During Open Source Bridge last month, I went to a talk by Brandon Harris about the Wikipedia community. The focus of the talk was going to be on reasons why the number of people contributing to Wikipedia is declining. During the talk, I was reminded of why I don’t participate in Wikipedia anymore.
There’s a Geek Feminism Wiki page about what happened when I was nominated to be a Wikipedia admin in 2006. Until now, I haven’t mentioned in public that Catamorphism is me (though it’s easy enough to guess, since I still use that username on some other sites, and it’s also part of my primary email address).
In short, though, I’d been contributing frequently to Wikipedia a little less than a year at the time. Someone noticed my work and nominated me to be an administrator on the site. Admins have the power to use rollback (reverting an unhelpful edit with one click), as well as a few other rights and responsibilities. As is the usual process, a page — called an RfA (request for adminship) — was put up where people could either vote for, or against, me being an admin.
For a while, I was receiving almost all “Yes” votes. Then, somebody who apparently had an axe to grind made the claim, as part of their “No” vote, that I “made every discussion about [my] gender”. This person never substantiated their claim. As far as I can gather, it was based on the fact that during one talk page discussion, I asked somebody to use the pronouns I preferred at the time (they/them/their) when referring to me. After that point, I started receiving primarily “No” votes, and those people who gave reasons for their votes mainly said that they thought I would be a bad administrator because I would continue to make every discussion about my gender.
One of the primary values of Wikipedia is supposed to be substantiating every factual claim with a citation to a reliable source. None of the “no” voters asked for citations before deciding that the original claim — that I derailed every discussion to make it about my gender — was correct. They just believed the person who originally made the claim. I can only gather from this the “citation needed” label gets applied selectively on Wikipedia, and that unsourced claims that jibe with the existing beliefs of editors are less likely to be challenged.
Bizarrely, part of the RfA discussion devolved into various people debating what my “real” gender was. At the time I identified as genderqueer, but they were convinced that I must have some “true” gender that was different from that. Based solely on this picture of me, which I displayed on my Wikipedia user page at the time, some parties were vehemently convinced that I must “really” be male, while others were just as convinced that I must “really” be female. The picture was taken when I was 24 years old, before I started supplementing exogenous testosterone. I found it amusing that some people were absolutely convinced that they were looking at a man, when the only thing that made me a man at the time was invisible (and in fact, that’s still true, since the only thing that makes any of us the sexes we are is invisible — inside our heads). It illustrates the constructed nature of the sex binary. But I digress.
The RfA took an even weirder turn when the person who’d originally nominated me — a man using the handle of “Erik the Rude”, changed his vote from “yes” to “no” and announced he’d only nominated me to humiliate me, because he hated “bulldykes”. What follows was one of the only occasions when I’ve experienced serious harassment online because of my gender. A user of the hate site called Encyclopedia Dramatica (now rebranded as the warmer, friendlier site “Oh, Internet”) created an article about me that was solely based on the transphobic comments I received during my RfA. Because its title was my username — Catamorphism — and because Encyclopedia Dramatica had high page-rank at the time, the attack page was one of the first hits when someone searched for my username. “Catamorphism” is a technical term used in my field, so chances were good that potential colleagues or employers — just looking for information on a technical term used in the narrow professional field I work in — they would find a page with a picture of me and someone calling me a “bulldyke”. There’s nothing wrong with being a bulldyke, but it’s not a term that describes or ever has described me; if people are going to hate me, I’d prefer they hate me for who I am rather than what I’m not.
In the end, the “no” votes outweighed the “yes” votes — and again, I emphasize that the only real concern raised by the “no” voters was the unsubstantiated claim that I derailed unrelated discussions to talk about my gender — and I was denied adminship. I decided I didn’t particularly want to expend effort to contribute to a site that would have welcomed me as an admin if I was a binary-gendered person. I didn’t want to work with people who called it “disruption” to request that others use my preferred pronouns to refer to me, but didn’t consider it rude to misgender somebody. So I stopped editing.
