Modern Western imperialism has its roots in the 15th century when various European nations began colonizing other people’s countries, glorifying it as “discovery” and justifying it by insisting that the people who already lived there were animals, not people. This likely played in to their immediate dismissal of cultural differences as “wrong” or “inferior.” Several cultures around the globe enjoyed the freedom of multiple recognized genders before their lands, societies, and resources were taken over by European colonizers, missionaries, and so on. These freedoms often also extended to general acceptance of various relationships that we might call LGBQ through our modern, Western lens. These were among the other freedoms European colonizers squashed during their whitewashing of the cultures of other nations.
Examples for further reading of case studies include:
North America, where a robust diversity of gender and orientation across several cultures was squashed by European settlers, who brought rigid ideas of gender with them. The European conquerors destroyed many indigenous cultural aspects as part of the ongoing genocide of indigenous people which is still happening today. Also, here is further reading about the modern term Two-Spirit.
King Mwanga II of Uganda, whose harem of men began to refuse to sleep with him due to the new influence of Christian interlopers who believed that one’s gender determines the allowable gender of one’s sexual partners.
Decolonization began in some continents in 1945, five centuries after colonization began, and never happened in North America. While many countries regained their independence, it wasn’t until after devastating impacts on their cultures were enacted by the withdrawing conquerors and entrenched over periods of time that were sometimes hundreds of years and multiple generations long. For example, 34 countries in Africa now outlaw homosexuality as of this writing. This isn’t surprising, when we consider that the colonizers came from Europe and 17 European countries still require sterilization of transgender people to this day. Sexual orientation and gender aren’t the same thing, but European rigid requirements around gender include rigid requirements around sexual orientation because their concept of sexual orientation is based upon gender. Thus, many of the world’s nations that are currently very hostile to LGBT people weren’t always that way, and only became that way because of the influence of missionaries and conquering nations from European (and later, American) origin. Nations beginning to relax their death grip on LGBT existence and behavior as transgender and queer rights are slowly won back is thus an aspect of modern decolonization.
North America was never decolonized. Canada and the United States continue to engage in genocide towards indigenous peoples. The fact that most of the states in the United States only recognize two genders legally despite the existence of several indigenous genders is part of this. Our societal and legal refusal to recognize that genitals do not necessarily define gender, and that there are more than two genders, is an extension of the same racism and cultural supremacy that fuels ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples, that brought anti-gay laws to multiple continents that did not previously have them, and which we must actively combat both within our own minds and at all levels of government if we wish to undo the ongoing evils of those who came before us, and which are still enacted by many of the people around us.
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Gender. It’s complicated. It’s simple. It means a bunch of different things to a bunch of different people in a bunch of different contexts. What is it?
English isn’t very well-equipped to talk about gender-related topics yet. The terms are still emerging and shifting. “Gender” can refer to cultural roles, bodies, personalities, appearances, and stereotypes, among other things. Yet, we use one word to refer to all of this as if these things are the same. We know that they are not the same, and we know that the false equivalencies drive some of the cultural problems that lead to hate and violence against some people.
We know that biological sex is not binary. Sex is currently defined by multiple things such as gonads, chromosomes, and hormonal balance. Each of these variables operates somewhat independently, and each one has far more than two options, which results in a plethora of human sexes, not just two.
We also know that someone’s gender identity is not determined by genital sex, so it makes sense that the M and F slapped on people’s birth certificates often has nothing to do with people’s gender identities.
So if there are more than two sexes, and there are more than two genders, why is it a problem to call it a spectrum?
A spectrum is variation along a single axis. Take the electromagnetic spectrum, for example. It ranges from the shortest wavelength radiation can have to the longest wavelength, with a narrow range of light that is visible to the human eye somewhere in the middle. This spectrum is pictured below, with the visible light repeated at the bottom, zoomed in for ease of seeing all of it:
If we apply the concept of a spectrum to gender, the idea in people’s heads is often a straight line gradient that exists between the only two reference points offered by mainstream white western culture: man and woman. The area in between is labeled as “nonbinary” and people move on about their lives erroneously believing they have a working understanding of gender and all of its possibilities. That spectrum might look something like this:
Gender does not work like this. Gender is not just a gradient between man and woman. To be fair, there are a lot of people who do exist on that line. It’s just not a complete picture.
There are also people who exist off of that line. Some of these people who exist off of that line are still related to that line (such as people who are demiboy or demigirl, among others), but others are entirely separate (such as people who are egogender, agender, juxera, and more). In fact, people who aren’t on that line at all but still have a strong sense of gender are common enough that there is a word for it: aporagender.
Treating the “gender spectrum” as “this is what the full extent of gender is” isn’t accurate and leads to erasure of and discrimination against people who don’t fit in that model. It is better than claiming that men and women are the only two possible genders like so much of mainstream Western culture tries so hard to do, but it is still not accurate. There are still a lot of aporagender people who aren’t represented by this model.
“Nonbinary,” (or “non-binary”) in terms of gender, does not mean “somewhere between man and woman or a mix of the two.” It means “anything other than 100% man or 100% woman,” as “binary” refers specifically to people who are completely men or completely women. Due to the wildly diverse nature of gender, this cannot be summarized by a single axis. (While we’re at it, it’s worth mentioning that the abbreviation NB already means “non-black” in social jargon so “nonbinary” is abbreviated as “enby” instead.)
So, what’s a better blanket term than “the gender spectrum?”
Language is constantly evolving, and English has only just begun to incorporate the reality of the existence of more than two genders. We may not settle on the right term for quite some time. For now, “gender cloud” is a much more thorough model than “gender spectrum.”
A cloud is an amoebous form. The vague nature of this allows it to become what we need it to be, rather than restricting the way we think about gender to a single axis and thereby ignoring large parts of what it is and how it works. Here is an example drawn by Tumblr user bahamutzero:
If we continue to say “gender spectrum,” the first (erroneous) model is what will come to mind to most people. It’s not a useful communication tool, and in fact, does harm by promoting the erasure of and discrimination against aporagender people.
