S_onewall and the missing T

So, let’s talk about Stonewall. Or, as many UK trans activists call them, S_onewall (the T is silent). It’s perhaps ironic that an organisation named after a riot kicked off by trans women and gender non-conforming people is so very bad at trans issues.

As a couple of examples, Stonewall is notorious for inappropriately addressing trans issues in anti-bullying material for schools and celebrating transphobic journalists like Julie Bindel and Bill Leckie. Natacha Kennedy has discussed whether Stonewall is holding back transgender equality and whether they are institutionally transphobic. Let us be clear: many trans people feel that Stonewall goes beyond lack of interest in trans issues to actively undermining our efforts. It’s been doubly galling because Stonewall have reach and influence that trans organisations can only dream of – they have the resources to campaign against homophobia in schools, influence government policy and to have a respected international presence.

As such, I cautiously welcome Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s new Chief Executive, and her desire to open dialogue with the trans community and support us.

At Stonewall we’re determined to do more to support trans communities (including those who identify as LGB) to help eradicate prejudice and achieve equality. There are lots of different views about the role Stonewall should play in achieving that. We’re holding roundtable meetings and having lots of conversations. Throughout this process we will be guided by trans people.

We want to hear about what you think the next steps are to achieve equality for trans people and the role that Stonewall might be able to play. We’re determined to get this right and we promise to keep you updated as conversations progress.

I have been invited to one of these meetings at the end of August.

Ruth Pearce has written an excellent post, Putting the “T” into Stonewall? An important opportunity, in which she explores why this dialogue is important, outlines some of the proposed approaches to working with Stonewall (or not), and outlines her priorities in discussing this issue with both Stonewall and other trans activists. It’s a very comprehensive summary and I don’t want to reinstate it, so I will urge you to read her post first.

My own observations on this:

  1. Currently, there seem to be two strands of trans activism: local and national. National trans activism is focused on media representation, as seen most clearly in Trans Media Watch’s media monitoring and All About Trans’ interventions with media professionals. I am not objecting to this at all; one strand of my own research explores the media representation of trans people. Trans Media Watch offer compelling evidence in their submission to the Leveson Inquiry (.pdf) that negative media represention has a direct impact on trans people’s safety, welfare and mental health.

    However, I do think that there needs to be more to support non-media issues at a national level. In my experience, this tends to fall to local trans support groups. These groups tend to focus on issues that directly impact on individual members of the local community. These may include cases of discrimination in employment and education, access (or lack of) to medical interventions and appropriate healthcare, asylum and immigration issues, and housing issues. When such issues have occurred, the lack of a national organisation capable of advising – or even aware of similar issues around the country – has been sorely felt. As an example, trans people in my local area have had huge problems with the local NHS trust “red-listing” cross-sex hormones, meaning that GPs (with a budget for prescriptions) were unable to prescribe them. Instead, the local Gender Identity Clinic (that does not have a budget for prescriptions) had to assume responsibility. It would have immensely helpful to have a national organisation capable of advising on – or even aware of – the situation nationally. We were left wondering whether this was just affecting us or whether it was a national issue.

  2. In addition, many local groups are entirely volunteer-run. This means that volunteers may have the skills but not the funds, time or energy to provide a consistent service. Activist burn-out is a real problem in our community. It is exhausting holding down a job, dealing with an often unhelpful medical community, dealing with gender dysphoria – and, often, mental and physical health problems – and attempting to support other trans people, to provide training and education, to campaign about the latest transphobic or simply unintentionally trans exclusive awfulness. I know so many brilliant people who are simply exhausted, worn out, ground down by the fact that this never stops, is relentless.

    This also tends to mean that volunteers are more likely to be those who can take on an unpaid, time-consuming position and are less likely to be at the sharp end of homelessness, unemployment, medical abuse, disability. People who are, in other words, privileged and often without first-hand expertise in dealing with such complex, difficult situations. I believe that secure paid positions for trans activists is a priority and would free people to actually work on these issues in a systematic and consistent way instead of expecting them to give up their free time. It would be a very concrete demonstration that trans activism is valued.

  3. We must be focusing on issues like housing, healthcare, disability, violence, poverty, mental health, immigration and asylum, and access to education. We must have an intersectional approach and focus on areas that affect the most vulnerable members of the trans community. We must look at areas where a trans identity makes already dangerous situations life-threatening.
  4. Having looked at the list of attendees, I am concerned that the group Stonewall has invited is skewed towards white, highly educated, established activists who tend to be trans women with a binary identity. As non-white/people of colour we have concerns and experiences that aren’t shared by white people, and I want to raise as many as I can at this meeting.

    Some things I want to talk about are poor understanding from healthcare professionals (everything from their understanding of what family looks like to post-op scarring on non-white skin), racism from the LGBQ community, mental health and lack of representation of QTIPOC (Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Colour).

  5. Building on the last point, we have to be aware of intersectionality and privilege beyond the obvious of a trans history and/or identity e.g. aspects of class and education. We have to be aware of who is underrepresented, or not represented at all. Future meetings must be more diverse.
  6. I would welcome the development of a national trans organisation but feel that Stonewall is not trusted by the trans community; after years of active disinterest and undermining of trans activism (such as its use of “tranny” in the Fit campaign materials) I find such hesitation understandable. However, Stonewall does have lobbying power and has vast experience in bringing lesbian and gay issues to national attention.

    Ideally I would like to see the development of a national trans organisation that can collaborate with Stonewall on campaigns and the development for paid positions within it. However, trans liberation has to take priority rather than keeping Stonewall happy. I am for being challenging, radical, awkward, uncomfortable. I want to have these difficult conversations. I do not want any trans organisation emerging from this to be seen as “safe” or existing to appease cis people. It has to be for us, by us.

I welcome any comments, suggestions or feedback. Please either comment here or send an email to contact (at) mixosaurus (dot) co (dot) uk.

