Category Archives: Uncategorized

Dear “I’m not racist” Brexiter,

Honey, I don’t look angry, I am angry. I am mostly angry at the people who duped you and other Brexiters to vote the way you did, like turkeys for Christmas. But I am also angry at you and other Brexiters for continuing to stick to your guns long after every single thing the Brexit campaign said has been exposed as a lie (and they’ve admitted to it), long after that vote wiped out a significant chunk not only of the UK economy, but of the European economy and the world economy, long after it became clear that we are headed for a social, political and economic catastrophe. I am particularly angry at anyone who claims to be left-wing and supported Brexit because there wasn’t a single grain of that argument that was rooted in reality and what was even remotely achievable – and it’s given the Tories a significant boost, and put in power an incredibly dangerous right-wing woman, who will ramp up austerity and the sale of state assets, who will cheerfully take away all of your civil and human rights, and make you thank her for it. I am angry because this vote has given voice and legitimacy to the racism in this country that has been bubbling and building for years now, and all Brexit voters have to say is “we’re not all racists”. I am angry because as an EU immigrant in this country my own future is now incredibly precarious and uncertain. I am angry because both my partner and I work in higher education and academia which is already getting obliterated by Brexit. I am angry because the government this vote helped put in power is going to be even more actively hostile to queer people and women (both of which I am). I am angry because as a result of this vote People. Are going. To die. Brown people, immigrant people, queer people, poor people, disabled people, women. You think the Tories are bad? Try the Tories with no restrictions from pesky human rights and EU regulations. Try the Tories in power for generations because Scotland will leave and they’ve got England stitched up. Oh honey, you have no idea what’s coming to you. But here you are, all worried about how you’re being perceived and whether someone asked you to face the consequences of your own actions.

There are no magic fixes for academic publishing

Earlier this week, Rufus Pollock published a proposal for reforming academic publishing. I do agree with some of the basic assumptions behind this piece: that academic publishing is hopelessly broken and doesn’t serve anybody well except for-profit publishers, and that technology can play a significant part in the solution. (I have in fact said these things before.) But here’s the thing: this is a social problem, and social problems do not easily lend themselves to purely technical solutions. None of the problems Pollock’s proposed solutions address are the actual problems that need solving to make academic research widely available to the public at no cost at the point of use.

There are three factors we need to consider to better understand the problems we actually need to solve: 1. the traditional model of academic publishing; 2. open access both as intended and as implemented; 3. what academics actually get CV points for (which is slightly different to what we actually care about, but that’s a separate problem).

1. I’ll stick to the model for academic papers. Books are slightly different but similarly broken. Academic journals, which is where most academic papers appear, are traditionally run by one of a handful of academic publishing houses. Sage, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis between them publish 50% of all academic papers. Their costs are fairly minimal. Most journals will have a paid editor and some production staff. Print distribution does happen but with the advent of electronic journals it’s in severe decline. Importantly, there are two big-ticket items that publishers don’t pay for: content, and quality assurance. Content is provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points. Quality assurance (also known as peer review) is also provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points/get to snark at our colleagues/arch-nemeses.

Getting hold of a single academic paper through this model costs the end user anywhere between US$30 and US$120. Subscriptions significantly lower the cost per paper, as do subscription packages – but most people don’t want to read every single paper in a specific journal over the course of a year, so subscriptions/packages only make sense for large institutions, mainly academic libraries. There’s another part to this system that Pollock picks up on, which is indexing, i.e. making papers discoverable. I actually don’t know how the indexing business model works but if I were to guess based on how broken the rest of the industry is, journals and libraries both pay subscription fees for anything other than maybe Google Scholar. (Google is in a different business and also only partially useful for indexing academic papers.)

