There is something that you never, ever do to a transgender person: use their birth name. The reason here is simple – to call a transgender person by their birth name is to deny them the basic right to their identity. It is to claim for yourself the right to dictate who they are, over their own express wishes. It is to tell them that their transition is invalid – that they deserve instead to suffer from the genuine and real pain of gender dysphoria, and that this is preferable to ever allowing them to think that they might have the right to define for themselves the basic aspects of who they are. It is hate speech, plain and simple, as straightforwardly as using the worst racial or sexual slur you can think of.
This is not a matter of when hormone therapy has begun or surgery has taken place. Those are just procedures to reduce the material impact of gender dysphoria and make social transition less awkward and, frankly, less dangerous. The point where it becomes hate speech is the instant that a person has told you their preferred name and gender presentation.
On August 22nd, Chelsea Manning issued a public statement confirming the longstanding reports that she was transgender and asking that instead of using the name “Bradley Manning,” as media sources had been doing up to that point, people refer to her by the name of “Chelsea.” Almost immediately after this announcement the Wikipedia page for Manning was changed from being called “Bradley Manning” to “Chelsea Manning.” In the early hours of August 31st, following a week of discussion, the page was moved back.
This is the story of how the fifth largest website in the world came to actively embrace transphobia and hate speech.
Some disclosure. I am not an impartial observer. Nevertheless, this is a factual account based on the public record of Wikipedia talk pages and logs. Still, in the interests of disclosure, I involved myself in this debate in a minor role, advocating for the position you’d expect. This was my first substantial contribution to Wikipedia in several years, but I do have administrator rights on the project dating back to 2004, when I was a highly active editor. I am friendly with several of the persons involved, although have not met any except on the Internet. One person involved, Morwen, was a significant donor to my Kickstarter. I am not writing this piece on behalf of any of them, and in fact more than one person I am friendly with has expressed reservations over the piece, though not about its factual accuracy.
Morwen has a highly visible role in what happened, but not, ultimately, an important one; she was the editor who retitled (or, in Wikipedia parlance, moved) the page following Manning’s announcement on the Today show. To begin, at least, events consisted of jargon-heavy technical decisions based heavily on Wikipedia policy. These events may be somewhat opaque to outsiders, but it is nevertheless worth summarizing the exact events that led to the larger conflict.
Morwen’s move was quickly reverted by the user Cls14, who misunderstood the reasoning for it and assumed it to be vandalism. A quick exchange on Morwen and Cls14’s talk pages resolved the dispute, and Morwen moved the page back twenty minutes later. Save for one edit cleaning up a technically inept attempt at moving the page back to Bradley Manning that resulted instead in Wikipedia having no article on Manning at all for a few seconds, Morwen made no further edits to the page.
Although Morwen’s actions were in practice controversial, they were in no way unusual for Wikipedia, which has an ethos they describe with the acronym BRD, short for Bold, Revert, Discuss. In short, the ethos means that editors should be bold in making changes. If other editors feel these changes are unproductive and cannot be fixed through further editing they should revert them, i.e., return the article to its earlier state. At that point editors should stop editing on that particular issue (failure to do so is called an edit war, and is considered a bad thing) and discuss the edit until some consensus is reached. This is what happened between Morwen and Cls14 – Cls14 viewed Morwen’s initial page move as unproductive. Morwen and Cls14 spoke, Cls14 told her to “feel free to change back,” and Morwen did.
Morwen’s move was, furthermore, in line with how Wikipedia handled gender transitions in the past. Chelsea Manning is not the first transgender person to have a Wikipedia article, nor the first to transition after becoming famous. The previous three were Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski, and Laura Jane Grace. In all three cases the articles were renamed promptly upon the subjects public transitions, with only Laura Jane Grace being slow, not due to controversy, but due to a small number of editors involved in editing the article and a lack of clarity over whether Grace was transitioning immediately, or discussing future plans.
