[Elsewhere] LGBT+ History Month: Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

During the 2014 Winter Olympics (the ones that Russia hosted right after implementing Section 28′s bigger, meaner evil twin), I played something called the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game. It went a bit like this:
- Non-Russians use music by gay Russian composer: take a drink.
- Russians use music by gay Russian composer who is also a national treasure: take two drinks.
- Entire Russian national team walks into stadium to the sound of t.A.T.u: down the bottle.
Read more over at Rainbow Teaching.

[Elsewhere] pornresearcher.eu

My research blog finally looks like it might be up and running. It’s mainly a place for me to think out loud about stuff I’ve read, publish chunks of writing that may or may not make into papers or a thesis, attempt some rudimentary outreach, and hopefully further down the line engage in a dialogue with the fandom community.
Current posts include reviews of the two big fandom ethnographies from the 1990s (Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women and Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers), and some quite raw musings on consent and empathy [TW rape/sexual assault].

[Elsewhere] Ladies’ Things

With Marvel having made six movies with lead actors called Chris, the calls for a woman-led movie have been getting louder. And while we’re going to have to wait until 2018 to see Captain Marvel, and a Black Widow movie is still not on the cards, our appetites have been more than whetted with the latest superhero show to hit our screens; Agent Carter.
Read more at The Geek Agenda.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

[Content note: white, Christian-heritage person discussing racism and Islamophobia. It's not the job of Muslims or people of colour to educate me, but if you do want to call me out on something I've got wrong, I would welcome that.]
I’ve lost respect for a lot of people and organisations over the last week. Apparently we are all now Charlie, and also incapable of recognising irony or nuance, or understanding power.
Because this apparently needs saying, let me start with it: I support everyone’s right to free speech. This includes racist speech, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic speech, anti-immigrant speech, misogynistic speech. I believe you should have the right to say those things and to not be persecuted for them by the state. Frankly, I believe this largely for selfish reasons: because it is way too easy to ban radical left speech under the guise of banning radical right speech, and I find it easier to deal with individuals’ free speech than with a state apparatus aimed at silencing. I also believe in people’s right to life, and by extension that no one deserves to die as a consequence of their free speech.
Now, having stated the obvious, let’s move on to irony, and nuance, and power which have so eluded us over the last week. I’ll start with the irony, because that’s the easy one. “Let’s fight for free speech with more surveillance!” said the leaders of nations which routinely jail or assault journalists, send their secret services to destroy hard drives, or have blasphemy laws on the books. If you don’t see the irony in that, I’m not sure I can help you. But I promised nuance too, so let me ask you this: when the security services use Charlie Hebdo as a pretext to get their current wishlist of additional surveillance powers, whose free speech do you think will suffer most from that? Is it the Johns and Pauls and Marys of this world that they will go after, or the Ahmeds and Mohammeds and A’ishahs?
Heck, even if we somehow manage to stop new surveillance powers, the free speech impact on Muslims is already there: because every time a Muslim wants to raise issues of racism and Islamophobia, they have to go through a three-paragraph spiel about how Islam is the religion of peace and how they condemn any violence committed by any Muslim ever.
Dear fellow white people of Christian heritage: try that for a day. Try having to start every conversation with “I apologise for and condemn the crusades, and colonialism, and the homophobia and transphobia we exported to the rest of the world, and the fact that my religious heritage regards women as second-class citizens incapable making decisions about basic health care, and slavery, and genocide, and every war we’ve started in the last 300 years, and the fact that we continue to do these things today, with impunity.” Try that, and see how far you get with your free speech.
Here’s a bit more nuance for you: I can support your right to free speech, however obnoxious it is, but that doesn’t mean I have to give it a platform. Regardless of whether you buy into the terrorism story or are at least aware that, had these two young men been white, we would be talking of “confused and troubled individuals”, republishing the cartoons, marching on the streets and using #JeSuisCharlie all create a discourse that normalises the terrorism narrative as well as offending a lot of people and making them feel unsafe. Free speech has consequences, and when it is exercised by the powerful against the powerless, in the vast majority of cases it is not the speakers who suffer. With every republished Islamophobic cartoon you are causing pain. With every #JeSuisCharlie you are sending out a signal to Muslim people that they are not safe around you. And every individual joining a march is making someone wonder whether it’ll be their mosque shot up next. Exercising your free speech in a way that has these consequences, frankly, makes you a dick.
All of which rather neatly brings us to power. Charlie Hebdo is not racist or Islamophobic, we are told – those few of us who dare question it. You just don’t understand the French context. It is written for a French audience, we are told, where this kind of thing is not racist. Analysis about as incisive as “Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”
Everyone – including Charlie Hebdo – operates in an existing context of power relations. Sometimes this context is so naturalised and normalised that we are not aware of it, no matter how good our intentions. If you’re telling me that a publication which routinely and deliberately publishes cartoons intended to mock Islam and offend Muslims is not racist or Islamophobic to a French audience, you are restating and reproducing those power relations. You are using your authority and power to define what a French audience looks like; and the French audience you’re describing – regardless of the number of caveats you include – is white and non-Muslim. If Charlie Hebdo is the best the radical left in France has to offer to Muslims and people of colour, and if the rest of white, Christian-heritage Europe gets behind that, our problems are a lot bigger than we thought.
By all means, defend free speech. Defend it from the state, and from private corporations, and from confused and misguided angry young men with guns. But defend it in a way that challenges and overthrows existing power structures, that makes people feel valued and safe, that reaches out rather than pushing away.

