[Trigger Warnings for discussions of rape and transphobia throughout].
Yesterday brought something of a storm on social media, with Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik at the center, having unleashed the furore by making a couple of transphobic comments on Twitter. The Border House Blog has an excellent summary on the events, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll reiterate:
Folk on the web had noticed that there was a synopsis for a dubious-looking panel on the upcoming PAX Australia titled “Why So Serious”?, which, as one might expect, basically boiled down to people saying, “stop taking games so seriously!” to anyone who voiced any concerns with regards to the game industry’s less-than-stellar track record when it came to bigotry. Complaints were made, and the panel slightly altered their synopsis.
It didn’t make it much better. So folk contacted Mike Krahulik about the event, and from there, things escalated to the extent that Mike posted the following tweets.
(Screenshots courtesy of the Borderhouse Blog.)
And, following that, Mike posted an email discussion between himself and Sophie Prell, a trans* woman who formerly contributed to the Penny Arcade Report; the discussion can be found here.
In a statement for GayGamer.Net, Mike described the event thus:
This morning when I got up my email and tweets were all about a panel at PAX Aus. We will have a panel that will discuss if all this social justice stuff is good for the games industry. We don’t make the panels they are submitted by the community and we try and let pretty much anyone have a space to talk.
So this morning I was told I was a bigot and I was giving a stage to bigots. I said no one has to go to the panel but then I was told I was cis gendered garbage and I should die.
at this point I should have stepped away from the computer and played with my kids but I didn’t. I went on the offensive and I made things worse.
I don’t dislike or fear anyone based on what they are or what they think they are. I try and be friendly to everyone I meet in person.
I honestly don’t think I am wired right for this fame stuff. I like to draw cartoons and play games that’s really all. I can’t be what all these millions of people want me to be. I’m not a role model, I didn’t even fucking go to college. I have beliefs that lots of people will hate. I have opinions that not all our fans will like. If I was just some normal dude it wouldn’t matter but the things I do and say are placed in another category. I need to be aware of that responsibility. When I feel attacked I attack back like I did as a kid. I can be an incredible asshole when I want to be. It’s like my super power. I’m very good at being mean. That’s been good for making funny comics but it’s not good when it hurts people who are already marginalized.
To be fair, I hate tons of people. But it’s never because of their sexual orientation or their gender situation or anything superficial like that. I honest to god don’t give a shit about that stuff. I only hate people because of the way they act.
So, back up, what’s the big deal here?
This isn’t the first time Mike has brushed off folk who are saying “Hey, that isn’t okay” – a particularly prominent example of this was the “Dickwolves” comic, which features a character claiming to be “raped to sleep” by the eponymous presumed canines. Many people – some of whom were themselves survivors of rape and sexual assault – said, “Hey, that’s not okay”; and the creators response was a sarcy, snarky comic strip that dismissed those folks’ complaints entirely through facile mockery, followed up shortly by kind-of-sort-of apologies – or, more accurately, a call for everyone to stop talking about it.
Rape is not a topic that can be thrown about with gay abandon – it requires understanding, compassion and respect to even discuss the topic, let alone make jokes about it; we can say “no subject should be off-limits” or that “rape jokes make rape easier to talk about” all we like, but when people with more (often personal) experience in the topic tell us otherwise, we have to consider that maybe our theoretical devil’s advocacy isn’t as pertinent or relevant as their own lived experience. We don’t need to wait for a famous white man to talk about it first to make it a legitimate viewpoint.
The reason that Mike Krahulik’s comments yesterday weren’t okay though is because, regardless of whether it was as a result of a backfiring sarcasm-coping-mechanism, the comments Mike made are still very much part of a much bigger culture (that also permeates the games industry, community and subculture) where people who are trans* are already sidelined, marginalised, silenced and ignored across the board. Everyone knows and understands this, even if they haven’t really considered why that might be. We know people who are trans* don’t often make it to positions of power as disproportionally well as, say, cisgender men, and we even know that trans* people are at risk getting threatened, attacked or killed just because they’re trans* – and yet, we’re still in a position where cisgender people think it’s okay to just dismiss trans* people and their concerns. Today, it was by someone who claims to know how damaging it is to be silenced, which makes the sting that much more fresh.