Beyond that, Wikipedia’s policies on transgender issues were well-established, and had been for years. The Wikipedia Manual of Style states that “any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example “man/woman”, “waiter/waitress”, “chairman/chairwoman”), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person’s latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person’s life.” That wording has evolved over the years. The earliest version dates to January 9th, 2006, and was added to the policy page by a user named Montrealais, who clarified the existing policy that people should “where known, use terminology that subjects use for themselves (self identification). This can mean calling an individual the term they use, or calling a group the term most widely used by that group” to specifically note that “this includes referring to transgender individuals according to the name and pronoun they use to identify themselves.” The earlier policy that insisted on self-identification without specifically mentioning transgender people has existed since April 6, 2004. On the whole, this approach is consistent with other mainstream style guides, such as the Associated Press Stylebook.
Approximately fifty minutes after Morwen moved the article for the second time David Gerard, an administrator, altered the protection level of the article to prevent page moves on the grounds that the page was a “highly visible page.” The protection level of a Wikipedia article is used to control who can edit the article, and comes in two forms. The first affects who can edit the page at all, the second is who can move it. Both can be set to allow anybody, established users, or administrators only. Gerard’s action meant that only administrators could conduct further page moves, but left the article open for any established users.
The logic behind Gerard’s decision is, on the whole, straightforward. The article was linked from Wikipedia’s front page via its “In the news” section. While page moves are largely treated as an uncontroversial thing, they are a popular form of vandalism, and it is routine to use protection pre-emptively to deal with this problem. Gerard further cited “BLP,” an acronym referring to Wikipedia’s Biographies of Living Persons policy, more about which later. An hour later, user Tariqabjotu moved the page back to Bradley Manning citing a request by the user StAnselm on a project page for requesting page moves. By this point, there was already a rapidly expanding discussion on the article’s talk page in which all sides of the issue were already represented that ought to have demonstrated the existence of controversy.
Even in the earliest stages of the discussion there were numerous comments that were overtly transphobic. An early example, made just seventeen minutes after Morwen’s second page move, came from the user ThinkEnemies, who proclaimed “I’m just happy he didn’t decide to self-identify as Jesus Christ could you imagine the redirects. SMH. This dude is named Bradley Manning until officially recognized by the courts. Chelsea is what we would call a nickname.”
Two minutes after Tariqabjotu’s move, Gerard moved the page back, again citing the BLP policy. This was the final attempt to move the article prior to Casey Penk filing an official request to have the page moved back. Penk clarified that he believed Chelsea Manning to be the correct article title, but felt that Morwen and Gerard had made a procedural error due to policy stating that “any potentially controversial proposal to change a title should be advertised at Wikipedia:Requested moves, and consensus reached before any change is made.” Not long after the official move request a user named Axl Matuli? changed the protection level again, preventing any non-administrators from editing the article at all, at which point the article was locked into a more or less stable version with relatively few edits.
This marks the point at which the discussion was thrown open to the community at large. This requires a larger discussion of how Wikipedia works. It is a peculiarity of Wikipedia that is at times difficult to explain to outsiders that there is no formal oversight on the subject of article content. The process by which articles are edited has been both endearingly and disparagingly referred to as the sausage factory, a reference to the old joke about how the two things you don’t ever want to see get made are laws and sausages. This is to say that the process by which decisions get made is often not an entirely pleasant one. It consists of a tremendous amount of discussion that often becomes unreadably long, followed by an attempt to determine what the consensus position is in cases where, in reality, nothing resembling a consensus has been reached. In this case the discussion consisted of more than three thousand distinct comments on the talk page for the Chelsea Manning article alone.
It will surprise nobody that a discussion consisting of three thousand comments by several hundred users made in pursuit of determining policy on how to refer to transgender people in the wake of a tremendously politically charged incident did not, by any standards, go well. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at the discussion precisely because it is so large and diffuse. The move request was the mechanism by which Manning’s article was moved back to the overtly transphobic title of Bradley Manning. More importantly, however, it provides a largely transparent and documentable account of how a specific and powerful institution came to take an explicitly transphobic position. Many of the events are idiosyncratic to Wikipedia’s specific culture, which is rooted in a peculiar set of ethics and values. Others are illustrative of the basic mechanisms through which institutionalized bigotry takes place.