To “wage a war against all women”: Elliot Rodger, girls, women and corpus linguistics

Content warning: explicit discussion of misogyny, violence against women and racism.

This is a working paper currently being developed for publication – comments and feedback are very welcome!

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger's manifesto

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger’s manifesto

Like many people, I was shocked at the Isla Vista shootings. In an effort to understand what happened, I read – a lot. There is a collection of links about Elliot Rodger, rape culture and misogyny at the end of this post.

I then downloaded Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and approached it with corpus linguistic techniques. I first calculated keywords, then go on to examine girl, girls and wom?n in more detail.

This table shows the top 25 keywords when compared with the British National Corpus (BNC). A keyword occurs more frequently than we’d expect; in corpus linguistics, we work this out by comparing how often it occurs in a reference corpus (in this case, the BNC) with how often it occurs in the corpus we’re interested in. Words that are more key are more frequent in the target corpus than we’d expect from looking at the reference corpus.

N Word Frequency Keyness
1 I 5,926 13,752.69
2 my 2,501 9,101.61
3 me 1,544 4,546.97
4 didn’t 303 4,137.62
5 was 2,668 2,141.77
6 father’s 144 1,966.18
7 mother’s 105 1,433.64
8 girls 292 1,406.19
9 life 523 1,349.66
10 soumaya 97 1,324.40
11 couldn’t 96 1,310.74
12 I’ve 84 1,146.89
13 wasn’t 83 1,133.24
14 mother 292 935.53
15 would 841 862.82
16 isla 71 820.35
17 santa 115 794.72
18 house 359 754.95
19 father 236 702.35
20 topanga 52 700.05
21 vista 71 685.43
22 myself 192 672.68
23 barbara 105 648.11
24 friends 196 624.09
25 retribution 72 619.44

I’ve used the BNC because it’s a large general corpus that contains both speech and writing and which is balanced across different text types and genres. If I used a different reference corpus it would show me different things which may or may not be useful. Comparing Rodger’s manifesto with other manifestos written by ideologically-motivated murderers might be interesting, as would comparing the manifesto to other texts written by misogynists. However, the BNC does a decent job of highlighting both the individual characteristics of Rodger’s manifesto and a more general discourse of misogyny.

We have placenames like isla, vista, santa, topanga and barbara; words indicating family members and social relationships like mother’s, father’s, mother, father, Soumaya and friends; modal verbs like didn’t, was, couldn’t, wasn’t and would; and lots of first person pronouns like I, my, me, I’ve and myself. Finally, we have retribution, the name Elliot Rodger gave to the day of his attack. When we think about what kind of writing this is – a manifesto in which Rodger outlined his personal history, explained the worldview that led him to such an act of violence, and detailed his plans – this is unsurprising.

Girls shows up as the 8th most key term, while girl is only the 48th most key. I’m going to look at both, starting with girl. A girl can be pretty (14 occurrences), beautiful (11 occurrences), white (9 occurrences) or blonde (9 occurrences) but the bigram no girl appears 12 times and the trigram not one girl appears three times. Notably, a girl is something that happens or belongs to other people:

N	Concordance
1	ngle party because anyone would admit a beautiful girl into it, to make passionate love to her in my
2	gine how heavenly it would be to have a beautiful girl by my side. It is such a shameful tragedy. I 
3	and I walk in all alone. A man having a beautiful girl by his side shows the world that he is worth 
4	home. Why does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me? Why do girls hate me so? Questio
5	r to me if he walks into a store with a beautiful girl on his arm and I walk in all alone. A man hav
6	 the experience of holding hands with a beautiful girl and walking on a moonlit beach, I could never
7	lking back to my room in triumph with a beautiful girl on my arm, but instead I stumbled back to my 
8	watch another boy experience it, with a beautiful girl who should be mine, was a living hell. I cons
9	around in all of that excitement with a beautiful girl on my arm, to attend every single party becau
10	worth something, because obviously that beautiful girl sees some sort of worth in him. If a man is a
11	 look. I soon found out the name of the beautiful girl in my math class. Her name was Brittany Story

With the exception of line 11, the beautiful girl exists as a symbol of status and is usually found on her male partner’s arm or by his side. This is reflected in the cluster with a beautiful girl which makes up 5 of the 11 occurrences of beautiful girl. There doesn’t appear to be evidence of her agency, let alone her personality or individuality. Instead, she is rather like a bespoke suit or pair of expensive cufflinks. When Rodgers asked “[w]hy does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me?” it is without asking how he would love someone back.

We also find that a girl occurs 37 times and the girl occurs 11 times. Interestingly, the girl predominantly appears because Rodger noted that she is with someone else. The next set of concordance lines are longer so you can see that more clearly.

N	Concordance
1	    the man looked to be in his late 20's or early 30's, and the girl he was walking with looked like a supermodel. I assumed he w
2	 aside, trying to act cocky and arrogant to both the boy and the girl. My drunken state got the better of me, and I almost fell ov
3	rse towered over her. They were both wearing beach gear, and the girl was in her bikini, showing off to everyone her sensual, erec
4	cular young couple that stood out from the rest only because the girl looked absolutely perfect. She was tall, blonde, and sexy. S
5	I never admitted it to anyone. To be teased and ridiculed by the girl I had a crush on wounded me deeply. The world that I grew up
6	ed like an obnoxious punk; he was tall and wore baggy pants. The girl was a pretty blonde! They looked like they were in the throe
7	en more angry is that Spencer gave me a smug look when I saw the girl, even though she was ugly. He had the nerve to feel like he 
8       rginity when he was only thirteen! In addition, he said that the girl he lost his virginity to was a blonde white girl! I was so e
9	  end place his hand on the girl's ass, and when he did this the girl looked at him and smiled with delight. That guy was in heave
10	so shocked and outraged that I waited outside his room until the girl left, so I could get a glimpse of how she looked. To my reli
11	d of girl who was always meant to be my girlfriend. This was the girl that I was meant to go through college in Santa Barbara with

