GAG ORDER: SILENCING LESBIANS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
by Victoria A. Brownworth
I’ve always hated Sunday nights. When I was a kid, Sunday nights meant Monday mornings were mere hours away. The best part of Sunday–Mass, singing in the choir, walking in the woods with my dog afterward–was already over. Homework done, in bed reading with my purloined flashlight under the covers–the inevitable could not be forestalled. Sleep, bad dreams, Monday morning donning my uniform in the near-dark, heading off to the piranha tank that was Catholic school. It wasn’t a place for girls like me–girls who were smart, who had their own opinions, who thought Jesus cared as much about women as he did about men.
Catholic school was for silencing. When I wasn’t being bullied, which was endlessly and constantly because that's how smart girls grow up--bullied, I spent my years in Catholic school in a revolving door to Mother Superior’s office, because I never learned how to be silent. Joan of Arc was my personal patron saint. She never learned to be silent. She died screaming as she burned to death at the stake.
The kind of unsettled/unsettling feeling that I had throughout those years in Catholic school came back recently: I have that same feeling as I sign onto Twitter. What will happen next? Will I be met with convivial tweets from friends and supportive tweets from strangers commenting on my work? Or will my mentions be filled with vicious attacks, people calling me a bitch or a cunt or worse (yes, there's worse), or saying that I should be raped or would I just die already?
I haven’t been on Twitter long. I signed up a few years ago, but until a few months ago had only tweeted a few dozen times, always about either then-Bradley/now-Chelsea Manning whose case I was covering, or about the number of days it had been since President Obama had refused to issue a stop-loss order on DADT or sign an executive order on DOMA or ENDA.
I became a regular on Twitter after a story I did for The Advocate went viral, getting tens of thousands of hits in a few hours. My editor asked me to respond to people on social media. That initial experience was so positive–all sorts of people tweeting at me, including Hollywood stars and writers I had long admired–that I expected Twitter would always be like that.
I was wrong.
It wasn’t long until I became the center of attention again–negative attention. All those years when I was avoiding social media because I didn’t want to get into arguments with strangers who didn’t like my work or who didn’t agree with my leftist, lesbian, feminist, anti-racist, anti-classism politics, I didn’t realize that there was already a blogsite devoted to attacking me and my work and which had been doing so for several years. Years. I’m not one of those writers who Googles myself on a regular basis. So I didn’t know how obsessively I was being monitored by a small cadre of haters.
I didn’t know I was so hated.
I’m going to state here that I’m a nice person, a decent person, a caring person. I like people and I like helping people. You may have heard otherwise from one of these haters, but more than 25 years of activism and advocacy journalism says otherwise, so if you think I don’t care, if you think I hate anyone, even these people who hate me, you would be wrong. So wrong.
I do hate isms, however. I grew up with Socialist parents who were civil rights workers. I came out as a lesbian when I was a freshman in high school. Two years later, I was expelled from my all-girls public high school, the school from which my grandmother, mother and sister graduated, for being a lesbian.
No one stood up for me then. My school was full of lesbians–my girlfriend, other friends, teachers. But no one stood up for me. I was alone.
I became a journalist to stand up for people like I had been–for whom no one would stand up, for whom no one would give voice. When I first started writing for newspapers, there were almost no out queers writing in the mainstream–there were maybe a dozen of us. I was the first out lesbian to have a daily newspaper column, the first reporter to write about women and AIDS, lesbians on death row, homeless people with AIDS, female genital mutilation in London and New York, lesbians and cancer.
I was at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx in the late 1980s when AIDS was all we in the LGBT community could talk about or think about, holding babies born with HIV and writing about their little lives–abandoned by their drug-addicted mothers in the hopes that their babies would have a chance. I was in Belle Glade, Florida, reporting on an outbreak of AIDS among poor, black migrant workers. I was one of the people who defined a term everyone uses now–outing–on the pages of a magazine, OutWeek, for which I was a contributing editor and reporter. I was hired by SPIN magazine when it was one of the most popular magazines in the country to write a monthly column on HIV/AIDS.