In the great cultural debate across the USA and beyond over who should pee where, one common fact we can agree on is that everyone must do so. Everyone needs toilet access. This seems obvious enough that I won’t justify it here. But why are some people so focused on “gender-neutral” or “all gender” signage? Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it? The answer is both simple and complicated.
According to a 2016 Reuters article, in a 2015 survey of 27,715 transgender Americans, “Thirty-two percent of transgender people said they limited the amount they ate or drank at least once in the previous year so they did not need to use a public restroom. Eight percent reported having a kidney or urinary tract infection, or another kidney-related medical issue, because they avoided restrooms.” This avoidance of public restrooms shows that they do not meet the needs of transgender people as the facilities currently exist.
Why go to such extremes to avoid public restrooms? Contrary to certain public narratives, it is transgender people in restrooms, not the other people present, who are in danger of violence. Verbal harassment, physical attack, being falsely reported for public indecency or lewd behavior (which is saying something, considering how rarely such accusations are false), and so-called corrective rape are things transgender people risk if they enter a restroom where other people think they do not belong. These risks are increased (both in and out of restrooms) in places where people are required to use restrooms that match their sex at birth.
Let’s start with the part of the transgender community that more people are familiar with: Binary transgender people. These are trans women and trans men. They identify with a binary gender (man or woman) that is not the binary sex (male or female) that they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people transition medically with hormones and/or surgery and/or other interventions. Some do not. Those who do use medical intervention may or may not reach a stage where they appear to strangers to be the sex that matches their gender identity in their lifetimes. We already know that appearing to be a sex other than what strangers expect in a given restroom leads to violence against transgender people. It is then no mystery why so many transgender people avoid public binary restrooms, even when they themselves are binary in identity.
“But wait,” you may be wondering, “why not just use the restroom that matches the sex a person appears to be, if that’s all it takes to avoid threats, harassment, and violence?”
This may avoid the more immediate violence, but it also reinforces the wrong ideas others have about a person’s gender. Transgender people spend a lot of time and energy trying to be seen for who they really are despite the false ideas of those around them. To use the wrong restroom is to give that up, to give people a reason to justify misgendering them, to undo huge amounts of work and effort with one single action. It leads to the verbal and psychological violence of being treated as the wrong gender, something that contributes to the elevated nature of transgender suicide rates.
People who are one of the many nonbinary genders, agender, or otherwise aren’t men or women experience the same long-term risks of misgendering described above no matter which restroom they enter. Some choose medical transition intervention and others do not, but they all face the same risks of violence that binary transgender people do if they enter a restroom which people perceive as being linked to a different sex than the one they think the person happens to be. My personal experience suggests that most cisgender people are extremely bad at guessing correctly about what is in a transgender or nonbinary person’s pants. It doesn’t matter which binary restroom I use; at least one person will do a wide-eyed double take and look ready to flight/fight.
This brings us back to the topic of signage. By using gender-neutral or all-gender signage, we change the expectations in the minds of the people who enter it. The expectations become “anyone can be in this room,” and that means the underlying reason for restroom violence against transgender and nonbinary people is removed. If there is no longer a reason to control who may be present, then there is no longer a reason to abuse transgender and nonbinary people for being present. It also changes the concept in peoples mind of what it means when they witness someone entering a specific restroom, thereby nixing the secondary misgendering problem. And let’s face it, changing some restroom signs is a lot faster and easier than changing our culture to end transphobia, binarism, and cissexism.
That was the complicated answer to “Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it?” The short answer is: There is no good option when both options available can and do lead to harassment and violence.
It is worth noting here that there is fervent debate within the transgender community about restroom signage. Some advocate for the phrase “all gender,” as they enjoy the emphasis and inclusivity of “all.” Others advocate for “gender neutral,” as a nod to the people who do not have gender and are thus not included in “all gender.” And that’s just the words. The debates about the symbols can be thousands of comments long with piles of hurt feelings on multiple sides.
So please, dear reader, advocate for gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms at your place of work and at your child’s school even if you and your child do not need them personally. Our voices often go unheard, and are often silenced by our own fear of the repercussions for speaking up in the first place. If there are single occupancy restrooms available, they are the easiest of all restrooms to update because they merely require sign changes. Please seek them out, and ask for the signs to be changed. While you’re at it, please ask for waste bins to be added to men’s room stalls for menstrual products. Nobody likes carrying a dirty pad or tampon in their pocket in search of a trash can.
Content notice: This post discusses a variety of types of non-consensual touch.
One day, in a friend’s large living room that was filled with burners (as in, people who go to Burning Man regularly), a friend of mine and I held a tickle war. It is important to note here that I have an unfair advantage in tickle wars: I am not ticklish. As the room egged me on, my friend became debilitated by laughter and my fingertips. All of a sudden, the words “no” and “stop” mixed in with my friend’s laughter. I immediately stopped tickling.
“No, you’re supposed to keep going,” one of the onlookers said. The rest of the room took that as their queue to cheer me on, some adding the flavor of shame for stopping.
“No,” I said firmly. “He said ‘no.’ That means I stop.”
The room went totally silent for several long moments while everyone pondered what I had just said.
“I never thought of it that way before,” someone finally said aloud. Others nodded quietly.
When I reflect on that story, it always reminds me about how tickling children can be a fun game, but it can quickly turn into child abuse when adults don’t stop. Yet here we were as adults, and everyone but me was still willing to keep going right past my friend’s very clear “no” and “stop” statements. Perhaps if today’s adults had experienced respect for our boundaries as children, we would not be doing things like this to each other as adults.
Consent is about making sure that what we do fits within other people’s boundaries. Boundaries vary from person to person, moment to moment, and context to context. The only way to know what someone’s boundaries are is to communicate about them. Using society’s idea of what’s okay to do to another person’s body in lieu of discovering what someone’s boundaries are and following them often results in stories like the one above – at best. I stopped. Many people don’t. The rest of the people in that room wouldn’t have, although some of them changed their tunes after that incident.
