes were attacking Anevia simply for being in the story, and Irabeth for simply being a lesbian—occasioning all manner of scrutiny not given to Worldwound Incursion’s several straight cis male characters—they ignored how much lore and roleplay grist each woman added to the tale. The Worldwound Incursion is remarkable for its emphasis on the many social relationships—be they interpersonal or at the level of organisational conspiracy—that make up a city, even one smouldering in ruin amidst a truly hellish war. Unlike many adventure modules, Pathfinders’ as a whole place a good deal of emphasis on fleshing out the NPCs who are a setting’s truest ambassadors, imparting the living and breathing soul of a fantasy realm.

In this light, Anevia and Irabeth are, in their ways, part of Kenabres’ essence; each woman and her history says something about the hopes and failures of their adopted homeland, and their love is a perfect symbol of the virtues they tirelessly defend from the Worldwound’s spew.

What the critics of these two characters miss is how elegantly Amber Scott drew their fundamental humanity (with apologies to Irabeth’s Orc-ness, of course). Diversity does not just exist as a discrete property of a person fully coterminous with one aspect of their identity. There must also be diversity within a character. Anevia is not just a transsexual woman; she’s the crafty child of the streets who speaks forthrightly to all, regardless of rank, and who fights back the memories of her scarred past, trying to live in the here and now. She’s the Worldwound scout who found love on the edge of the abyss and who, at the present point in this campaign, limps her way through a cave with several strangers on her way into a strange, new adventure that has turned that world upside down.

Well done, Ms. Scott.

Concluding Thoughts: To Tell The Untold Story

The adventure module itself is also a testament to everything Pathfinder is doing right as a roleplaying game; rich in lore, technical rules that intrigue but don’t bog one down in math, an epic story that drops level 1 players into the midst of an incredible tale, a lavish gazetteer for the city of Kenabres, a short story, and some unique monsters thrown into the fray—there’s a lot to keep you busy. My personal favourite detail has to be Scott’s exalted magical sword, Radiance, (which inspired this article’s title); it was the sword of an outspoken crusader, a woman named Yaniel, who witheringly condemened her superiors’ negligence and took the fight to the demons. The weapon, in the hands of a virtuous paladin, can ‘level up’ with you. From Amber Scott’s fast paced and captivating plot, to Jerome Virnich’s evilly cute Sin Seeker monster, the module presents a peerless toolbox for adventure. If Pathfinder excels at anything it’s finding ways to tell stories that fantasy RPGs haven’t before.

I’m going to have to resist the overwhelming impulse to make a cheesy pun on the RPG’s name by saying something like “there’s a new path being found in roleplaying games!” and instead simply say that Pathfinder’s latest books merit a closer look. Paizo’s Creative Director, James Jacobs, has gone on record to say that LGBT characters exist in the world of Golarion and that all freelance writers are advised of this canonical fact. The iconic Cleric, Kyra, has been officially revealed to be a lesbian woman, and we can—apparently—expect more ‘out’ NPCs in the near future. It is no less worth mentioning that Pathfinder has overtaken D&D as the world’s bestselling PnP RPG: it’s yet another nail in the coffin of the dreadful cliché that “diversity doesn’t sell.” Wizards of the Coast might do well to take note.

*The banner image and Worldwound Incursion cover art are by Wayne Reynolds; the art of Anevia is uncredited in the book but I will add a name as soon as I can find one.

Reproductive Justice and the Invisible Sisterhood

I delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the 2013 State University of New York– New Paltz Women’s Studies Conference. I present it here in its original written form without additional comment.

(Well, one additional comment: If you wish to follow along with audio and hear the voice of Nuclear Unicorn, click here. My profound thanks to Eli Mann for the recording.)


sisterhoodispowerfulPatriarchy does not begin in our bodies.

Contrary to those theories, feminist and otherwise, that seek an “origin myth” for patriarchy that germinates somewhere in the uterus, patriarchy has no starting point in reproductive organs of any kind—there is nothing in our marrow as women, our DNA, that sets us up as ontological victims of men whose bodies, whose bits, predispose them to oppression.

In the words of legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon: “It is one thing to identify woman’s biology as part of the terrain on which a struggle for dominance is acted out; it is another to identify woman’s biology as the source of that subordination. The first approach certainly identifies an intimate alienation; the second predicates woman’s status on the facticity of her biology.”

Put bluntly, there is no truly feminist or social-scientific way to reason that patriarchy begins in a womb, an ovary, or the vagina. What is much fairer to say is that the meaning society gives our bodies is what oppresses us—and also what binds us together, however unwillingly. I begin here because if I am to speak about trans women’s experience of reproductive injustice, I cannot indulge the false premise that women are born to be oppressed—a very different notion from saying we are born into a world that oppresses us. Much searing truth remains in Simone de Beauvoir’s timeless assertion that “one is not born but rather becomes woman.”

Those words invite us to search for the full depth of their meaning.


Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies, but it is often very intimately concerned with them. I would suggest, above all else, that patriarchy does powerfully regulate and control women’s bodies—not because a sizeable percentage of women have ovaries (not all of us do), nor because many women menstruate (not all of us do), nor because every woman can get pregnant (many of us can’t)—but because there is a powerful, controlling ideology about what bodies are for that transcends the particulars of any one woman’s embodiment.

Transfeminist writer Autumn Nicole Bradley asks us if an infertile cisgender woman would, in a feminist space, “be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?” I would ask you to think of trans women in the same light.

Feminism has often been accused—sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly—of essentialising and universalising “woman.” Yet more often than not it is feminism that has been the necessary antidote to the patriarchal myth that all women are the same bundle of incapabilities imbuing an alabaster, pedestalised angel who exists only for man’s pleasure—for every woman who does not fit, we are cast into the fires of violent oppression at its most naked; women of colour, transgender women, poor women, women with disabilities, loud and outspoken women, sex working women, any woman regardless of race and class who refuses the objectification of that invisible cage. As we are tortured in the shadows, the myth of patriarchal essentialism—centered on a mythic, silent and obedient white virgin upon her pedestal—beats on.

Male dominance gives our bodies a very particular meaning, one that purportedly unites us and submerges all particularity, all individuality, beneath its event horizon. Our bodies are meant for one thing, and one thing alone. Ours is to reproduce; and if we cannot, then we are condemned to the great, ever swelling ash heap of this society—those considered unable to fulfill their supposedly naturally ordained functions. And yet, we know patriarchy does not apply this meaning equally; for all its mythologizing about the eternal feminine and the ultimate indistinguishable unity of women, it recognises we are not all the same. Our patriarchy, struck through as it is by classism, racism, and other forms of prejudice, desperately wants to prevent some women from reproducing—killed or sterilised by the hundreds of thousands, targeted daily by microagressions writ painfully small and propaganda writ blazingly large.

Yet even in this case, we see where patriarchy begins and ends: its alpha and omega is the meaning of women’s bodies, and so much hinges on how suited we are judged to be for reproductive purposes. So much hatred is directed at us around the issue of reproduction—whether it is forcing white women to have children or forcing black women, native women and Latinas not to. Patriarchy really cares about what we’re doing with our bodies.

Consider, no less, how the interventions of women of colour have broadened feminist understandings of reproductive justice: reminding us that reproductive injustice happens when we are forced not to bear children or adopt, as when we are forced to do so. In every case, what links them is both a denial of women’s agency—our right to choose—and a meaning imposed on our bodies by a sexist society that seeks to stifle and suffocate our humanity beneath that overriding myth of idealised motherhood. Motherhood on the terms of cisgender men, particularly white men; comprised of the right kind of mothers, doing the right and proper things—mostly involving keeping our mouths shut and bearing our pain with silence and obedience.

Where does one suppose trans women fit into this?


Feminist activist and city councillor Sarah Brown once posted a conversation between herself and a cisgender man who was sexually harassing her, fetishising her for being a trans woman. He cackhandedly asked her whether she was trans or cis by saying, “so r u a natural woman?”

Her reply: “What, like the song? Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe? Because, I like to think so.”

That natural occurrence is, perhaps, one of the more troubling aspects of our existence, so far as patriarchy is concerned. For a society that believes so very passionately that women are made to reproduce—and to do so in a certain way—the fact that we keep damnably and insistently popping up is a source of unending consternation to those most invested in biologist myths. Put plainly, I am not supposed to exist. I shouldn’t be here, and my occurrence in the universe not only disrupts what is meant by “natural” but also what is meant by “woman.” I share that quality, as I alluded to earlier, with many women whose bodies are not capable of reproducing in the way women are presumed to be universally able to.

You may wonder why I spent the last couple of minutes on so much foreground, by the way, barely mentioning transgender people at first. The reason for this, for summoning up theoretical arguments against essentialism that underlay the best of the feminist tradition, is explained by the following comment from a cisgender woman replying to an article I wrote on Feministing about why “trans rights are reproductive rights,”

“Reproductive rights are at their core the right not to die or be crippled or to be left destitute or be trapped in a violent relationship by an unwanted/unplanned… pregnancy.

Trans women cannot get pregnant, this is not about trans women.”

For all the cisgender women out there who can’t get pregnant, I’m sorry, but I guess this isn’t about you either.

Statements like this, which appear well meaning, mistake the terrain of reproductive injustice for its fundamental cause. There is no doubt that women who get pregnant are ruthlessly targeted by our society for dehumanisation and shackled by a regime of bodily control, one way or the other. But for those of us who cannot, we are in many cases ruthlessly attacked in part because we are unable or unwilling to fulfill the patriarchal mandate that says women must bear children in order for them to be both legitimate and successful women. We all feel that pressure, whatever our bodily configurations may be. That’s because it doesn’t arise from our bodies or begin in the shape of our genitalia, but instead is projected onto us by the society in which we live.