Although I created a new account eventually and I still edit once in a while, I avoid editing that is potentially factually contentious. I just don’t have the energy to argue with aggressive people anymore. What’s more, I don’t have the energy to explain, over and over, that cissexual and heterosexual people’s points of view are not automatically more neutral and objective than the points of view of trans and queer people. I used to believe in the concept of “NPOV” (neutral point of view) that is one of the governing principles of Wikipedia, but I don’t anymore. The old saying is that history is written by the winners. Likewise, in practice, a neutral point of view seems to mean the particular point of view of whatever political groups have the biggest cognitive and emotional weapons. As a concrete example, I repeatedly ran into resistance and even ridicule when editing articles about trans people that used the phrasing “was born female” or “was born male”, to use the phrasing “was assigned female at birth” or “was assigned male at birth” instead. While the latter phrasing makes fewer assumptions, editors insisted that it was “POV” to say that people are assigned a sex at birth, but “neutral” to say that someone who may never have affirmed himself as female was born female. I can’t conceive of “NPOV” as being anything but a tool of domination anymore. Rather than striving for neutrality (which doesn’t exist), I would rather strive to mark opinions as opinions and provide citations for facts. I think it’s easier to distort the truth in an atmosphere of false neutrality than it is to do the same in an environment where it’s the norm to acknowledge your biases and the social position from which you speak.
Because of my experience, I found it hard to listen to the Q&A section of the talk, because what seemed missing to me was an acknowledgment of the fundamental brokenness that resulted in a group of cis people deciding to exclude me from volunteering in a certain role solely because I asserted myself as genderqueer. On the whole, though, I appreciated the non-technical talks I went to at Open Source Bridge because the presence of those talks made the conference feel like a place where nothing was off-topic.
When I first started reading Usenet newsgroups in 1995, one thing that was drilled into me by all the documentation I read was that you had to be on-topic. If you posted an off-topic post, you were wasting hundreds or thousands’ of people’s time, which was the worst thing you could do. Over time, I’ve come to enjoy online fora better when they’re community-based rather than topic-based. In 2006, though, being rejected as an admin felt like such a slap in the face largely because of the shame of being off-topic. Though it was baseless, I was being accused of bringing up something that wasn’t relevant, and of course, as someone who wasn’t unambiguously recognized as a white cis man, I wasn’t allowed to decide what was relevant; other people got that privilege.
I guess that’s why it was so gut-wrenching for me to be voted down. Later on, I experienced retaliation for reporting harassment that forced me to leave the graduate program I was in, and at the job I went to next, was threatened because I spoke out in favor of having a code of conduct that reflected awareness of power dynamics. Despite not putting my education or job in jeopardy, the Wikipedia incident was more painful for me than my experiences at either Portland State or Mozilla, because of the shame of being off-topic, and perhaps also because of the misunderstandings that lay at the heart of the RfA discussion. I was never heard in the Wikipedia discussion, and any attempts to make myself heard just elicited more refusal to listen.
I no longer seek out places where I’m required to stay on-topic, though, because I want to be my entire self wherever I am, as much as I can. Staying on-topic feels like having to leave part of myself at the door — whatever parts of myself the group I’m in doesn’t like very much. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” I appreciated Open Source Bridge because it felt like a broader acknowledgment that even programmers don’t live single-issue lives. At the conference, I went to talks on impostor syndrome, empathy, labor ethics, depression, and other topics that weren’t just about how to do thing X with software package Y. It made me feel like caring about the human side of computing didn’t make me a less qualified software professional, and like all of a sudden, it was the norm to have and acknowledge feelings rather than something that made me marginal. There were other little things about the conference that made me feel like I was the norm for once, too, like the all-vegetarian and mostly-vegan food at breakfast and lunch, and the “Intersectional Feminism Fuck Yeah!” stickers on the swag table. Going to the conference brought back a little bit of what my experience with Wikipedia erased: belief that there is a place for me in open-source culture and that what I have to contribute will be better because of — not worse because of — the ways in which I’ve experienced marginalization.