Surveillance costs lives

I gave a brief talk yesterday, followed by a Q&A, at the screening of CITIZENFOUR at the Cube cinema in Bristol. I was asked to talk about why I care about privacy, surveillance and digital rights. The reasons why I care and the particular aspects of digital rights that I am passionate about have changed significantly over the years, so in some ways this was a good opportunity to articulate that, and I thought I’d share with the class.
[Trigger warnings/content notes for discussion of domestic abuse, LGBT+ teen suicide, and institutional racism and ableism.]
One of the elements of my current PhD research involves looking into whether and how the internet facilitates political activism (in the widest possible sense of the term, because the personal is political), particularly for minorities and otherwise marginalised groups. Let me give you some examples.
One in four lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school[1]. Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.
If you happen to be experiencing institutional racism from the police, or feel that you’re being treated unfairly by the JobCentre because of your disability, again, the internet is a likely place you will turn to for information, support, and to find other people with similar experiences.
Or, if you’re a woman experiencing street harassment on a daily basis, or in an abusive relationship, you may also seek help online.
There are many places on the internet that will provide you with practical advice or support: How do I come out to my Mum? How do I make a safety plan in case I need to leave my husband? What particular combination of forms and shibboleths might make the JobCentre treat me like a human being?
But there’s something else that happens too, something incredibly powerful, when you tell your story, and someone else stands up and says, “Me too.” Because suddenly, what you’re going through isn’t just a private, personal issue, something that is wrong with you and that you need to deal with on your own. You become aware that your issue affects many other people, that it is a social and political issue, and you can talk about it, and organise, and bring it into the public sphere.
Except, things work rather differently when you’re under surveillance.
Let’s go back to the queer kid, whose only access to the internet is at school. Half of it is filtered anyway, and the other half is monitored. Would you type “How do I know if I’m trans?” into Google if you knew that one of your teachers could see it an tell your Mum; if the horrendous possible consequences include being kicked out of home, or being subjected to serious physical violence?
How much more difficult is campaigning for justice if you’re the Lawrence family? If the police not only botched the investigation of your son’s murder but, to add insult to injury, put you under surveillance to make sure you weren’t rocking the boat too much?
And what of the woman in the abusive relationship, who knows that the police have access to data on how and when she used her phone, what she typed into Google; who knows that cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers? Even if her partner isn’t a cop, she may rightly feel it’s too risky to seek help online.
The real problem here is that minorities and marginalised groups are disproportionately hit by surveillance. Partly this is a structural effect of the fact that we rely more than others on the internet as a place to meet and organise. But it’s also because some of these groups are specifically and systematically targeted for surveillance by the security services. If you happen to be a person of colour, or your name happens to me Ahmed or Muhammad, you bet that your data is subjected to much more scrutiny by the security services than if you’re a white, middle-class dude called John Smith. This is regardless of whether you have anything to hide.
But not only does surveillance have a chilling effect on the kinds of issues that can be discussed and brought to public attention; not only does it disproportionately hit minorities and marginalised groups; surveillance costs lives.
One in four LGB young people have attempted suicide, and nearly half of trans kids. Two women every week are killed by current or former intimate partners. And if surveillance plays even the slightest role in these people not being able to access help, or meet others with similar experiences, or organise and campaign, then surveillance is at least partially responsible for those deaths.
And that’s why I care.
I would also like to address one question that came up in the Q&A, which is “How can we find the right balance between privacy and security?” This is one of those tropes about privacy that just refuses to die: the notion that somehow there is a trade-off, and that if only we were willing to give up that little bit extra of our rights, we would somehow be magically safe from the big bad terrorists. If this is how you conceptualise your own privacy and security, I would really like you to question the implicit assumptions behind the privacy vs security dichotomy. I would particularly like you to ask yourself who you need to be safe from. And I would like to posit to you that if terrorism is genuinely the greatest threat to your existence, then you live an incredibly privileged life indeed. For most of us the threats come from elsewhere. With 45% of women experiencing domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking at some point in our lives, the existential threats we face come predominantly – and unfortunately – from men. And if you’re a protester in Ferguson, MO, tonight, then by far the single greatest existential threat for you comes from your own police force. These are not issues we will solve with more surveillance.
[1] These figures are from Stonewall. I am not aware of similar figures existing for trans youth, but suspect they are higher.

