One of the things that I was really looking forward to at this year's Wiscon was the opportunity to try to get to see certain people in meatspace. Over the last couple of years, LiveJournal has allowed me to listen in on a large number of conversations and take notice of certain voices that seem to consistently have great things to say.
In a simple example, this year, I found out who the Angry Black Woman is; it probably wasn't a big secret, but I didn't know before, and I really like her blog posts (as well as the posts of the other ABW writers). I've been enjoying reading her blog for quite some time and it happened that she talked about it in a panel I attended. And so after the panel I was all, like, "I love your blog". It really wasn't the time for an extended chat but I went away from that moment thinking, "I've met Angry Black Woman! Awesome!"
One of the people I was interested in seeing on some panels is vito_excalibur. Over the last coupl'a years, I've really enjoyed several things she's posted to LJ. One of the first posts of hers that really stood out to me was the Open Source Women Back Each Other Up Program which still stands out as the best response to the whole Open Source Boobs Project fiasco.
And then there were some pretty amazing posts during RaceFail: the whole "he who smelt it, dealt it" theory of racism, ferinstance. And her post about John Scalzi's RaceFail apology in which she explains how all the blog comments line up with spots on the racism bingo card. Awesome.
Oddly, despite the fact that we have friends in common and I thought we'd been in the same place a few times, I couldn't even picture her. I just knew that she was this really cool blogger who said some pretty amazing things.
Okay, so now skip to Sunday morning. I was watching the panel, "Something is Wrong on the Internet." The panelists were pretty damn amazing. sparkymonster, piglet, badgerbag and vito_excalibur. Awesome to the power of four. I've known piglet for a while; the other three are pretty cool people that I'd really love to get to know better.
And so I was sitting there in the audience, finally able to put a face to vito_excalibur's name, and I think, "hey, I've been on panels with her before." Mostly I'm terrible with names unless I get a good opportunity to see them written down. And not long after I thought that, I thought, "I was awful on those panels." Not awesome.
Oh well. But the panel was a really good panel. It's the perfect combination of really insightful and hysterically funny. badgerbag liveblogged it while being a panelist (!) And vito_excalibur has a really neat moderating style that I really liked. I have a lot of notes from this panel that I plan to type up in a bit.
But I'd like to point out three really memorable things vito_excalibur said. One was a capsule summary of how, sometimes, people can be wrong and be told that they were wrong and learn from it. She expressed it like this (speaking from the perspective of the person who was wrong) (and I'm paraphrasing): "Oh, sorry. The last time this topic came up, my ass was totally hanging out and you taught me what it was like to have pants, and now I'm going to go around spreading the gospel of pants as much as I can." The gospel of pants. Awesome. I'm totally going to steal that.
Later in the same panel, an audience member raised her hand for a question: talking about RaceFail, she said (again, paraphrasing), "As a white person, I see an incident like RaceFail and I know I don't want to be quiet in the conversation, but I'm not accustomed to talking about issues of race, and I fear that if I try to say anything I'll just get it all wrong, and so I don't know what to do..."
vito_excalibur stopped the person and said, "I'm going to interrupt you there, with love and affection and say: I don't care about your guilt."
I've since described this comment to some friends of mine as the most awesome comment from this year's Wiscon (in my opinion, anyway). I didn't really recognize that I'd been looking for a phrase like that until she said it. But I grinned and thought: "Wow. That cuts right to the point." The audience member seemed to get it, too. She focused her question on suggested actions that an inexperienced person can do to contribute in these kinds of Internet drama situations, and the panelists gave some good suggestions: "link-posting", "point to a conversation and say 'I agree with this and disagree with that'" Stuff like that.
Then toward the end of the panel, there was a conversation about the Pandagon blogger and sparkymonster made a brief comment about how reading the comments on some blog entries are full of homophobia and transphobia. And vito_excalibur said something like, "yeah, people justify it by saying, 'it's okay; I have trannie friends.'" Not awesome.
I suppose what I was immediately thinking at that moment was, "whoa! That's a contested word in trans circles; especially among trans women. You don't just drop that into conversation."
Now, here I'd like to take a time out and clarify something. There's a way of telling a story like this in which every single word I utter echoes this one idea: that vito_excalibur is not a good person. That's not the story I'm trying to tell, here, and if that's what you take away from this, I'll be pretty sad to have described her so poorly.
But the moment did get me thinking a variety of thoughts over the rest of the day, and I am interested in exploring those thoughts. I'm a little sorry for putting vito_excalibur on the spot with this, but I am trying to manage that.
Okay. So what actually happened after that? The whole thing happened pretty quickly, but my recollection was that badgerbag made a comment (that I didn't quite catch) to vito_excalibur. I'm pretty sure the comment spoke directly to the topic of what she'd just said. vito_excalibur's demeanor immediately changed, noticeably. Her moderating style had been confident and comfortable, but her body language suddenly changed to uncomfortable and awkward. After a few moments of unrelated conversation, vito_excalibur quickly referenced what had happened and said she'd screwed up what she was trying to say but that she recognized that she shouldn't have said what she said. Unlike every other thing she said on that panel, in this moment she mumbled a bit and stumbled to find the words that she wanted. And then the panel went on after that.