Rodger focused on appearances, especially perceived disparities in attractiveness between women and the men they were with. We also see evidence of adjectives like blonde and white. While it is important to read Rodger’s actions in context of his misogyny, it is also important to acknowledge the role of race. The girls that Rodger focused on are tall, pretty, blonde and white; brown only appears in the context of martial arts (brown belt, 2 occurrences) and black in the context of skin colour (7 occurrences, all describing boys/men), a black carpet (5 occurrences), clothing (2 occurrences) and Rodger’s own black hair (3 occurrences). Dark is largely used metaphorically, and the only woman described as having dark hair is his father’s girlfriend (“I saw a woman with dark hair and fair skin standing in the kitchen, and she introduced herself as Soumaya”). Brunette only appears once and is used to describe his sister’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (“My sister even showed me a picture of one of his ex-girlfriends, a pretty brunette white girl”). Brunettes doesn’t appear at all. His stepmother, Soumaya, and his sister’s boyfriend are both people he resented, saw as an intrusion into his life, and who highlighted his lack of sexual experience compared to other members of his family.

It is also very clear from the data which women Rodger found attractive, that he conflated race and attractiveness, that the women he was most attracted to are also unambiguously white, and that he was deeply angered by ugly/black men having sex with beautiful/white women:

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself”

“If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!”

Girls shows similar patterns: beautiful girls (23 occurrences), because girls (6 occurrences), blonde girls (11 occurrences), from girls (6 occurrences), hot girls (8 occurrences), no girls (4 occurrences), of girls (19 occurrences), pretty girls (15 occurrences), the girls (36 occurrences) and young girls (4 occurrences). Clusters show that more than one adjective can be used: beautiful blonde girls appears six times. Again, it is very very clear which women Rodger found attractive, and it’s also clear that he placed enormous emphasis on physical attractiveness. One gets the sense that Rodger constantly judged and assessed women based on their appearance – he wanted attention from the “hot”, status-conferring girls, and there is little evidence in these sets of collocates of girls who do not conform to his ideas of beauty.

So let’s have a closer look at the girls. We find the following make up 15 occurrences of the 36: all the girls (3 occurrences), all of the girls (6 occurrences), most of the girls (1 occurrence), none of the girls (1 occurrence), some of the girls (1 occurrence), one of the girls (2 occurrences) and two of the girls (1 occurrence). As the following quotes show, these occurrences continue to demonstrate Rodger’s belief that girls are a mark of a man’s status, power and prestige.

“They then had the audacity to tell me that they lost their virginity long ago, bragging about all the girls they had slept with”

“He will become a popular kid who gets all the girls. Girls will love him. He will become one of my enemies”

“All of those popular boys must be punished for enjoying heavenly lives and having sex with all the girls while I had to suffer in lonely virginity”

As the following concordance lines demonstrate, Rodger discussed girls as a monolithic entity. They all dress alike, his friends pursue all of them, they all flock to the same boys – and, crucially, they all view him with disdain. This is highlighted in the case of none of the girls: Rodger complained that “[t]hey all started socializing right next to me, and none of the girls paid any attention to me”. Again, there is a strange lack of personality or individuality ascribed to these women.

1	in the faces of all the people who looked down on me, and all of the girls who thought of me as unworthy. I mused that once I beco
2	 and her sexy bare stomach showed as her shirt hung down. All of the girls were scantily clad. Rage boiled inside me as I watched 
3	e alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past. I quickly admir
4	aller than me. I had to suffer watching Julian sweet-talk all of the girls. He acted so confidently, and the way the pretty girl l
5	s confident and sure of myself as possible, thinking that all of the girls I passed were attracted to my appearance. They should b
6	re obnoxious jerks, and yet somehow it was these boys who all of the girls flocked to. This showed me that the world was a brutal

Something different happens when Rodger described one, two or some of the girls. In these cases, Rodger noted his sexual attraction to them, the things they do that sexually provoke him (importantly, this can be as innocuous as doing a handstand while messing around with your mates – if you are a “beautiful blonde girl”, then simply existing is a sexually provocative act for Rodger) and their interactions with other men.

N	Concordance
1	owed them for a few minutes. They just laughed at me, and one of the girls kissed the boy on the lips. I'm assuming she was his 
2	ooked like they were having so much fun playing together. One of the girls did a handstand in the grass, and her sexy bare stomach
3	 so much loneliness and humiliation. I was introduced to some of the girls he had sex with in the past, and they were all pretty.
4	lock of pretty girls with them. One of them sat down with two of the girls, putting his leg up on another chair with a cocky smirk

Reading the concordance lines, there is a strikingly lack of attempts by Rodger to engage with them. I found just one: “One time, as I was walking across the huge bridge that connected the two campuses, I passed by a girl I thought was pretty and said “Hi” as we neared each other. She kept on walking and didn’t even have the grace to respond to me. How dare she! That foul bitch”. Instead, girls are remote, distant – a monolithic entity that constantly rejected and humiliated Rodger yet to which he remained sexually attracted to. To Rodger, the actions of one reflect on them all; the rejection from some girls is a rejection from all girls.

If girl and girls are constantly described in terms of their sexual attractiveness and callousness, with Rodger caught between rage, self-pity and arousal, then wom?n is where his hatred of women is really displayed. Here, the ? in wom?n is a single character wildcard that means that results for both woman and women are included. There are 86 occurrences of wom?n in all.

Unlike girl and girls, there are only a few references to appearance. There are 4 occurrences of beautiful wom?n, 1 occurrence of beautiful model wom?n and 1 occurrence of gorgeous wom?n…and that’s it. There are a couple of references to nationality: German wom?n (2 occurrences) and French wom?n (1 occurrence), and one to race: African American woman.