[Guest post] How we tried to prevent incidents at a hacker camp, why we expected not to succeed, and how we failed.

Creating safe and inclusive spaces within geek and hacker culture is something I struggle with fairly frequently. See, for instance, this from last June. I believe those of us involved in similar endeavours need to talk about it openly and frequently: to each other to share best practice, to event organisers to ask them for support, and to our geek and hacker communities in general to achieve a cultural shift. The !!Con team reflected powerfully on their experiences and failings. Below is an equally powerful piece from my friend Drcable around similar themes. I would like to thank Drcable for sharing their thoughts and ask all of you to continue this conversation.
(Drcable is a cyborg who just wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, society sucks and is the most interesting problem to solve, so they ended up a designer and activist)
Over the last summer, I volunteered with the safer spaces team of a European hacker camp, trying to prevent and deal with any incidents that could arise from putting approximately 1000 mostly white, mostly men in a field.
We expected incidents. We tried to prevent them. Broadly, we were successful. There was one incident which I would class as preventable without the need for a massive cultural shift, and several other incidents which, while absolutely not acceptable, would have been unpreventable given current society, without significantly changing the nature of the event.
Most of my experiences of safer spaces work involve more radical, explicitly feminist events, at which the norms of behavior are significantly different to those of the broader patriarchal, racist, and generally oppressive, society. Hacker camps are not – for all their talk of “disruption” and “freedom” – like this. They are a place for white dudes to fly quadcopters and shout about text editors over 8-bit live coded music.
The camp had a safer spaces policy that is pretty typical for the tech world- cribbed off and credited to the geek feminism wiki, worded to not cause a fuss but still be useful. The camp did not have centrally organized areas, meetings, or workshops for oppressed groups. It did not have a policy of banning people from the camp who had caused disruption at other events.
Any place which does not explicitly filter for feminist engagement, or by experience of oppression, is going to reproduce patriarchal biases. Sometimes this filtering happens by self selection- advertise yourself as a feminist event, among a feminist social circle, and you’re going to get people engaged with feminism attending. Sometimes it is explicit: put up a “no cis people” sign, and you’re going to dramatically reduce, if not remove, the number of transphobic incidents.
Of course, filtering, of either type, is never enough. “Engaged with feminism” can easily fill your event with racists, homophobes and transphobes. “No cis people” is well documented to produce racist and indeed transmisogynist spaces.
Filtering will produce awareness of certain biases among your attendees. However, it is impossible to produce awareness and full understanding of all biases, because it is impossible to experience every form of oppression. People have unique experiences and can be blinkered to others’ experience of the same oppression.
Hacker camps do not filter, because unless you want there to be twenty people rather than a thousand camped in your field, then there’s little point. Hacker camps, when they provide the slightest nod to people other than white men, use safer spaces policies.
Safer spaces policies are there not to prevent the reproduction of all patriarchal biases, but to prevent their manifestation in violence- verbal, mental or physical. They’re there to lower the cost of participation for people from oppressed groups from “I’m going to get slurs shouted at me all day” to “I’m going to feel slightly out of place”.
Of course, they also have a second purpose – they are a form of fliter, a message saying “we’re not actively violent towards oppressed groups and if you are then you’re not welcome”. How effective this is depends on how well the policy is publicised. If it’s on the front page, impossible to miss when you buy your ticket, then it’s a more effective filter.
Safer spaces policies are not going to be 100% effective at removing acts of violence. Because your selection of society inevitably reproduces some of society’s oppressive biases, given enough opportunities for an incident, there is going to be one.
That is my take on most of the incidents that were reported to us, post event[1] . These incidents where casual misogyny of the kind that is usual under patriarchal societies. They would have been impossible to predict, and without significantly more filtering, were likely to happen. This does not mean that they should have happened, or that we should not learn from them or use them to educate people about what can happen in future. These were not “minor” issues. They are not an acceptable cost of doing business, but they are an expected one.
There was one incident that was preventable. Vinay Gupta had proposed a talk, and it was accepted, and made it past light vetting by the organizers.
Vinay is known, at least among women and other oppressed groups in technology and political circles for his misogyny, transphobia and racism. However he had never, to the organizers’ knowledge, done this from the stage. So obviously it was a great idea to give him this opportunity.