I think that it would have been possible to sit in that panel and not really notice that any of that had taken place.
One of the more casual thoughts I wondered was, "what if I hadn't been in the room at that time?" If an oops falls and nobody cares, does it make any fail? That's a pretty silly thought, though. I mean, it's not like it was only noteworthy because an actual bona fide trans person was in the room. I had the distinct impression that both badgerbag and sparkymonster noticed the moment and reacted to it.
It was also interesting to note -- and this is a pretty banal observation, I'll grant -- that someone really articulate and interesting was not really at her best when she was trying to take ownership of what she'd said. As I said: there was awkwardness and mumbling, and even her words were distant. "That was an example of how things can go wrong." Not: "I really screwed up there, and I want to apologize." I'm not trying to call her out; I'm just saying that it made me think.
In a brief email conversation with vito_excalibur, she said that what she was trying to do was to ape the kind of unsatisfying explanation that you often encounter in fail apologists. When she said the word "trannie", she was speaking in their voice, not her own. I can see how that can be true, but I confess that I didn't hear it that way at the time. I did get the whole "speaking from an artificial position" sense, but I didn't get the "and this is just the sort of thing fail-y people say" feeling.
I'll also mention, here, that "trannie" is not a very triggery word for me. I don't have any direct personal experience of people using the word as a weapon against me. The closest I've come to that is feeling annoyed by yet another round of "Ann Coulter is really a trannie" comment thread somewhere. So, to some extent, it's easier for me to be casual about the incident. Later in the day, I was recounting this whole incident to another trans woman, and she likened "trannie" to the use of the "N" word. (Me, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with trying to equate those words).
I'm also aware that there's another Wiscon regular who openly openly calls himself a trannie (I will say, though, that I think the fact that he's a trans man is relevant. I think trans women are more likely to have experienced the word in hatred, but I have no data to back up that belief.) So I was also open to the possibility that vito_excalibur had adopted the word after hearing that particular person use it.
And it's also true that I came to Wiscon already thinking that vito_excalibur was pretty awesome; I think that when one has that mindset, it's easier to look at someone and say, "oh, that was a little mistake, and compared to the esteem I hold this person in, it's not worth getting worked up about."
I'd had a conversation at another point in the con about how RaceFail looks a bit different when you're close to some of the people espousing fail (I'm not in that camp, but I know a lot of people who are close to some of the folks that were receiving some of the biggest criticism). I think there are certain excuses that you can allow to enter your mind when you know someone is a friend who has flaws. And I don't want this to sound like I'm saying, "we have to recognize that people are human and we shouldn't dump on them when they commit fail." Because sometimes people need a dumping. But I think that's a part of the dynamic that bears discussion.
I mean, for my part, I found myself thinking for several hours after the initial incident, "Oh, I wonder if I should approach vito_excalibur and... I dunno... give her absolution, or something." Like: "Oh, I was there and I just want you to know that it wasn't a big deal, so don't worry about it." And I can see where those thoughts came from: her discomfort was palpable to me, and I was already inclined to think positively toward her, and so on. But it's also stupid on my part, because, hey, Trans High Command has not granted me any absolution powers on their behalf. It's not just about me, and how I felt. It's also about setting examples of acceptable behaviour. If any one of the people in the audience missed the idea that referring to trans people as trannies is Not Okay, then that's a problem.
And what if I had approached her? Afterward, vito_excalibur would almost be in the position where she could say, "well, I have a trans friend, and she doesn't take offense when I say that word!" Which, y'know, is kind of exactly the point that was being described as incredibly cringe-worthy. And, I guess, it was while I was thinking about that that I started to wonder just how careful I am about being somebody's (official) trans friend.
I mean, if a friend of mine came to me and asked, "Is trannie an objectionable word?" I'd almost certainly say something like, "Yes. It is a highly charged word in many trans communities. You're safer to never use it." But if the same friend came to me and asked, "Hey, BC, what do you think of the word, trannie?" I could easily give an answer that might leave the asker with a wrong sense of how it's perceived. And I wonder: all these people who are disposed to say, "I have a trans friend and...", how well do they understand that friend's position on words and identity and what-not?
This ramble really isn't arriving at any grand conclusion or insight. It was just interesting to ponder these things.
On my way back from Wiscon, I stopped somewhere that had wireless and I sent an email to vito_excalibur suggesting that I was going to write about this, but I wanted to talk about it with her before I did so. She told me to just write whatever I had to say. Which, I think, is the sort of response that awesome people would say.
Weird post script: for some reason, in my mind, the word, "trannie" is spelled with an 'ie' on the end. Google clearly thinks that this is the less common spelling, but it's the one that's in my head.