It ought be noted that within the larger struggle for transgender civil rights, Chelsea Manning is going to be a significant historical figure by virtue of being the first person to transition while already the center of a political controversy. Her legal team has already indicated that they intend to fight for her legal right to have access to hormone replacement therapy and to be treated as a woman in prison. This will, inevitably, be a landmark civil rights case as significant as her prosecution for leaking classified information was.
My aims in presenting this are not simply an attempt at activism in order to get the page moved back to its correct title; in all honesty, I expect that this will happen within the next few months, and that additional outside pressure will not affect this in any positive ways. Wikipedia is historically hostile to attempts to influence its policies from outside of its community. I strongly discourage anyone reading this from creating an account to join in the discussion – newly created accounts that participate in policy discussions are generally marginalized and ignored, and Wikipedia’s bias against such practice means that they often do more harm than good. Wikipedia has explicit policies against off-site canvassing. My goal here is, rather, to document how one of the first drafts of history was written and to expose the mechanisms by which the first draft came out so horribly wrong.
Many of the comments made in the discussion were openly transphobic. One user decried the change, saying that Wikipedia is “not a site designed to protect people’s ‘feelings’.” Others accused Manning of being “clearly mentally unstable,” and “still male in every meaningful sense,” while others reached for the old and offensive canard of comparing transgender people to animals, saying “If I had a Wikipedia article and then I suddenly claimed to be a dog, or a cat, would they change it to reflect such a non-sense? Biologically he is a man and will die a man (check his chromosomes XY), and legally he is a man (he even asks to be called by his male name in official stuff). It is stupid to change the wikipedia article… this deserves, at most, a brief section. Wikipedia is about FACTS not gay-lobby propaganda.”
Beyond that, off Wikipedia, there were numerous attempts at harassment, including attempts at blackmail and public outing of transgender Wikipedians. At least one transgender editor was threatened with having their birth name publicly revealed. Such behavior was not the majority of what happened, but it was a significant enough portion of it to affect the entire discussion.
Another large swath of comments focused on the question of sourcing. In addition to the Manual of Style policy that Morwen cited in her initial move there is a policy entitled “Article titles” that contains a section proclaiming that “some topics have multiple names, and this can cause disputes as to which name should be used in the article’s title. Wikipedia prefers the name that is most commonly used (as determined by its prevalence in reliable English-language sources).” This policy specifically addresses subjects that change their names, saying that “if an organization changes its name, it is reasonable to consider the usage since the change.” Generally speaking, this policy was cited primarily by those favoring the title Bradley Manning.
The “Article titles” policy causes particular difficulty in understanding the flow of the discussion – the majority of comments on the subject were made in the earliest days of the debate, while media sourcing slanted steadily towards using the name Chelsea Manning over the course of the debate. At the start of the debate the bulk of the British press immediately and en masse adopted the name Chelsea for Manning. This was in keeping with the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into press conduct, and with the events surrounding the suicide of Lucy Meadows, a transgender school teacher who had, prior to her death, been hounded by the press. Even The Daily Mail, a famously right-wing paper that printed an editorial declaring that Meadows was unfit to be a school teacher and an obituary that repeatedly used the male pronoun for Meadows, adopted Chelsea immediately upon her transition.
American papers were slower to follow. Progressive-leaning institutions like Salon and MSNBC switched over immediately. National Public Radio switched on the 23rd. The Associated Press switched on the 26th. The New York Times and Time switched on the 27th. The changing of the Associated Press was particularly significant in terms of the coverage, because so few American papers were doing any original reporting on the story, which meant that its switch was a de facto switch for the bulk of local papers and many national ones. The result was that by the time of the decision to move the page back to Bradley Manning was taken the sources were, on balance, slanted towards use of “Chelsea Manning,” although this was not wholly reflected by the debate. Of the 326 so-called “!votes” (more about which later), just thirty-three were made after the New York Times made its announcement. Those thirty-three, notably, ran 2:1 in favor of Chelsea.
