Border crossings

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The first time I crossed a border, I was ten years old. I was in the back of my father's car, wedged in between a significant chunk of my family's earthly possessions, with the book I was reading at the time stored securely in the microwave oven at my feet. We were leaving Bulgaria for good. We were going to start a new life in Austria. I have a couple of very specific memories about that first border crossing.

I remember setting my watch to CET. And I remember my Dad telling me how he'd picked up some East German hitch-hikers in their late teens or early twenties and how crossing into Bulgaria had been the first time they had crossed time zones. He wanted me to understand what a privilege it was for me to be doing this aged ten.

I remember, in the lead-up to our emigration, my grandmother telling me how Bulgaria was the most beautiful country on earth. If you've never driven through eastern Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and western Bulgaria, there are some stunning landscapes and geographical features there. And if it wasn't for the queue and border guards and document check and strip of no-man's land and then another queue with border guards and document check, there's no way to tell whether a particular tree or rock or hill belongs to Bulgaria or to Serbia. I remember very clearly thinking how beautiful that landscape was on the "wrong" side of the border and wondering if it was okay to think that.

I don't remember crossing the Yugoslav-Hungarian border that day. What I do remember is arriving at the Austrian border at 9 o'clock that evening, July 31st 1991. My father had been living in Austria for a month already at that point, but my visa and my mother's didn't start until August 1st. The Austrian border guard was very nice about it (or at least he was the way my father translated him), but he wouldn't let us enter the country until midnight. We slept for three hours in no-man's land.

***

My early and mid teens were characterised by crossing borders bearing a passport that marked me out as the undesirable kind of immigrant. Travelling east, "home" ostensibly, was relatively painless. I don't know how many times I crossed those borders, collected the relevant stamps: Austria to Hungary, Hungary to whatever successor state of Yugoslavia was flavour du jour, that to Bulgaria. In cars and in coaches, sometimes relatively quickly, often after four or five hours of waiting. Travelling west remained a near-impossibility for years. Nothing came of the plan to go to Berlin to see the Reichstag wrapped by Christo - I would have needed a Schengen visa for that. I did manage to get a visa for a school trip to the UK, but not one for a yearbook editors' training event in Amsterdam. It was as if the Iron Curtain had simply moved a few hundred miles to the west.

And then I was Austrian: citizenship applied for with years to go before we met the minimum residency requirements, and granted - I suspect - based on some nebulous concept of "integration" and how well I in particular spoke the local dialect. (Thank you, former classmates who made me say "jo" instead of "ja" and wouldn't put up with my misguided attempts to speak Hochdeutsch.) I was a citizen of the European Union, of a Schengen member state. My passport gave me the right to be anywhere in Western Europe. The freedom was almost unimaginable.

***

Border crossings were different after that, yet for me no less noticeable. They stay with you, those borders you couldn't cross for years. There was the time I flew to Greece from Munich airport. Part of the journey to Munich involved a train that had started out in Slovenia. Schengen or not, you bet that train got checked at the German border. I was wearing branded clothes and had been on the train for two hours, rather than twelve like my fellow passengers. I was the only person in that carriage to not get asked for a passport. There was the epic "going home by train for Christmas - UK to Germany via Belgium, France and Austria" trip of 1999: only two years earlier I couldn't have dreamed of that! There were regular trips to Ireland to see my then-boyfriend, complete with getting sniffed for drugs when getting off the ferry at 7 a.m., not having slept in 24 hours. One memorable weekend shortly after the introduction of the Euro, I found myself, completely unexpectedly, going from Austria to Germany to the Netherlands and back to Germany in the space of a couple of days - no border checks and even more startlingly no currency exchanges.

Bizarrely, for a time going east became an issue. I needed a visa to study in the Czech Republic for three months. The Czech embassy in London was confused by the Austrian living in the UK with no entry stamp in her passport. In mid December, I withdrew my application in order to get my passport back, so I could travel to Germany for Christmas. A trip in person to the consulate in Bonn on one of those ungodly days between Christmas and New Year sorted it all out eventually.

***

These days, my more adventurous border crossings tend to be outside of Europe. I check my sense of humour at the US border. Russia - as expected - is not that different. Europe is still good for a few surprises though. Entering Schengen at Schiphol continues to be a bane of my life as I invariably get interrogated about what I'm doing there. Last time I cleared immigration at Newcastle, an Asian-looking woman got pulled out of the EU passport queue in front of me, presumably because people like her couldn't possibly be EU citizens. Perhaps my favourite recent border crossing though was an unintentional one: there is a length of road somewhere in central Europe one side of which belongs to Austria and the other to Slovenia. I like that the Iron Curtain has become a three-letter country code either side of a dotted line.