When I came out, one of the first things my father lamented was the loss of his grandchildren, the loss of progeny who would—by blood—carry his name and his “legacy.” Then came the recriminations about what my body was “for” and what “God put us on this earth to do.” I was no good to my family as a woman if I could not bear children. Interwoven in all of this is that very ideology about what bodies are for. It is precisely the same ideology that has seen women coerced into having children, that has seen people of colour brutalised under eugenics programs that sterilised them, and that has created a byzantine web of regulations regarding what trans people can and cannot do with their bodies.

It is the ideology behind laws in many countries that require trans people to be sterilised before our gender markers can be changed on various IDs and the ideology that still sees too many psychiatrists enforcing gender norms on their trans patients as a pre-requisite of trans healthcare. We all have different medical needs as trans people, but for those of us who require hormones and surgery we are often spiritually blackmailed for them (“wear this skirt and makeup or I won’t see you as a serious woman”). We may be charged dearly for the pleasure and then laughed at if we suggest such things should be covered by either public or private insurance. We may also be denied transition altogether.

All in the name of what some people—particularly men—think our bodies are for. What they think a woman’s body should be.

One of the central reasons that what we do is considered “self-mutilation” is that we are seen to be destroying our purportedly natural reproductive capacity. We are seen to be revolting against a genetic inheritance that should obviate the very existence of transgender people; sinful enough. Yet, far worse in the eyes of many petty patriarchs is when trans people express their biological reproductive capacity. All the consternation over Thomas Beatie, the trans man who made headlines with his pregnancies, illustrates this. The laws in Australia, in the UK, and in several American states that prohibit trans people from changing the gender markers on identity documents until we can prove we’ve surgically altered our genitals illustrates this.

Our limited access to reproductive care facilities illustrates this. All such facilities expect an unproblematically cisgender man or woman. So when a Planned Parenthood clinic is confronted with a transgender man who needs a gynecologist, or when a sperm bank is confronted with a trans woman who wants to have children of her own someday, it occasions the medical equivalent of a constitutional crisis that sees these trans people shown the door more often than not, left to fend for ourselves.

When trying to bank her sperm, one trans woman I know was asked by the attendant on the phone why she was doing this. When my friend explained, the staffperson abruptly said “That’s not real” and hung up on her.


A close friend simply got the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” treatment when she revealed she was trans.

We are damned because through transition we may sterilise ourselves, but we are equally damned if we try to preserve and express biologic reproductive capacity. We are caught in the very double bind Marilyn Frye deems essential to oppression. We transition, therefore we upend naturalist myths—and that existence is bad enough—but to make sure we don’t pass on our cooties and do even more violence to that patriarchal mythology, the state demands that we become sterile anyway if it is to suffer our insistent existence.

Little to no medical research is done on trans people and reproduction—whether to simply collect data or to create organs that might allow me to bear the child I should love to have someday—we are not supposed to exist, after all.


Yet do you know what else is really threatening about that existence? About everything I’ve just described? It is the fact that we as trans people—whether we are trans women, trans men, or genderqueer—expose the fatal flaw of naturalism, just as many before us have in ways great and small. But in our way, we put the lie to the idea that to be a woman, or a man, means fulfilling some evolutionary imperative, or to silently obey the edicts of our selfish genes while using the bits we were born with.

We upend the idea that one is born anything, and tacitly remind all that we “become” something.

Let me speak of this from the perspective of trans women.

When I go out into the world and have a gender ascribed to me—one that is almost always some kind of woman—the people who gender me are not thinking about my genitals, or my chromosomes, or what is on my birth certificate. I present as a woman, according to the various cues that our society assigns to the gender of ‘woman,’ therefore I am one so far as they are concerned. Therefore I am treated as one.

I run the same risk as cis women do of going into a job interview and being silently judged because I’m a young woman who “might get pregnant and leave the company”—I might get mommy-tracked, if I’m hired, and if I come out, I run the risk of being fired because I’m trans. No uterus required, just patriarchy.

In the street I face men who sexually harass me because they see me as a woman, and therefore they feel entitled to my body, whatever its configuration. No uterus required, just patriarchy.

I find myself condescended to and mansplained to; I’ve been the target of rape threats, I have been stalked and harassed online, and I’ve been called every sexist and transmisogynist slur in the book—including ones I hadn’t heard of. I was told that I was a “feminazi whore with too much sand in her fake vagina.” I’d never spoken to this man about my body—and but for the word ‘fake’ he merely said what he might’ve said to any cis woman. No uterus required, just patriarchy.

As we speak, trans women of colour in New York City are literally having their handbags raided by police officers who then arrest them on prostitution charges if they’re found to be carrying condoms. Where are their reproductive rights, one wonders? No uterus required, just patriarchy.