2. It is a perfectly reasonable position to look at the above and declare it broken. It’s broken in several ways, but most glaringly in that both the people who create the content and the people who (indirectly, through taxes) pay for the vast majority of research to be done in the first place, can’t access the content without putting money in the pockets of large private corporations who have contributed, at most, a bit of branding and a bit of admin to the entire thing. And since we have the internet, it seems entirely reasonable to go “just publish it all online for free!” And thus Open Access was born. Except you still have massively powerful corporations in the system who aren’t going to keel over so easily and lose their nearly pure profit. So the first thing they tried was to discredit the system. “Oh, but if you have Open Access then who will do quality assurance? It’ll be a free for all!” And when that didn’t work well enough (it did do some damage to the credibility of Open Access unfortunately) they lobbied until Open Access got redesigned in a way that would still let them profit from it in much the same way as before.

This is how Open Access works: there are two levels – green and gold. Some journals operate both, some only one. There might even still be a few out there that offer neither. Green level OA works on time: the journal has exclusive distribution rights for a given amount of time (normally between 6 and 24 months), after which the paper becomes Open Access and can be accessed by everyone for free (which may or may not be hosted by the journal – but most UK universities now have their own OA research repositories where stuff gets hosted). Add 24 months to the academic publishing cycle, which can take several years in the first place, and by the time the general public gets to read “cutting edge research”, it’s based on ten-year-old data. In physics, where the speed of light doesn’t change that much, this is mildly inconvenient. In computer science, which moves at the speed of Moore’s Law, this system is not even remotely fit for purpose. (Let’s not talk about the arts and humanities, that’s an entirely separate rant.)

Gold OA simply shifts which university department pays the publisher: if you want your paper to be published under Gold OA, you as the author – or your institution – have to pay the publisher for the privilege. Depending on journal, field and publisher, we’re talking US$1,000 – US$6,000 per paper. Now, the assumption here is that eventually all academic publishing will transition to full OA so libraries won’t have to pay subscription fees to access articles anymore, and therefore the money that’s currently being spent on that can be spent on on Article Processing Charges instead, and universities won’t be any worse off. There are about six million problems with this. For a start there is what is now looking like it’ll be quite a lengthy transition period. Between nuclear fusion and full OA, my money is on getting nuclear fusion first. During this transition period, universities are stuck having to pay both ways. The people this screws over most are PhD students and early career researchers, particularly the ones not funded by research councils. If you’re funded by a research council, there may be some money as part of your funding for dissemination and OA publication. If you’re not, tough luck, Gold OA is something you can only dream about. Other people this screws over are increasingly casualised researchers (often also early career) and independent scholars who don’t have an institution or funder behind them (who, unsurprisingly, are mostly from already marginalised groups). To add insult to injury, people who don’t understand the gory details of OA tend to view Gold OA as vanity publishing.

And yes, there are independent academic journals which run entirely not for profit on the Green OA model, making papers available immediately. They are few and far between, those that do exist have to fight hard to establish credibility and reputation (because of the work publishers did to discredit OA originally), and of course this model relies entirely on people wanting to contribute to their community for very little reward. Some examples of this working well are Transformative Works and Cultures which is a fan studies journal run by the Organisation for Tranformative Works, and the one where the entire academic staff of one of the biggest linguistics journals told Elsevier they could stick it and started an OA journal instead. But in the vast majority of cases we’re still stuck with the big publishers.

But what about arXiv.org I hear you ask! Which brings us neatly to 3: what do academics actually get CV points for?

3. (This bit covers the more or less gory details of research funding in the UK, but the broad principles of prestige, peer review, and funding being tied to publication applies, with minor tweaks to the exact metrics, to anyone wanting to pursue an academic career at a Western university.) Research at UK universities is funded in two main ways: by the research councils, which tend to fund specific projects, and (in England) by HEFCE which allocates generic lump sums of money every five years or so. I used to know the percentage split of how much money comes in from HEFCE and how much from research councils but I don’t anymore – either way, the HEFCE money is a significant chunk for many universities. How much HEFCE money a university gets is determined by an arcane process called the REF (Research Excellence Framework), where every five or so years universities submit their research output to a panel (by subject) and the panel decides how good the research output is, on a scale from one to four stars (four being world-leading). Every star on every paper means a certain amount of money annually for the university. A four-star paper is worth about £10k a year, which means that if you have four four-star papers in a given REF period, your salary is more or less covered by the HEFCE money that brings in. Which in turn means you might be able to get a/keep your job for the next REF cycle. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.)