Some free advice on workplace harassment

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It won't have escaped people's attention that I am a queer, foreign woman. It sort of goes with the territory that occasionally, I will be exposed to microaggressions, or outright instances of harassment - on the street, in media, from friends and acquaintances, and sometimes in the workplace. Frankly, I am mouthy enough that most people who know me know to behave around me and when they slip up it's genuinely that - an honest mistake - and not intentional harassment. But over the years, with various employers, I have accumulated my fair share of "colourful workplace experiences" - from my boss making blow job jokes, to strategy deployment videos containing jokes about violence against women, to people casually informing me that something is "so gay" (and no, the fact that they rephrased it to "camp" and then "awful" did not help their case).

I want to give you an insight into what goes on in my head when I'm cheerfully going about my business and I'm suddenly blindsided by one of these things. Perhaps because in most workplaces I've worked at these instances have been mercifully few and far between, my first reaction is always one of disbelief and surprise. The workplace culture is such that it is clear these things are unacceptable, and so when someone does slip up, I tend to do a double-take and think, "Did they really just say that?" At which point my brain enters "fight or flight" mode.

That may sound slightly dramatic, but I literally have two choices here. I can say nothing and live with the knowledge that I to an extent sanctioned and enabled the behaviour in question. More likely than not, the person doesn't even realise what they said or did and that it was wrong; or if they do, they think they got away with it. Either way, they are likely to do it again - to me or to other people. Again, I am mouthy, I've been in workplaces for 15 years, I have some experience with these things and broadly speaking can look after myself. But there are people around me who either witnessed the incident or who may be exposed to similar future incidents who aren't as mouthy, haven't been around as long, or who for other reasons are more vulnerable than me. In many cases, I simply cannot let it go because I have an obligation to other people. By not challenging the bahaviour I am setting a tone where it becomes acceptable, and that's not a culture I want others to work in. Over the years, I have let a few things go - and I still remember, and regret, every single one of them.

My second choice therefore is to call out the behaviour. There are different ways to do this, and depending on the situation one may be more appropriate than another. Over the years, I have done everything from casually asking people to rephrase their comment to taking formal complaints to HR, and all of these have generally yielded good results for their respective situations. I have got company policies and promotional materials changed, I've got people to change their language and understand why something they said was inappropriate. Whatever I do though, chances are it will leave me a bit shaken (and often physically shaking), emotionally drained, and unable to focus on my work for at least a couple of hours as my brain processes the conflict.

I want to make it clear that this is what goes on in my head. But one thing I can guarantee you: that fight or flight choice is something everyone who experiences or witnesses workplace microaggressions or harassment is faced with. And there isn't a right or wrong choice here. All sorts of factors play a role in whether we choose to challenge the behaviour or not: concerns for our safety, how much the issue in question affects us personally, whether we feel the structures around us are such that our action would lead to genuine change. Neither choice is wrong. You are not wrong for "making a fuss", and neither are you wrong for "standing by". What is wrong is that we are having to make the choice in the first place - that we've been put in a situation by someone else where we are forced to pick the lesser evil out of two pretty horrible options.

Here are a few things that employers can learn from this. Firstly, if your workplace is an environment where microaggressions and harassment - on whatever grounds - thrive, your company is losing out because a significant proportion of your employees is spending time and energy either being upset by the harassment and trying to dodge it, or trying to call it our and change things. All the time and energy spent on dealing with harassment is time and energy not spent being productive. This is a lose-lose scenario - don't let it happen.

The way not to let this happen is to create a workplace culture in which harassment and microaggressions are clearly unacceptable. It's not enough to just have an HR policy gathering dust in a filing cabinet that says "Don't harass people." Start with the identity of your organisation - think about what it is that you want to stand for, and how that relates to the experiences of your employees, customers and other stakeholders. Make sure everyone knows this. Then move on to policy. Make it clear in your policies what harassment looks like - be specific, give as many different examples as you can think of, but also keep it open so people can relate their own lived experience to your policy. A clear statement in a policy that the situation I am experiencing definitely counts as harassment will give me confidence to report it. A clear statement that this is not an exhaustive list will also give me confidence to report things that fall outside it. Use your people: make sure that senior leaders are role models and set the right tone; enable people managers to set that tone in their own teams and to challenge inappropriate behaviour when they see it; train everyone on diversity and inclusion - and not just on the "legal" bits but also on the awesome bits, on why having a diverse organisation is valuable and exciting. Ensure that your values and your policies permeate every level of the organisation.