I won award after award for the stories no one else wanted to do, no one else thought were important or even relevant–until they read them and learned about the lives they didn’t know existed. Before I was 30, I had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and commentary. In the years since I have won many journalism awards, including the prestigious Society of Professional Journalism Award and the NLGJA. My writing has appeared in most of the best newspapers and magazines in the country, including the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and the Baltimore Sun. For 17 years I was a syndicated columnist for the Journal-Register newspaper chain. My books on lesbians and cancer (Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic) and lesbians and disability (Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability) were groundbreaking and also won awards. The women included in those books had never been given a voice before, a voice that could be heard outside a tiny purview.
I note these things because for those of you who are half my age–the age I was when I was doing this kind of reporting and breaking ground every day I did so–you might not have noticed the bylines or just assumed it was a man writing those stories.
It wasn’t. It was a lesbian. It was me.
Before these past few months on Twitter, I assumed people knew my name and knew my work. I assumed that if they didn’t like my work, it was because they were right wing, anti-gay, anti-choice, Republican haters. Those had been the people who had written letters to the editor over the years.Those were the people who wanted to silence me and obliterate the people I wrote about.
I didn’t know there was a war going on via social media between a small group of self-declared transwomen activists and radical feminists. I didn’t know about radical feminism before Twitter. I had never heard the term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and now that I do, still haven't met anyone to whom it applies. I had spent my time living and working in the real world where activism takes place on the streets, not in 140 characters or less. I was dealing with real-life issues and real people, not theory.
In June, the first of a four-part series I did on transwomen sex workers began running in my local LGBT newspaper, PGN, for which I have written off and on since I was a teenager and for which I was both a reporter and an editor years ago.
I was excited about the series. I had spent four months on the streets of Philadelphia working on the series, talking with dozens of transwomen, nearly all of them African-American and Latina. I had gotten involved with the story when I helped a black transwoman in my neighborhood who had been beaten up and thrown out of a car by her john when he discovered she had a penis. She asked me to help her and her friends. She hoped I would tell their stories. I pitched it to my editor who agreed it was a story that needed telling, voices that needed to be heard.
But for a small group of so-called activists, these transwomen–poor, of color, suffering –were meaningless. What mattered to them was a column I had written a few weeks prior for Curve magazine, where I have been a contributing editor since the magazine's inception. That column was about Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest and the annual battle over women-only space, the annual attack on lesbians.
I hadn’t wanted to write the column; I know MWMF is a minefield. But my editor rarely asks me to write about topics I haven't chosen, and she thought I could address all the facets of the issue. My editors and other members of the staff, which includes transpeople, thought the column was good, and most importantly, fair.
But that small cadre of haters cried–literally–TERF! and did all they could to derail the series on transwomen in response. They actually tried to silence other transpeople who needed attention, care, help. The hatred of these so-called activists--all white and privileged--for me, a lesbian journalist writing about transwomen of color, superceded concern for the most vulnerable and needy of their own community. These same activists had totally ignored a sleazy, vicious, demeaning and denigrating article in Philadelphia Magazine written by a straight white guy about how "black tranny hookers" were ruining an upscale neighborhood in downtown Philadelphia. Not a single one made a single comment. But they spent hours and hours posting comments on the series I had written--a series where the actual voices of actual transwomen were being heard. They weren't commenting on the series--they were talking about MWMF. The stories of transwomen who had been physically assaulted, raped, rejected by their families of origin, turned to drugs to dull their pain--those stories meant nothing to these so-called activists. All they cared about was MWMF. What the straight white guy said about transwomen of color? They couldn't care less. Their obsession was me.
What kind of activism is that--where you ignore the voice of power slamming your people, but attack a member of your own community who is trying to get your voices heard?
The obsessive nature of the attacks on me was hard to comprehend. Why were so-called activists (in reality just a handful of very loud transwomen) spending all their time and "activism" endless attacking and threatening a middle-aged, lesbian feminist advocacy journalist who had spent her entire career giving voice to the voiceless–including scores of trans people, whether unknown women like those I profiled in my most recent series or well-known trans people like Babs Siperstein, the first transwoman elected to the DNC or Chelsea Manning, whose story I covered for The Advocate for three years.
What kind of activism was this?
Soon I would discover that hate was indeed their driving force and that while I was a primary target, I was not their only target. They had other lesbians in their sites. I was just the one who was a well-known journalist writing under her own name, and thus an easier to mark. The hate coming from these people was enough to take one's breath away. I'd only ever seen this from actual hate groups I'd covered. They reminded me of the Westboro Baptist Church crowd--single-minded in their viciousness.
