"It’s pretty shitty in the cyber world for us right now"

Donning a biohazard suit & wading into the comments about a trans athlete

Hi,

Just a note that today’s newsletter is about trans issues, and could be triggering.

It also includes references to suicide, so please keep that in mind.

Also, I have censored some names and Twitter handles as I don’t want certain people getting any level of attention.

It is my hope that this piece will be enlightening and — overall — positive.

David.


People hate trans people. There is this anti-trans activist in New Zealand who once had a column in New Zealand’s biggest paper. She got let go after espousing a conspiracy theory that George Soros and Big Pharma were behind trans rights (they aren’t).

Well, she’s now very active on Twitter where her main pastime is posting hateful comments, usually about trans people and those who support trans rights:

She posted that threat/joke a few months ago, and I guess it was wrong, because the New Zealand police turned up this week and confiscated her guns. She moaned about this, of course, in a long Twitter thread I won’t post. Actions and consequences seem very foreign to her.

I think the world is probably a better place if Rachel — “strip the wee fucker naked” — doesn’t have guns. Or that’s what you’d think.

Judith Collins, leader of New Zealand’s National party, appeared to tweet in support of Rachel’s views.

In short: Hatred like this is everywhere. It’s mainstream.


Last month I read an article about a talented weightlifter who’d gotten onto the New Zealand’s Olympic team.

Specifically, trans weightlifter Laurel Hubbard.

Then I did something really fucked up: I waded into the article’s comments section on Facebook.

This isn’t as extreme as Rachel’s “lynch mob”, but it’s a really clear case of “othering” — which comes from a place of ignorance.

There was Jo, and then there were about 100 other Jos, and then suddenly I remembered how confused New Zealand — and the world — is in regards to trans issues.

Trans ideas.

Trans people.

Yes, people — just like you and I. Crazy concept, I know.

(They’re reading the comments, too).


A quick personal deviation, for context

I am going to say something really embarrassing right now, but it informs how I perceive what is going on when I read puzzled — and sometimes hateful — dialogue about anything trans-related.

Once upon a time I was a pretty dedicated Baptist Christian, and the most terrifying thing in my mind when I was a teenager was being gay (turns out I ended up bisexual, I am sure there’s a joke in that). At my school anyone suspected of being gay was teased and ridiculed. One kid — a sweet kid who did the funniest speech I’ve ever seen in school assembly — killed themselves. I have zero doubt about why he did this. Did it with a rope.

It’s fucking horrible and I remember his deadpan delivery and eyes filled with delight while he gave that speech, probably a rare time seeing all these kids actually liking him, applauding him, laughing with him.

I remember my first year out of school — I was about 18 — working in a bank and I had a colleague who was gay. This was the second gay person I’d met in my life. I remember seeing him kissing his boyfriend at lunch and I was filled with disgust and uncertainty and dread.

(Yeah yeah I get it, it was as much about me as him)

If Facebook had existed then, maybe I would have been in the comments section. I shudder to think.

I am 38 now, that version of myself is largely gone (it’ll never be completely gone, but I hope it will be, one day) but I remember thinking that is wrong this is unnatural that is disgusting that doesn’t make sense to me I am afraid of that.

And now when I read comments about trans people, I feel I can sort of understand the brain these comments are emerging from because I had that brain and I hate that. And my deepest fear is that it still exists, and so I am constantly checking in with myself and asking myself why I feel certain ways about people.

So reading the Facebook comments about a trans story, and police seizing those guns, and Judith Collins showing her cards, I wanted to write about this.

And I immediately realised I am not the one to talk on it because I am not trans and I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about.

And so I reached out to Lexie Matheson, who is not only a senior lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology, but also a kickass sportsperson. Lexie’s worn the fern as an athlete in karate (ranked 1st dan, black belt in Goju Ryu Okinawa Kan karate) and is currently the chair of Archery New Zealand.

With that in mind, I asked Lexie to speak to these Facebook comments I was reading about this trans woman (who wants to lift some weights) in the hope that maybe myself and readers could better understand how to engage with anti-trans vomit. And there’s a lot of it.

And maybe if someone who ends up reading this does bristle at the mention of “trans person”, Lexie’s comments might help change that a little. To see the people who are being misunderstood and targeted by so much hate, every day, every hour, every minute.

Because I can’t imagine what it must be like being a trans person on the internet. As she put it:

It’s pretty shitty in the cyber world for us right now.

Nothing new.