Women are not wombs; that is one of the most powerful lessons that feminism has tried to teach a stricken world. I say to you, my sisters in this audience, that I stand with you; I have walked where many of you have walked, and we must not be divided from one another by our corporeality, but united by our shared womanhood.

Women are not oppressed because we have wombs; wombs are attacked because they are perceived to belong to women. For those of us without wombs, because we are still seen as women our bodies are disciplined and controlled in other ways. For trans men and genderqueer people with wombs, who refuse a womanhood patriarchy relentlessly tries to foist upon them, they too find themselves viciously attacked in part because they refuse to adhere to naturalism—they may dare to show that pregnancy does not only define the condition of woman. This is very bad news for patriarchy.

We are learning, as a society, that the Sun does not orbit the Earth. Our entire view of the universe is being changed.


As I opened with a few words from Catharine MacKinnon, so too do I close. She once wrote of oratory, “A platform and a period of time and listeners who choose to be there create a threshold of mortality. If you never say anything else to them (you might not) and if you die right afterward (you could), what would have been worth this time?”

What indeed. What I would say to you if I could say naught else, my listeners for this space of time, is this: I am your sister.

We as trans women are not an entryist plot trying to distract from “the real issues,” we are women who are simply trying to get by, trying to move around, trying to live, and to claim the humanity that is the common birthright of us all. We bring not dissension and dissolution, but the same truths that women down the centuries from Sojourner Truth to the Lavender Menace have brought. The truth of feminism’s promise: that none of us will win unless all of us do, and that we are all ultimately united in struggle.

We as trans women have always been here—for while theoretical debates about our womanhood prevail, the fact of our womanhood prevails in the world out there. Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us; we are targeted because we are women. We are a great sisterhood invisible.

That notion of sisterhood, battered over the years by so much criticism, still thrums through so many trans women who find comfort and refuge among other women like them—and sometimes, as has been blessedly true with me, cisgender women who see in me their lives and struggles recited back to them in a different voice, but one that resonates with theirs.

As women, our diversity has always been our strength. It is not just an invisible sisterhood that links trans women together, but it also links cisgender and transgender women as one indivisible whole that no amount of transphobia, whether postmodern or second wave in provenance, can ever tear asunder. We share something far more essential than a body: we share the fact that we are survivors. We share the fact that patriarchy imposes a meaning on our bodies that demands something soul-wrenching from us.

But we also share this. This spirit, this will, this passion, something that burns beautifully and demands that our swords not sleep in our hands until we have built a world where all women, where all people, shall be free of those imposing ideologies and free of the nightmares that dog too many of us. We share the belief in a better world, we share hope for our children—for those we have and those we were not allowed to have—and we share lives that are insistently and powerfully lived; beautiful lives.

We are you, and you are us.

What links us is not our scars or the ways we have been hurt, but our aspirations to rise above oppression’s fetters, and claim our bodies for ourselves.

Our bodies, our choices.

State of the ‘Corn: “Eat the Press” Edition

16 bit video game screen showing Princess Peach wearing a white dress with red trim jumping between two green pipes against a clear blue sky with a goomba running around on the ground below.
Super Peach from Nicholas Elias Wilson’s hack of Super Mario Bros.

So, I updated the space with a meaty new article a few days ago, but you can still rightly be forgiven for wondering where you’re unicornish correspondent has been these many weeks and months. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling and a fair amount of work of late. I’ve also been interviewed for a few media outlets about gender in gaming.

First is this article in the Wall Street Journal, hitting the streets tomorrow morning: “Fans Take Video Game Damsels Out of Distress and Put Them in Charge.” I was very grateful to be interviewed here and pleased to see the Journal covering this important angle of gamer resistance. I should, however, add further commentary lest my lonely remark be misinterpreted or taken out of context.

I think that this trend of ‘flipping the script’ in these games shows that people want to see women protagonists and are willing to both make and support these hacks. It is also worth adding that even as there has been opposition and some vocal nastiness, a lot of gamers have come out in support of these indie projects. It stands athwart the so-called market logic that says gamers don’t want female protagonists, and that’s an important grassroots-level indicator that, hopefully, augurs for some positive change in the near future. What hasn’t changed in gaming culture is the fact that there are still all too many people who, despite our reverence for hacking, modding, and reinvention as gamers, still oppose these hacks for nonsensical reasons that are transparently sexist. But the winds are indeed shifting, and that very shift has contributed to some of the virulence of the opposition; it is a form of backlash. These creative hacks, and the fact that there are gamer dads who want their gamer daughters to see themselves in classic video games, are hopeful signs of changing times.