The friend from that story was one of many male friends of mine who have thanked me for respecting their consent over the years. Women, agender, and nonbinary people tend to simply expect it of me. If they feel grateful, they do not say it. It’s the men I know who get surprised and thankful when I do things like immediately stop, or refrain from making a big deal out of it if they say no to kissing or sex. It’s the men in my life who aren’t accustomed to thinking of respect for consent as a minimum standard.
One of the friends I share a bed with in the literal sense is extremely attractive to me. He knows I would make out with him at the drop of a hat if he wanted to. He also knows that I know he doesn’t want to. We have had the same conversation about it several times, and it goes something like this each time:
“I know you want to kiss me and I just want to say thank you for not pushing it.”
“Of course. It’s your body, your rules.”
“Would you please tell that to all the femmes out there? None of them seem to get it.”
Cue: his venting rant about past experiences with women and femme enbies pushing his boundaries, berating him for not kissing them, and other related traumas. (“Enby” is a word for a person with a nonbinary gender.)
This friend is not alone, and is not the only man who has thanked me for respecting his sexual boundaries without qualms. Many men have also confided similar and related stories in me, encompassing a wide range of sexual abuse and coercion from people who aren’t men. In fact, just about all of the people who have personally confided in me about having been roofied or otherwise drugged are men. The kicker, though, is how many of the men who confide in me do not recognize that the stories they are telling me are about consent violations. Sometimes my man friends don’t even recognize rape for what it is when they are the victims.
“If this had happened to a woman, what would you say it was?” I asked one friend after he confided in me with a haunted look on his face and confusion in his voice and words. He froze for a long moment before responding.
“I…I would say, ‘that was rape.’ But…” my friend’s voice trailed off and he stared at me. After he cried for a while, I got him connected with resources for where he could go for help healing from the trauma. He is not alone.
One of my partners who is a man once laughingly told me about a locker room game he played with other boys in high school. It was called “ball check” and involved yelling “ball check” and then slapping other kids in the balls with rolled up towels. Participation was mandatory as stepping out of the game was met with instant social punishment, sometimes verbal and sometimes physical. When I pointed out that this was literally a game based on sexual assault, my partner paused. He had never realized this before our conversation.
My partner is not alone in his experience of childhood “games” that strip away the ability of boys and men to recognize their own boundaries from a very young age. Transgender men are often horrified by what they discover about this upon entering men’s spaces for the first time. Many have told me that it appears from their point of view that by the time cisgender men are all grown up, they have lost any sense of their own boundaries and it thus makes horrifying sense that they violate others without even recognizing what they are doing for what it is.
I have heard it said, “Don’t teach women how to avoid getting raped, teach men how to stop raping.” I think that’s very good advice, and I also think that starts by making sure men know what consent and boundaries look like. After all, consent is about understanding other people’s boundaries in order to operate within them. Teaching men not to rape therefore relies on a prerequisite: Teach men what boundaries are. This starts with helping men understand their own boundaries and teaching them to maintain them. This skill set is difficult to learn for many people, but with men, our culture actively deprives them of the tools they would need to learn it, and replaces these lessons with opposite content. If we want to give men the chance to discover their own boundaries and learn how to maintain them, then we need to respect men’s boundaries and consent.
We must begin to respect men’s personal body boundaries and teach our boys that their consent matters, or we will continue to live in a world with excess trauma caused by men – especially cisgender men – continuing to violate each other’s and everyone else’s boundary lines in ways that extend way beyond sexual boundaries.
So, here is my challenge for you, dear reader. If you aren’t a man, think carefully about how you interact with men moving forward. Is your defense game so strong that you forget that their consent matters too? Pay attention to how you treat men and afford them the same courtesy of basic consent respect that you expect as a minimum standard from them. And if you are a man? Unfortunately, the work to figure out what your boundaries are and how to enforce them falls on you, as does the work to figure out how to recognize and respect other people’s boundaries. Therapy is a great way to make that go a lot faster. Think of it like using an expert’s degree and experience as a tool to make your self-growth flourish faster. Good luck, and make sure you pick someone with a relevant specialization if you choose to utilize therapy.
I’ll leave you with this glorious video about consent and how it works. The video was made with regards to sex, but it’s also applicable to all other forms of touch or intimacy:
Update: This post was updated on January 31, 2020 to include mention of roofied men, and to adjust some language to be more specific about personal observations being personal observations rather than objective truth.
Among other hats, one of mine is “teacher.” I teach workshops to adults, art to children in after school programs, and more. One of the most powerful tools I have found I have as a teacher is the choice to allow what I call unconventional freedoms.
Kids in my class can talk about controversial subjects, go to the bathroom whenever they wish, and choose whether to sit or stand. These freedoms are allowed by some teachers, denied by others. What I mean when I say unconventional freedoms goes beyond this.
My kids can cry in class if they want to. They can walk away from their projects and go lay down on the floor. They can stim (engage in repeated body motions that cause no harm to themselves or others). They can do things considered strange or inappropriate by adults in larger society so long as they are not interrupting me, distracting other students from their work, or causing harm.
These unconventional freedoms allow children the space to grow as people and to explore who they are and how to exist peacefully with others.
Dr. Carol Dweck‘s research about the growth mindset (a mindset which involves believing in one’s own ability to grow in terms of skills) tells us that when children have the support to build a growth mindset, they are able to grow more than children who have a fixed mindset (the belief that they cannot grow in terms of skills). This doesn’t just apply to academic topics, Dweck tells us. It also applies to behavior.
Dweck’s research supports treating behavior like another subject students learn right along with English and math. This means supporting them through conversations meant to help give them the tools to grow and do better rather than tearing them down with punishments. Besides, as most teachers or parents can tell you, when children feel supported, they act out less to begin with.