On the 27th, Morwen and Gerard published a detailed explanation of their rationale in moving the page. They cited several reasons – the longstanding Manual of Style favoring self-identity, the past precedent, and the BLP – Biographies of Living Persons – policy. (Wikipedia, as is probably clear by now, is terribly fond of three-letter acronyms. Or TLAs, if you must.) This policy – the last of the major Wikipedia policies to be put in place – demands special care be taken with articles on people who are currently alive because of the material harm that can be caused by a website as large as Wikipedia getting things wrong. This was the policy specifically pointed to by Gerard in locking the page from further moves. In particular, Morwen and Gerard cited the material harm that misnaming causes transgender people.
Two days after Morwen and Gerard made their post, the user Rannpháirtí anaithnid (or RA, as he signs his posts) offered a “retort” to it that was specifically endorsed by many of the editors arguing for locating the article at Bradley Manning. RA speaks at great length of his sympathy for Manning, and it is clear that his comments are not motivated by any sort of conscious hatred. Nevertheless, they are deeply troubling on several levels, consisting of a large amount of hair-splitting (an attempt to distinguish between calling the article Bradley Manning and calling its subject Bradley Manning), and a suggestion that the greater “naturalness” (a term stemming from a policy page on article titles) of Bradley Manning is justification for calling the article that, ease of reading, apparently, being a higher virtue than self-identity. The most troubling portion, however, comes when RA attempts to argue why calling the article Chelsea Manning violates BLP, suggesting that this constitutes sensationalism and “making a circus out of this,” and that Manning is “a young person, just 25-year-old, who last week was told she may not feel daylight on her skin until she is 60. And the very next day, Wikipedians are making a plaything out of her on these pages and making titillating news stories out of her travails..”
Another of Wikipedia’s policies is to assume good faith. This is, by and large, sound advice, and we ought do it here. RA’s comments appear motivated out of a sincere concern for Manning’s well-being. Nevertheless, we ought observe the basic dynamic here. Morwen and Gerard are both editors with prior experience in transgender issues. In spite of this, a sizable crowd of editors with little to no experience on the subject saw fit to ignore their recommendations, deciding that they know what difficulties transgender people face and how best to treat them. Within the trans community this will ominously reflect the oppressive “gatekeeper” policies of the medical establishment that both prolong and increase the expense of a gender transition in the name of protecting transgender people against the (functionally non-existent) danger that they might regret their transition. More broadly, however, it reeks of privilege – of the basic assumption that the cisgender population will automatically know what’s best and respect the rights and needs of transgender people, so much so that they do not even need to listen to them.
This sense of privilege is the easiest way to explain the vitriol directed at Gerard and Morwen for their acts. Since making the decision to move the article, both have been subject to calls to have their administrator status revoked, or to be, in Wikipedia parlance, “de-sysoped.” In Gerard’s case it is at least possible to understand the argument – his decision to move the page back after Tariqabjotu’s move was arguably a case of using administrative powers (moving a locked page) to engage in an edit war, although traditionally considerable leeway is granted to administrators acting to handle BLP concerns. For Morwen, however, the calls to strip her of administrator status are simply bewildering given that absolutely none of her actions involved using any administrator powers. In the absence of this the fact that she had the temerity to respond to an interview request from New Statesman and to post about the decision on her blog are taken as egregious sins. RA, for his part, raised the possibility that “the administrators involved be de-sysoped,” citing policies against being overly passionate about issues, which seems a direct attack on the fact that Morwen for editing about transgender issues when she is herself trans. RA has since backed down from that statement, clarifying, “I do not advocate any such sanction against Morwen.”
