How Not to Write About a Transgendered Person

The following is a guest post from Anna Anthropy:

Anna Anthropy is a white transwoman, game designer, critic and sadist, a classic dyke in the “Elizabeth Bathory” mode. Did you know her first book is coming out in March? Now you do, and you’re so excited for it!

on february 15, kotaku ran a “feature” on dani bunten. i’m not linking it – you can find it pretty easily if you want – because it’s disrespectful in a way that, as a transgendered woman, makes me cringe. the article, written by luke plunkett, perpetuates a misinformed attitude about trans people that is downright dangerous in a culture in which we’re already as marginalized as we are.

specifically, the kotaku article is rooted in the idea that a transgendered woman lives a dual-gender identity, that she “was male” prior to her transition. the article opens with a photo of a trans game designer pre-transition, and goes on to refer to her by her given (birth) name and male pronouns. halfway through the article, it springs her gender identity upon the reader like a plot twist, finally showing us a picture of her post-transition and using her chosen name and pronouns. if a feature on me called me by my birth name and had a picture of me with a beard, i would shit myself and then the author.

as a transgendered woman, let me DISPEL SOME MYTHS.

transition is not some BEFORE / AFTER DIET PILL AD. a transgender woman isn’t a man before she A) chooses to identify as a woman or B) has her genitals operated on. and the latter is in fact irrelevant to the former: i identify as a woman, but i have no plans for surgery. when you are born into this society, you’re assigned a gender. i was assigned “male.” but though i spent many years struggling to fit myself into a male identity that doesn’t mean i consider myself to ever have been a boy or man. i had not yet come to terms with my identity as a woman.

identity is a complicated thing, one that every person, trans or otherwise, experiences differently, and i can’t claim to speak on the late dani bunten’s behalf. but i can speak as a trans woman who deals with transphobia on a daily basis, especially in spaces related to videogames. and i can tell you on authority: if someone identifies as a woman, you call her a woman. if she internalizes female pronouns, you use female pronouns to refer to her. if she tells you her name, you use that name and not one that was chosen without her consent. oh, she expressed regret once about leaping into surgery she might not have needed to get? doesn’t invalidate her identity.

transphobia is rampant in games culture: it’s dangerous to all transgendered people and all women. it’s dangerous to everyone who participates in this culture. i remember a tigsource thread on “girl game designers” where someone said: “if you go on a blind date with a female indie game designer, you have a 50% chance of ending with a dick in your a**” (i think the word the poster dared not type is supposed to be “ass.”) to perpetuate incorrect myths about trans people and our identities is grossly irresponsible for a site like kotaku.

i posted on twitter about the article this morning, angrily, because I WAS FUCKING ANGRY. stephen totilo, who currently runs kotaku, reacted defensively, calling the article an “earnest tribute” and that he thought the “word choice” was “valid.” he didn’t say this to me, of course. i don’t know whether he blocked me or was simply ignoring me, but he refused to engage me, tweeting his responses to my concerns at courtney stanton, who i think was retweeting my tweets so that he could see them. while i was writing this post he finally buckled under the pressure of piles of tweets from trans people and allies, and changed the pronouns in the article and announced plans to change the top photo, but that doesn’t address the fact that the article – whose title includes the words “transgender video gaming pioneer” – is more about the novelty of bunten’s transition (“the narrative,” as totilo put it) than her actual contributions to videogames.

so let me tell you about dani bunten and how much we all owe her. she was one of the earliest voices in games to recognize that videogames were becoming solitary experiences, and that they had tremendous potential as interpersonal, social experiences that they were failing to actualize. “no one ever said on their deathbed, ‘gee, i wish I had spent more time alone with my computer,’” is the quote most often attributed to her. her digital game design was strongly informed by that of board games, which has been really good at this interpersonal dynamic thing for quite a while – her best-known game, m.u.l.e., adapts a number of traditional board game ideas, like auctions, to videogame contexts. and if you can’t see how this is relevant to my work in 2012, you haven’t been reading my blog.

15 thoughts on “How Not to Write About a Transgendered Person”

  1. As soon as I saw that article on kotaku I instantly thought if you all at the Border House. I am happy to read of your response to this issue and i’m glad to hear that the author changed his article. Keep up the good work, you rock. :)

  2. It may be the article’s had an edit since you wrote this, but she’s referred to with feminine pronouns all the way through now, with the exception of a direct quote from Sid Meier. It’s still a bit cackhanded, but nowhere near as bad as you describe it.

    1. Anna did note that the pronouns were since changed.

      I don’t think it particularly matters that much. The article is still appalling and still completely revolves around the woman’s genitals.

      1. Alright I was a bit confused until I found out about the edit, most of the article as stands is pretty good since it gives a pretty quick overview of her life including her accomplishments in different fields. I’d say perhaps the three post surgery paragraphs should be deleted and the surgery paragraph should be about transition rather then surgery… But the meat surrounding that little narrative, about her accomplishments in the industry was deffinitly worth a read.

        1. It gives a quick overview of the important part of her life, so it can spend the bulk of the article discussing THE SHOCKING STORY OF DANI BUNTEN’S VAGINA AND HOW SHE CAME TO REGRET IT!. Reducing the entire life of one of the greatest game designers ever to a single sensationalist narrative about her transition, only paying token lip service to her games, isn’t what I’d call good.

          What does it actually say about her accomplishments? It mentions her works, sure, but only in passing. MULE gets a paltry two lines dedicated to it; everything else is summarized and dismissed in a single one! It seems clear where the article’s priorities lie, and it isn’t really in paying tribute to Dani Bunten as an amazing game designer.