In most of my art classes for children, there are one or two kids who are easily and vocally frustrated with projects. “I can’t do this” is a common refrain among them, indicative of Dweck’s framing of the fixed mind set. “It’s too hard, do it for me?” they ask. “I can’t do it right,” they pout, staring at the project, either dejected after a single attempt or afraid to even start.
To “I can’t do this,” I say, “Yes you can. It’s just hard. You have to try a bunch of times before it will work. This stuff isn’t easy.”
To “It’s too hard, will you do it for me?” I say, “Of course it’s hard. It’s something new. It’s only easy for me because I’ve done it a lot of times. Unless you do it a lot of times too, it will always be hard for you. Try again, okay?”
To “I can’t do it right,” I say, “That’s okay. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s part of learning, and that is valuable. Besides, sometimes in art our mistakes take is in new and interesting directions, and that can be exciting!”
By the time they are done working with me for the semester, they try. They attempt. They give themselves the space to fail and try again, just like the other kids. I see them go from a fixed mindset to a mixed or growth mindset. Of course, it helps that it’s an ungraded after-school art class. I have a lot of freedom in my class compared to the daytime teachers.
Which brings us back to the point: Freedoms. How do unconventional freedoms play in to all this stuff about transforming young minds from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets? I consider them to be a highly useful tool set. Here’s an example of why:
On the first day of class one term, a child sat staring silently at the project on the table. Everyone else happily worked away. This child remained still. I checked in with the kid, who then began bawling. “I can’t do this,” the kid wailed. “It’s too hard!” We had the same talk I always have with kids who say these things, but this kid was having a huge emotional response to the situation. The kid understood what I was saying and accepted it, but first needed to cry to get all that emotion out of the way. I let the kid cry on the carpet at the other end of the room, but not before making sure to say, “Come back whenever you’re ready, okay? Take as long as you need.”
Weeks passed and that kid continued to struggle. “It’s too hard,” and “I can’t do this,” came out every single class session at first. One day the kid even moaned, “Don’t you have anything I can do that is perfectly easy for me to do on the very first try?!” Talk about an explicit fixed mindset! I didn’t give up. The more I encouraged that kid to try anyway, the easier it got. Eventually the trips to the carpet to cry without distracting others from their projects stopped. By the end of the semester, the moment that would have prompted “I can’t do it” instead inspired mere hesitation, and a glance at me for encouragement.
None of this would have been possible if I had told this kid not to cry in class. Or not to lay on the floor. Or not to do both at the same time. The unconventional freedom of crying on the floor without shame allowed this child the emotional space to develop a necessary life skill, and it harmed no one.
Speaking of harming no one, that is one of the major lines I draw. Boundaries are necessary after all. In my art classes, there are three main types of rules that everything else I list to my kids as rules comes down to:
Consent. Do not touch other students or their projects, or me or my bins of project supplies, without first asking for and receiving consent.
Class Focus. Do not distract other students from their projects or from me when I am talking. No yelling or other loud noises unless it is an emergency.
Do No Harm. Do not harm others or their projects, or any other property.
These underlying foundations mean that when I ever do stop a child from doing something, I have a really good reason. I will explain it if asked, or sometimes without prompting. The kids appreciate this. After all, kids are people, and people do not like being controlled arbitrarily. Kids just don’t have enough world experience yet to guess at my reasons sometimes without it being explained. On that note, children also thrive when given genuine connection and discourse in lieu of punishment, just like adults do. Here is an example of that:
Two kids in one of my classes were friends outside of class. They always picked the same colors on purpose and got along really well. One day, one of them kept grabbing the other’s arm and pushing and shoving. After the second time I verbally reminded this kid about the relevant rule, and heard it broken a third time, I said, “Hey [name], why don’t you come over here with me? Let’s have a little talk.”
As we walked, the kid looked troubled and closed off. Away from the class, at the other end of the room, I knelt down to be on the same level of the kid.
“What can I do to support you?” I asked. “What do you need to follow this rule?”
By the time I finished the first question and began asking the second, the kid was bawling. The moment this poor kiddo realized I wanted to provide support, all the walls went down and the tears came out. We talked about it through the tears, and I learned that this first-grader wanted the other kid to stop engaging in conversation. “Does [name] know you don’t want [pronoun] to talk to you?” I asked. Turns out this kid had never even thought to use words to establish a boundary line. Skills like that are things people have to learn. Heck, I know adults who still need to learn that one! Anyway, by engaging this kid in conversation with the same amount of respect we give adults instead of giving in to frustration over broken rules or conventional punishment systems, I was able to use the unconventional freedom of “have a discussion instead of a time out” to help this kid learn a valuable life skill. This kid went on to employ that skill in the classroom.
When kids actually do cause harm, they need to be stopped and educated so that they do not continue to do harm. However, much of what adults stop children from doing does not constitute harm. How much harm does that do, especially when we remember that children are people too? What is the point in curtailing freedom when no harm is being done to any person or any thing, if firm boundaries are in place around those very important lines?
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) was a white English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, photographed DNA before the men who are credited with its discovery figured out other things about it. Her work was essential to figuring out other structures as well, including graphite and viruses.
Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) is the Kenyan researcher who initiated and lead Africa’s Green Belt Movement, a project which spread across the continent. Due to Dr. Maathai’s efforts and encouragement, over 30 million trees have been planted. She was Africa’s first woman to win the Novel Prize.
Kevlar was invented in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek (1923 – 2014), a white American chemist. She was one of the very few women working as a chemist for Dupont (a very large chemical research company). Her coworkers laughed at her and the fibers that formed in one of her experiments. Bet they aren’t laughing now.
Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) was a lead human computer for NASA when the organization began to transition from human computers to the early room-sized computers. She taught herself computer programming and became NASA’s first black woman team leader amid an environment swirling with both racism and sexism.
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist. Even now, she is the only person to ever receive the Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and the first woman to be awarded one at all. She was friends with Albert Einstein, who wrote her a very touching letter of support when the man-dominated field turned ugly and vile towards her for being so good at what she did while also being a woman. You can read it here. Fair warning: it made me cry! She died young due to heavy exposure to the radiation she discovered. As she was the first person to work with it, no one knew yet that it was dangerous.