When pushed, the editors who have called for punishment for Gerard and Morwen have pointed specifically to a sentence in their posted rationale in which they stated, “as editors who are familiar with trans issues this seemed sufficiently obvious to us that we did not think it required extensive clarification; but some editors, who are unfamiliar with the topic (as many people in the wider world are), have challenged this.” This statement was described by Tariqabjotu straightforwardly: “this attitude is disgusting.” Another editor, user FoxyOrange, proclaimed this “incredibly arrogant and therefore offensive.” The arrogance of cisgender editors declaring that transgender people are too passionate about trans issues to know how to cover them went largely unmentioned.
It is impossible to wholly separate this vitriol from the threats and hate speech, some of which was also targeted at Morwen. The division is not between those who acted with clearly malicious transphobia and those who acted out of good faith. Rather the division is between those who reacted with hostility to the very phenomenon of transgender self-identity and those that did not. The question of whether that hostility was borne of malice, ignorance, or bruised egos due to challenged privilege is irrelevant – all three, along with whatever other motivations existed, blended together and mutually reinforced each other.
Here it is necessary to pause for a moment and consider exactly what the accusations against Morwen and Gerard involved. In practice, Morwen and Gerard adhered to policies regarding transgender people that have been in place for nearly a decade, and advocated a course of action that is straightforward to anyone with even a passing familiarity with transgender culture. Nevertheless, the very fact that they came into this discussion with prior knowledge of editorial and humanitarian standards regarding this issue was treated with hostility by a crowd of people who, approaching transgender issues for the first time, genuinely believed that their judgments carried equal or greater weight, and that the main priority was that the article be located in the place most people would look for it.
It should be made explicit that no practical confusion exists in locating the article at Chelsea Manning. Any reader who searches for Bradley Manning will be redirected to the article. If anything the current situation, where an article titled Bradley Manning begins with “Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (born Bradley Edward Manning, December 17, 1987) is a United States Army soldier…” is far more confusing than simply locating the article at a title that matches the subject’s name. Instead the unambiguous directive of the Manual of Style to treat Manning by her chosen name is put in conflict with the supposed mandate of the Article Title policy to create a truly bizarre situation. The farcical end result of the decision highlights just how preposterous the argument for titling the article Bradley Manning was, and how ridiculous the results of relitigating basic standards of how to write about transgender people in the face of a highly contested political issue were inevitably going to be. Literally the only thing that was gained by retitling the article Bradley Manning was the message that Wikipedia does not wholly acknowledge Manning’s gender identity, a message hammered home by the fact that as soon as the article was unprotected an edit war broke out over whether to categorize the article under “Women in the United States Army” or not. The only product of the decision was the hate speech.
It would, however, be inaccurate to suggest that the discussion led to a clear consensus in favor of hate speech. In fact the discussion was bitterly divided. The primary mechanism for judging consensus is !votes, the exclamation point being used in the context of symbolic logic to mean “not.” This reflects the fact that although Wikipedia does not technically make decisions based on voting, the format by which decisions involving large numbers of editors is made is, from an outside perspective, indistinguishable from voting. The key aspect of the three thousand post discussion was a list of comments in explicit support or opposition to moving the page back to Bradley Manning.
Tallying these comments is trickier than one unfamiliar with the mechanics of sausage making might expect. Two counts exist. One was by the user SlimVirgin, and concluded that there were 170 !votes in favor of Bradley Manning, and 131 in favor of Chelsea. The other, by user BD2412, got 169 for Bradley and 145 for Chelsea. Either way, there was a slight but noticeable majority in favor of Bradley, although nothing that could be described as a decisive consensus.
It is worth highlighting a handful of these !votes. First, the comment by Sue Gardner, the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which manages Wikipedia. Gardner voiced strong support for locating the article at Chelsea Manning, citing the Manual of Style and the growing consensus of media sources. Unrelatedly, and separate from the !votes, Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia, who proclaimed that “we ought to very strngly defer to how people identify themselves, but for various pedantic reasons, some editors insist on calling people by names that they very strongly reject. I consider that a BLP issue of some seriousness.”
Second, it is notable that Adrian Lamo, the person who reported Manning’s leaks to the authorities, weighed in on the discussion in favor of moving the article to Chelsea. Lamo noted that Manning’s status as a transgender person has been reported on for years, and noted the emphatic nature of Manning’s coming out via a prepared statement on national television.