Why so much hate? And why is it all, every last bit of it, directed at lesbians and radical feminists?
In another dimension–the real world–I’m a respected journalist of long-standing. I write several articles a week for some of the best-known newspapers, magazines and websites in the country. In the real world, the outrage over my writing is almost always from the same people : right-wing, conservative, anti-gay, anti-woman, straight male. The people in power who want to silence oppressed people like lesbians, transwomen, radical feminists. The people my writing has always challenged.
But on Twitter the haters whose misogyny and lesbophbia has most impacted me have not been straight men or even conservatives (although I have certainly received attacks from those). Rather, the majority of attacks I have fielded on Twitter have--disturbingly--been from people from communities of which I have always been a part: feminists and LGBT. Their numbers aren't manifold, but their voices drown out everyone else’s. They are so vocal that I wrote about it on SheWired and Huffington Post. The anti-lesbian sentiment from "liberal" straight feminists shocked me. When those pieces went viral, I was asked to appear on a segment of HuffPost Live where a couple of straight liberal feminists who think lesbians should be cut out of the LGBT sandwich and have their membership revoked from the feminist club they think they own, took pleasure in negating the violence and oppression lesbians face every day. Silencing me was their plan and silence me they did. The host of the show would later apologize to me, saying she didn't realize there was a hidden agenda, but the agenda really wasn't hidden--it was the very thing I had written about. Straight feminists feel no affinity toward lesbians, even though they owe their very movement to us.
These so-called feminists had enjoyed silencing me so much, that the next day they were high-fiving each other on Twitter--with some of the transwomen haters. One woman even tweeted that her "slapping hand was itching." So, she too felt the need to be violent toward a lesbian feminist.
What kind of feminist takes pleasure in silencing another woman? What kind of feminist talks about physically assaulting a lesbian in a public forum?
The "debate" on HuffPost Live was so one-sided (I was actually added at the last minute, even though the story was mine, and had to participate via telephone beause I was in the hospital at the time), that The Lesbian Mafia, one of the few blogsites on the entire Internet that writes about lesbian issues on a weekly basis and stands for lesbians who are being erased and assaulted, felt compelled to write a discursive piece standing up for me while also taking the haters and their hand maidens to task. It was one of the first times I had felt safe in months on Twitter. It was the first time I felt protected.
The Lesbian Mafia's column actually reminded me of who I was–of what I had been writing about and for how long and for whom. The Lesbian Mafia reminded me that my voice had been out there before the blogosphere turned everyone into a "writer" and turned every attempt at rational discourse into a cage-fight.
I stupidly thought The Lesbian Mafia piece would end the controversy. It was so clear, so concise, so smart–why would anything else need to be said? But then I had thought that a month earlier when Aunty Orthodox, a transwoman friend of mine, had devoted one of her Tumblr pieces to my defense. As a transwoman herself of decades-standing, and a strong feminist, she was in a position to address issues I could not from the vantage point of being an actual transactivist.
But when people are obsessed, they can’t let go. I’ve blocked the cadre of die in a fire haters from tweeting me, but they apparently read my TL obsessively, stalker-like. If a tweet catches their obsessive, hate-consumed eye, they screenshot it and post it. Inevitably one of their minions will send it back to me with some vicious comment. It’s crazy behavior of the sort one reads about in crime novels or sees on Dr. Phil, but it’s excused as "activism."
This small hater group has driven one of my closest Twitter friends, a transwoman in London, off Twitter with their attacks on her because she befriended me. They’ve driven some other women I follow on Twitter to a level of rage and fighting back in kind that I hope I never experience.
Over the past few months, I’ve been warned not to say anything, to restrict my speech and limit my voice. Warned not to "feed the trolls," that these people will eventually grow tired of attacking and go away. But they haven’t. The blogposts about me specifically have been going on for years–years!--I just didn’t know about them until recently.
On Thursday (Oct. 3), things reached critical mass for me. I had a new story out at SheWired, one on lesbians and women of color on TV that I wanted out there. I was pleased when an editor I follow retweeted the piece to her thousands of followers and told me she thought it was good. She followed me.
My pleasure was short-lived. Within less that an hour, the haters had sent her one of those blogposts. She tweeted me again, this time saying that although she still liked the piece, she wouldn’t be tweeting with me again because my work harmed transpeople.