Chien-Shiung Wu, 吳健雄, (1912-1997) was a Chinese-American experimental physicist famous for the Wu experiment, which proved that parity is not conserved. Her discovery earned her the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978 and contributed to her colleagues winning the Novel Prize in Physics. Her various significant contributions to nuclear physics earned her nicknames such as “First Lady of Physics” and “The Chinese Madame Curie.”
Laurence Michael Dillon (1915-1962), a white Brit, was the author of “Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics,” which may be the first book about transgender identity and gender transitioning. He described transgender identification as innate and unaffected by psychotherapy, and advocated hormones and surgery as an alternative. He is the first person known to have undergone phalloplasty (surgery to create a phallus), and personally aided in the surgery of Roberta Cowell, Brittain’s first patient to undergo bottom surgery.
Ben Barres (1954 – 2017) was an American neurologist who worked at Harvard and revolutionized our understanding of the brain (primarily by showing that the importance of the glia). He was well known for being a good mentor and for bringing people of other minorities up with him. He was also the first openly transgender person in the National Academy of Sciences.
Lynn Conway (born Jan 2, 1938), is a white American computer scientist who is credited with work used in most modern computer processors today. Her journey involves being fired for revealing that she was a woman who intended to transition to female both medically and in terms of gender role. Transitioning caused her to lose access to her children because of the law at the time. She started a new life in “stealth mode” where she got a new programming job without telling anyone she was transgender, and eventually came out again after it was safer for her to do so.
I live in a diverse community in the USA. Even people of similar demographics on paper often disagree with each other on fundamental aspects of how to do things that many people seem to believe “just go without saying.” One of the areas where I see a significant amount of disagreement is the topic of accountability.
Most of the people I know agree that our culture is broken and needs some fixing. Our problems include things like the ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples through violations of treaties and the kidnapping, murdering, and forced sterilization of their women; sexism driving down the wages of women, especially women who aren’t white; transphobia mixing with racism to create the current crisis situation for transgender women of color who are being murdered at an astonishing rate; and so on. Few people actually want any of this, even the subset of Republicans who are able to recognize that these things are happening. It’s how to stop it that we disagree about.
The kind of thinking that leads to genocide, hate-fueled murder, corrective rape, and so on typically comes from a place of deep-rooted misconceptions. Thus, many people approach the issue with education. By educating the masses as to the realities of people who don’t usually get the spotlight, the thought goes, we can prune away the underlying thinking that leads to such heinous acts. I am all for that, which is part of why I write this blog. I also don’t think education alone can solve this. So, what is another piece of the puzzle? In my opinion, compassionate accountability is one of the other required pieces. Combining education with fostering a culture of compassion rooted in accountability is vital for making the changes we need to make.
What does that look like?
Education only works as a strategy to improve our culture when we hold ourselves and each other accountable to the content of that education. In this sense, accountability ranges in scale from the self to international relations, and everything in between. It’s choosing to make a change in how you think after learning new information, and making amends for any harm you may have done while erroneously believing something different before. It’s a parent teaching a child how to respect others’ consent and how to express their boundaries with words. It’s men stopping each other from making jokes about rape and helping each other learn how to identify and express their emotions, needs, and boundaries. It’s a supervisor learning what a transgender employee’s pronouns are, and reinforcing their use with the rest of the team by using them in front of the employee’s coworkers (after checking to be sure that is what the transgender employee wants). It’s a college student talking to a professor after class to discuss the latent racism in the lecture slides to help the professor learn how to do better. It’s writing a petition or contacting key diplomats to get your state to outlaw the gay/trans panic defense. It’s the British employment tribunal refusing to allow Forstater to use the argument of “protected beliefs” to enable her harassment of transgender people. It’s Autumn Peltier becoming a water protector and addressing leaders all over the world (including the UN) to correct water pollution of many communities’ water. It’s Greta Thunberg telling the United Nations they need to stop talking about climate change and start taking action at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
If you watch the video above, you will hear Greta say, “…because if you really understood the situation, and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe.” This, to me, is where compassion and accountability intersect on a fundamental level. There is compassion in the simple assumption that people want to be and think and act in better ways when their thoughts and actions are harmful to others, if only they knew how to be and do better. The act of holding someone or some group accountable is thus an act of compassion. The desire to do better by others and the action of making repairs when held accountable are also forms of compassion. Thus, when accountability is properly applied in good faith and responded to in kind, it becomes an act of compassion by and for all parties involved, even when it doesn’t feel very fun.
The ability of the offending party to recognize this compassion on the part of the person holding them accountable is often key to the success of accountability endeavors. Without that recognition, it is easy for people to shut down and tune out. It is my hope that this article will help people both learn to have that recognition, and build a toolkit to intentionally help others recognize it when holding others accountable. To that end, I have created the framework outlined below of a partial model of accountability styles.
What exactly accountability looks like can vary dramatically. And, like anything else that can be a positive tool, it can become a toxic influence if utilized in toxic ways. How we go about accountability matters, and this is another place where a lot of people seem to disagree about the best way forward. In response to this, I suggest that perhaps just like affection and apology languages, different people have different needs and expectations surrounding accountability and thus have different accountability languages. Understanding this can help us all retain the compassion that accountability requires in order to be a successful tool. So, let’s look at some of the different axes of accountability languages to see what happens when people with differing styles interact in order to help us surmount the tension it can cause and focus on positive growth.