Theoretically the REF panel judges papers on their own merits, not on where they were published. Practically, the sheer volume of work they have to get through… Yeah. There’s a strong incentive to publish in established, high-impact-factor (don’t ask), for-profit journals. There is literally zero incentive to just chuck your paper on something like arXiv and run. The reason arXiv works for the community that uses it is that it’s a pre-publication archive: the papers, in slightly altered form, are still published in the big academic journals where they get their impact factor and REF eligibility etc. (Now, HEFCE has said that any paper published after April 1, 2016, to be eligible for the 2020 REF, needs to be in an OA repository. What this means in practice is that if your paper is still embargoed under Green OA, or is in a non-OA journal but is sitting behind a password on your institutional repository, your’re fine. Which is some great hoop-jumping for not a lot of direct benefit to the general public.)

So these are the actual problems any review of Open Access or any other solution seeking to make academic research available to the public should be looking to solve. Pollock’s proposed model doesn’t come near it. From what I can see, it eliminates peer review entirely. Now, peer review is broken in several interesting ways, but unless we fix how research is funded and academics are employed, it’s one of the less bad ways of doing quality assurance on academic research. Because all three of Pollock’s filtering/selection models eliminate the double-blind aspect of peer review, the system automatically becomes even less accessible to marginalised groups (aka the “try hanging out on Reddit as not-a-cishet-white-dude phenomenon”). Because it doesn’t take into account any of how research itself is funded and what the key stakeholders in this process (researchers, their employers and funders) actually care about, the model is completely unworkable. And because it doesn’t take into account the vested interests which shape the current system (for-profit publishers), even if it was workable there’s no clear path to implementation.

All of which is why requirements engineering is an art, and why you shouldn’t try to fix complex social problems with technical solutions.

Purple Prose – Help us make something amazing!

[The Purple Prose crowdfunding page is here. Help us make it happen!]

A little over a year ago I came across a blog post or a tweet, I can’t quite remember. Someone wanted to put together a book. A book about the experiences of bisexual people in the UK, by the bi community, for the bi community. I have some experience with being bi in the UK, I thought. I can write some things.

I was in the process of quitting a job that had involved, among other things, working on LGBT workplace issues for over a decade. The workplace chapter poured out of me in a day: ten years’ experience, 5000 words, just happened. I was also in the process of starting a PhD all about the politics of culture, identity and representation. It made sense that I would compile a chapter on the representation of bisexuality in fiction. I contributed other bits and pieces: some thoughts on internalised biphobia, my coming out story, snippets on what my sexuality meant to me.

I followed the progress of the book on our mailing list as questions were asked and answered, other chapters were compiled, the wordcount slowly ticked up. Then we had a publisher, and a deadline, and now we have a crowdfunding campaign. But the most amazing thing is that this week I got my hands on a copy of the first complete draft. I was only going to check that my chapters were ok… and then I started reading. And I couldn’t stop. I laughed out loud on the tube, I cried in a cafe, I learned so many things.

There are so many different voices here, so many experiences. Some things are similar: most of us have experienced biphobia at times, or felt erased and invisible, or felt unwelcome in spaces that should have been safe. Most of us keep having to come out again and again, often to the same people. But there is also a huge diversity. Purple Prose doesn’t play respectability politics. It shows you the bi community in all its intersectional glory.

We have a chapter on gender and bisexuality, featuring among other things the experiences of many non-binary bisexual people, previously unrepresented. We have a chapter on bisexuality and non-monogamy, one on bisexuality, disability and mental health, and one on the experiences of bisexual black and minority ethnic people. We have a chapter on how bisexuality may intersect with other attractions and orientations, both sexual and romantic; a chapter on bisexuality and faith, and one showcasing the experiences of bi people of different generations. We have people who have found a home in the bi community, and others writing very frank and honest accounts challenging that community to do better by them.

Where we stand united is in challenging society at large to do better by all of us. To stop erasing us, to accept all of us rather than just focus on those who meet a certain “respectability” standard. To make sure that bi kids growing up today don’t have to deal with the kinds of crap that was thrown at us.