As Sophie Prell mentions in her email discussion with Mike, his statements are his personal opinion — but that opinion has been formed, directly or indirectly, because of centuries of uncritical, unreasoned and unexamined opinions that suggest that our biology is the ultimate deciding factor in whether we are “men” or “women”, which is not only presumptuous and simplistic, but also unscientific and inaccurate! The fact is, there are a plethora of different types of people who don’t fit into this schema of “there is only biological sex, of which you can be male or female”, but that’s exactly the myth that’s been used when Mike Krahulik talks about “the physical reality of your body” – there is more to being a man or a woman than biology, and even then, biology isn’t a cut-and-dried matter. And not only is Mike’s opinion speckled with a lack of critical thinking, it’s also being used to silence a group of people who have been and continue to be consistently and systematically silenced.
The gender binary is just a convenient (and, often, inconvenient) shorthand, not something hard-coded.
Transphobia takes many different forms, and it’s not always intentional, not always overt, and not always obvious. When someone dismisses trans* people that sharply, and then goes on to perpetuate myths that continue to make the world a tough place for trans* people to live in, that’s transphobia – in a sense, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got trans* friends, or you’re queer yourself, or that you don’t consciously discriminate against trans* people. Regardless of your intent, the outcome is the same – the world gets turned a darker shade of shit for people who are trans* because of your actions, and willfully ignoring that doesn’t help anyone.
At this point, it’s pertinent to bring up the fact that many folk think the backlash was unjustified, that if someone just sat down and explained why these things weren’t okay in a cool, rational manner, people in the industry would listen. There is constantly a call for trans* people (and other oppressed folk) to “open up a dialogue”, “address both sides of the issue”, or “start a discussion”.
The fact is, that’s exactly what people are doing and have been doing for decades, but it continually gets passed over as being “politicised”, “irrational”, “self-segregating”, “divisive”, “personal opinion”, “Tumblr shit” or “social justice warrior material”. The fact that people are asking for conversations to begin is testament to the fact that they are so unaware of the topic (and won’t research it themselves) that they don’t realise these conversations have been underway for years. Is it any wonder, then, that people are frustrated, and must now use their anger to have a chance of being able to say anything? Is it any wonder that when people who are trying to speak are now having to shout to be heard?
Mike’s behavior isn’t a surprise, and really, he doesn’t seem to care about trans* issues enough to actually look into why he’s continually being called out. At this point, for my own health, it’s best I try my hardest to ignore him and hope he never appears on my social media. I feel sorry for those within Penny Arcade and US PAX committees who are trying hard to create the opposite picture of the company, and are continually undermined by his actions. PA is a big ship with a lot of influence, but it’s also a ship that’s been on fire because of its captain. It’s becoming harder and harder to sympathize with anyone affliated with him.
While vast swathes of cis folk are still barely coping at with the entirely-theoretical-for-them trans-101 stage, trans* people are leagues ahead, dealing with the situation and how it affects their own lives, critically thinking, discussing and putting forward solutions; we could do with at least having the respect to listen to them on a topic that they know more than us about, often both at a theoretical level and a personal, experiential level.
It’s also relevant to point out that Sophie Prell herself states in the email exchange that she didn’t agree with the backlash against Mike Krahulik, nor did she believe Mike was being transphobic – but then, just because she does not believe that to be the case doesn’t invalidate or take anything away from the people who do. We can’t rely on people to be unanimously against something for us to begin to consider it, after all.
Mike Krahulik makes a poignant remark in his statement – if he was Just Some Guy, we’d largely be ignoring his statements. But that’s just the point, not only of this specific discussion, but of anti-bigotry movements in general – people with power need to be careful not to misuse it against the powerless, especially those made powerless by people and institutions that the empowered affects or is affected by – otherwise it becomes an intersecting web of oppression that it’s enormously difficult to get out from once you’re in it – to the extent that people would sooner dismiss folk who are suffocating in that web than try to take it down.
There is something positive to take away from the event, however – people all over the web quickly, succinctly and concisely responded to Krahulik’s statements to say, “this is not okay”, whereas ten years ago, we would most likely have just had a couple of Proboards forum threads – hell, maybe even threads on the Penny Arcade forums themselves – populated by cis, white boys dispassionately debating the topic with no real vested interest other than playing devil’s advocate for the sake of dreary discourse.
But we didn’t have that quite as much this time round, and I suspect it’s not thanks to all of the “theoretical debates” of those dispassionate white boys, nor those people who continually ask us to “step off the soapbox”. It’s because of those other, Othered people – in particular, trans* people – who have continued to strive to make their voices heard both within the industry and without, slowly whittling away at the man-shaped monolith that is the games industry to change it from a monogendered marbled monoblock to something fluid, dynamic, and engaging.
Trans Respect, Etiquette and Support 101 by Micah Bazant
Not Your Mom’s Trans 101 by Asher
Why Invisibility Isn’t a Superpower, by Zoya Street