I couldn’t deal with it, I would be too weak. But Lexie is the opposite of this, so she donned her biohazard suit and waded in, addressing each of the comments I’d come across. She did so with fun, gusto and guts.

I’d argue — and I might be wrong — that not all of these comments come from places of hate. Many come from a lack of knowledge and understanding — like me, a confused teenager: disorientated, alone and reactionary. But also — there is hate in some of them. There is.

David.


Comment 1: Mike

Lexie Matheson’s reply to Mike:

Mike is a serial offender. 

He’s deeply attracted to transwomen, eh Mike?

No one would question that there are cisgender women all around the world who train to the most extraordinary degree to gain an Olympic spot who would be disappointed to miss out to anyone, not just to a transgender athlete. Laurel being trans might seem to give them a vehicle for their valid upset — but it doesn’t give Mike one. 

Mike’s doing the classic misgendering thing and implying that a transgender woman is really just a man with long hair, a 5 o’clock shadow and a penis in his pants. How shallow, Mike. 

Is that the best you can do?

Whatever Mike thinks of his liberality he is, in fact, just a nasty, transphobic asshole and should be reminded of this fact at every possible juncture. There you are, Mike, you’re a nasty, transphobic asshole just trying to hurt people who are different. We’ve heard it all before — and are untouched by your silly boy insults.

Using Laurel Hubbard as an example, she has trained as hard as anybody on the planet to gain the selection and against all odds, many of them, I’m happy to say, not faced by cisgender women. 

Imagine, if you will, opinion writers from every country on the planet having a go at you because of your gender identity? 

Let’s not forget, too, that those opinion writers generally don’t know that much. In the main they’re not athletes, not endocrinologists, not medical specialists, not experts in athlete selection nor in the writing of selection policies to ensure fairness, they are, in fact, simply writers of opinion pieces designed for purposes other than to assess an athlete’s suitability in sport. 

By describing a transgender athlete by the length of their hair and misgendering them as male, Mike qualifies for the ‘Transphobic Dickhead of the Day Award’ which, from memory, I’ve awarded him before and will probably do so again.

True, dickhead’s not a nice thing to call anyone but sometimes you have to find a simple way to point out that, in Mike’s case, ignorance is not bliss, it’s a pain in the arse.

Comment 2: Jo

Lexie’s reply to Jo:

This is quite a common idea promoted by the thoughtless. 

Or perhaps the mindless. 

The challenge faced by people who present this as the answer is that they ignore the simple, and somewhat obvious, fact that transgender people number 0.001% to 0.003% of the entire population. If you consider that half of these are transmen, most trans don’t play sport at all, and the likelihood that there would be enough elite transgender players in any one category to generate enough athletes to have even a one-on-one competition in any individual sport, is most unlikely. 

Consider, also, that since it’s taken 20 years since the IOC first made it possible for transgender athletes to compete at the Olympics — for a first Olympian to be selected and for that Olympian to be a lone weightlifter. The likelihood of having twelve equally capable transgender women to make up an Olympic level sevens rugby team is simply laughable. 

But hey, hang onto your idea because, when it’s deconstructed, what it really means is that you would rather not have us there at all.

I hear you. Loud and clear.

Comment 3: Suzanne

Lexie’s reply to Suzanne:

Susanne attempts to reduce gender to chromosomal essentialism. Susanne needs to do more research into chromosomal idiosyncrasies before she steps into this arena and shoots off her ignorant mouth. Some people are just not intelligent enough to realize there is much more to know than the minuscule amount of knowledge they have accumulated in their however many journeys around the sun. Happy to engage in a conversation with Suzanne about this should she wish.

She won’t of course, because it doesn’t serve her narrative.

Comment 4: Phil

Lexie’s reply to Phil:

Straight women? 

What on earth is Phil talking about? 

Is he conflating sex and gender? 

I suspect he is and, what’s more conflating sexuality with gender identity. In a futile attempt to take him seriously, I will say that many transgender women, before they transition, lived mistakenly as heterosexual men. Having transitioned, they remain sexually attracted to women and should no longer be described as straight. The thing about transgender women is that they are ‘born this way’. 

It’s not a choice to be transgender. 

I thought everyone knew that.

Comment 5: Dan (and the 27 thumbs up who agreed)

Lexie’s reply to Dan:

Poor old Dan. 

I can think of a lot of things that are much more unfair than transgender women competing against cisgender women at the Olympics when they are, to all intents and purposes, the same. All Dan has to do to get his head around this is to want to do so, but we all know that ain’t gonna happen. I wonder how long it will be before Dan starts quoting his good book which will be a pastiche of his fears and bullshit preached by his pastor because Jesus made it his life’s work to not mention us at all.

