• Online Transphobia, Social Justice and What Happens Next

    photo(2)So @Luvvie said something online that was apparently transphobic, apparently out of ignorance [I say apparently because I’m not 100% sure what happened and what spurred it… this post is not about the details of her incident, but rather about what happens when social harm happens online].

    I should say from the outset that I recognize some folks are going to disagree with the ideas presented in this post… but my hope is that this can be the beginning of a discussion about how we heal conflict w/in communities, both online and offline without permanently discarding community members when they make errors (both large and small).

    Time and time again, I’ve seen writers/social media contributors of all sorts go through the following:

    1. They say/write something that is derogatory in one way or another (transphobic, homophobic, sexist, racist, etc., etc…)
    2. Someone from the offended community expresses their hurt/anger
    3. The person doesn’t seem to understand why what they said is problematic
    4. The person asks whomever they’ve hurt/wounded to educate them as to how/why their language is hurtful.
    5. Understandably, the hurt person is managing their own emotions around being wounded, and as such, does not/cannot explain to the person why their words are hurtful. In fact, being asked to explain their pain generally causes more pain.
    6. The person who said something hurtful becomes frustrated and has no idea how to sort through the random good/bad information present on the internet about the slur/problematic language in question.
    7. The result is that all of the involved parties walked away feeling disgusted and annoyed… They certainly do not gain any additional compassion or empathy for the people they wounded, let alone seek to change their behavior.

    Typically within this cycle both parties miss two key points: 1. It is generally inappropriate to ask somebody you’ve hurt to explain how/why you’ve hurt them (at least right at that moment[1]). 2. There is an excess of bad information on the internet, so asking the person who made the error(s) to educate themselves isn’t always a reliable form of future harm reduction.

    The regularity with which this kind of thing happens is beginning to trouble me. Simply because it seems to be a real barrier to including folks who legitimately care about making the world a better place, but haven’t taken the leap towards a more radical politics because 1. They don’t have access to a safe space to learn and 2. discussing these issues in public and making a mistake results in a very public personal/political shredding.

    In a lot of ways, unless you are familiar with the language, discussing politics and identity online is very risky business.

    As far as I can tell, both sides are at fault.

    Generally when folks make these kinds of mistakes, their very first inclination is to turn to the person they wounded and say “well explain to me what I did/said wrong.” Understandably, the hurt person almost always says “no, it’s not my responsibility to educate you.”

    This is the moment that things generally go down hill. The perpetrator is now upset, because they don’t fully understand why they are being cussed out publicly for something they’ve said/done their whole lives.

    The person who is hurt, is also pissed, not only have because they have been wounded by someone whom (sometimes) they like and admire, but now they are expected to put on an educators hat and explain the whole thing.

    Emotionally, that’s not exactly a fair proposition.

    So, both parties end up pissed and hurt. People take sides, and ultimately, nothing has been accomplished in terms of social justice and/or future harm reduction.

    [I should note that I consider social justice to be a form of healing. In the absence of healing, no justice can be rendered].

    This is why I think the presence of objective third parties during these kinds of conflicts is so important. As a member of the POC LGBTQ communities [2] , I feel my own hurt when folks of any of my communities are degraded in one way of another. But as an educator, I also have a strong desire to make sure people are educated around how to better respect/support the identities of those around them.

    I find myself wondering, when conflict happens online, how do those of us with the emotional energy and intellectual wherewithal to educate, step in to mediate a conversation between the hurt parties?

    As a prison abolitionist, I fundamentally do not believe in sending people away and/or excluding folks from the community when mistakes have happened. This includes, but is not limited to something as visible as a crime on the street, or as insidiously destructive (yet immeasurably harmful) as a transphobic slur online.

    I have a vested interest in figuring out how we, as a community, can gather around those who have fallen into conflict (for whatever reason) and educate, heal and rehabilitate them and everyone who was touched by the incident.

    What would it look like if me, or someone else from the community pulled @Luvvie aside and explained to her privately what it means to have cis-privilege and how her words were being perceived in that context? How would the community have been affected if she had decided not to react so quickly and publicly, and instead, stepped back, consulted with trusted mentors and then responded with a well thought out and carefully considered response?

    My point is this: at the end of the day, I think that activists who are concerned with eradicating systems of oppression wherever they may be, also have to be equally concerned with the emotional, physical and spiritual well being of ourselves and the communities around us. As I find myself saying way to often, without our health, we can never hope to sustain a movement.



    [1] There are, of course, exceptions to this. For the purposes of this post, the focus is on issues of oppression, not necessarily other interpersonal matters.

    [2] POC= Person of Color

    LGBTQ= Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. sfa86 says:

    Thanks for this post, Alex! This is an important issue, and I have found myself on either side of it at various times in my life. I have a few thoughts. I am cis, for anyone reading, so feel free to take with a grain of salt.

    It may be argued that there is not really such a thing as an objective third party in these types of situations, which is part of why they are so thorny. I generally take the tack that people who are experiencing an oppression directly have an expertise that others do not.

    Some thoughts about “exclusion from the community.” People with privilege (in particular, cis people) are used to taking up a LOT of space and we are also accustomed to completely downplaying the harmful nature of our transgressions. Just being able to say “I got excluded for using the wrong word” is an example of the way we sometimes completely miss the point and diminish the real issue (usually the oppressive and entitled ATTITUDE betrayed by our words). We also have a tendency to get super hurt and cry persecution every time we get checked.

    I think it bears mentioning that sometimes people who cannot adequately keep their privilege in check have to be removed from certain spaces in the interests of others’ safety and well-being. I sincerely doubt that trans people are in any kind of position to exclude cis people from the LGBT community in any kind of meaningful way. The prison complex is designed and maintained by people in power for very specific reasons and I do not necessarily find it comparable to this kind of a situation.

    I’m not sure what happened with @Luvvie, but it sounds like some cis people may have pulled her aside to discuss cis privilege and transphobia. I really hope that conversation is going on right now. Thanks so much for writing about this. You’ve given me a lot to think about!


  2. LK says:

    This is interesting. As a counselor, I’ve been corrected by my clients who understood that I was learning how best to treat them and honor their experience. Their hurt made me want to understand more so that I didn’t do it again (from calling them their given name out of habit when they are transitioning) Online may be different but the only way to educate is to actually do so understanding everyone doesn’t have the same life experience but if they want to know and respect yours, the door is open when we ask….help me understand what I did so I don’t do it again.

  3. […] major fuck-up, like Chescaleigh’s YouTube video, and Alexandra Moffett-Bateau’s post on online transphobia. While I do quibble with some of the ideas offered in Moffet-Berteau’s essay (because I do […]

  4. […] as I saw a variety of folks I respect, including anti-racist cis women of color and black feminists, standing up […]

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