Interestingly, there are two occurrences of love women, but as the quotes show, this love comes with conditions:

“All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behavior has only earned my hatred. I want to have sex with them, and make them feel good, but they would be disgusted at the prospect. They have no sexual attraction towards me. It is such an injustice, and I vehemently questioned why things had to be this way. Why do women behave like vicious, stupid, cruel animals who take delight in my suffering and starvation? Why do they have a perverted sexual attraction for the most brutish of men instead of gentlemen of intelligence?”

“All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy”

While Rodger claimed to want to “love women”, this is quickly turned into further justification for his sense of victimisation and his rage. It’s difficult to imagine being able to love someone you can describe as “vicious, stupid, cruel animals”. As seen in girl and girls, Rodger focused on the men he perceived all women as being attracted to – “the most brutish of men” – and clearly positioned himself as superior, again reflecting the hierarchies he constructed and his belief that those further up the hierarchy deserved sex.

Most of the collocates of wom?n are fairly low frequency with the exception of all women and of women. Low frequency collocates include strike against women (1 occurrence), war against women (2 occurrences), degenerate women (1 occurrence), naked women (1 occurrence) and punishing women (1 occurrence). A clear semantic preference for physical violence emerges with mention ofwar against, strike against and punishing, with a second semantic preference for sexual judgement. Women are described as wicked and degenerate and naked occurs in the context of a porn video by which Rodger is simultaneously aroused and repulsed (“human beings doing such weird and unspeakable things with each other revolted me”).

Concordance lines for all women are below.

N	Concordance
1	ly abolish sex, women themselves would have to be abolished. All women must be quarantined like the plague they are, so that they 
2	 the popular young people who never accepted me, and against all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex. At this p
3	I will arm myself with deadly weapons and wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to. And I will slaughter the
4	  rve. If I can't have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer 
5	something to fantasize about as I burned with hatred towards all women for rejecting me throughout the years. This whole viewpoint
6	r boyfriend only increased my already boiling hatred towards all women. I could not leave my apartment without seeing at least a f
7	 who deprived me of love and sex. My hatred and rage towards all women festered inside me like a plague. Their very existence is t

As these concordance lines show, women are again conflated into a single entity, one that is responsible for provoking Rodger into such violent acts. He railed against “all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex” and threatened to “destroy all women because I can never have them” and “wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to”. Of the seven concordance lines above, three reinstate his “hatred” or “hatred and rage” directed at all women.

However, Rodger firmly believed that women had brought it on themselves and were responsible for their own destruction. There are 11 occurrences of of women

1	ous men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magn
2	rience it all alone, while other men get to enjoy the company of women. I had nothing left to live for but revenge. Women must be 
3	y teenage years were completely denied to me by the cruelness of women. The only way I could make up for it was if I could have an
4	 I was ready and capable of fighting back against the cruelty of women. Back when I was a weak and timid boy at Taft High School, 
5	ows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort d
6	 the best. If a man grows up without knowing of the existence of women, there will be no desire for sex. Sexuality will completely
7	  ng with all of the injustices I've had to face at the hands of women and society. I came up with a name for this after I saw all
8	r, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don't fancy me, because their sexual attract
9	  he rejection and mistreatment I've experienced at the hands of women, I knew that becoming wealthy was the only way I could beco
10	what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. 
11	  irls hate me so much?" in which I ask the entire population of women the question I've wanted to ask them for so many years. W

Women are positioned as cruel and evil, but also powerful; Rodger railed against the injustices (1 occurrence), rejection (2 occurrences), humiliation (1 occurrence) and mistreatment (1 occurrence) he felt he experienced at the hands of women.

So what were girls and women to Elliot Rodger? The evidence from his manifesto seems to indicate that Rodger was deeply conflicted about them. They were simultaneously: beautiful, hot bestowers of status on their male companions and the yardstick by which a man could measure his worth; fickle, callous creatures who snubbed him; cruel, evil and deliberately withholding the love and sex which Rodger felt was his right; wholly vicious and deserving of hatred and destruction. In Rodger’s manifesto, women are not individuals, but are completely united in their rejection of him.

There’s obviously a lot more in the paper I’m developing for publication, but I hope that this post offers a an insight into how looking at just four terms can be very revealing.

Further reading:
Elliot Rodgers
What a close read of the Isla Vista shooter’s horrific manifesto, “My Twisted World,” says about his values—and ours
“Gay or Asian?” Race, Masculinity, and the UCSB Shooting
On Continuing to Live In the Same World that Made Elliot Rodger (and Many Like Him)

Rape culture
A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture
Fat Girl PhD: The things we tell our girls
Girl On The Net: On whether you have a right to sex
Slut-shamed to death for saying yes to sex, murdered for saying no

Misogyny
Storify: Yes, All Men
Elliot Rodger’s California shooting spree: further proof that misogyny kills
Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism
A Look Inside the ‘Men’s Rights’ Movement That Helped Fuel California Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger
Elliot Rodger was a misogynist – but is that all he was?
Elliot Rodger’s fatal menace: How toxic male entitlement devalues women’s and men’s lives
Lessons From a Day Spent With the UCSB Shooter’s Awful Friends
‘PUAhate’ and ‘ForeverAlone’: inside Elliot Rodger’s online life
Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds
On the Geek Guys’ Elliot Rodger Think Pieces
#YesAllWomen: how Twitter reacted to the shootings in California
Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny: Men were surprised by #YesAllWomen because men don’t see what women experience

Representation of the British Suffrage Movement

Representation of the British Suffrage MovementYou have no idea how long I’ve been sitting on this, but last week I sent off the manuscript so I’m pretty confident it’s going to happen!