I tried to tell her the truth–that my work was the antithesis of hate and that it was, in fact, the blogger who was the hater. But she told me she didn’t have to listen to me. Soon followers of hers were piling on. I was forced to block woman after woman, something I thought I would never have to do.
Ironically--so ironically---at the same time this woman and her followers (all straight) were allegeding I was "transphobic," I had responded to a tweet about a Belgian transman who was euthanized several days earlier. I had already posted about this tragedy previously--and had referred to it as tragic--so it was far from a new story to me. This new tweet had referenced the transman as "she" and "her." My response was that since that person had wanted to die rather than live female, misgendering seemed disrespectful.
I received a series of increasingly nasty tweets calling me names, telling me to "stop policing other women’s language" and saying this was what trans activists screenshot to attack radical feminists. I said I thought this story wasn't about politics, it was rather, "just tragic." I was told I was wrong.
By the end of the day I was ready to leave Twitter for good after blocking more than a dozen women who all identified as feminists. I sent out a series of tweets thanking those people, women and men, who had stood up for me, but saying I was tired of the silencing and that any women telling other women what to say are not only not practicing feminism, they’re not practicing humanism. Silencing, I said, is what men do. So stop it.
After months of being told to "simmer down" and "don't respond" and "it will stop, just give it time," while people who have never done any real activism in their lives have called me vile names, lied repetitively about me, threatened me, threatened my family, threatened my home, threatened those transwomen I was trying to give voice to--after months and months of that I’m tired of being silenced by the very people I’ve stood for my entire adult life--the marginalized, the oppressed, the second-class citizens.
I had thought about Joan of Arc when that group of so-called trans activists told lesbians and radical feminists to "die in a fire." No trans person I know off social media has ever said anything like that to me. Not friends, acquaintances, colleagues, people I’ve met doing stories. I would venture a guess that they have actually never even thought such a thing. Because of course it’s what women have been told for centuries: be quiet, be silenced or be burned at the stake. As Andrea Dworkin noted in her groundbreaking book, Women Hating, the Inquistion was invented in large part to silence women, to burn us at the stake, to make us disappear. She noted nine million as the number of our dead voices. A holocaust of women. I refuse to be one more silenced woman, I refuse to be metaphorically burned at the stake, I refuse to allow people who don't understand what activism is to try and destroy the work my very real activism has achieved over more than a quarter of a century.I'm one of the people whose voice has allowed others the space to speak, just as others who took risks before me gave me the courage to give voice to the voiceless. We don't build a movement by silencing the voices of activist women--we build a movement by ending the anger and rage of men who would silence us all.
I have something to say to all these people and I hope for once you will listen.
To liberal feminists I say again, as I have said repeatedly, stop erasing lesbians. It’s possible for you to support lesbians and transwomen if your support is more than just lip-service in the first place. Lesbians led the feminist movement. Instead of silencing us, show us some respect.
Take responsibility for your own issues–for the Hugo Schwyzers and Amanda Marcottes and Jessica Valentis. Stop using women of color and transwomen as covers to prove you’re really 21st century intersectionalists instead of mid-20th century lesbophobes. If you’re going to make rape your signature issue then stand up for lesbians like me who have been violently raped and nearly killed and have no desire to ever see or feel a penis again.
If you think lesbians should embrace the cotton ceiling, if you think that the only way for lesbians to prove they aren't transphobic is to have sex with transwomen (and what kind of screwed up activism is that?), then you have sex with transwomen who have not had sex re-assignment surgery. Otherwise, acknowledge what you know is true: that the cotton ceiling discussion is disgustingly misogynistic and rapey and if it were being thrown at you, you’d be running in the opposite direction. Until you stand for lesbians, you’re not doing feminism right. Lesbians aren't your enemy. Your enemy is often lying in the bed next to you.
To the small cadre of transwomen who keep pushing the cotton ceiling and hashtags like
"die in a fire" and who spend all your time attacking lesbians and radical feminists: Stop it. That’s not activism, it’s harassment and abuse and it's what makes radical feminists call you men and what makes other transpeople disavow you.
The last penis I had in me was that of the rapist who almost killed me. I’m a lesbian. I don’t do penises. Bisexual women do penises. Straight women do penises. Lesbians do not do penises. And when a lesbian says "no" to your rapey cotton ceiling rap, don’t tell her she’s too ugly to fuck. Only men say things like that. And you’re women, remember? So if you want us to treat you like women, embrace you as women, then act like women. Don't act like abusive, violent, rapey men.