NPR's logo, N in a red box, P in a black one, r in a blue one.I was also interviewed by NPR, for KPCC’s cultural programme Take Two to discuss the meaning and context of the recent Microsoft E3 rape joke debacle. To the credit of the show’s producers, they decided to take a wide-lens look at the broader issues facing women in the gaming industry and I was very happy to help with that in my small way. You can listen to the audio here. It was hard to pick one thing that was wrong with that scenario, besides the rape joke itself: the fact that the woman in question was set up to fail (amidst a thick soup of stereotypes about women’s innate lack of gaming skill), or the fact that there was laughter at the ‘joke.’ I was glad to see Microsoft apologise, but this ritual has become, by now, depressingly familiar. A gaming company engineers a scenario very likely to run afoul of sexist landmines and then promptly acts surprised and unconvincingly penitent about the resulting explosion. There’s a disconnect here, one that can be mended by simply listening to women and respecting us as equal participants in this community.

In further ‘Corn news, I have triumphantly returned to writing at The Border House with a review of Capcom’s Remember Me. The ultimate verdict is: “give it a chance, but prepare to be disappointed with the story.” I have plans for more Border House articles and possibly another one here in the near future, so stay tuned!

Of Tipped Scales and Bloodied Swords

Wendy Davis - Cropped Banner

When I was in high school, an insightful classmate once told me “[Katherine], I’ve never met anyone who hates and loves politics as much as you do.” Those words were searchingly true, and I rediscovered their meaning yesterday. This week has been a roaring cavalcade of politics, with its thousand faces roiling in the sea of our nation’s soul. And my personal life, as ever, threaded a helix around the public politics we were all concerned with.

We witnessed the Supreme Court at its worst, and at its halting best – in the midst of a week where I was wracked by anxiety about the complexities of community. Having watched so many of my own people get cut down by the anger and unbridled rage of activists who were supposed to be on “their side,” my faith reached a crisis point. I wondered if I had become so jaded to rage-as-strategy that I had lost my fire.

Then Austin, Texas happened. A People’s Filibuster, and a state Senator named Wendy Davis who fought with vaporous and rusted constitutional tools to ensure that women’s right to control our bodies would not be infringed in her state. For nearly 11 hours, Davis stood and spoke—without being allowed to so much as lean forward on her desk, much less food, water, or bathroom breaks; one woman’s voice was going to block a bill that would’ve made it nigh on impossible for women in Texas to receive an abortion.

And when at last the Republicans succeeded in sundering Davis’ filibuster on a technicality, and all means available to the State Senate Democrats to delay the vote further had been utterly exhausted, another woman, Senator Van Der Putte, would strike a rhetorical homerun and inspire the people themselves to take up the charge of those final, frenetic ten minutes.

A magnificent fever swept the chamber and I realised in that moment that I loved righteous anger as much as I ever had. I praised and cheered these activists and these politicians as they sought to disrupt a charade of “order” and “decorum” that served only to silence women just long enough for our rights to be taken away. And in the end, it was the people who bought those precious four minutes that were necessary to ensure the heinous bill was not passed.

That was justice, and real democracy. An unjust order is no order at all, and all the shouting, screaming, cheering and jeering was necessary to end that unjust order.

It was catharsis, and tear-jerking hope rising from the Texas statehouse at a time when Madame Justice appeared to have long absconded from the Supreme Court, leaving an echoing silence punctuated only the water torture of ill-informed majority opinions. With their rulings on tribal sovereignty, workplace harassment, and most consequentially, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, we’d witnessed the long fever of the Supreme Court’s lust for negative liberty and pseudo-libertarian governance come to yet another painful climax. The actions of the many in Texas, contrasted to the legalistic dithering of one man—Justice Kennedy—were stark and instructive; a reminder of what form real democracy must sometimes take.

A Negative Charge

And now, at last, we have cause to celebrate, in theory, with these Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. As per usual, any discussion of same sex marriage will inspire the usual commentary and sniping between radicals and liberals—disagreeing about the enthroning of marriage as an issue at all.

But for those of us at the intersectional margins, we are in that paradoxical place of having the least to gain from these rulings and also being the most “spoken for” by some who claim to understand the intricacies of our issues. It’s a curious place. My right to marry and access partner benefits is wonderful to have—if a distant one. So much else must come first; I must have benefits to share with my partner, for one, and no law provides that I have a right to such things.

Simultaneously, however, it would be reductive to say—as some of my fellow activists have suggested—that the stark contrast between the Court’s VRA and DOMA rulings is entirely down to valuing “the gays” and devaluing people of colour. This is a misapprehension of “where we are” vis a vis the court’s views. It is worth remembering that John Roberts’ racism, expressed through his seething antipathy to all collective remedies to structural prejudice, is of a piece with the prejudice expressed in his ruling in favour of DOMA. Indeed, the Court’s conservatives were entirely consistent—they struck down Section 4 of the VRA and voted to keep DOMA; there was no split in their prejudices.

The keystone was one man, and one man alone: Justice Kennedy. If we wish to understand exactly why the Court ruled as it did, examining the very specific nature of Kennedy’s political philosophy will be necessary. To generalise and say “the Court” is racist but not homophobic is, to be frank, not reasonable. Or, put more finely, it is not nearly specific enough. It does not grapple with the nature of the Court’s prejudice, which remains quite catholic in its scope.