Representation of the British Suffrage Movement will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2015 as part of the Corpus and Discourse series. It goes without saying that I’m very pleased to be bringing suffragists, suffragettes, direct action, Deleuze and Guattari, issues of newsworthiness, and arson to the world in time for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918.

Conference bingo v2

Some nine months ago Heather Froehlich and I came up with an in-joke by the name of conference bingo. The original was put together in about 15 minutes in Word to the accompaniment of much laughter and the response was greater than either of us could have anticipated.

I strongly suspect that Conference Bingo is the mostly widely read thing that I’ve ever produced and it is a source of eternal regret that it isn’t REFable.

You gleefully shared your own items for the bingo card, whether it was terrible food, acts of passive-aggression, poor formatting or ill-judged displays of academic egotism. The card I had grew beyond all reason and we began thinking of how to make conference bingo bigger, better and more reflective of academic conferences.

Appropriately enough, this was coded during a conference coffee break by Andrew Hardie, and so it is our great pleasure to announce:

The Conference Bingo Card Generator

Also, I am currently in a talk where the presenter is talking about collocations, yoghurt and death.

Content, choice and consent

This is a post about trigger or content warnings. The specific content I will be discussing is sexual assault, but there will be brief mentions of police violence, forced feeding, transphobia and death (cancer and suicide). I am lucky in that I don’t experience PTSD; I’m therefore writing with that perspective (and privilege). However, there have been times in my life when I’ve benefited from content warnings and there are still things I treat with caution. I prefer the phrase “content warning” because triggers vary so widely and encompass so many things – as well as words, they can include objects, scents and music and people with similar experiences may have different triggers. “Content warning” avoids some of those issues.

This post is prompted by an event, Transpose: Tate Edition. Transpose is a semi-regular LGBTQ event organised by CN Lester showcasing writers, artists, musicians, photographers and performers from within the LGBTQ – but especially the trans – community. Because it gives lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer artists and performers a space, Transpose often explores difficult things: our bodies, our families and relationships, the violence meted out to gender non-conforming bodies. I should mention here that I’ve performed at the London Pride and Halloween Editions

You can read DIVA’s review of Sunday’s performance, All About Trans’ review of the evening, an extract of CN’s longer meditation on gender, bodily experience and art and Fox’s notes on his performance.

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

The piece that prompted these thoughts was Juliet Jacques’ exploration of the painting on the right, the trans woman who modelled for it and the emotional, physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the artist. Jacques skilfully wove a tale constructed of institutional records, historical events and diary entries to give an astonishingly detailed insight into Heike’s world: her affiliation with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the experimental surgery being explored, the world of cabarets and the loose community of bohemians that flourished in Weimar Berlin between the wars. Jacques’ piece was vivid and harrowing – the artist’s treatment of her was brutal in a way that resonated with the experiences of many trans women, and a number of people had to leave the room. I didn’t leave but I was tense – braced for the worst, braced for the way that so many trans women’s stories end. I was transfixed, at once acutely uncomfortable and compelled. Part of the reason I stayed was because I felt it was important to hear and bear witness to this forgotten woman’s life; that the least I could do to honour her was to listen.

At the end Jacques described the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft: its libraries were burned and the women and staff attached to it had disappeared – either in hiding, trying to escape the country or dead. The bohemians of Berlin were scattered. Heike was never heard of after the attack on the Institut on 6 May 1933. Jacques paused, allowing us to think about that. Then she announced that Heike’s story – Heike’s life – had been a work of fiction.

It was an astonishing double-punch. As a writer and an academic I was incredibly impressed with Jacques’ work and how she wove the real and the fictional together. A huge amount of careful, detailed research had gone into the creation of this piece encompassing history, politics and art history. It explored bodies as they’re perceived by their owner and by others, the rare opportunity for us to see ourselves as others see us, the different subjectivities and untruths and exaggerations offered by words and paint, the hurt of discovering that someone sees you very differently to the way you try to make yourself be seen. As a writer I recognised that Jacques’ skill in telling an undeniably powerful story. I would very much like to read it again.

But as a friend I knew some people in the audience had traumatic experiences of sexual assault. As an activist I think about the spaces I am in and which I help create, and how they embody and facilitate ways of being and interacting. One of the things that is vitally important to me is consent, and I see content warnings as being part of that.

Like Mary Hamilton, who discusses the problems of trigger warnings spreading from closed to public communities, much of my early experience of content warnings was in closed livejournal communities. As Hamilton notes, “[t]rigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear”. Through various textual conventions like ROT-13, clever use of CSS and cut tags that hide a portion of text and have to be clicked on to view the hidden text, there were means to balance the complex needs of different users. The default behaviour was to hide potentially distressing material. Viewing such material had to be a decision, and members of that community were given a choice in whether they unscrambled the text, whether they highlighted the CSS formatted text, whether they clicked to view the full entry.

However, Hamilton is responding to other pieces discussing content warnings in more public arenas. Crucially, these arenas encompass not only online written and visual communication, but spoken and offline print communication. The New Republic’s “Trigger Happy The “trigger warning” has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped?” and the Guardian’s “We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings’” argue against content warnings for similar reasons. A valuable alternative perspective is offered by this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom; see footnote [1].

The New Republic and Guardian articles both argue that content warnings

[...] are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

These articles, to me, miss the point on several levels.

Firstly, they overcomplicate content warnings to the point of creating a straw man. Content warnings have been around a long time – consider the ratings (and justification for them) on films or the phrase “this report contains scenes some viewers may find upsetting” on the news. When thinking about content warnings, I realised that my teacher had given the class a content warning in secondary school. I was 14, and we were just starting our GCSE studies. The English Literature course focused heavily on war poetry. Before we started reading, analysing and discussing the poems, our teacher told us about the content of the material we were about to deeply engage with and asked us what our experiences of war had been: had we been involved in any way? had our families? did we have relatives who had been the armed forces, or were currently in them? We had the opportunity to discuss these things and flag these up for our teacher so she knew something about us, our experiences and what we were bringing to these poems.