Finally, recognise that people will occasionally get things wrong - and have strong processes in place for dealing with it. The one thing that has consistently enabled me to call out inappropriate behaviour has been the certainty that it will be addressed appropriately by management and HR. The first time, that confidence comes from the company values, and policies, and training - and that's great. However if someone is encouraged by all of these to make a report, and it gets mishandled, all that credibility and confidence you'd built up vanishes in an instant. So make sure that managers and HR know how to handle issues, that they do so quickly, effectively and sensitively, and that feedback about the outcome is always given to the individual. This way, you enable everyone in your organisation to create a harassment-free workplace, and you end up with people who are motivated and focused on their work rather than on distractions.

This article also appears on < ahref="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/milena-popova/bisexual-asylum-seeker_b_4766466.html">Huffington Post.

Last month, immigration law blog Free Movement published a set of questions which had been asked of a bisexual asylum seeker during an interview by the UKBA. The questions are degrading, intrusive and deeply queerphobic. Yet the reporting of this incident in some mainstream media outlets is similarly concerning. On Saturday, the Guardian ran a story based on the Free Movemement post, titled "Gay asylum seekers face 'humiliation'". The article talks repeatedly of "gay" or "gay and lesbian" asylum seekers; among quotes from immigration lawyers and LGB rights charities, the word "bisexual" appears only once in the entire piece, when describing the individual asylum seeker at the heart of the report.

This kind of bi erasure is almost routine for bisexual people - and we find it comes from our lesbian and gay friends just as often as from straight people. It is hurtful, but particularly in areas such as asylum and immigration, bi erasure, biphobia and stereotyping are downright dangerous. As bisexual immigrants go, I am extremely privileged: the country which issues my passport has not declared my existence illegal; I am white; I am an EU citizen, and therefore my right to stay in this country and my very life do not depend on my ability to navigate this maze, the love child of Orwell and Kafka, and give whatever the UKBA deems to be the "right" answers to questions such as "In [country] how many relationships have you had with women?" Others are not so lucky.

The popular myths of the non-existent bisexual, the "too scared to come out as gay" bisexual, the "doing it for the attention bisexual" all stack the odds heavily against us when it comes to "proving" our sexuality. The UKBA questions illustrate this clearly. Asking about the number of partners of different genders someone has had implies there is a "right" answer here - some optimal number of men, women and genderqueer people one is to have to slept with before one can be truly recognised as bisexual. (And beware of aiming too high with those numbers, lest you are declared the greedy, possibly disease-ridden kind of bisexual who should not be allowed into the country according to some MPs.)

One wonders, too, what the "right" answer is to questions like "When x was penetrating you did you have an erection?" The trouble with this is that there are as many answers to this question as there are occasions upon which the particular sex act being asked about has been performed in human history. But regardless of your experience, only one of those will get you the magic ticket that allows you to stay in a country that might not execute you for who you are.

Questions like "How do you show your sexuality when you are in the UK?" and "How does that display you are bisexual?" almost naturally lead to "Why have you got to behave as a bisexual in [country]?" and "That was with x only and he initiated the contact you claim. Why can't you return and live a full life there?" The box one needs to fit in to "deserve" support and asylum is so tiny as to be almost non-existent for bisexual people.

This is why media coverage of this case and the way it persistently talks of "gay and lesbian" asylum seekers when the individual at the centre of it is actually bisexual, and the lines of questioning are very specifically and deliberately, biphobic is dangerous. It is another stitch in the giant invisibility cloak society has thrown over bisexual people. It makes it easier to perpetuate myths and stereotypes, to question whether bisexuals really exist; and that in turn makes it possible to set impossible standards for "proving" bisexuality and to deny people persecuted for who they are shelter when their story doesn't quite match those expectations.

It is vital for bisexual people's stories to be heard; for biphobia and bi erasure to be called out for what they are. Bisexuality doesn't fit neatly in a gay/straight narrative. That doesn't make biphobia any less hurtful or harmful, sometimes, as in this case, in a "life and death" sort of way.

The UKBA - protecting you from filthy, foreign bisexuals

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Earlier this week I came across this post detailing questions asked by the UKBA of a bisexual asylum seeker in detention. The profound levels of ignorance, queerphobia and specifically biphobia displayed here should be shocking. What is perhaps more shocking is that they aren't. [The rest of this post comes with trigger warnings for discussion of rape, torture, homophobia, biphobia, slut shaming and probably all sorts of other things. Sometimes my own writing scares me.]

I am going to attempt to answer some of the questions that I apparently would face should I find myself persecuted by my own country for who I am. I am in the extremely privileged position that I can choose which questions to answer and which ones to just leave as evidence of their own cruelty, I can be flippant, I can be didactic: my right to stay in this country and my very life do not depend on me navigating this maze, the love child of Orwell and Kafka, and trying to give whatever the UKBA deems to be the "right" answers to these questions. Do not be deceived by this: for far too many people this is a matter of life and death.