Justice Kennedy’s libertarian reasoning was entirely consistent, and consistent in its moral impoverishment, no less. DOMA was struck down by him less because it affected LGBTQ people and more because of the way in which the law was constructed, as a government intrusion that deliberately segregated marriages. The Voting Rights Act, by contrast, is legislation that is designed to level the playing field using the power of the federal government to empower a minority—it is this species of legislation, born of a radically democratic philosophy, that is anathema to Kennedy.

And thus we see why the Court—or more specifically Anthony Kennedy— ruled the way they did. DOMA was about a negative right—the right to have a marriage (whose terms are decided and agreed upon in other statutes, through other traditions) unmolested by government interference. Marriage is a pre-existing right, not a new one created by any legislation. Thus DOMA was an intrusion that the libertarian Anthony Kennedy understood to be one and so he ruled in favour of LGBTQ people.

Your daily reminder that Justice is a woman.
Your daily reminder that Justice is a woman.

But imagine if the law democratised marriage’s benefits. Imagine a law on basic income or universal healthcare. That entails a level of democratic freedom, positive freedom, that I would go so far as to call “hardmode” for liberty, and well beyond the understanding of men like Kennedy and the four conservative justices of the Court. Material conditions are required for freedom to exist, and there is no escaping that fact but in the vagaries of legal and ideological abstraction.

Were such an LGBTQ-focused law before Kennedy, a law that affirmed that reality and guaranteed the material basis of our freedom, one can be certain he’d have voted against it. It was serendipity that saw this landmark case about LGBTQ rights centre on a law that interfered with a negative right as opposed to creating a positive one. This negative charge was why Justice Kennedy voted to strike down Section 4 of the VRA– the two laws, DOMA and the VRA, could not have been constructed more differently. One interferes with LGBTQ folks’ negative rights, the other ensures an affirmative right through leveraging the power of the state on behalf of people of colour.

The rulings this week are neither schismatic nor contradictory: they betray a coherent legal consciousness on the part of the Court. Justice Kennedy and his four conservative colleagues are unable to understand informal power, and remain very lenient on formal power. Hence they have declared harassment between workers of equal standing to not be actionable—for the harassed the power is very real; for Kennedy and his colleagues, such harassment is invisible as abusive power because it does not map onto a titled hierarchy– the only thing they recognise as a power relationship.

Their worldview won’t see informal power, therefore it’s not there, so far as they are concerned.  Similarly, the Voting Rights Act: prejudice in the South does not look the way it did in 1964, it has become more subtle, more shy about naming itself if no less forthright in its impact–  therefore it must no longer exist, and any attempt to redress racial injustice in voting constitutes an unreasonable intrusion of federal power so far as the Court’s majority is concerned. The nature of their racism lies specifically in their inability and unwillingness to see structural prejudice, and thus support the idea that structural redress is necessary for certain citizens to exercise their Constitutional rights. This has been true for how they view women (see, the Lily Ledbetter case or their ruling against the women of WalMart, or indeed back in the late 90s when the Supreme Court weakened the Violence Against Women Act by removing its civil suit provision), and will also be true for how they deal with LGBTQ people. Their ruling on harassment, recall, would affect findings of any kind of prejudice—be it ableist, transphobic, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic and so on.

But in the case of DOMA, Justice Kennedy could see inequality because here it was visible as an intrusion of government, the ultimate hierarchical power relationship, and thus open to the redress of his jurisprudential red pen. Consider the many cases where Kennedy has participated in the gutting of our rights and liberties, however. What links them? In each case, what was necessary to secure those rights was state intervention and redress. A victim of harassment depends on the levelling power of the criminal justice system to give her voice and standing against institutionally powerful abusers; a worker, consumer, or subordinate depends on a class-action lawsuit to band together with others and stand toe to toe with corporations; those who fight voting fraud depend on the mighty weight of the Federal Government to outweigh and immediately overrule the depredations of local officials; Native American tribal sovereignty depends on a Federal Government that honours treaties and respects the collective decisions and self-determination of tribal nations.

This is beyond the scope of what, on average, five justices on the Supreme Court are capable of seeing.

Overturning DOMA, on the other hand, necessitates less, not more government intrusion, and thus Kennedy found it palatable to do so. It is this legal accident, this sorry belching moment of classical liberalism, which has bequeathed to us this slate of rulings. There is nothing wrong with celebrating—for this outcome is indeed just; let no one question that. But it is worth remembering how and why we got this victory, and it has everything to do with the above distinction between positive and negative freedom.

Positive liberty is something that must often be fought for, something for which we cannot be meekly supine and subservient. Positive liberty was what was gained in the Texas Statehouse—not only freedom from government intrusion, but freedom to create justice, and to do so athwart Byzantine rules that were designed to preserve an “order” of iniquity.