As I watched this project grow from Katy’s idea, to having a dedicated group of contributors, to actually putting words on the page, my main thought was that I wished I’d had a book like that when I was growing up. I hoped that this book would help young bi people trying to work out their sexual and romantic orientations and navigate a world that continues to be binary and monosexist. But as I practically inhaled the first draft, I realised we had produced so much more. I have been a bi activist for many years now, one way or another, and I thought I knew what being bi meant, to me and to others. And yes, I knew some things. But it turns out I had plenty to learn too, and I am immensely grateful to all the other Purple Prose contributors for sharing their stories, their thoughts, their feelings and experiences.

The thing is, we are now very very close to making this book a reality. It’s written and being edited as we speak. We have a publisher. But we need a little bit of capital to get us to the finish line. So if you are bi, if there are bi people in your life, or if you simply want to make the world a better place for bi people, head over to the Purple Prose Indiegogo page and help us make it happen. If you fund us to the tune of £5 or more, you will get a copy of the book. If you want to club together with some friends, or your work LGBT network and make a bigger donation, you can get me or some of the other awesome contributors to speak at your event. But even if all you can give is £2, you will have our sincere thanks and the knowledge that you have helped the bi community create something amazing.

Call for Papers: Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives

Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives

Call for Papers for a 1-day postgraduate symposium hosted by the Digital Cultures Research Centre

Popular culture, as can be seen through the GamerGate controversy for one example, has a profound impact on feminist issues and discourses. Representations of sex and sexualities influence public opinion and individual attitudes and perceptions. Discussions – in both media and academia – are continuing to take place about the impact of Fifty Shades, sexism and misogyny in computer game and comic book fandom, the sexualisation of girls and the sexual desires of both young and adult women. Moral panics abound surrounding Fifty Shades and the “irrational” behaviour of One Direction fans, while LGBTQIA+ identities and sexualities are often represented tokenistically at best. Creative practitioners can easily come under fire for poor representations of sex and sexualities, as evidenced most recently by the reception of Joss Whedon’s treatment of Black Widow in The Avengers: Age of Ultron; equally they can be celebrated for their efforts, as was the case with BioWare’s inclusion of a consent negotiation scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

This one-day symposium will open up debates and explore the nuances of sex and sexualities within popular culture and will afford a platform for postgraduate students (MA/MSc onwards) and creative practitioners exploring these areas to meet peers, share work and learn from each other. We aim to create a space safe for experimentation – both with new ideas and with presentation formats. We therefore encourage a range of submissions, including workshops, discussions, pecha kucha, as well as the traditional 20-minute paper format.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • Representations of women’s desire and sexualities in popular culture
  • Non-cis- and heteronormative sexualities in popular culture, especially beyond “gay and lesbian”
  • Representations of sex work
  • Infertility and sexual dysfunction
  • Sexual intersections: race, disability, religion, class and socioeconomic status, gender
  • Sex and sexualities in gaming
  • Sexual pleasure in popular culture
  • Invisibility: (a)sexualities unrepresented
  • Sex, sexualities and social media
  • Sex and sexualities in fan and transformative works

Please submit a 300-word abstract and a 100-word bio to milena2.popova@live.uwe.ac.uk and bethanvjones@hotmail.com by September 27th, 2015.

Abstract deadline: September 27th, 2015

Conference date and location: November 7th, 2015, Digital Cultures Research Centre, The Watershed, Bristol

Eligibility: Postgraduate students (MA/MSc onwards) and creative practitioners

Send abstracts to:  milena2.popova@live.uwe.ac.uk and bethanvjones@hotmail.com

Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

[This post originally appeared on Rainbow Teaching.]

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.

Of course, me being drunk on my sofa in no way helps LGBTQIA+ people experiencing horrendous violence in Russia, and I did also put some of my money where my mouth was, but sometimes the irony just gets a little too much.

