bcholmes: I poison you! (Circe Invidiosa)
[personal profile] bcholmes

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.

There are a lot of awesome Wiscon attendees represented on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth and other blogs that I read through DW.

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 [livejournal.com profile] 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. [personal profile] sparkymonster, [personal profile] piglet, [personal profile] 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.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 04:29 am (UTC)
emceeaich: A close-up of a pair of cats-eye glasses (Default)
From: [personal profile] emceeaich
I think the differentiator between folks such as Vito and [ insert random author or editor here ] is that they have the grace and mindfulness to recognize or listen to criticism when they err.

I still owe you that post on race and the Singularity™ and will work on that next.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 04:39 am (UTC)
nabil: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nabil
Hi BC,

Yay! Thanks so much for writing this! I was sad not to be able to see you at Wiscon this year, and it is exciting to see your notes on some of the cool shtuff that happened at con.

On another note, thanks so much for writing in a place I could read about the upsettingness of the word trannie. I use it to for myself pretty regularly, and it sounds like I need to re-think that and probably stop doing so. You're right-- in my case at least-- that as an ftm I haven't had it thrown at me hatefully, and I certainly don't want to be mean and hurtful and triggering to transwomen who have...

Thank you for telling me about the existence of pants. I really appreciate it when folks let me know about stuff I'm doing that is hurtful.

Much love,

Nabil

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 05:28 am (UTC)
maevele: (Default)
From: [personal profile] maevele
when i heard about it, I figured it had been clear she was using it to illustrate the failiness of the example in general, that the same people who use 'I have trans friends' demonstrate their fail both with the using it to mean they cant be transphobic, and by using that word while they do it. Which is still not neccesarily an acceptable excuse for dropping that word, is it, now that I think about it.

Also, I was not there and you were, therefore I was basing that on my assumptions about vito's intent, not how it actually was said.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 06:41 am (UTC)
jiawen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jiawen
Have you seen Autumn Sandeen's article about the word "tranny"? It hits a lot of the points I think are relevant.

When I said it was like the n-word, I guess I meant in terms of how some people use it to describe themselves, while others prefer not to use it at all, and how those who don't get labeled with the word probably shouldn't use it. The history of the two words is definitely quite different, and the n-word has a level of power that "tranny" doesn't.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 06:55 am (UTC)
wild_irises: (Default)
From: [personal profile] wild_irises
I think this is an awesome post on a whole lot of levels.

I don't use the word "trannie," (except with the particular WisCon regular you are mentioning) and I used to, but I didn't notice that I had stopped, and I wasn't aware of the disturbing implications. I think I just picked up the change in language from the air around me (because I am fortunate to get to hang with a lot of trans, genderqueer, and noncisgender people). It used to be common parlance in my circles and at some point it disappeared.

I know [personal profile] vito_excalibur fairly well in person, and I was at that panel, but had to leave on concom business and missed the bit you're talking about. Wish I'd seen it. And thanks so much for the careful deconstruction of so much of it.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 02:51 pm (UTC)
norah: Monkey King in challenging pose (Default)
From: [personal profile] norah
I learned something today - I had no idea that was a potentially triggery word. Thanks!

Also, someone really articulate and interesting was not really at her best when she was trying to take ownership of what she'd said

This is why people need to be TAUGHT to apologize, so that they have the words and concepts to do it in a not-faily way. I think many people have just never learned the rhetorical skills or grasped the complex interpersonal meanings of apologies, so that even when they ARE genuinely sorry, they have trouble getting it across (vito is awesome and better than most - I don't necessarily mean her, here, but the wider universe of failpology that we have seen recently.) It's never EASY to apologize, God knows, but it's much easier to do it RIGHT when you have a template for what it looks like. < /hobbyhorse>

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 02:53 pm (UTC)
sparkymonster: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sparkymonster
I had the distinct impression that both badgerbag and sparkymonster noticed the moment and reacted to it. [

Yeah I think we both did. Or rather, I know I did and I think badgerbag did too.

I also think hrm. I got that Vito was repeating what was actually said in the Digital Colonialism post, but I don't think that was clear to the audience at large. It is difficult to figure out how to refer someone else's inappropriate language without replicating the problem.

I also think you're right that use of "trannie" or "tranny" (which in my head has a y) is definitely used differently among trans men and trans women.

I have a ton of thoughts about "tranny", how it is used and when. They boil down to "it's not really my place to declare it offensive or inoffensive." It's a word I would avoid using unless I was emotionally intimate with the people I was talking with *and* knew where they were with trans stuff. Like, if I was hanging out with a mixed group of trans and cis friends, and a trans person made a comment about "trannies" I can see myself mirroring it back. But...still kind of dicey.

I've definitely been in the situation of using a word that I have successfully used to indicate a sarcastic in group connection, and in the particular moment I say it and realize "oh shit, that did not come off in a good way." Which is when, as an ally, you suck it up.

I do not mean to single Vito out. I know I have done the same/similar things too.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 03:47 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] keeva
Thanks for writing this, and for tackling a very tricky subject in such an excellent way.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 04:18 pm (UTC)
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)
From: [personal profile] cofax7
This? Is a great post. Thanks for making it. It really gets at the difficulties of all of this: of how easy it is to fail, how hard it is to acknowledge when we have and own our own words/actions, and how tricky it can be to recover from that.