Some Notes on the Merits of Thrown Rice

On a concluding note I should say a few things about marriage and being a trans woman of colour, because it is often in these cases that I must flash my identity like a passport demanded at border control. I’ve grown increasingly weary of doing so, and yet I feel it is a necessary preface to the fact that I must confess my growing irritation at white (sometimes cis, often male) activists who claim to speak for us on this question, as if my respective communities are monoliths in the face of social injustice.

We are not.

Marriage is neither the capitalist-cum-patriarchal Trojan Horse that some radicals imagine it to be, nor the harmless bastion of unproblematic love and joy that some same-sex marriage supporters imply it is. Same sex marriage should never have become the signature battle of the LGBTQ movement, but it has become fashionable in a no less pernicious way to treat same sex marriage as a marker of assimilation, selling out, and giving up. The people most harmed by that perspective are often those least able to defend themselves and with few other places to go, because the rich white cis queers in the suburbs will neither hear nor care about your critique—so that just leaves those closest to you, the poorer among us, the trans women, the people of colour. Heaven help them if they should smile about marriage.

In the process I’ve actually had to wince as I’ve watched trans and cis women of colour walk tightropes in discussions about their marriages, apologise for or mute their happiness—and supposedly in my name. Their reasons for marriage are complicated—there was the necessarily cold and practical element of it (shared insurance, lower taxes, et cetera), but there was also the bounteous joy at being able to call their union a “marriage,” and to make an open declaration of love to the world in a way that was societally intelligible.

Sean Brooks (left) and Steven (right) getting married in 2011. The striking down of DOMA has spared Steven from deportation-- a harsh reality faced by many of the clients at the non-profit I work with. Do they count in our assessment of whether or not this was a victory for LGBTQ people?
Sean Brooks (left) and Steven (right) getting married in 2011. The striking down of DOMA has spared Steven from deportation– a harsh reality faced by many of the community members and clients at the non-profit I work with. Do they count in our assessment of whether or not this was a victory for LGBTQ people?

It is no less worth recalling that this ruling has already helped some of the most vulnerable LGBTQ people in America, precisely those that we as radicals claim to be speaking for. It has a particularly felicitous and immediate effect on LGBTQ immigrants, for instance. They must also count in our assessment of this outcome, and to whitewash them by saying that the ruling is only for white cis suburban picket-fencers is equal parts mendacious and essentialising.

Intersectionality remains a challenge for us to understand, and if it has a core characteristic that can be summarised in brief, it is that intersectionality is where dogma goes to die.

As to marriage’s fundamental flaws as an institution and its deplorable history—I am a radical feminist; I’m well versed in the many problems of the “traditions” of marriage, well versed in its history as a ritual of transferring ownership of a woman from one man to another. But I’m also keen enough as a feminist to pay close attention to what women are doing with the tools given to us and the dramatic ways we remix the tapestries that our erstwhile male masters have painted for us. In other words, we do not always use institutions as intended, and it is disingenuous to compare the marriages of some of my sister friends to a Victorian Catholic marriage. It is, so far as I am concerned, a valid road to social justice to take an institution and rework it collectively, changing the meaning of it in the process. Often, the most enduring social changes happen in precisely this way.

All I can say is that if and when I get married, my father will not be “giving me away” and I long ago robbed my would-be white dress of any literal connotations of chastity.

But it is true that marriage has taken on vastly outsized importance as a political issue in our discourse about LGBTQ rights, and has irritatingly become the litmus test for gauging one’s “tolerance,” in spite of the fact that some of the most cissexist, racist people I have ever argued with were in favour of same sex marriage. It is, as I said earlier, a negative right—something that can be done without the intrusion of the state. Yet so much more is needed: housing for homeless LGBTQ youth, income for the same, real, lasting employment, meaningful and affirming healthcare access that is as self-directed as possible… these are the material conditions that must often exist in part or in whole before anything like marriage can be truly lived in and thrived in.

And I will say this: for the foreseeable future, it won’t be the Court that gets us there. We have every right to celebrate now—and every obligation to mourn loudly for what we have lost in the Voting Rights Act. But if there’s a lesson to be taken away from Austin today it’s that when politicians can take us no further, the rest is up to us.

And if My Life Is Like the Dust…

Trans100 LogoMuch to my great shock I was nominated and added to the Trans100 List, a curated, non-ranked list of US trans activists working intersectionally to improve conditions for the community—I accepted with profound gratitude, and I feel humbled to know that I’ve been added to a list that includes some truly astounding people, considering I’ve only done a fraction of what some of them have. I can only hope to live up to the very high bar that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have set.