Can you explain to me in detail what you mean by bisexual?
Bisexuality is the potential to be sexually (and romantically) attracted to people of more than one gender. In my case, I have the potential to be attracted to people of any gender/all genders/regardless of gender.

Can you explain to me what you mean by man to man?
I don't even. Also, I'm a woman so I'll genderbend some of these questions.

Please explain?

What do you mean by "something"?
Obviously this question is out of context but I'm going to assume they are either fishing for sexual practices or for relationships. Imagine for a moment that the country you were born in makes it illegal for you to be you. Maybe you are short. Or tall. You wear glasses. You have blue eyes. Or brown. You have health condition, inherited or acquired or tunred up out of fucking nowhere like the really scary ones do. There is something about you that your country despises so much that they would throw you in prison or even kill you for it. So you leave. You ask another country to protect you. And what you get in return is "Well, can't you wear heels? Slouch a bit? Don't wear your glasses. Wear coloured contacts. Pretend to be healthy. Actually, how do we know you're not pretending now? Are your eyes really blue? We should gouge them out to check."

What does that mean to you?

How many boyfriends did you have in [country]?
Are you sure you're really tall? Maybe you're wearing heels. Maybe you're walking on stilts. We should do a strip search, just to make sure.

What was the name of your friend?

What is his date of birth?

Do you know his date of birth?

How did you meet him?

Does he have any brothers or sisters?

What is her name?
Or maybe, if the problem is that you're short, we can put you on a rack.

How old were you when you discovered you had an attraction for boys?
I was 12 or 13 when I realised I was attracted to women as well as men. I was significantly older, in my twenties, when I realised I was also attracted to people of other genders, because where I grew up the gender binary was pretty strictly enforced.

What about before you were 18?

Repeated

Can you explain how you realised your sexuality?
I liked and admired women. Female actors, teachers, friends. Initially I thought I wanted to be them but then I realised that no, I actually wanted to bang them. I also wanted to bang men. (Note: some women; some men; not all men and women.) I misspent part of my youth reading trashy sci-fi novels because they were the only literature I could get my hands on that acknowledged that LGBT people - people like me - existed. By about age 17 I was okay applying the label bisexual to myself and started coming out, carefully, to partners and friends. Some time after that, I realised that there were people of other genders than men and women out there too, and that I wanted to bang some of them too.

What happened?

Tell me what you did?

What did you do with x?

Did you do anything other than kissing x?

What did you do?

Where did this happen?

How often did you have intercourse together?

Is that every day?
So that's an epic set of TMI questions, all based on the assumption that bisexuality is about banging people. And whilst I have used the word "bang" liberally in my descriptions above, bisexuality as a sexual orientation is not necessarily about who you have banged/are banging, but about who you want to bang. Funnily enough, that's precisely how other sexual orientations work too. Straight and gay people who've never banged anyone, or aren't banging anyone right now don't magically lose their sexual orientations, and they don't become asexual. For that matter, asexual people who for one reason or another have sex with someone don't magically lose their asexuality either.

Did you put your penis into x's backside?
Oh look, it gets better! This preoccupation that many cishet people seem to have with how non-cishet people have sex is somewhat troubling. I mean, how do you have sex, Mr or Ms UKBA employee? And then there's of course the implicit assumption that if it's not penetrative it doesn't count. We know how well that went for Bill Clinton, right? I guess if your understanding of sex it that flawed then it would be an act of charity to educate you about how we non-cishets do it. Shame I'm not feeling very charitable today.

When x was penetrating you did you have an erection?
Here's a few possible ways this could go. It was the first time for both of us, it was awkward, we fumbled, it hurt. Or I can't remember, we were both off our faces. Or yes, I came my brains out. Or turns out I don't much like this particular sex act, but we found many other ways to have fun. The trouble with this question is that there are as many answers to it as there are occasions upon which the particular sex act being asked about has been performed in human history. But regardless of your experience, only one of those will get you the magic ticket that allows you to stay in a country that might not execute you for who you are.

[TW: rape for this paragraph] I am willing to bet that asylum seekers who have survived rape get asked the same kind of question. Did you enjoy it? Did you have an erection? An orgasm? Well it can't have been rape then, can it?

Did you ejaculate?

Did x ejaculate inside you?
Are you taking notes so you can get off to them tonight?

Why did you use a condom?
Because I value my own and my partner's sexual health. Because I grew up queer in the 80s and 90s. Because that happens to be the best contraceptive choice for me personally when having PiV intercourse with people in possession of a penis. Because when I don't, I expose myself not only to the risk of serious STIs but also to the almost-certainty of a host of minor but highly unpleasant conditions like thrush and cystitis. (Yes, yes Mr or Ms UKBA employee, I am indeed judging you for asking this question, possibly more so than for some of the arguably worse questions, because this is one that even cishets should know.) And while we're at it, have you heard of dental dams?