The safer spaces team was convened very close to the event (approximately one month prior) and had not been involved in talk selection.
We discovered he had been involved because I was going through the program, and noticed his name. It was a 100% fluke, outside any protocol. After much debate, we decided that there was less chance of an incident occurring if we chose to let his talk continue, though we were clear that he should not have been invited in the first place. While this decision may seem counter-intuitive, and with hindsight was incorrect, the main factor influencing this was the fact that he is known for taking call outs badly and loudly, often responding with slurs and (verbal and/or mental) violence.
This decision, along with the recommendation that someone from the safer spaces team attend the talk and be ready to deal with any incident, was passed on to the organizing team and they accepted it, and the criticism that he should not have been invited.
Before the talk, I identified myself to the stage crew, warned them that he had a reputation, and said that we might need to deal with an incident from stage. The stage crew were aware of parts of his reputation, but had not been briefed by the organizing team[2] . We agreed to be ready to cut his mic if things went bad.
[cn next paragraph: descriptions of rape apologism and anti-semitism/nazi and fascist references]
During the talk, he made references to a “nerd reich” or “nuclear powered american reich”, along with describing being charged a lot of money by your plumber as “being raped by your plumber”.
The decision was made by me (as a member of the safer spaces team) not to ask for his mic to be cut – a disturbance on this scale would have done more damage than good. My call, if you were there then feel free to disagree with it, and discuss it with me if you really want to.
I requested, coming up on the end of his talk, that an apology be made from the stage team. This was instantly accepted by the team and the moment he left the stage, someone went up and issued an apology for “inappropriate language”.
Were I giving the apology, it would specifically have called out his rape apologism and anti-semitism. Later on, at a meeting with the organising team, it was made clear that he will not speak at the same event again. Overall, the response to the incident was satisfactory.
It is however clear to me that we should not have allowed him on stage. He had a history and we made a bad call, partially in the hope that it would all go away. We should have dealt with it before he had the chance to do damage.
However, the reaction of the camp to not allowing a well known speaker and activist on stage would not have been pretty. The camp was not a feminist event, and decisions like that would have triggered days of mailing list outrage, twitter rants, and on-site tension.
The culture of the camp was not in a place where such a decision would have been considered normal, and we allowed that culture to affect the process. The system we’re operating within will always affect our decisions, however we didn’t make sure that there was a sufficient separation between the culture of the camp and the conduct of the organizers. This did damage to vulnerable attendees.
This separation is precisely the reason we have formal policies and separate teams. There are complex reasons why this separation fails, from lack of support from the organising team to activists not having the energy or mental health to deal with the demands (self care and the pressures of safer spaces are another post, and a long one).
At the end of the day, we must always consider our vulnerable attendees first and any other concerns, those of the team and of optics, for example, must be held back for a later date.
I must end this section with a warning: Vinay Gupta is not a person who can be trusted to speak at your event. He is a well known misogynist, anti-semite, transphobe and rape apologist. By giving him a platform you are exposing vulnerable members of your audience to possible violence and sending a message that you do not care about us. You cannot do this and claim to be a safe space.
There were other failures in the safer spaces team. We were all white(passing). Our disabilities were few, and mild (we were also tasked with dealing with access). We were small, and did not have resources to dedicate to education of the attendees, which may have prevented some of the other incidents. These are, to my mind, problems of hacker culture. A safer spaces team is never going to be as well resourced as it will at a comparable feminist event, and even feminist events muck up, as wiscon showed us.
A safer spaces team will never succeed 100%. There will always be failures as long as the current societal norms are oppressive. Whether it’s the white guy with dreads who you just can’t get the org team to kick out, or the transphobe who shoots a nasty look at your friend, you’re never going to eradicate oppression in a weekend within one person, let alone a thousand.
Broadly, I think that the team did a good job. We can learn from our mistakes and you can learn from them.
[1] We had no reported incidents during the event, several were reported later, and dealt with.
[2] We had not requested this, through the organizing team had flagged him as a possible incident on their own during vetting.