There is, however, a second problem with the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game, and that is that Tchaikovsky died well before “gay” became an identity one could assign to people. In this case, it’s a fairly safe bet that Tchaikovsky was predominantly attracted to men, but even if we could prove that neither his engagement to Désirée Artôt nor his marriage to Antonina Miliukova were in any way founded on sexual or romantic attraction (and we can’t), what we consider a gay identity and a gay experience in the early 21st century in the UK is vastly different to what Tchaikovsky would have experienced in 19th-century Russia. Frankly, any apparent commonality and similarity are more likely to be due to our incredible ability to view history through the lens of our own culture than anything else.

Things get even murkier when we look at historical figures who have had what look like meaningful relationships with men and women. The temptation becomes too great to discount any different-gender relationships in order to claim them for “the cause”, thereby often erasing any potential of bisexuality. There are people throughout history who were assigned female at birth and chose to wear men’s clothing and have relationships with women: do we read them as butch lesbians or as straight trans men? And how do we tell the difference between an aromantic asexual woman and a “spinster”?

It may therefore be tempting to refuse to assign such labels to historical figures who never self-identified as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, asexual, or any other of a range of identities available to us now but not to them when they were alive. This, however, leaves us a people without a history. It leaves us vulnerable, without precedent. It allows others to tell our stories for us. It creates the impression that LGBTQIA+ people simply made ourselves up some time in the mid-20th century, and that maybe if only we’re ignored, erased or oppressed enough, we will quietly fade out of existence. History is a powerful political tool, which is why it is often so hotly contested, and why LGBTQIA+ History Month is so important.

How, then, do we both do justice to our history as a people and recognise that the lived experiences of those who came before us will have differed significantly from ours? It’s a fine line to walk, but let me attempt it nonetheless.

I would, first of all, argue that LGBTQIA+ history is not the only history that suffers from this problem – and than to an extent we have an advantage because we are aware of it. After all, how do we meaningfully argue that a peasant in 15th-century Somerset can share a national identity with, say, a systems engineer in modern-day Bath? The gulf of lived experience is just as vast, the commonality just as constructed.

Using more nuanced language can go some way towards addressing the issues. Rather than calling Tchaikovsky gay, we can say that he had relationships with men. This can, however, sometimes result in focusing on acts at the expense of attractions and other inner experiences, thus erasing a number of possible identities such as bisexual or asexual. To mitigate this to an extent, we can speculate about the language historical figures may have used of themselves had they had access to our terminology, while still making it clear that it’s a speculation. Thus, if Tchaikovsky was alive today, he might identify as gay.

Above all, though, it is important to understand that any reading we make of history is by necessity revisionist and coloured by our own assumptions and prejudices. Perhaps the best we can do in telling our stories is make sure that we open up spaces and possibilities. I would encourage you to take the opportunity this LGBTQIA+ History Month to get students to question their assumptions and retell stories, while being aware that there is more than one possible reading of any given story – and any given person – out there.

A change in direction

I am delighted to share that as of October 1st I will be starting a PhD at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, University of the West of England, Bristol. Those who know me will no doubt be entirely unsurprised by the fact that my chosen area of study is at the intersection of multiple fields: politics, culture, gender and sexuality, fandom and the digital world. In my fully-funded PhD project, I will investigate fanfiction narratives and discourses of consent and sexuality in a political context.
After over ten years as a technology manager in the private sector, it was time for a change in direction. I have enjoyed my career so far, and I have learned a lot of from it. I have had the opportunity to lead business-critical projects, manage relationships with key business partners, analyse and leverage retail data to directly increase sales. I’ve recruited some great people, and I’ve had the opportunity to help my employer become a fantastic place to work for LGBT employees. I’ve worked with some amazing people, whom I will miss.
I am almost at a loss for words about how much I am looking forward to this exciting new challenge. I left my heart in research and academia, and I am incredibly privileged to be able to go back to find it. My PhD project combines many of the different strands of my interests, from the interaction between politics and culture, through LGBT issues and violence against women, to digital rights. My experience in these areas will inform my research, and I intend to continue to be an active campaigner in these areas in a variety of ways.
I will probably be fairly quiet over the next few weeks as I pack up my life and move to the other end of the country, but I expect this blog will very soon start reflecting my academic interests and research, in addition to the mix of topics you are already used to. I very much hope that you will come along for the ride.