Obviously the result of this discussion did not provide an unambiguous mandate as to what to do. In situations like this the ethos dictating that Wikipedia’s content decisions are made by the community with no active authority becomes stretched. In practice, in a situation like this, an uninvolved administrator is expected to close the discussion and make a decision. In this case the decision was made primarily by the user BD2412, in consultation with users Kww and BOZ, both also uninvolved administrators.
As with Rannpháirtí anaithnid, I do not doubt the good intentions of BD2412, Kww, or BOZ. Nevertheless, they put themselves in a crucial position of power, albeit one that was a clear case of “somebody had to do it.” As we’ve seen, the three thousand post discussion demonstrates the many problems with putting basic matters of self identity up to a public vote in the first place. The discussion was rife with transphobia of various forms: explicit, implicit, malicious, and merely ignorant. Beyond that, it came to an ambiguous conclusion.
Ultimately, then, the decision made came down to the three closing administrators. BD2412, Kww, and BOZ could have justified any number of actions, including locating the page at either title. Whatever justification for their decision was given, and we will look at the justification that was in a moment, the idea that there was no choice and that, as BD2412 put it when asked to comment, “a closing administrator has no authority to impose a personal preference not supported by consensus” is simply untrue. Wikipedia has over fifty policy pages, and around twice that many “guidelines.” As Morwen put it when interviewed by New Statesman, “Wikipedia policies are great in the same way standards are – there’s one for every occasion and line of argument.” Which is to say that Wikipedia is governed by a tremendously complex set of rules, within which exist numerous ambiguities and contradictions. The idea that these policies causally lead to single results is on the face of it absurd, as the fact that this controversy continues demonstrates. If nothing else, one of Wikipedia’s policies, entitled simply “Ignore All Rules,” proclaims simply that “If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.” Which is to say that there is always a level of individual judgment involved. The closing administrators had a series of choices to make about which policies and values to prioritize. Given these choices, they chose a result that constitutes hate speech.
BD2412 offered an extended explanation for his decision, which is scrupulously and extensively couched in Wikipedia policy. But this explanation highlights the way in which institutionalized power of cisgender editors was allowed to systematically override a previously established consensus on how to handle transgender topics. BD2412 begins from the premise that as the Bradley Manning title was longstanding and stable, and thus that the standard used to decide the title would be that those wishing the title to be Chelsea Manning would have to demonstrate a clear consensus for the move. BD2412 cites a line of policy that states, “In article title discussions, no consensus has two defaults: If an article title has been stable for a long time, then the long-standing article title is kept. If it has never been stable, or has been unstable for a long time, then it is moved to the title used by the first major contributor after the article ceased to be a stub.”
This seems clear enough, but there is an obvious silliness in deciding that this applies in the face of major developments like the subject of an article coming out as transgender – indeed, it seems like this is the sort of situation for which the Ignore All Rules policy was invented. That is not to say that it is self-evident that Manning’s coming out ought alter what the default title is, but rather to say that BD2412’s declaration that the default was Bradley Manning was, in fact, a decision with alternatives.
?The result of this decision is that from the very start of BD2412‘s evaluation of policy, transgender identities were made not a matter of self identification, but a matter of popular vote. Chelsea Manning is only allowed to be trans if a clear consensus of Wikipedia editors deign to allow her to be. If a sufficiently loud crowd of people does not believe that she has jumped through the appropriate hoops, her self identity does not need to be recognized. BD2412’s stated threshold was that the Chelsea Manning title would only be usable if there was “a development of consensus for a change from the default title.” This is an extraordinary bar to clear, requiring a strong majority of editors to accept the Chelsea Manning title. A result of that, then, is that a sizable bloc of editors with transphobic attitudes, whether malicious or ignorant, is sufficient to create an insurmountable objection to acknowledging someone’s gender transition.