Contrast this with another experience: I was 19, and in my first year of my English degree. It was a close reading tutorial; we’d get an unseen poem, spend an hour discussing it then write a formative essay on it. The poem we were analysing that hour was a response to Tennyson’s “Crossing The Bar” I don’t remember much about the poem; it was about someone being told of someone’s death, and struggling to come up with a eulogy before the clear, tolling words of “Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me!” came to him. I sat, silent and miserable, and the tutor rebuked me for not being my usual responsive self. My friend – also 19, a schoolfriend – had died of cancer the previous day; I’d been told the previous evening. To frame it in terms of the educational institution as the New Republic and Guardian articles want to do: was this good pedagogy? I could have brought a unique perspective to my analysis – the rawness of grief, the awareness of one’s teenaged mortality. Instead I sat there silent, barely able to engage with the poem.

Secondly, they argue that anyone needing a content warning is a special, selfish snowflake demanding the world be shaped to accommodate them. I suspect that of all people, those who have experienced trauma know that the world is not shaped to accommodate them. There’s a more interesting issue of how educational institutions should teach and engage with deeply problematic texts, and the duty of care we have towards our students and how this should be manifested, but I think that’s an issue for another post.

Thirdly, they conflate empathy with consent. Content warnings enable someone to make an informed decision about whether they want to participate in an event and if so, how best to prepare themselves. Sometimes this may mean saving reading material for another day when your mental health is less fragile. Sometimes it means engaging with material in a different context – reading a book in a busy cafe rather than alone and in the quiet of your bedroom in the dark hours. Sometimes it means scheduling activities differently to make sure you don’t get trapped in your own head – for me, this might mean spending the afternoon reading concordance lines about distressing things and seeing friends in the evening. If I know in advance, I can make a choice about how I structure my time. By not giving a content warning, you remove that choice.

I am reminded here of China Miéville’s[2] concept of choice-theft in Perdido Street Station. In it, sexual assault and rape are conceptualised as “choice-theft in the second degree” (with murder being that as the first degree). As a character explains,

“To take the choice of another… to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to..for all we individuals to have…our choices.

[...]

But all choice-thefts steal from the future as well as the present”.

[...]

What he saw most clearly, immediately, were all the vistas, the avenue of choice that [Spoiler] had stolen. Fleetingly, [Spoiler] glimpsed the denied possibilities.
The choice not to have sex, not to be hurt. The choice not to risk pregnancy. And then…what if she had become pregnant? The choice not to abort? The choice not to have a child?
The choice to look at [Spoiler] with respect?

I sometimes research really horrible stuff – they include police assault, forcible feeding and violent transphobia. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through thousands of concordance lines of transphobia, suicide and misgendering. Yes, reading it was upsetting and reminded me of the street abuse I’ve received, the risks I take by existing. But I believe, passionately, that it is vital to talk about these things – to haul them out and shine a ruthless light on them. I believe it’s important to understand how these things happen, to dissect them and understand their anatomy. How else can we challenge them? But when I talk about these things – when I present on them, when they emerge in my creative work – I give content warnings. My decision on when and where and how I engage with these things are not anyone else’s; I do not have the right to force someone along with me.

Instead, I seek my audience’s consent to come with me. I ask that they trust me enough to put themselves in my hands, that I will lead them through my academic or creative work without inflicting further hurts. I ask for their trust that I will talk about difficult things, but to do so in a way that offers them something: a vocabulary, a reconceptualisation, a challenge. I make it clear that they can leave the room and I won’t be offended or upset.

I refuse to enact further violations of consent.

I ask for their trust.

I offer them a choice.

__________________________________

[1] Tressie McMillan Cottom argues that “no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression”. I’ve tried to reflect this tension between content warnings and sites of resistance in my argument.

[2] I’m unhappy about referencing Miéville for reasons outlined in this post [CW: non-explicit discussion of emotional abuse]. I’ve chosen to acknowledge this and to also warn for the content in a way consistent with the argument I make in this post. If any writers have explored a similar concept, I’d be very interested in reading their work.

In which I get a new rucksack and am overexcited about it

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

This term I’ve been teaching in London. As I still live in Nottingham, this has required me to hoof myself down to London for a 10am class. Thanks to some kind friends who’ve let me stay on their mattresses, airbeds, beanbags and sofas, I’ve managed to all but avoid the expensive 6:30am train (and accompanying horribly early alarm). However, I’ve had to carry a lot of stuff around me and it was therefore with dismay that I noticed my faithful rucksack’s shoulderstrap coming off one morning on the tube. I’ve had that rucksack since I started my MA in 2006 and it’s been with me through my MA and PhD, two universities, three departments, trips to India and Egypt, many conferences and numerous visits to friends and family all over the country so I suppose it’s earned its retirement.

However, this left me without a rucksack.

A friend suggested Osprey and I splurged on the Osprey Momentum 30. This is totally Sam Vimes’ Theory of Economic Injustice – I am hard on my bags, and at the moment I’m being paid. It therefore makes sense to spend money on something that will last (I hope) than buying a cheap bag that will fall apart when I load it up with library books, leak on library books/my laptop or be uncomfortable to carry or cycle with.

This review is of an older and slightly bigger model but I was impressed by the thoughtful design and quality. This review and this review are both of the model I went with. The photo below is of all the stuff I routinely carry with me.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

Going from left to right we have a hardback book (unusually, only one), my university ID cards, my laptop and charger, a shirt, assorted highlighters, the grey notebook I use to keep my conference notes together, my wallet and keys, my filofax, bike lights, shower soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, forks and paracetamol. I’d usually also have PJ bottoms and underwear with me but you get the idea.