How did you feel when having sex?
By necessity, I can only give you a non-exhaustive list of emotions I've experienced during sex: insecure, amused, worried, confused as fuck, entertained, relieved, bored, elated, horny, angry, blank, scared, annoyed, overwhelmed, satisfied, surprised, close to my partner, tentative, slutty, powerful, needy, melting, impatient (often), loving, loved, happy, snarky, safe, unsafe, fascinated.

Did you have feelings for other boys?
I have all sorts of feelings for all sorts of people. Many of my feelings towards fellow human beings tend to be on the "annoyed" end of the spectrum.

Did you have physical relationships with other boys in [city]?
I wonder, how many people of which gender do I need to have fucked to demonstrate my credibility as a bisexual? And how many is too many? What number makes you think that I'm a disease-ridden slut who should not be allowed to stay in the country for public health reasons?

You think I'm joking about that last one? Parliament nearly voted on a proposed amendment to the Immigration Bill which would have banned HIV-positive immigrants from entering the country. Last week. Let's be clear, this is something not even Russia, everyone's current number one enemy, does anymore. (ETA: fact check says I'm wrong about that last bit.)

Did you love x?
Define love.

When was his birthday?
I have no intention of handing you that password.

Did you buy him presents?
Still do occasionally.

Did he buy you presents?
Still does occasionally.

How could you afford to buy him presents if you were studying?
One makes do.

In [city] did you have sex with other men?
See above.

What do you find attractive about men?
Often, I am shallow and go for physical features. But sometimes, I want to make out with people's brains.

Tell me what you like about men that turns you on?

What is it about the way men walk that turns you on?

What is it about men's backsides that attracts you?

How did you get found out?
I came out to people I thought I could trust. Most of them were awesome. Many were ignorant. Some were dicks.

In [country] how many relationships have you had with women?
We gouged one eye and it was blue. We'd better check the second one too though, maybe only one of them was really blue.

How did you meet y?

What did you find attractive about y?

On the night you met her what attracted you to her?

Did you have a sexual relationship with her?

How often did you see y?

How were your feelings for her different to x?
How are your feelings for you ex different to those for your current partner?


Were you and x lovers at this time?
Ah, the greedy bisexuals.

Did you tell x about your affair with y?
The dishonest bisexuals.

Repeat

What was x's response when you told him about y?
Blast, maybe not dishonest anyway.

Did you tell y about x as well?
Gotcha, totally dishonest!

Why not?
Oh I wonder why a bisexual person wouldn't out themselves immediately to a new partner. Let me think about that one...

What do you like about women?
Only one question on the attractiveness or otherwise of women? Not four probing questions on when I want fuck people in the arse? I am shocked!

How do you show your sexuality when you are in the UK?
How do you show yours, Mr or Ms UKBA employee? You don't think you need to because you're straight? Is that a wedding ring on your finger? A photo of your spouse and children on your desk? Now tell me again how you show your sexuality.

How does that display you are bisexual?
I have a permanent rainbow halo.

Where do you go when going out?

Which pub do you go to?

What is your religion?

What does the church say about homosexuality?
I don't know. What does it say about heterosexuality? That's about as relevant to this conversation about my bisexuality as anything else.

What is your view of same sex marriages?
Well documented.

What do you think of men marrying men?
Sure, but I'd advise them - or anyone getting married for that matter - to get a decent prenup.

Why do you think it is a good thing?

Would you marry a man?
Not even for the tax savings. I wouldn't marry a not-man either.

Why have you got to behave as a bisexual in [country]?
So, we've gouged out both eyes. They were indeed both blue, for which you could have been persecuted in your own country. But you don't have them anymore, we fixed it for you. You can totally go back.

That was with x only and he initiated the contact you claim. Why can't you return and live a full life there?

I don't know about you, but I'm on the verge of both tears and throwing up. For the record, the UKBA is part of the Home Office, and the Home Office came in joint 5th in this year's Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.

[TW:Rape] Be very careful how you score your political points

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OnFire.png

The above post has been making the rounds on Tumblr and, more recently, on Twitter. It makes some very valid points about the tendency of our cutlure to blame the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of sexual assault. "She was wearing a short skirt." "She was drunk." "She was walking alone in the dark." "She enjoyed it." "She wanted it." "It was her fault." Victim blaming is one of the biggest obstacles to tackling violence against women, it's hugely damaging to those who have experienced sexual assault, it's a major factor in the appallingly low conviction rates for rape, it needs calling out and, frankly, it needs to die in a fire. And yet, something about this post makes me extremely uncomfortable.