Transparency: Public Vs. Private
Many acts of holding someone accountable happen on social media. From stormy comments sections to lengthy private message conversations, these things often lead to hurt feelings, blocking, and divided communities. One element of why involves a difference in preference for public versus private accountability. Let’s look at what happens when two people with differing styles in this respect find themselves in an accountability situation:
I was in a now-defunct Facebook group for a while which I will call “Punamory” for the sake of this article because everyone in it was polyamorous and very good at puns. Something happened where a white member with a public accountability style needed to be held accountable for an act of accidental racism. The moderator of color who handled it had a private accountability style. The moderator wished to be respectfully firm, and therefore messaged the offending party privately out of respect for the feelings of the white offending member and to prevent distraction from others getting involved. The offending member who received the message felt attacked and unsafe despite the respectful nature of the language used, because the conversation was held privately where no one else could witness it. This member responded by creating an accountability thread in the group to seek feedback from and offer apologies to the community with transparent accountability. The moderator who had messaged the offending member privately was taken aback by this, felt disrespected that the conversation was moved to a public setting, and expressed this in the comments. The member who made the accountability post then expressed that getting the message privately didn’t strike them as true accountability; to them, not having a public platform upon which to apologize for public wrong-doing did not allow them to make repairs and thus was not true accountability. Was one of them right and the other wrong? Perhaps that is the wrong question. This was a clash of two very different sets of expectations combined with a situation where neither individual worked towards understanding the other’s accountability style before taking offense and acting accordingly. In response, the admin team created a standard policy for how these things would be handled, that way everyone would know what to expect.
Some people prefer to be held accountable privately. Others publicly. Still others say that the situation matters. For example, for many people, leadership has no right to privacy in accountability due to values of transparency while other matters may be more private. The bottom line though, is to be aware that this is one axis along which people vary in accountability style.
In addition to simple personal preference, this axis can also be dramatically influenced by context surrounding various marginalized populations. For example, misgendering a transgender person is an act of verbal violence. Pulling someone aside to privately let them know that they need to use the right pronouns can be useful, but people tend to assume that if a trans person doesn’t speak up, they do not mind what was said about them. Thus, the transparency of public accountability can go a lot further towards protecting and supporting trans people than private accountability, so a transgender person with a private accountability style may switch to using public accountability under these circumstances.
Here is a handy chart you can use to help yourself understand your own style on this axis. If you are still new to self-analysis, you can use these like checkboxes. On each row, mark off whichever box best fits your style for that context. For more advanced players, you can up the game level by working to think of example situations until you can fill all 6 boxes with scenarios that meet your personal preferences. (For example, your first row might say something like, “when holding myself accountable I like to be public about it when it affects my whole community but private about it when it only affects one or two people.”) Finally, when you are done using this tool to consider yourself, try to think of why someone else might prefer the opposite of whatever you have checked off or written down to help develop your ability to recognize others’ accountability styles.
Approach: Call-In Vs. Call-Out
For the purposes of this article, “calling out” refers to pointing out that something was wrong and issuing a challenge to correct it, where “calling in” typically utilizes a greater investment of time and emotional labor and may include education about the given topic and/or emotional support of the person who did wrong. Some people use these words this way. Others use these words the way I have used “private vs public” above. It is important to note that these words are used differently in different communities! Next time the great debate of “call in vs call out” comes up, I recommend starting by asking which way others are using those words to ensure that you are having the same conversation as one another.
Anyway, let’s see what happens when people with differing accountability styles on this style axis find themselves in an accountability scenario:
A friend of mine has a call-out style, and is accustomed to just telling people what needs to change and expecting them to do it. My friend is also accustomed to and appreciative of people informing my friend of what needs to change, and then goes about correcting it whenever called out on something. An ex roommate of mine has a call-in style. This roommate is accustomed to spending time helping people understand why something needs to change, and prefers others to do the same.
Back when we were still living together, my friend tracked some dirt into our living room. My roommate went directly into call-in mode, starting with an explanation for why we don’t like dirty floors out of respect for my friend’s feelings. My friend became agitated and went directly into call-out mode. “If you were upset about the footprints, you should have just said so,” my friend said with a polite tone of voice. My roommate was taken aback by what appeared to my roommate to be sudden aggression in response to a respectful attitude. Both of them were doing what they considered to be polite, but neither one of them understood that. If I hadn’t stepped in, it would have rapidly devolved from there.
As with the above example about public versus private accountability styles, we see here in this example that the people involved jumped directly to taking offense without taking the time to notice or understand differences in accountability styles.
Also as above, this is another axis which can be influenced by the context of axes of power and oppression. Call-out accountability places the onus on the person who did wrong to take the time to understand why and come up with solutions. Call-in accountability shares that burden between both parties. Black Americans often spend a huge amount of energy every day navigating a society that is filled to the brim with racism. They vary dramatically between individuals on all axes of accountability styles, but it’s also very common for black people in the USA to simply be too exhausted to explain the same things yet again, especially when there are a plethora of black writers, bloggers, vloggers, and Tweeters who have filled libraries and the internet with all the explanations someone who isn’t black needs to self-educate. So, a black person who generally has a call-in accountability style may opt for a call-out method sometimes (or always) when it comes to racism, thereby shifting the burden of education to the offending party. This is also easier to do with racism against black Americans than other mistakes which harm other marginalized groups simply because there are so many black authors writing about race that it is typically easy to Google for answers and find accurate information.
Here is a fresh copy of the tool I provided above, relabeled for this axis. Use the same two-step process as above: First, use this to think about yourself. Then, use this as a guide to consider reasons why someone else might have an opposite stance from yours on how to handle these things even in the same context.
Tone: Niceness Vs Rawness
This axis has to do with tone of voice, wording, and so on. It’s the difference between speaking with a harsh tone or controlling one’s voice, the difference between carefully selecting wording for the sake of the other person’s feelings and letting your truth come into the light regardless of its ugliness. In that sense, this axis is actually a combination of a handful of communication styles bunched together for this article. Like the other axes, many people aren’t completely at one end or the other of this spectrum and some people find a balance between these aspects. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
Someone with a predominantly niceness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being kind” or “being polite,” and may refer to someone with a rawness tone style as “rude,” or “mean.” Someone with a predominantly rawness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being direct,” or “being honest,” and may refer to someone with a niceness style as “rude” or “manipulative” or “passive aggressive.” Both may even refer to their own styles as “wholesome” and become flabbergasted by the concept of that word referring to the other style on this axis.