The Momentum 30 copes admirably with all this and more – I even got my softbound thesis in there as well as everything else and it was great not to have to lug that around in a carrier bag. The pockets are spacious enough to be useful; I use one of the side pockets as a washbag and can easily fit shower soap, moisturiser and facewash in there. So many pockets means that I can use them for different things and as a result, no one has to know that I’m taking my PJs and toothbrush into work as I won’t accidentally pull them out along with my laptop charger[1]. The small zipped pocket in the main compartment is big enough to fit keys, my wallet, pens and my passport but small enough that these don’t get lost among the other stuff.

I live in an area where cycling is an everyday thing. While I’ve seen (and admired) a proper Dutch cargo bike chained up, I’ve seen more bikes with interesting cargo-carrying modifications – shopping baskets are a popular addition or, as in this fine example, a washing up bowl. I’ve not been doing my cycling commute much recently but this bag did very well on a trip to the shops – it comfortably held 4 litres of laundry liquid and fabric conditioner as well as my food shopping. The side straps can be tightened to make the bag more compact and it means you don’t have the bag shifting weight while cycling.

The bag can also be used for hand luggage on planes and I easily fitted nearly a week’s worth of clothes as well as laptop, book etc when I visited my partner recently.

About the only thing I’m not sold on is the laptop compartment against my back; it’s a bit big for my laptop so more a personal preference than a design flaw. Instead, my laptop goes into the document pocket in the main compartment and I use the laptop compartment to keep shirts flat when travelling. It would also be nice to have some way of tucking loose straps – I’ll probably make some ties or find clips but the lack of these seems odd in an otherwise thoughtfully designed bag.

It’s made me think about how things can be so much easier with the right tools and equipment. This term has been stressful enough as it is – among other things, I’ve been working three jobs (four if you count monthly invigilation), organising a module and working out the logistics of travel – and I simply don’t want to have to think about how I’m going to transport my stuff or for how long I can comfortably carry it or the chances of my stuff getting damaged or left behind somewhere. It’s been so nice to have room to keep some things in this bag permanently (and therefore not risk forgetting them) and it’s made my crash course in survival skills for the young academic that much easier.

As someone who cares for the environment, is broadly anti-capitalist and is against buying stuff for the sake of it, I am trying to surround myself with things that are good at what they do and which will last. I don’t want to keep having to replace things that wear out too soon – I want to be able to get something and be confident that it will be usable in 10 years or 20 years or longer. Hopefully this bag will be one of them.

[1]It pains me slightly that my life has become one where I consider not pulling out a toothbrush in front of my students/colleagues to be a minor triumph, and yet here we are.

Why isn’t my professor black?

blackprofessor
A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at UCL called, simply, “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”. Race in academia and the experience of being a BME academic is something I’m keenly interested in: I’ve written about UCU’s report on race, about intersectionality and some reflections on intersectional experiences in teaching and learning, and the effort one expends entering spaces where I am a research subject rather than a researcher and activist in my own right.

The statistics are shocking: of the 18,550 professors in the UK, only 85 of these are Black – and only 17 of the 85 are women. This panel brought together six Black academics to not only discuss why there are so few Black professors, but to imagine the conditions where Black academics could thrive.

The six academics brought together for the panel were:

Nathan Edward Richards
Deborah Gabriel
Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman
Dr Lisa Amanda Palmer
Dr William Ackah
Dr Shirley Tate

You can watch the full panel on youtube, read the Storify of tweets here and there’s a summary of the event and each speaker’s approach on this blog. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman‘s talk, “Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong” is online here.

I’ve found a couple of blog responses but would love to add more – if you’ve written something, please let me know in the comments. Yewande Okuleye has a series of posts focusing on contents of the panel discussion, responses from attendees and participants, and her reflections. Leona Nicole Black also has some really interesting reflections on the event.

Predictably, I’m interested in the context informing this. Currently open in my tabs is a Guardian article reporting that only three black applicants win places to train as history teachers, an Irish Times article on the everyday reality of gender imbalance at professor level at third level, a Salon article about why white guys don’t (have to) get it and that is why dominate TV, a NYT piece on racial microaggressions in university, a Guardian article on why many academics are on short-term contracts for years, Nadine Muller’s collection of posts on academia and mental health, research showing that Black and Minority Ethnic communities are faced with double the levels of discrimination and PhD(isabled). As intersectional analyses show us, these different issues interact and compound each other: to be BME with poor mental health is not to experience two separate issues but instead to experience intertwining, inextricable issues that mean that such an experience is different from that of a white person with mental health issues or a BME person without them.

If “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is, Black and minority ethnic academics – particularly women, particularly those with mental health or disability issues, particularly LGBQ people, particularly trans* people, and particularly those whose identities encompass all of these things – are playing the academic game on a much harder setting. And it shouldn’t be this way.

I could make an argument in terms of academic labour – if the academy loses us through neglect and hostility and lack of support, it loses our perspectives. It loses our critiques, it loses our intellectual gifts, it loses what we can bring to the university in terms of funding and prestige and league table rankings. It loses our abilities to engage with and mentor students, which will no doubt be reflected in the National Student Survey.

However, I am more interested in the damage it does to those in this system – the students and scholars who must struggle in ways not expected of anyone else, and who, when we raise the issue, are told that academia isn’t for everyone, and maybe we would be happier doing something else? What does it mean to work in such an environment, and what is it doing to us? What does our labour mean when it is produced in these conditions?

The high cost of researching

Recently I read Pat Thomson’s post about research participants finding the things written about them.

Today, I went to a seminar on Older LGBT people: intersections of ethnicity, culture and religion. As someone who lives in the intersections and who is queer, non-white, has a religious background and family, and who will (probably!) one day be old, I wanted to find people who had a similar set of identities, who might have had similar experiences, and who might be at different stages in their lives. I don’t know what my old age would look like. I wanted to find my elders.