Here's the thing: Some people don't seem to have read the headline the comments are referring to; some seem to have thought it was made up. It isn't. It's a true story. Somewhere in India, there is a woman who was raped; who was subsequently so badly let down by the justice system that she felt this was her only option; and who now will presumably go to jail (or possibly has already gone to jail) for murder. No matter how valid the political points about victim blaming, I feel it is in incredibly poor taste to score them in this particular way off the back of this particular tragedy.

By all means, challenge victim blaming. Challenge the criminal justice system which treats victims like suspects and sees only a handful of cases end in conviction. Campaign, and educate, and do everything in your power to make violence against women history. But do also show respect for the survivors; their stories; their lives. Do not (even in anger - as I suspect the original posts were made) make light of this.

That was 2013

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It's been nothing if not an interesting year. Here's a selection from my blog over the past year to keep you entertained while you're chilling out/avoiding your family on Boxing Day.

I did a few variations on the theme of colliding worlds - the intersection between feminism and digital rights. Ultimately, the message here is that we should all care about digital rights, and that we need a more diverse digital rights community.

When Worlds Collide: My original talk from ORGCon, aimed at the digital rights community.

Colliding Worlds: My talk at the Virtual Gender conference, aimed at a feminist audience.

I also spent a lot of time this year campaigning against internet censorship in the UK.

Porn Blocking - A Survivor's Perspective: In which I talk about how none of David Cameron's censorship measures would have prevented the abuse I experienced. (Trigger warning for discussion of child sexual abuse.)

Censored: In which I show how Cameron's censorship measures would censor me speaking out against censorship.

Truthloader, where I appeared on a panel with Gail Dines, Peter Bradwell, Vivienne Pattison, Leigh Porter, and Jerry Barnett.

Open Letter to David Cameron on Web Filtering, co-signed by Brooke Magnanti, Laurie Penny, Zoe Margolis, Charles Stross, Jane Fae, Holly Combe, Jane Czyselska, and me.

I talked a lot about bisexuality, including spending a week curating the @TWkLGBTQ account on Twitter.

Index post for the @TWkLGBTQ week, which leads to posts on labels, coming out, stereotypes, bisexual role models in fiction and real life, and much more.

I also made a Biphobia Bingo card. It has generated some interesting insights in the last few months.

I was generally unimpressed with pop culture in various ways.

I wrote a series of posts introducing key feminist concepts in the context of pop culture. There is more to come in this, but for now, start here.

I got angry at Joss Whedon.

And I ventured, briefly, into writing fiction.

I talked, here an there, about immigration. Have you noticed how RomaniansandBulgarians appears to have become one word in the English language?

I explained how to talk to foreigners.

I created the Immigration Drinking Game - it comes with a serious health warning.

And I urged people to sign the Let Me Vote European Citizen's Initiative. (Something which you still have a couple of weeks to do, incidentally.)

I wrote a few pieces for ORGZine including a review of Beeban Kidron's documentary InRealLife, and a comment on Amazon's latest attempt to cash in on fanfiction.

I also wrote a handy 5-step guide to being a great ally.

And last but not least, I remembered Maggie.

Here's to 2014. May it let our voices be heard.

The Immigration Drinking Game

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Today is International Migrants' Day. Not that you'd know that from the Today Programme coverage of immigration this morning. So I have decided to bring you the Immigration Drinking Game. Get a (large) bottle of your favourite liquor and settle down. (Feel free to add more items in the comments or tweet them @elmyra.)

The United Nations produces promotional material featuring only people of colour? Yes, white people are a global minority, and yes, many migrants are indeed people of colour. However not acknowledging that white people can be migrants too perpetuates racist stereotypes. It's why I can pass as British unless I shout about being foreign, whereas people with brown skin who were born here, and whose parents were born here are constantly asked where they're from and complimented on their English. So take a drink.

"Economic migrants" hurled as an insult. Because wanting to work and make a contribution to society is clearly somehow a bad thing. Because having the strength to do a job you are vastly overqualified for on minimum wage is somehow to be despised. Take a drink.

RomaniansandBulgarians. One word. Breathless. A prayer. An invocation. A curse. Take a drink.

Benefit tourism. Check your facts. Take a drink.

It's all the EU's fault. Nevermind that it is also the EU that enables you to export over a million of your retired (aka unproductive, with greater healthcare needs) citizens to Spain. Take a drink.

A drain on local community resources. Let's do some maths. Brits in Bulgaria as percentage of population: 0.246%. Bulgarians in UK as percentage of population: 0.0743%. Bulgaria's GDP/capita: $7k. UK GDP/capita: $38k. Most Brits in Bulgaria are retirees and thus not contributing hugely to the economy but requiring more healthcare resources than average; most Bulgarians in the UK are relatively young, healthy, evil economic migrants. Now tell me who's a drain on whose resources. And take a drink while you're at it.