Let’s see what happens when two people from different ends of this axis are in the same situation:
I once had a partner and a roommate who had trouble getting along because of this axis. My partner had a niceness style, while my roommate had a rawness style. My roommate was unhappy with the frequency of my partner staying over, and expressed to my partner that it was stressful to have my partner spend so much time at the house without paying for rent or utilities. My roomamte made no attempt to keep the frustration out of the tone of voice used in the conversation. My partner was not offended by my roommate’s boundaries, but by how they were expressed. “Wow. You don’t have to be mean about it,” my partner said. This, of course, confused my roommate who was operating under the assumption that people would like to know the in-depth truth of a situation when they are being asked to change what they are doing. “What did I say that was mean?” my roommate asked in honest confusion. This ticked off my partner more, because it was inconceivable to my partner that my roommate could possibly think that was a polite way to handle the conversation. I stepped in and clarified what was going on before it could escalate any farther. Over time, my partner became increasingly elaborate in attempts to become nicer and nicer to appease my roommate, who found this to be increasingly manipulative. “Why can’t your partner just be honest with me?” my roommate said to me once, within a week of my partner saying, “it doesn’t matter how nice I am, it’s never good enough for [your roommate]!” These are, as above, examples of people jumping to offense due to a failure to recognize much less reconcile differences of style and expectations. In this case, the second part is also an example of complimentary schismogenesis, a term first applied to interpersonal linguistics by Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tanen.
As with the other axes of accountability styles, the context of culture and axes of power can dramatically influence how someone decides to handle something in terms of niceness versus rawness. Deaf culture in the USA is a great example of a subculture that handles things very differently from mainstream culture. Where mainstream culture tends to prefer niceness, Deaf culture tends to prefer rawness. It is common to directly and bluntly refer to people’s body shapes and sizes in ASL (American Sign Language), where that would be considered rude by many English-speakers in the same country. Because directness permeates communication in Deaf culture, rawness can also dominate accountability styles.
The exhaustion I touched on before when discussing call-in versus call-out can also impacts this axis. When people who are marginalized become weary of educating so many people about their own existence so very frequently, they often switch to rawness even if niceness is their standard mode. Sometimes it’s actually an indication that someone finally feels safe enough to open up. Other times this is an attempt to be heard after feeling like no one is taking them seriously. Sometimes it is simply all a person can handle doing after running out of energy for niceness. After all, bridging communication gaps takes work, and a lot of people don’t even try to bridge the gap when talking with marginalized people. The constant expectation to meet the mainstream person on the mainstream person’s terms without any effort from that person to mutually aid in bridging the gap is harmful and exhausting. This is where the concept of tone policing comes in. If you aren’t familiar with it, definitely read the comic at the link.
Here is the same tool as above, relabeled for this topic. Use it the same way as before. First, either check off the boxes that apply to your style or strive to fill each box with a scenario where your style would fit. Then, go back through and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer something opposite.
Developing Compassionate Accountability
What exactly does compassionate accountability look like? Unfortunately, there is no blanket answer. No one way of doing accountability will always be right or wrong. To develop compassionate accountability in ourselves and our communities, it is necessary to learn what our own accountability style is so that we can communicate it to others. Learning to communicate about accountability styles also allows us to intentionally set up community-wide accountability norms so that everyone knows what to expect, thereby preventing miscommunication and unnecessary hurt feelings. In addition to learning to recognize and communicate our own personal accountability styles, it is equally necessary to learn to recognize others’ styles. This allows us to appreciate the compassion hidden within others’ personal accountability styles and work towards bridging miscommunication gaps in lieu of allowing those gaps to make already tense situations even worse.
Using the three axes described above to create an admittedly incomplete model of accountability styles, there are at least eight distinct styles. They are listed in this chart, which also has columns for each of the contexts used in earlier exercises. You can use this just like the previous ones. First, either check off boxes that match your style for each context or fill in as many boxes as you can with scenarios where you would utilize that style. Then, go back through everything that matches your style and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer to do it differently from you. Building compassionate accountability requires us to recognize others’ methods as valid. Use this tool to help you do that.
The pattern here of people taking offense without recognizing simple style differences is a fairly common feature of human miscommunication. It is not isolated to accountability styles. For further reading on that and related phenomenons, check your library for books about sociolinguistics.
Recently at a gathering I sat and listened to two femme people discussing makeup. Embracing my segender nature has allowed me to become far more comfortable with embracing things I enjoy that have feminine cultural connotations, so I was listening to learn. I learned a different lesson than I thought I would learn, and I think it was a valuable one so I am sharing it here.
As I listened, I noticed that these two people have a strong grasp of concepts that relate to materials science, chemistry, tools, and art. They starkly displayed critical thinking skills related to these topics and easily communicated their ideas. They also did so in a way that was filtered through the lens of deep emotional intelligence and empathy.
They displayed all the hallmarks of the types of knowledge and intelligence that men are supposed to value in our culture but they also did so in a frank and candid way, without any of the competition or one-up-manship our culture expects from men. The entire point of their conversation appeared to be sharing knowledge and skills in order to help each other figure out new ways of applying everything they already knew. Their conversation also intentionally gave each other space to verbally process new kinds of creativity. It was synergistic and beautiful.
Women already have all the things men keep saying they need to strengthen within themselves in order to be taken seriously at work or in other environments. They just use what they know to help each other instead of drag each other down; I think a lot of men can’t see that for what it is because of the lens of competition that our culture has forced over their eyes.
Women have both halves of the intelligence coin: the knowledge/skills side, and the emotional intelligence side. I don’t know how we can help our men gain the second half (or how to implement the sweeping cultural changes necessary to create and sustain that change), but everyone will suffer less once they do. Men, women, and everyone else.
In this article, “(x)” is used to provide links to sources for and further reading related to preceding sentences.