But, hey, that’s religion for you. When in doubt misquote the Lord and make shit up.

However, let’s take Dan seriously and talk about his understanding of fairness. 

I suspect Dan is the sort of man who really can’t think beyond “men big and strong, women small and weak” and it could certainly be argued in ‘The Big Boy’s Book of Misogyny’ that appearance should be enough.

But, of course, competing at the Olympics as a transgender woman is a far more complex animal than that. 

Or cardigan. Think of this as a knitted cardigan.

There are range of different threads in this cardigan and, despite Dan’s simplistic view, it’s possible to consider them all in a nuanced way.

First, there is the sport itself. 

All athletes worth their salt spend decades refining their capabilities with the goal of reaching the Olympics a serious motivation and a podium finish at the top of the list. The training regime of cisgender athletes and transgender athletes is decidedly similar regardless of the sport. Levels of success are determined by a range of factors and none of them are determined — or can even be imagined — by Dan. In the case of transgender women there are requirements regarding testosterone levels that must be achieved. In the spirit of fairness these criteria exist for all women, trans and cis. Just check out the challenging journey of Caster Semenya for starters. No question she qualifies as a woman, but her body produces natural levels of testosterone well above what has been prescribed as ‘an acceptable level’. The question then arises as to what constitutes an ‘unnatural advantage’ if the advantage is natural? In the same way Semenya has been vilified and banned from competing for having an unnatural testeronic advantage, swimmer Michael Phelps whose double-jointed ankles gave him a exceptional kick and who produces half the lactic acid of your average human so doesn't tire easily, is celebrated— even by the IOC — for his good fortune in having such wonderful genetic advantages.

Perhaps sport has its own issues of misogyny and racism to deal with that reach way beyond Dan’s child-like, yet brutal, transphobia.

The idiosyncratic myth of the powerful male body shape is dwarfed by the impact of decades-long ingesting of testosterone blockers and oestrogen far more than any other factor. In most strength-based sports, there are weight and sometimes other divisions to help counter apparent unfairness. In my case, as an international athlete competing in karate as a transgender woman, not only did I have to get my nanomoles in a row but there were also age and weight divisions to further ‘guarantee’ fairness. 

Then there’s the thread of the medical and sociological stuff that pulls together all  other stuff we have to go through to be who we really are. The psych reports, the endocrinological visits, the hormones, the surgery, the never-ending blood tests, the invasive examinations, the bathroom bullshit, the name calling, the intentional misgendering, the hate of the faux-feminists, all done so we can be the most authentic and honest we can possibly be.

The third thread in this metaphorical cardigan relates to natural talent and the capacity to push through the physical and mental challenges of your sport. Not only your sport, but, at Olympic level, the expectations of country and the media. In most sports the muscle between the ears is the critical one. Not all athletes function in similar ways and, if we consider Laurel Hubbard as our current example, I can’t think of any other Olympic athlete in my lifetime who has had to battle the level of ongoing prejudice, ignorance, misogyny and hate that she is currently having to endure and which may never cease throughout her lifetime. 

Education would help, but not for the Dan’s of this world.

I’m sure Laurel’s Olympic minders – all athletes have them - are looking after her and keeping her as safe as is possible but this is actually an impossible task. I don’t think anyone could deny that what she’s going through at the moment is absolutely horrendous. She’s a human being, not just a target for the unemployed Ralphs of Reefton to purge the hate they typically save for the Prime Minister on.

Ignorance has an extraordinary power and right now every transgender woman in Aotearoa who is out of the closet will be experiencing some sort of hostility, some degree of negativity, some level of revulsion based on who and what they are, as a result of Laurel’s fully justified selection. Allies will have gone into hiding, workplaces will have become unsafe, and many sports clubs, never the most welcoming of places, will have become positively uninviting.

Is this fair? 

No it’s not, and if you’re doing it — making my world unsafe — you’ll hear about it. I fought this battle 20 years ago and I’ll fight it again if I have to if only to set an example to our rangatahi who deserve a better world than the one I came out into.

You’d have to be a very strange creature to think that this was fair. 

The final thread in this garment, and the one most often overlooked, is the journey of any athlete to gain selection in a New Zealand sports team and, in particular, the team for the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo. Every athlete on this path trains, often for decades, with all the sacrifices associated with this unique, almost monastic, life. 

Then they have achieved the qualifying criteria for the sport they engage in, whatever that may be. 