Bi Visibility Day

It is Bi Visibility Day today, and I am delighted to see that even Stonewall are celebrating and acknowledging that we make up the largest part of the LGBT community. A few people have reacted to that piece of information with surprise – which is no wonder, given the systematic erasure of our identity that we experience on a daily basis.
The stat about LGBT people you are most likely to hear is that we as a combined community make up somewhere between 6 and 10% of the population. Data on this isn’t easy to come by, and you will get huge variation in results depending on how exactly you ask the question, but 6-10% is a commonly quoted figure. It’s also handy, in that it makes us as a community look big and significant – people can easily visualise one in ten. You go into a meeting, a classroom, a pub; you count 30 people and there you go: statistically, there’s three queer people there!
What you only rarely get – and generally only when you go digging – is a breakdown of the make-up of the LGBT community itself. I have some theories as to why this is the case and why, in particular, bisexual people making up the largest part of the community is such a surprise to many. It’s an effect of the interplay between hetero- and monosexism.
If, as heterosexism posits, being straight is better than being gay, and if, as monosexism effectively posits, some people have the “choice” to be straight or gay, then clearly those people can just choose to be straight and have no problems whatsoever[1]. These people are not oppressed, so we don’t have to deal with their issues in the same way as we have to deal with lesbian and gay people’s issues, because lesbian and gay people don’t have that “choice”.
From a very warped, monosexist point of view then, acknowledging the size of the bi community within the LGBT community gives our oppressors a tool to dismiss us, make us seem smaller and less significant. If a third or half of us are bi, then suddenly we’re not looking at one in ten anymore, we’re looking at 1 in 15 or 1 in 20. That’s a lot more difficult to visualise – it’s practically no one at all! Hetero- and monosexism combine to give a powerful incentive to both straight and gay people to systematically dismiss, diminish and erase the existence and importance of non-monosexual people and identities.
Of course, sweeping bisexual people under the rug is not a long-term viable strategy for resisting the oppression of queer people. Acknowledging, celebrating and working to meet the needs of all the different parts of our community is the only path to equality for all.

[1] Note also that there’s a hefty amount of gender binarism involved in this way of thinking.

[Elsewhere] Rainbow Teaching launches today

Over the last few months I’ve had the privilege to be involved with an excellent initiative to provide LGBT+ inclusive teaching materials and help create safe learning environments for all students. Rainbow Teaching, which launches today, is a volunteer-led project which provides teachers with ready-made, easy to use LGBT+ inclusive resources across the school curriculum. To celebrate the launch, I wrote a blog post for their website:
I learned to pick up signals on whether it was safe to be out before I knew I was queer. I am as startled by this realisation as anyone, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I remember the first time I heard the word “homosexual”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but it sounded like a dirty secret. I remember my father disapproving of a particular music video because it had women kissing in it. I don’t remember anything from biology class except this: our teacher explaining (incorrectly) how anal sex between men led to HIV transmission. All this between the ages of 7 and 12. Later, there was the teacher who was sacked for being gay, and being taught “Where Angels Fear to Tread” without reference to Forster’s sexuality.
Read more at Rainbow Teaching