To radical feminists who want gender to disappear off the face of the earth because it destroys women and girls every second of every day–I hear you. I agree with you that this is an answer because it is the patriarchy, stupid. When we name the problem, it is men. But that's not going to happen in our lifetimes. So we have to stand for women in girls in the broadest possible ways, not limit ourselves to theories we cannot--and if Twitter is any indicator--do not practice.
What I want to say to all of these women and transwomen is that we have a common oppressor: men with power, men with privilege, men who want to annihilate every one of us. We are not each other’s oppressor. And since we aren't, we should behave as if we are.
When transwomen make lesbians the focal point of their rage at being oppressed as transwomen, when they weren't as men, when every lesbian in the world has been oppressed since birth, these transwomen aren’t just wrong, they are themselves oppressive. Read the posts of transmen who explain with heartbreaking clarity how their lives changed when they began living as men–how much space they were given, how safe they felt walking the streets. Transmen understand there’s no such thing as female privilege. Female "privilege" is rape, no access to abortion, being paid thousands of dollars less than men for your work, being shot in the head because you want to go to school, being starved because boys come first when there's no food, being told you're too pretty to be smart or being told you're too ugly to be fucked or that you can't have this or that job because a man has to support his family and it's just shopping money for you. Female privilege is being silenced every day of your life. It’s not lesbians and radical feminists raping and murdering transwomen–it’s men. And those transwomen are being murdered by men because men rape and murder women. And women are raped and murdered by men because they are born into second-class status everywhere in the world. If they are born at all, since sex-selection abortion "disappears" millions of female babies every year. So stop talking about female privilege and cis privilege and recognize that the reason you are angry is you traded your male privilege for the terrible, demeaning, daily smackdown that is "female privilege." Learn to name the problem: men, not women, patriarchy, not radical feminism.
To radical feminists with whom I feel much affinity, we gain nothing from misgendering people who have chosen to identify as a sex other than the one into which they were born. Some have gender dysphoria, some...don’t. But regardless, transpeople are still not the people who are keeping us from jobs, from equity, from full citizenship. You and I disagree with their views on gender. But their desire to maintain the most restrictive and oppressive of gender roles doesn't actually impact our daly lives--that's done by the patriarchal society under which we all live and which they have decided to embrace, even as it literally murders them. I do not believe that the violent speech,violent behavior and violent threats of a small, obsessive cadre of transwomen is a reflection of the whole of trans community. I think these vile assaults are an outgrowth of the male privilege these people were born into and their refusal/inability to relinquish the woman-hating behavior that was inculcated into them when they were growing up male.
As for liberal feminists. I want to embrace you, but your dismissal of lesbians is so casually erasing, so inexplicably lesbophobic, it makes it difficult to remember we have femaleness in common. How can you ignore how you've stepped over us to claim feminism as your own when it is lesbians who laid the foundation for you and took the greatest risks. Charlotte Bunch said years ago that until all feminists are willing to be called lesbians, we won't have true feminism. You're even less embracing of lesbians--not vague LGBT platitudes but actual lesbians--than you were 40 years ago when your predecessors purged lesbians from NOW. Stop collaborating with men against your sisters. Stop acting like your feminism is the only one, and the best one and stop using the words intersectionality and inclusion until you get what either means. When you collude with men against lesbians, you make a mockery of feminism, no matter what you tell yourselves. When you silence lesbians without listening to them, you are driving a wedge into feminism that could do irreparable damage and keep all of us from achieving our goal of unifying women and building women up.
For nearly three decades I have only ever tried to give voice to the voiceless–voiceless women, voiceless lesbians, voiceless transpeople, voiceless people marginalized by men with power. I have always stood for all of you, raised my voice in support of you. So if you can’t raise your voice in support of me, even on as ephemeral and transient a space as Twitter, fine. But don’t silence me with lies, don't silence me with warnings, don't silence me with policing of my language and how I choose to speak to others. Don't silence me at all. Because no matter what you may believe, silencing me is silencing yourselves. And that is exactly what the real oppressors want from women, from lesbians, from trans: Our silence. Our coerced, irrevocable, irremediable silence. Don't give it to them. Please. Just don't.