Bilerico's mission is to include as wide a range of LGBTQ perspectives as possible and provide a forum for people from different perspectives to engage each other. The ed team prefers to take a hands off approach to moderation, only taking action when it is clearly needed or asked for.
Rather then ban and remove any bigoted comments and perspectives, the general preference is to allow for community dialog to call out and address the situation, hopefully providing a situation where the offender learns, grows, and is able to avoid doing the same thing again. From this perspective, people are allowed to make anti-trans statements (as well as sexist, racist, etc) in the hopes that they will fall on their face and be discredited more effectively then having their comment removed and being allowed to play the martyr.
It's a perfectly reasonable approach given how much work in-depth moderation requires. However, the strategy of leaving people to work out their own conflicts relies on the assumption that we are all coming from an equal playing field. We are not.
Homophobia and transphobia have a lot of overlap, but they are essentially two separate axis of power. We clearly know that there are LGB folks who are rabidly transphobic, as well as trans folks who are rabidly homophobic. However, the extremely homophobic trans people generally don't want to participate in an LGBTQ blog, whereas the extremely transphobic LGB people not only want to participate, but feel a level of ownership of the space that allows them to complain about trans people's mere existence on this blog. I'm not just talking about Ronald Gold, it happens somewhat regularly, even just last week.
Ignoring the more extreme examples, the vast majority of trans people participating in this blog are familiar with LGB life and issues - if not LGB themselves. When it comes to the LGB population, the opposite is true. The vast majority of LGB folks participating here are not trans and it seems likely that most do not have significant exposure to trans lives.
This impacts a number of the ways in which this blog operates: In the kind and number of incidents that arise, in the way complaints are responded, in the way the commenting Terms of Service (TOS) are written, and how they are enforced. Let's go over them here, starting with a breakdown of the TOS.
No personal attacks
When moderating heated discussions, a distinction is drawn between personal attacks, i.e. "You're stupid," and impersonal attacks, i.e."Trans people are stupid." That means that an individual who wants to slam another person on the blog is welcome to do so as long as they don't name that person individually. It also means that hurtful language directed at populations or an individual not on this blog, no matter how extreme, is allowed.
It can be argued that this is a two way street, but the impact is very different when the same language is hurled back. Calling white people "uppity" does not have the same impact as doing the same to people of color. The same thing with calling men "shrill" as opposed to women.
The worst instance of that I can recall was an article last year about a porn star who was raped where commenters claimed that due to his line of work and the fact that he was kinky then he just got what he deserved, "Raped? I think he rather likes it," and "This guy is a whore and deserves no respect."
It seems as if the assumption is that "personal" attacks are much more direct and that people will have more distance from other kinds of attacks, resulting in less of a personal impact. While that might be a factor, it is only one. As a kinky sex worker, I'd much rather have someone tell me I'm stupid then be told that people like me deserve to be raped.
As I eluded to in my response to Ronald Gold, there are a lot of verbal attacks that act very similar to slurs -- including words like "uppity," and "shrill," as well as "mutilated" and "deluded." It causes me to stop and wonder what exactly is the reasoning for forbidding slurs. Is it to limit the amount of bigotry that people are exposed to? Is it to focus conversation in more constructive avenues?
Why is it okay to say "Those uppity trans women of color are at it again. I can't stand listening to them when they are so shrill," yet not okay to say "Those trannies are arguing again."? Why is it okay to say "I fucking hate those sick and perverted gays" but not okay to say "Those faggots make me mad."? Is there any difference in intent or impact of those two statements? Why is the line drawn there?
We're all LGBTQ Family
Often times an appeal is made to the fact that "We're all on the same side here," that we all have similar experiences of oppression and similar goals to end that oppression, and as a result people are assumed to have good intentions so long as their is no clear malice. This was a major issue that came up around how the ed team responded to Ronald Gold.
Additionally, we might have an acronym, but we shouldn't forget when we are acting as allies to each other. Being a gay man does not make it okay to tell a lesbian that she's overreacting to something sexist and it's not a big deal. Similarly, being bi does not make it okay to tell trans people something isn't transphobic. If you're not trans, then defer to trans people's determination of what is and is not anti-trans.
The assumption of good intentions does a lot to impact how the use of slurs is allowed/not allowed. We can recognize that many slurs can be reclaimed. "Queer" is what the Q in the Bilerico subtitle stands for, yet it is a slur. So it's okay to use some slurs, and usually it's easy enough to tell in context if it's appropriate.
These two tendencies combined creates a situation where cis LGB folks using anti-trans slurs are usually defended so long as it is not in a malicious context. Such as one incident a year ago when Eric Marcus wrote a post about a high school discussion that mentioned a hypothetical trans woman and titled it "Chick with a... at Hillcrest High School,"* even though "Chick with a dick" was never mentioned in that high school conversation.
The choice to use the slur was explained as a way to get more people to read the article. It was by no means malicious but there were clear problems with the usage. Even though there was a good educational moment in the comments section, it's worth noting that Eric and the ed team weren't able to predict that it would be a problem -- and the title was never changed.