I went to UK Black Pride this summer (here’s my friend Maryam’s post and photos) and it was an amazing, affirming space to be welcomed into with all my identities acknowledged. It was unforgettable to spend the night watching gay Asian men dance to bhangra and dance their own love stories – take the songs of childhood film-watching and make them theirs, fiercely claim that music and movement. It was equally unforgettable to spend the following day hanging out with a queer Bengali friend and allowing his identity as a queer man, as a brown man, as a Bengali man to become intelligible in this space. I felt like a part of me clicked into place when I was surrounded by the joy of my Brown and Black LGBTQ siblings.

However, I am familiar with both the mainstream LGBT community and LGBT research events, so wasn’t too hopeful about this event:






When I got there, I was unsurprised to find that the room was overwhelmingly white. It was a close run thing that I didn’t simply turn around and leave, or that I didn’t leave during lunch.

I enjoyed the presentations, particularly those by Dr Roshan das Nair and Professor Andrew Yip. The discussion was a mixed bag. I think our group did pretty well, and we discussed things like the interaction between non-white and LGBT gendered presentations, invisibility as erasure, the responsibility of making our spaces ready to welcome people before they are there, and the specific healthcare needs of LGB and especially trans people (particularly with dementia).

However, I was struck by the lack of non-white LGBTQ people in attendance, particularly older people. People researching the intersection of age, sexuality and race noted that they’d found it difficult to recruit participants, even when they went looking. There’s an argument that these communities don’t exist, but I argued that just because these communities can’t be seen by white people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Minorities have always been good at hiding; why should older non-white LGBT people be any different?

The intersection of LGBTQ sexuality, gender, religion and age is a difficult one. As one white researcher told us, her Black mentor had rebuked her when she noted that she was having trouble finding Black women for her research: as her mentor said, why would these women trust her with their stories?

As someone for whom this intersection is a tangible reality, going into an overwhelmingly white room feels unsafe – that I cannot share these stories and experience the solidarity of my queer non-white spaces. Instead, I feel like I have become a display object, a teaching moment – that I am there to educate others while being denied the connections I want to make. People seem to expect me to share my experiences at their convenience, and often don’t acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. It’s as a form of self-care that I have become ruthless about which projects I am prepared to engage in; I will not let someone pick at scabs over wounds that are broken open again and again.

I think there’s a conversation to be had about research fatigue in people who are asked time and time again about their experiences. I am tired of half-baked requests and poorly designed surveys being sent to the LGBT groups I help with. I am tired of researchers expecting me to hold out difficult, painful experiences for their scrutiny without giving me a reason to trust them. I am tired of this being a one way exchange.

So while I had some good conversations and met some interesting people, I can’t help but feel a bit dispirited by the day.

IT and the itinerant academic

Last week I lost access to my institutional email account. This is a problem on several levels: I am on the organising committee for a conference and have access to the conference email account – which has to be accessed through my institutional email account. I’m working on a project at the University of Nottingham and need to communicate with other members of my team and have computer access for when I’m working on campus. I’m in talks about a publication. Finally, I’m teaching at two other institutions and (probably) won’t get an institutional email address at either.

Luckily my access to my Nottingham postgrad account was extended by a week so I could get on with my work, I have been set up with an Associate account and I have an email account attached to this domain so I do have an email account slightly removed from my personal one. I find it’s crucial to have this separation between personal and professional identities – not least because I don’t want my academic contacts to be able to see when I’m online, add me on a messaging service without my consent and so on.

Having graduated and currently working several part-time jobs yet without a long term contract, I am merely one tiny cog in an academy increasingly built on casual labour and short-term contracts. Melonie Fullick outlines the problems with this precarious existence, and I suggest that some of the issues crystallise around my (lack of) institutional email account.

As for early-career academics, they’re not even sure if there’s a place for for them in the university anymore or if so, what it will look like. What this adds up to is a special kind of chaos that exists alongside, intertwined with, the still-stable roots and structures of academe; and it takes a lot of privilege to be able to close one’s eyes to that.

In my academic world, an institutional email address is one of the structures of academe; it gets added to departmental and career-stage email lists so I know what’s going on, I use my user name to access electronic and teaching resources, I can use the staff and student directory to contact people. More than that, it signals a professional identity, an institutional aegis, an academic belonging.

What does it mean to send an email from an address ending in @nottingham.ac.uk versus @mixosaurus.co.uk? What does it mean to give my students an email address that will expire in a few months time, as my Associate account probably will?[1] What does it mean to give my publisher an email address that will expire in a few months time? What does it mean to give them an email address that the domain name reveals as personal rather than institutional?

What does it mean to build up relationships that occur primarily through email (and occasional meetings/conferences) without having a consistent long-term email? What does it mean to have friends, former colleagues, (former) mentors in academia without knowing that if they want to contact you, they know where to write?

I am reminded of a friend at college who changed her email and livejournal accounts regularly; I inevitably missed one change, she probably assumed I no longer wanted to be friends and we drifted apart. A good friend, one that I would like to have stayed in touch with – and yet, I was thwarted by the fragility of an online connection, the difficulty of maintaining it through account changes and deletions.

Moving back to Fullick’s observations, I am reminded that a stable email address comes with a stable job – one that is largely located in one institution and can be reasonably be expected to last years rather than months or weeks. This system of short-term contracts and precarious employment is difficult in so many ways. The fact that even the method of communication underpinning academia does not account for such experiences of employment highlights the disparity between the conditions of work found in “still-stable roots and structures of academe” and the way that many early career academics work, and are expected to work. It draws attention to the fact that the way I am expected to teach and research unsupported by the roots and structures of academe, but at the same time thrive in in an environment where these same structures are necessary and relied upon.

Anyway, does anyone have any suggestions as to which contact email address I should give my students?

[1] While I won’t be teaching them then, what if they email me later to ask for a reference?