Learn English. Integrate. We've cut funding for ESL classes? Take a drink.

We should welcome immigrants because they do all the jobs the feckless, undeserving, spoiled British underclass is too lazy to do. It's fun, playing off the poor against the foreigners. They're so busy hating each other, they won't even notice when the Tories win the next election. Take a drink.

We should leave the EU if we can't stop free movement of labour. By all means, cut off your nose to spite your face. Take a drink.

RomaniansandBulgarians and Roma. Would you like some racism with your racism? Take two drinks.

Racists of the world, unite! Down the fucking bottle. And another one for good measure. That's it, you're done.

Compare and Contrast

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For those of you who haven't gone out and found the full version of that Chimamanda Adichie talk that Beyonce sampled in Flawless, here it is.

No need to thank me[1].

I watched this just now, and I was painfully reminded of Joss Whedon's take on the subject of the word "feminist".

(I am sorry for putting you through this again.)

Here are two storytellers, both incredibly aware of the power of stories and the power of language, taking on the same word. It is almost uncanny how much of the same ground they cover:

- that the word "feminist" comes with a lot of baggage;
- that this is an issue of equality and shared humanity;
- that it's an issue of language and an issue of culture.

Now look at how differently they treat those points. Whedon throws the word out of the window in some misguided attempt at humour. Adichie reveals the way all that baggage has affected her, the internalised oppression she is carrying and struggling with:

"At some point, I was a happy African feminist, who does not hate men, and who likes lip gloss, and who wears high heels for herself and not for men."

Whedon declares that "You either believe women are people, or you don't." Adichie examines the social structures and systems of oppression that lead to the majority of people today believing that women are not people. She tells us how we are all socialised to see girls and women as less, to assume that any money or self-worth a woman may have will have come from a man, to see women as guilty, to stifle girls' ambition by making their first priority marriage. (And if you think that last one is an African and not a Western issue, you need to think again. But that's another post.) She points out how men are the default - how Joss Whedon probably never had to think about what to wear to that award dinner he made his speech at, while Chimamanda Adichie has to expend energy to look less feminine in order to be taken seriously. She talks about how these assumptions are so ingrained in our society that even her progressive male friends do not see them until they are shoved right up in their face.

Whedon seems to think we have solved racism. Adichie, a black African woman, examines the interaction between different systems of oppression (racism and sexism), different types of privilege.

Whedon says if only we had a word that made it clear that believing that women aren't human was unacceptable, the world would be a much better place. Adichie looks at practical ways in which we can initiate and sustain cultural change: raising children based on talent and interests rather than gender, being aware of the assumptions we make and the messages we send, challenging sexist behaviour when we see it. She is also keenly aware of all the ways in which discussions about gender get shut down and derailed, often deliberately, often by people like Joss Whedon. ("Why do you have to say 'my experience as a woman'? Why can't you say 'my experience as a human being'?" Yeah, that does sound kinda familiar, now that you mention it.)

Joss Whedon makes a speech, throws a word out of the window, throws another one at the audience, and that's it, job done. Chimamanda Adichie understands that it takes 100 years for killing twins to no longer be part of a culture. She tells us of the barriers she faces in accessing and shaping her own culture. She acknowledges the difficulty of changing our culture, but very clearly tells us that it is not only not impossible, but that it is vital. "Culture does not make people. People make culture."

I am inspired by one of these two messages, one of these two people. When Joss Whedon tells me "Go forth and use 'genderist'!" my response is a resounding "Fuck you!" When Chimamanda Adichie tells me to be a proud woman, a proud feminist, and to go and challenge our society's myriad sexist assumptions every single day, then yes, of course I will. Because Chimamanda Adichie speaks from her experience as a woman, while Joss Whedon lacks the imagination that would allow him to conceive that women's experiences are different.

--

[1] It needs to be acknowledged that parts of Chimamanda Adichie's talk contain heteronormative and cissexist assumptions, and there is one piece that is problematic with regards to sex work. While in an ideal world all of us would be constantly aware of all axes of privilege and all intersections of oppression and speak and act accordingly, this is not the world we live in, and I feel Adichie's contribution to the feminist discourse is incredibly valuable even with these flaws.

When is it appropriate to gender things?