Using Homophobia as a Model for Other Oppression
Somewhere in the mess of comments I recall someone suggesting that a way to determine when an article is offensive rather then just challenging is to use the mental exercise of applying the same thing to an oppressed group you belong to. Generally that's a good piece of advice, but there are instances where it fails.
As pointed out above, some words only have traction due to a larger system of oppression. Oppression is not mix-and-match. Calling a woman of color "broken" and a person with a physical disability "sexually voracious" is not going to have the same impact as the other way around. In the same vein, the average cis LGB person being called "deluded" or "mutilated" is most likely to respond "huh?" or "whatever."
It's not enough to think of equivalent images of oppression, but analogous ones. An analogous example to Ronald Gold's post would be one calling gay men "sick," "perverted," living a dangerous lifestyle, advocating that their parents should stop supporting them and HIV clinics should stop offering them treatment.
As I pointed out in the introduction, it's very unlikely that a homophobic trans person would want to participate in this blog, but transphobic LGB folks do. I honestly don't know too much about the process for selecting contributors, but I might guess that it focuses more on looking for positive attributes rather then checking for negative ones. If someone has an expertise on gay issues, then that is what they are judged on, and not their perspective on trans issues. At least, that seems to be what happened with Ronald Gold. It's worth pointing out that the process is highly unlikely to produce an anti-gay contributor under any circumstances.
I'm not calling for all contributors to have to pass a litmus test or otherwise all express the same viewpoint. That wouldn't be necessary in order to have a more comprehensive and holistic review of a potential contributor. If someone didn't have very much knowledge in an area that would be fine so long as they were aware of their limitations. Ignorance or arrogance are both tolerable on their own, but there is little worse then someone who belligerently insists that everyone defer to their opinion when they have neither logical or factual reasoning to support it.
Under the Jump Warnings
So long as transphobia is allowed on the blog (again, with the hopes that criticizing it is more effective then hiding it), perhaps there could be warnings similar to how there are currently warnings for NSFW content. If the ed team is going to allow posts they believe many people would interpret as transphobic (or racist, sexist, ableist, etc), then they could make certain that all offending parts are under the cut and a warning makes it clear what to expect. While the ed team does not necessarily endorse any of the posts made, this also makes it clear to the readership when a post is being presented for consideration and critique.
Ed Team Decisions
As Bil explained, the ed team was split on whether or not to post Ronald Gold's article and he made the call. But it makes me question if a simple majority is the best way to approach such circumstances. I would guess that it would only be under fairly extreme circumstances that an editor (let alone two) would raise an objection to allowing a regular contributor's post to go up.
It might make more sense to take it as an opportunity to get additional input. The ed team can never hope to have a token representative of every oppressed minority and it's not appropriate to rely any one individual in those situation to represent everyone who shares their identity. Perhaps the ed team could identify individual Projectors ahead of time who could be available to give additional feedback whenever any editor believes an article is too offensive, hurtful, or bigoted to meet the quality standards of Bilerico.
This is probably one of the most controversial areas to bring up, having to balance a variety of needs including safety, welcomeness, addressing bigotry, and maintaining freedom to express unpopular viewpoints just to name a few. I don't have a clear answer here but I would love to hear more discussion or suggestions from others in the comments.
One thought I had would be to abandon the personal/impersonal attack distinction and simply judge verbal attacks based on severity. The reality is that we already do this to a degree. Commenters often say things like, "You must be really stupid if you think that," or make other less severe personal jabs during arguments that are never moderated. There simply isn't the capacity to do otherwise. Perhaps we could say that any ad hominem attacks against individuals or groups will be looked down upon and potentially removed, based on severity. That way "sex workers are icky" could stay up, but "sex workers deserve to be raped" would be taken down. Just the same way "You are stupid" might remain unmoderated but "you deserve to be raped" would be taken down.
It's true that such an approach would be a judgment call, but we'd be fooling ourselves if we believed any other system wouldn't also rely on judgment calls.
So now that I've written quite a lot let me boil this down to a few changes I propose.
- A contributor selection process that examines awareness on issues relating to transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other anti-oppression movements in general.
- Posted warnings when editors believe an article is likely to be seen as transphobic, racist, sexist, ableist, classist, or otherwise hurtful.
- Ed team identifies several individuals who can give additional perspective whenever significant disagreement arises on the ed team.
- Comment Terms of Service do not allow ad hominem attacks regardless of whether it is against an individual or a group.
- Additionally, the ed team encourages and works under the understanding that non-trans people are not authorities on what is or isn't transphobic and should be aware of and cautious of the unbalanced playing field when dealing with trans issues.
Please let me know what you think. Are these ideas no-brainers? Do you have a problem with any? Think they would work better with a slightly different approach? Do you have any other ideas that would address the problems I've outlined?
*I don't feel a need to go over this situation again, but in case anyone is wondering if the self-censoring use of "..." should excuse the usage of this slur, let me point out that it most likely wouldn't make a difference if someone maliciously threw around words like f@g and f*ggot. Creative spelling and grammar to communicate the exact same message does exactly that -- communicate the exact same message.