The bar for selection in your sport is already at the top of the scale and it gets more intense the closer you get to wearing the fern. The drop-out rate is pretty damn high.

Having qualified in your sport, you need to then achieve nomination from your sport’s governing body to the NZ Olympic Committee. This is another challenge because, in most cases, the qualification criteria to achieve nomination to NZOC is at a higher level than the minimum qualifying criteria for the sport. More fall by the wayside. 

And yet again Laurel has to perform - not just the athlete, but the TRANSGENDER athlete. 

And the politics kick in, if they hadn’t already.

As if having been nominated by your sport for possible selection to the New Zealand team isn’t enough, as if qualifying in your sport isn’t enough, as of having your name put forward to the Olympic committee isn’t already an extraordinary achievement, the athlete then has to go through the NZOC selection process which, for many sports, is complex indeed. How often do we hear through the news media that a world champion has failed to be selected but that a bolter has? There’s potential heartbreak at every turn - and, to date, injury hasn’t even come into it!

Laurel Hubbard has gone through all of these phases and come through successfully. She’s trained hard enough, she has competed at the top level enough, she has achieved nomination, and now she has succeeded in being selected.

This thread is a bloody long and knotty one. 

This isn’t simply a case of someone putting themselves forward for selection and it happens automatically. It’s complex — and every step on this journey Laurel has had her performance evaluated and judged but, perhaps less fairly, she come under scrutiny as a person as well. 

Can we take this risk with this person? 

The eyes of the world are on us.

Every one of the tens of thousands of keyboard warriors who insist that Laurel is still a man, who decide on no evidence whatsoever that her body type remains that of a man so that’s what she must be, that psychologically she is still a man because she had the benefits of a male puberty, that the whole process is a sham, well, these keyboardists need to experience a massive, orgasmic, exploding Olympian quantity of fireworks right up the bum because nothing else will wake them up to the truth. 

Probably not even that.

Laurel has gone through the anguish of deciding to do something about her gender dysphoria having no doubt known about it for years. The privilege of male puberty is no privilege at all, I can assure you. That myth is yet another page from the big, mindless book of misogyny. No trans woman enters on this journey lightly. We know what the consequences of that decision will be even if all we aspire to is being Josephine Bloggs settled in the suburbs of any city you can name and an anonymity that allows her to grow flowers and just get on with her life. The consequence of being visible, on the other hand, is ignorant threats of violence and possible violent death. 

It’s hard to imagine, even for me who’s walked this talk, what it must be like to be Laurel Hubbard right at this moment. 

Dan, on the other hand, I get Dan, hiding behind his pseudonym, his fake account and his fear. I get him only too well. 

He doesn’t frighten me, but he does mildly annoy me.

I’m not a fan of cowardice in any form.

Comment 6: Rowena

Lexie’s reply to Rowena:

Yes, New Zealanders do know.

Most trust both the science and the nature of the journey, most respect the people who’ve made the medical, epidemiological, surgical and sporting decisions because they’re the experts and New Zealanders will always have regard for the athletes involved. Most see the hate and the misogyny for what it is and simply shut the fuck up. 

It’s not a ‘zero sum’ game anymore than striving for human rights is. Human rights isn’t a pie with a finite number of slices which means if I get one it doesn’t follow that someone else misses out. 

And human rights are indivisible - that’s why they’re call rights. You can’t have half a right — and you don’t get to vote on whether I can have human rights or not. If I achieve human equity for my community you don’t lose it for yours. 

It might make you feel suitably persecuted to believe this is true but it’s not true. It’s just not.

Comment 7: Ranell (plus the 28 people who gave a “thumbs up”

Lexie’s reply to Ranell:

What part of ‘born this way’ doesn’t Ranell understand?

By means of explanation I’ve known who I was since I was eight. 

I’m sure Laurel is the same.


David here again. If you want to share this Webworm, you can — it’s webworm.co/p/biohazard. I want Lexie’s wisdom to spread through shitty cyberspace.

Because the attitudes we’re seeing towards trans issues worry me deeply.

I really, really value Lexie’s honesty in this — and also the fact she had the stamina to read this stuff. And take the time to reply so comprehensively for this Webworm.

She’s been reading comments like this for years and years, and while I don’t want to speak for her, I can’t imagine it gets any easier.

She is just being herself, something we should all have the ability to do without being constantly judged. Something I wish I’d learnt earlier on in my teenage years.

Oh, and her karate’s going great: she’s currently 2nd dan, soon to be 3rd.

Respect.

David.