The fact that BD2412 later explicitly excludes the comments premised “solely on Manning’s legal and biological state” does little to alleviate this problem. The emphasis on the word “solely” ends up making it clear that explicit transphobia is a perfectly acceptable reason to make decisions on Wikipedia so long as the bigotry is at least partially phrased in terms of Wikipedia policies, which, as we’ve seen, are fungible.
Equally distressing is BD2412’s declaration that the BLP policy does not require the article be titled Chelsea Manning. Particularly disturbing is his statement that “the application of BLP to avoid harming the subject is mitigated by the subject’s own acknowledgment that “Bradley Manning” will continue to be used in various fora, and by the fact that the name, “Bradley Manning”, will inevitably appear prominently in the article lede.” This is a reference to the subsequent statement from Manning’s lawyer that “there’s a realization that most people know her as Bradley. Chelsea is a realist and understands.” To be explicit, BD2412 concludes that because Manning is not naive enough to expect that the entire world will avoid transphobia, transphobia is somehow less hurtful. This comes perilously close to outright victim blaming, displaying disturbing similarity with the line of reasoning that suggests that because women know the danger of sexual assault it is their responsibility to avoid it. It is further telling that BD2412 ignored the input of both Sue Gardner and Jimbo Wales, both of whose responsibilities within the Wikimedia Foundation often focus on the complaints of people upset with Wikipedia’s coverage of them.
BD2412 similarly ignored the growing weight of sources using the name Chelsea, stating that “the change that did occur was not sufficient to persuade the majority of editors, including some who indicated that their minds could be changed by sufficient evidence of changed usage.” That many of these !votes came early in the discussion, and that the !votes after both the AP and New York Times changed their usage skewed heavily in favor of Chelsea was, apparently, not relevant. Again, BD2412 puts trans identities up for public vote: you’re only trans if you can convince the press of it.
BD2412’s concession to changing sources – that the matter can be reconsidered in thirty days – is hardly an adequate counterweight. It is difficult to find much comfort in the knowledge that the transphobic decision might be overturned in a month. There is nothing admirable about committing Wikipedia to thirty days of hate speech.
Again, none of BD2412’s conclusions were causally necessary from the discussion. It is perfectly possible to imagine a conclusion that started from the premise that Wikipedia’s policies on covering transgender people have been stable and consistent for nearly a decade, and that an influx of editors attempting to rules-lawyer these policies in the wake of a politically contentious issue does not override years of consensus on the matter. A demand that those who wish the article to be named Bradley Manning seek consensus to change Wikipedia’s policies on transgender issues would have been reasonable and justifiable. BD2412, Kww, and BOZ chose a different course, however: they decided that transgender identities were a matter for a public vote.
It is wrong to suggest, however, that the buck stops with BD2412, Kww, and BOZ. Several higher order authorities exist with at least some power to influence or alter the decision. First among them is the arbitration committee, a twelve-person elected panel that adjudicates intractable editorial disputes. Although by policy the arbitration committee only involves itself in disputes involving user conduct and explicitly does not make content decisions. Nevertheless, they have considerable leeway. They are, however, a notoriously slow process – there is no realistic way they would issue a ruling before BD2412’s thirty day window for reconsideration has passed. In any case, a request for their intervention has already been made by the user TParis, and appears on track to be taken up. David Gerard – a former arbitrator himself – has explicitly asked the committee to weigh in on the decision to move the page back to Bradley Manning, and Sue Gardner has asked the arbcom to specifically clarify the applicability of BLP and to issue a statement “on how editors might choose to conduct themselves in disputes in which they have little expertise, and in which systemic bias risks skewing outcomes.” (Further disclosure: TParis named me as a party to the case. Because of my decision to begin covering this issue here, I have noted that I will not actively participate in the case and will accept any sanctions that the committee makes without appealing them. I will not use this forum to report on aspects of the case related to my conduct, but as it continues I will report on decisions made regarding other editors.)