[Elsewhere] Pragmatism 101 for activists

So many times as an activist I have run into the conflict between pragmatism and idealism. One of the more useful people on the doomed Yes to Fairer Votes campaign for instance was Nigel Farage – a man whom otherwise I find thoroughly despicable. Another example is my work on QUILTBAG+ issues in the workplace. It’s easy, when confronted with a corporate environment, to tackle the “low-hanging fruit” of lesbian and gay issues first and save what a friend of mine calls “the gold-plated conversation” for a “later” that somehow never comes.
I’ve been guilty of this myself. Last year I very nearly stood up in front of an LGB conference to talk about bisexual issues and played the respectability card of “Well, I am the good monogamous kind of bisexual.” I was saved from myself at the last minute by another friend.
Read more at The F Word.

Ruining your enjoyment of pop culture – Start Here

This is written in December 2013 and backdated deliberately.
I am writing a slightly meandering and still ongoing series of posts on feminist critiques of pop culture. It’s intended as introductory reading, to give people tools to examine our cultural output and think about it critically. This post serves as as the entryway to that series.
Part 1: in which we discuss the Bechdel Test, the Austen Exemption and the Sexy Lamp Test. Spoiler warnings for: Pacific Rim, Pride and Prejudice, Run Lola Run.
Part 2: in which we discuss tokenisation, othering and the Smurfette Principle. Spoiler warnings for: Harry Potter, Pacific Rim, the Hunger Games trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.
Part 3: in which we discuss women as objects, agency, and disempowerment. Spoiler warnings for: Sandman (Brief Lives in particular), Firefly/Serenity, Doctor Who (the Donna season), Casino Royale.
An honourary mention goes to a short piece of fiction I wrote, Date Whomever You Like.

[@TWkLGBTQ] Start here

This post is actually written in December 2013 but deliberately backdated. The intention is to provide an umbrella post for my work curating @TWkLGBTQ to be used for reference.
Post 1: Let’s talk about labels. Discusses bisexual vs pansexual, whether “bisexual” is exclusionary to non-binary people, interalised slut shaming with regards to the word “pansexual”, the usefulness or otherwise of labels and the pressure to live up to your chosen label.
Post 2: Coming out as bisexual. What is says on the box. The challenges of coming out as bi, and how biphobia, bi invisibility and bi erasure exacerbate them. Personal experiences coming out to friends, colleagues and family.
Post 3: Let’s talk about stereotypes. Greedy. Indecisive. Promiscuous. Fashionably bi. Gay till graduation. Just a phase. Scared of coming out as “properly” gay. Additional discussion of sexual vs romantic orientation.
Post 4: On being invisible. Discussion of bi invisibility, bi erasure, the fact that their committed by gay and straight people alike, and the damage they can cause.
Post 5: Fictionally Bi. Discussion of bisexual representation in fiction, including a lot of recommendations of characters and works.
Post 6: Awesomely Bi. Discussion of bisexual rolemodels and the frequent absence thereof. List of indivduals bisexual people found inspiring.
Post 7: The privilege of passing, the burden of invisibility. The flip side of bi invisibility is assumed heterosexual privilege. This is often the answer to why we flaunt our sexuality.
Post 8: Bi at work. Discussion of challenges bisexual people face in the workplace.
Post 9: You’re bi? Threesomes! Discussion of the assumption of availability that is an intrinsic part of biphobia, the appropriation of our sexualities, and the disproportionate negative effects on bi women.
Post 10: Intersectionality. Discussion of how sexuality can intersect with other axes of oppression, e.g. gender or race.
Post 11: Domestic abuse in the LGBT community. Discussion of the different forms of domestic violence and abuse within the LGBT community and Broken Rainbow, the only national charity to provide support to LGBT people experiencing domestic abuse in the UK.
Post 12: Bisexuals and gender. Discussion of the differential impact of biphobia based on gender and gender identity as well as the interaction between sexuality and gender presentation.
Post 13: What I learned from Curating @TWkLGBTQ. Long and rambling post about both the process of being a curator and the content of the discussions we had.