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Our society genders things. It starts with pink hats and blue hats when we're babies, continues with LEGO and LEGO Friends when we're kids and culminates in power tools and handbags when we're adults. It doesn't matter how feminist we are, how aware of popular culture and its more problematic elements, it is sometimes difficult to escape internalising some of this social gendering of random objects and concepts. I rarely do a double-take when products I have no interest in (e.g. beer) are marketed in a way specifically aimed at men. I do grumble when items I am interested in are marketed this way, or when, in order to target women, manufacturers think they should make their products pink.

Occasionally, however, someone decides to gender something I never even thought of as gendered in any way before and that serves as a nice reminder of quite how ridiculous the whole concept is. Until last week the Firebox catalog landed on my desk, for instance, I had no idea that I was no longer allowed coffee and related items (filed under "Mens Gifts" - sic) due to my gender identity; also magical fixing putty Sugru; and RFID wallets, possibly because Firebox haven't worked out that they also come in pink.

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I asked whoever was on Twitter some time after midnight last Tuesday if they could think of examples of things that genuinely should be gendered. Here are some of the responses I got: French grammar, sex toys, babies' nappies, "feminine hygiene products", "female hormonal contraception", safe spaces of some kinds. Let's group these into a few categories and look at them in more detail.

French grammar: languages

Tom Scott has dealt with this beautifully. Enough said.

Sex toys, nappies, tampons, hormonal contraception: objects

More specifically, these are objects designed for specific parts of anatomy: primary and secondary sexual characteristics, body chemistry and organs associated with sex. Let's at this point remind ourselves of some basic definitions. I'll go with a slightly modified version of the World Health Organisation definition:

"Sex" refers to the biological and physiological characteristics (...) "Gender" refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for (different genders).

The important bit here is that sex and gender are not the same, and that when we say certain objects are only for men or only for women, we are making a statement about socially constructed roles, behaviours or activities, i.e. about gender, not biological sex. Your gender is not defined by your biological sex. If you're lucky in our cisheteronormative society, your gender identity may match the set of physical characteristics you have, or the gender you were assigned at birth, but there are many people for whom that's not the case, or whose physical characteristics don't neatly fit into a binary model.

Looking therefore at things like tampons, sanitary towels and hormonal contraception, there are plenty of men out there who have use for these things. There are also agender or non-binary people who need these products. Likewise sex toys designed to stimulate a particular configuration of genitalia can still be used by people of any gender.

Therefore, stating that a product, even one specifically designed with a particular set of anatomical features in mind, is "for men" or "for women" is extremely problematic. A better approach would be to make direct reference to the anatomical features in question. Something might be for people who have a penis, or a uterus, or breasts. Let's face it, getting less uptight about discussing bodies can only be a good thing, and shedding oppressive gender norms in the process is a nice bonus.

Safe spaces

Given the global epidemic of gender-based violence, it is understandable that many women in particular feel the need for some gender-segregated safe spaces. Refuges and meeting spaces are good examples here. Having said that, a binary approach to gender can create a whole new set of problems when it comes to safe spaces. Trans women, for instance, are often excluded from refuges or find that they have to meet certain criteria for their gender identity to be accepted. Similarly, agender and non-binary people can be excluded from some safe spaces, even if they are not the threat we need safety from or if they are also affected by the same threat. Queer people who experience domestic abuse can also find it difficult to access safe spaces because our model of domestic abuse is so gendered.

I do accept the need for some safe spaces, but I also believe we need a more nuanced approach to them. I don't necessarily have a good solution here - and I don't actually believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution - but here are some of the things I would consider. We need to understand what the threat model is that we are seeking safety from and define our safe spaces as much as possible based on that, rather than on proxies like sex. We particularly need to ensure that in seeking safety we are not policing others' identities or worse, endangering others.

"But what about pink RFID wallets?" you ask.

Here's the thing. Pink (okay, magenta) is an awesome colour. It's bright. It's cheerful. It goes fantastically well with purple; and black; and all sorts of other colours. If you want a pink RFID wallet, get one. But don't do it because you're a woman. And don't not do it because you're a man. If you happen to be a marketing exec stop gendering things that have no business being gendered. If your product is designed for particular anatomical features, say so, don't use gender as a proxy. And if you're trying to create a safe space, put some thought into it to ensure it is both safe and inclusive.

This post has been brought to you by the Fluff and Inclusion Police.

[Elsewhere] Making Cryptoparties inclusive

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The CryptoParty movement, kicked off by Australian activist @Asher_Wolf over a year ago, intends to help people with any level of technical knowledge acquire useful skills to protect their privacy in the digital world. The 350-page, crowd-sourced handbook includes, among others, sections on browsing the web safely, securing your email, using disk encryption and secure telephony. Explanations progress from the basic (Don's use personal details in your passwords; make sure no one's looking over your shoulder when you're typing in your password) to the rather more advanced instructions for using email encryption on your phone.

Read more over on ORGZine.

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