A second option exists via the Volunteer Response Team, aka OTRS – a group of editors who answer e-mails sent to the Wikimedia Foundation and address BLP issues. Although they carry no explicit authority they are generally given considerable leeway. An explicit request from Chelsea Manning or her legal team for Wikipedia to move the article would thus carry considerable weight, although I have no reason to believe that any such request has been made or is forthcoming. Anna Wiggins has already filed a request with them, although the response – a slightly modified form letter that disclaimed that “decisions, such as the title of an article on any subject, are made by community consensus.” It is my understanding that Ms. Wiggins intends to follow-up on this response. s per Wikipedia’s explicit bias against canvassing and lobbying, I actively discourage anyone who is not acting on the express wishes of Chelsea Manning or her legal team from attempting to lobby the Volunteer Response Team for intervention; a mass e-mail campaign will not be helpful, and as noted, efforts in this direction are already underway.
Finally there is the Wikimedia Foundation itself, which owns the servers on which Wikipedia is hosted. In the general case they are disinclined to involve themselves too directly in content issues, as the ethos of Wikipedia is explicitly that there is not a rigid editorial structure. Nevertheless, it is not unheard of. The BLP policy itself exists because of top-down pressure from Jimbo Wales in the wake of the 2005 John Seigenthaler controversy, in which Seigenthaler penned an op-ed for USA Today complaining about a defamatory article posted about him that accused him of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. In 2009 the Foundation reaffirmed this, passing a resolution urging all Wikimedia projects to adopt policies along the lines of the BLP policy.
For the Foundation to take the explicit position that they will not allow their servers to be used to host hate speech would be controversial in the extreme. It would also be an act of bravery and integrity. Arguably, these are the exact sorts of lines the Foundation exists to draw. Nevertheless, when asked for a statement on behalf of the Foundation, Sue Gardner said, “the WMF does not, and cannot, adjudicate content disputes. It’s not our role, and even if we tried to do it, we wouldn’t be successful,” while reiterating her personal support for the Chelsea Manning title as “someone who was a practicing journalist for a long time, and who has given a lot of thought to Wikipedia and its role and influence in the world” Jimbo Wales, for his part, offered slightly more hope when asked to comment, bluntly proclaiming that “the idea that we can’t reconsider for 30 days is just wrong.”
That the Foundation would not succeed if it chose to step in is, of course, wholly a matter of speculation unless they actually do so. As noted, the Foundation has weighed in on content issues before, hence the existence of the BLP policy in the first place. It is also worth noting that the use of the Foundation’s power comes in forms other than silence and autocratic decree; an official statement that misnaming and misgendering transgender people goes against the intended spirit of the BLP policy would carry profound weight. More broadly, although use of their powers would generate massive controversy and would likely result in a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Wikipedia community and the Foundation, the power to immediately stop engaging in transphobic hate speech exists, and the fact that it has not, to date, been exercised constitutes a measure of culpability for that hate speech.
This is, in other words, not an individual failing, but a collective one. Wikipedia illustrates all too perfectly the way in which transphobic bigotry takes place. A broad base of people who are largely ignorant of trans issues respond make a lot of noise. Structures of authority make decisions ostensibly based on dispassionate application of established rules, but that are, in practice, little more than fig leafs disguising their unwillingness to go against the mob. Other structures of authority remain silent. And far too few people spend any serious time listening to the experiences of trans people. Those that do are shouted down or, in extreme cases, threatened by people afraid of having their privilege challenged.
It’s easier by far to convince yourself that you’re acting benevolently than to take seriously the possibility that you’re doing harm. Easier by far to bow to what is politically expedient and will get you the least criticism, instead of what will cause the least pain. Easier to pretend that responsibility extends to following the rules and not to considering the consequences. And easier by far to stay silent than to stick your neck out and make a controversial but necessary decision. That’s how the fifth biggest website in the world commits itself to transphobic hate speech. The same way any bigotry happens: it’s easier than doing the right thing.
I will continue to follow this story as it unfolds. I encourage anybody with information that I have not considered, or anybody who wishes to comment on or off the record about the proceedings discussed to contact me.