When people of various European nations colonized huge chunks of the planet, part of the process involved replacing aspects of the cultures they conquered with aspects of their own. (x) In this process, genders and sexualities that did not fit into their beliefs were purged along with any religious or spiritual practices that could not be folded into the conquering nation’s Christian ideals. (You can read more about Christianity as a tool of colonialism here and here.)
Across the planet, people of various cultures have had more than two genders for a very long time, such as the Navajo, ancient Jewish societies, the Bugis of Indonesia, and many more. These were often erased by white colonialism, just as queerness was also vilified. After generations passed, cultures which once held space for various kinds of LGBTQIA people lost that capacity. India is a great example of this. Where they once had more than two genders and some branches of the Hindu religion celebrated same-sex love, it is now unsafe to be openly gay in much of the country and people who aren’t men or women are now highly stigmatized. The original law that criminalized same-sex action was put in place under British rule, which ended in 1947, but it wasn’t overturned until 2018 due to the lasting destructive impact of British colonialism on Indian culture. (x) You can watch a short interview with India’s openly gay prince from right before that decision here. Like India, many countries’ homophobic laws came directly from British rule. In fact, CNN says:
Some cultures have retained their original concepts of gender and sexuality despite the erasure efforts of those inflicting genocide upon them. These cultures are still alive and well. Choosing to insist that the only genders which exist are those recognized by one’s own culture is thus an act of cultural supremacy, and one which feeds into the racist legacy of white colonialism. Transphobia and racism are inseparable in this way.
If you can tell something needs to change, and you are ready to help make that happen, but you feel lost about what to do and where to start, then this post is for you. There are several key components to activism. I am going to discuss four of them. Each one is really just a different form of accountability, and you never stop doing any of them.
This is the root of everything. You cannot make a difference at all if you do not know what is wrong or how to fix it. Your choice to read this means you have already started engaging in self-education. Good job!
There are lots of different issues out there and each one has its own nuances. There are lots of things that are similar for activism for all minorities, but there are also key differences in how we go about supporting each minority. Non-visible minorities (such as gay people or transgender people who are passing as not-transgender or Muslims who do not look like stereotypical Muslims) face an entirely different set of obstacles than visible minorities (such as black people, or transgender people who are visibly transitioning their gender). Reading about all of these things will help you help them.
Gay people and tend to like to answer questions about being gay. Black people tend to resent answering questions about being black unless you are close friends with them so they know you are coming from a genuinely supportive place, or they are working at an activist center and on the clock when you ask. Disabled people seem to have no trends regarding this that I have noticed. “Tend to” means not always; no single group of minorities holds some sort of blanket set of beliefs/needs/desires. That is probably one of the biggest keys to activism: Remember that a person who is a minority is a unique individual first and foremost. And regarding that question thing? Ask first if it is okay to ask questions. The burden of educating others is actually a super heavy one for minorities to bear. Never, ever assume that someone is okay with educating you. Instead, use things like blogs written by minorities, minority-specific museums, and centers designed for activism and education.
2. Peer Education
This is something that overlaps a bit with “holding others accountable.” I sincerely believe that most people do not want to be assholes. Most people want to be nice. That means that the vast majority of racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on is purely accidental. As you educate yourself, you will begin to see people doing these things all around you (and notice it in yourself as well). They will not even realize that they are doing it. Part of activism is calling people in (as opposed to calling them out), to let them know that what they are doing is hurting people. If you say “That is actually racist because X,” for example, someone who is already an educated activist will thank you and adjust, but most people will balk at the big scary R word and respond by saying they are not racist. That is why calling people in as opposed to out is, in my opinion, the most successful form of activism when we are talking about dealing with typical individuals on a typical day. “I know you do not want to hurt people, so I thought you would like to know that X is actually kind of mean,” for example, will be more likely to get people to listen to you.
3. Holding Yourself Accountable
Everybody has got a different idea of what it means to be an activist. A lot of people use call outs as their standard form. If someone calls you out, don not get defensive. Or if you do, just let that feeling rest inside you and listen anyway. Holding yourself accountable means listening to people who call you in or out, no matter whether you like the way they are doing it. If someone calls you in or out, take some time – however long it takes, really – to process it. Maybe even go search online for more information about it. Use it as an excuse to educate yourself. Then, make any necessary changes. This can be a long process, and that is okay. Keep with it. You might find more stuff in your self-education that allows you to hold yourself accountable to things before anyone calls you out on them. Every time you do that, it is a triumph because it means that is one less person who had to take on the burden of educating you.
Processing through self-accountability can be an extremely taxing process emotionally. It is important to find a support network for this. If you have close friends who are minorities, it can be okay sometimes to ask first if they’re okay processing this with you. Generally, though, that creates an undue burden on someone who is a minority. Find non-minority activist friends you can process your emotions with. Join activist groups to help you with self-accountability, self-education, and processing related emotions.
Remember: Every person who is a minority has a right to be utterly furious. They may express their anger when calling you in or out, or simply in general. Anger is one of the best triggers for defensiveness. Do not fall into that trap. Let a minority person’s anger elicit your compassion and introspection, and set any defensiveness aside where you can process through it later.
4. Holding Others Accountable
This is the hardest part of activism, and you cannot do it unless you have been doing the first and third parts. This can be educating peers as mentioned above, or fighting for policies/laws to change at work, in your city, in your state, and in your nation, and everything in between. But you will not know what changes to fight for unless you have been educating yourself, befriending minorities, and holding yourself accountable.
Putting It All Together
As you may have noticed, there are two general halves to activism: Internal activism within ourselves, and external activism for educating others and holding them accountable. The first one is the most important because the second one is meaningless without it.
Know that this is a lifelong process. You will make mistakes, and that is okay. You cannot be a genuine activist without risking getting it wrong sometimes because it is a learn-by-doing process. Be okay with mistakes. Own them, apologize, and then make your apology valid by changing your behavior accordingly.