A couple of months ago some stories made the news in my everyday world, they involved well-known figures on the computer/hardware/software/hacker scene being exposed as serial harassers. It’s a community that has had its fair share of issues in that direction and even scandals, so this was a big enough story for my editor in my day job to let me write a piece about it.
We Need To Have A Chat About Something Important for Hackaday.com used the iconic cereal packet whistle of legendary phreaker John “Captain Crunch” Draper as a device to ease into the tricky topic, before framing harassment as a matter of power dynamics. Identify the direction in which the power is directed when looking at a harassment incident, I said, because it was the best way I could think of to frame it in terms that did not alienate the readership. So often these pieces end up as “Why All Men Are Bad, by A Woman”, and I neither agree with that stance nor saw any point in going down that route.
The piece was well received by many of the readers, though among the comments were a few who evidently don’t “get it”. It’s a slow process, changing culture.
It’s tempting to sit back and look across the gap into another subculture and believe that the harassment problem is different in our transgender community, and that there’s no analogy on our side. Of course we see harassment, but it’s always The Cis having a pop at us, we never need to look at ourselves. But one or two comments I’ve received since the Hackaday piece went live have caused me to question that comfortable assertion, and to realise that we’re just as vulnerable as any other group when it comes to harassers and predators within our own ranks. Suddenly some of the relationships that have passed through my social circle over the years take on a new light, and it is though I have had a cold awakening.
We are a community of vulnerable people, or at least there are very few of us who do not have vulnerable moments during our path from the closet. In particular there are young transgender people who are especially vulnerable, having gained neither the innate knowledge of the boundaries applicable to their new role through growing up in it, nor acquired it through many years of reaching maturity as an adult in their gender role assigned at birth. And we all know there are predators who watch out for those among us with a vulnerability, be they a particular class of admirer, abusers of the kink scene, or any of a list of Usual Dodgy Suspects. We watch out for each other, and we do our best to ensure that bad things do not come the way of our friends.
Just as the hacker community is having to take on board that among its numbers are some unsavoury characters who prey on the vulnerable, so must we transgender people do the same, rather than looking only outwards. As with all harassment cases there will always be a power imbalance at the root of it all, and should you see it happening then do not be afraid to do something about it, whoever the harasser may be. Elements of the hacker community kept quiet about this for decades and people were undoubtedly damaged; it would be nice to think that the transgender community would be prepared to stand up to it.
There is more information on spotting the signs of abuse, and what to do if you are concerned about someone, on the NHS Choices web site.
Holding hands image: April Killingsworth [CC BY 2.0].