          1. Yeah, it is clearly a shock piece; as exploitative as it gets in gaming journalism… Overall, its nothing more than a pathetic attempt to cash in on a brilliant developer’s personal life; all for some extra page views.

            I really do not see much redeeming value to the “narrative” given by the author. And you are absolutely right; the bits and pieces that actually seem neutral and biographical can be thinned down to a few lines.

  3. Oh geez… What an exploitative and essentially pointless “tribute” article. >_<

    It should have never been published, to be honest. And changing the pronouns after being berated is absolutely not enough. A major re-write and a formal public apology should be made. Very disappointed in Kotaku, and the comments are (not surprisingly), even when on point, quite disgusting exclusionary and full of oppressive language.

    Even though I stop in regularly at Kotaku, its nearly impossible to read every single article they publish… And I suspect that not everything that gets published gets thoroughly edited prior to being posted. On first glance, this article feels like an example of that, but two days later, it is sad to see that no one has considered taking the bulk of it down, or done a major edit or full re-write… So, it clearly didnt just 'slip through the cracks' of the editor's workload. Its getting plenty of comments and has now been re-blogged all over the place, without much mention of its glaring cissexism or disturbingly exploitative perspective…

    Thank you for writing this piece and bringing it to my attention, I will definitely be tweeting this BH post out to my followers… and if I dont see any apologies or edits, I will be contacting Kotaku staff and the writer before closing my account there (while making it clear to all my internet friends that I am doing so publicly of course). This has been a rough week here at Border House, some intense topics, all really well-covered!

  4. Unfortunately, we’re still at the stage where any story with non heteronormative gender and sex roles will inevitably focus more on the sex and gender than any supposed success or other ostensible focus of the piece.

    At best you could interpret that as being the most “interesting” part of the article, as those that write (and later read) about it sadly have little experience in such matters and as such childishly focus on it. At worst, it’s a “meet the freaks” segment that demeans all involved. It’s the same from top to bottom, from Diablo Cody to Candis Cayne where all any media outlet talks about is, well, you know…

    But wow, this has to be the worst article on TBH that I’ve ever read.

  5. transphobia is rampant in games culture: it’s dangerous to all transgendered people and all women. it’s dangerous to everyone who participates in this culture

    Just for clarity, how so? I imagine there are many cis women and gamer-culture participants (cis males especially) who would say transphobia isn’t dangerous, or even relevant, to them.

    I understand and agree with what you’re saying in this article, but I didn’t quite follow this broader application of transphobia endangering the general gamer population (including the transphobes themselves).

    1. I can’t speak for Anna Anthropy but my own interpretation is that prejudice does degrade us all. Learning to dehumanise other human beings and then doing so with painful regularity is something that is a sickness of the spirit that is, or should be, alien to us as empathetic creatures.

      That’s the philosophical angle. There’s also the more concrete one:

      Consider the origins of Poison, mentioned in another recent article here by Mattie Brice. The only reason she’s transgender is because the games developers at the time of her creation felt that women couldn’t fight and that boy gamers would be self-conscious about hitting a girl; so they made her a trans woman (i.e. “not really a woman” in the eyes of bigots). The transphobic idea behind that also blew back onto cisgender women in this torturous but still very clear way.

    2. When trans people are targets, it doesn’t matter if you’re really trans or not; if someone decides you seem trans you’ve just become a target. Tjere’s a lot more I feel like I should be saying about gender policing and turning people against each other, but I’m too burned out right now to think of clear wording.

    3. do you not think the sentiment “if you go on a blind date with a female indie game designer, you have a 50% chance of ending with a dick in your a**” is dangerous to all women and trans people?

  6. I’m struggling with this.

    I understand a lot of the criticism surrounding the article, but I don’t understand why that crosses over into vilification. Being ignorant about a topic is different than willfully trying to demean or hurt.

    For example, the use of different pronouns. This was a mistake, but an understandable one. Do you expect someone who has always identified with a single gender to understand how the transition process works? The outside world experiences gender transition through that outward expression of gender. It is not unreasonable to think that referring to Dani as “he” during the part of her life where she referred to herself as “he” is appropriate. This is clearly the wrong assumption, but that does not mean that it was disrespectful and they changed it when they realized their error.

    Furthermore, I understand why people take issue with the level of emphasis on her transition. I take issue with it too. However, considering the audience who is overwhelmingly ignorant on most gender issues, this also serves to educate that trans-people have been around making contributions in ways that we care about for a long time. Did the article have substantial issues stemming from ignorance? Yes. Does that mean the author is a “total fuck” spouting “disrespectful shit”? No.

    In regards to the photo: that is a photo of Dani. There was a part of Dani’s life where she outwardly expressed herself as a man and to say that they should have know that those pictures are off limits out of some innate understanding of transgender etiquette is unreasonable. Again, they changed it when they realized the error. Personally, I feel that any part of a person’s past should not be off limits. I believe that the decision to outwardly acknowledge a different gender is a courageous one and seeing a person before that transition is a testament to that courage.

    What is the goal with criticism? What do we want accomplished? Positive reinforcement accomplishes positive results much more effectively than negative reinforcement. I personally feel that acknowledging positive efforts to broaden the perceptions of what the “gaming community” is while providing constructive feedback and criticism are much more effective means to educate and improve things long-term rather than coming down hard on missteps, dismissing positive intentions, and responding with intentionally disrespectful language.

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