I know you don't intend to bring down the wrath of the internets on Vito, but would you mind if I linked to this?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 04:43 pm (UTC)
minim_calibre: (Default)
From: [personal profile] minim_calibre
I'm actually here from vito_excalibur's link, and thank you for writing this. It's thoughtful, nuanced, graceful, and should be added to any list of must-read links. I think anyone who acknowledges when they've slipped up from now forward should probably put a pointer to this and tell their friends to please read instead of going on the defensive.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 05:03 pm (UTC)
damned_colonial: Convicts in Sydney, being spoken to by a guard/soldier (Default)
From: [personal profile] damned_colonial
Thank you for posting this. I, too, was unaware that "trannie" was offensive to that degree.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-02 11:51 am (UTC)
trixtah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] trixtah
I don't want to open up a can of worms here, but I don't think it is, except for people in the US. I am personally careful about the context in which I use the word, particularly if Americans are part of the potential audience, but since my trans friends of all genders in three countries are happy to use the word themselves, and also have allies use it as well, then I personally am not going to censor my language, except when it might be subject to misinterpretation.

While most commenting here are from the US, I would just like to make it clear that the concept that the word is "offensive" is not universal.
Edited Date: 2009-06-02 11:52 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-02 01:44 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flippac
It's not a US-only thing, and there are people in the US who happily use it of themselves too.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-03 02:16 pm (UTC)
trixtah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] trixtah
Mmm, I have heard of a minority in places like Australia object to the term, so yes. But they are still a minority. And I didn't want to imply that all American transpeople would be adverse to labelling themselves as as such, because I know not all are (although I can see how I gave that impression).

But it's definitely a POV that originated in the US, and it saddens me that the negative interpretation is gaining ground, including that minority in places where "trannie" has a long history. It seems probable that the word was coined by transpeople themselves originally, so it's a shame (to me) that some people have renounced it, and that renunciation of part of their own language is becoming dominant in some places.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-29 08:24 pm (UTC)
ktempest: just a picture of me with my awesome fan (Default)
From: [personal profile] ktempest
I'm glad I got to meet you, too :) And to everything else: yes. this is all complicated and twisty and stuff on both sides. So yes.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-30 03:35 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
(Here via Vito's link.)

Thank you for writing this. It's a really thoughtful, nuanced post that's making me think hard about how we handle highly-charged words and how we handle our fails. Must ponder. Thank you again.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-05-30 07:15 pm (UTC)
thedilettante: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thedilettante
I came here from vito_excalibur's journal. I'm a fan of hers, and now I am of you as well. Thanks for writing this.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-01 01:16 pm (UTC)
asim: (Default)
From: [personal profile] asim
Hey -- thanks for adding me.

I had a very similar experience this last Wiscon, with using the word "Oriental" to describe someone who, my understand was, used that term to describe themself. I was called on it, explained the context, and got a "yea, I can see where he got that from," from another listener, which was helpful. All that lead into a conversation about PoCs using terms from other PoCs that are potentially troublesome.

It was eye opening, because I actually did, in my head, hesitate as to which term to use, mostly because I VASTLY prefer to refer to someone by their nationality, not as "Asian". But I don't know it in this case, and his ethnic background was germane to the conversation at hand, so...

It's something to avoid, overall, in the future for me, and I think my personal rule going forward is that unless someone insists on a term, I'll avoid the ones that are problematic.

Sorry to vent in your journal, but I hope my babble is of some use.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-02 02:01 pm (UTC)
maize: (Default)
From: [personal profile] maize
I wonder if there might be some importance in discussing the completely non-monolithic nature of groups of people. I haven't dealt with this kind of issue with any words that I think are as charged as the examples you're dealing with in this post, but there have been a lot of conversations that I've been involved in on the use of words like "fat" and "fatty", and the best guess I've been able to come to is that fat people, and even people who are part of the fat acceptance movement, aren't a hive mind and everyone approaches those words a little differently. (This is less true of "fat" these days, which used to be more contention some time ago, but is still true of "fatty".) And I think like "the N word," there is also the point to be made that there's a difference between someone choosing to use the word to describe themselves or a black person choosing to use the word to describe a fellow black person and a non-black person using it to describe even someone who uses it for themselves frequently.

I do know some trans people who use the word "trannie," to self-describe (I was tempted to say here, because you brought up that the person you thought of was a trans man that the people that pop to my mind are all trans women, but then I realized that almost all the trans people I know are trans women), but I've never felt like that gave me permission to use the term. I think when people use charged words for themselves I usually see that as an act of reclamation, and I think that that always or almost always involves situations where there is a big gulf between the experience of self-use and the experience of others using it.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-02 02:47 pm (UTC)
switchybitch: (Default)
From: [personal profile] switchybitch
Here, having followed a link from [personal profile] serene - I haven't yet read all of the posts she's linked to yet, but this post alone is pure gold.

I've only just activated this Dreamwidth account - I'm [livejournal.com profile] switchybitch over there, if it matters.

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bcholmes: (Default)
BC Holmes

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