The Trans100 list is a project that I didn’t even know about until a week ago. But it grew up from We Happy Trans*, This is HOW, and other projects dedicated to the proposition of trans visibility, and the idea that the lives we live—even in the midst of a stricken world like ours—are worth celebrating. That’s an idea I can get behind, to say the least, and coincidentally I wrote something this past week that gets at why I think we need things like the Trans100. I was expressing my discomfort with the often Manichean tone of the same-sex marriage debate on my Facebook feed. Oh no no, not between liberals and conservatives, but between radicals and liberals. I was very uneasy with the simple, dyadic terms of a discussion where marriage was posited either as a capitalist-cum-patriarchal evil, or a completely unproblematic institution that merited no critical analysis. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the HRC, with its awful history, was squatting on the whole discussion like a dreadfully white elephant.

In many cases, trans people and POC were political footballs: “same-sex marriage is a nonissue because trans POC have totally different issues!” – partially true, of course, but it also misses some complexities. In particular, I grew weary of how we were being talked about mostly in absentia and mostly in terms of tragedy. What follows began as a lengthy Facebook post and has now been edited and remixed for you, Nuclear Unicorners (I’ve officially named you, revel in my originality). Enjoy.


I’ve noticed a trend amongst certain people in the queer community where white/male/masculine/cis people/who-don’t-live-in-my-hood are telling me what my issues are, and that does make me more than a little uncomfortable. The majority of people I know who’ve recently been married thanks to same sex marriage law changes are folks of colour and trans people, for one. It did matter to them, and that needs to be factored into our consideration here—that we may be standing in a more complex place than reductive ‘lived politics’ may permit.

But it’s more than just that. Allow me to explain.

What defines recent media coverage and liberal discussions of presumptively-cis gays and lesbians? Normativity? ‘They’re just like us!’-ism? Yes, in no small measure; but go deeper than that. What is that pointing to? In what substantial ways, beyond the white picket fence, beyond 2.3 kids and a dog, are they just like (some) cis heteros?

They’re shown to be having lives. Increasingly, cis gays and lesbians are at last being recognised as people who are everything from activists to artists, journalists to teachers, scientists to non-profit organisers, parents and family; people with dreams and aspirations. In particular, it is once the latter are accorded an equal place in the firmament of human yearning that we come one step closer to substantive justice.

This is not just about normativity, it’s a question of living and thriving. Of humanising. Many of the same radical queers may critique that, but they want to live those same lives– as activists, artists, academics, poets, writers, community organisers, queer polyfamily members, and so on.

That’s a life. A real life-as-lived that can be a source of inspiring pride.

Yet every time I see a Facebook post from someone about us, usually an ally of trans women who’s either a cis man/woman, or a queer trans man or trans masculine person, do you know what I hear?

About how dead we are.

Stab wounds, immolation, genital mutilation. We’re heels pointed up out of a dumpster, we’re arrest and incarceration statistics, and we’re “bodies” (oh how I loathe how that term has replaced “person” in so much discourse). We’re dead, voiceless names and brief stories read at TDOR. And when our issues are talked about and screamed about from the top of a cis man’s lungs, that’s mainly what we are. Dead and dying. Unable to speak for ourselves as trans women of colour.

It’s why I cheered when I saw Janet Mock on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show because holy mother of Goddess, when’s the last time the mainstream media heard from someone with her life and perspective? I finally saw a living, thriving sister talking about the need for justice, not a cis person speaking for us as so many bodies, but a real trans woman of colour. My sister.

My living sister.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project—the non-profit where I’m a proud collective member—takes on the hard jobs, the cases no one else will. We do the hard work of responding as a collective and a community to the hell imposed on us by the state, by the police, by uncaring institutions and the violence of a society that hates us, but especially hates trans women. We do that, and we do it gladly. But you know who “we” are? Trans folk and people of colour. We’re not just victims, we’re doing. We’re lawyers, social scientists, activists, artists, and beautiful living, thriving people who are doing great work and striving to make our own issues and lives visible.

Our Prisoner Advisory Committee is comprised of incarcerated trans folk who are now fighting for meaningful lives– both during and after incarceration. They’re trying to thrive and do work; budding jailhouse lawyers who refuse to be “bodies.” (I encourage you to check out PAC’s newsletter, In Solidaritywhere PAC members submit editorials, art, and poetry to be shared with the wider community– in and outside of prison.)

The people we serve aren’t just “clients”– they’re neighbours, friends and loved ones with vibrant communities too often ignored by both the gazes of mainstream media lenses and trendy radical indie film lenses. Instead we’re “bodies”– victims and statistics.

That half-truth is how we are seen by all. Even by our ‘allies.’ Through it all we hear next to nothing of these women’s lives and loves. We learn not of how trans women live, only how we may die.

Now we return to the beginning: this is why I get uncomfortable when white masculine queers angrily talk about how dead we are. We’re not all dead, and those of us who live have real, lived lives just as valid, beautiful, and dreamy as those of my queer sisters and brothers who get to have the house with the white picket fence. Even as we struggle—and every day it feels like I hear another story about how someone was shitty to a sister, abused or harassed her—and even as I still fight dysphoria, there are beautiful lives and stories and dreams there.

Talk about them.

I’m not dead yet, my queer family.