Trans Activism and the Success of the Victim

If you’re on social media and separated by no more than one degree to trans media spaces, you’ve likely heard about the days-long continuous charity livestream of video essayist Hbomberguy. He promised to host an uninterrupted livestream of a 101% completion of the Nintendo 64 game, Donkey King 64, while collecting donations for a peer facilitator group for trans and gender questioning youth in the United Kingdom called Mermaids. When I started drafting this post, he had raised over $150,000 and streamed 38 hours uninterrupted.

Why now? Hbomberguy admits that he doesn’t know much about trans issues (which in the internet age of rewarding confident but wrong punditry, is something to be applauded), except that trans people should be supported and that that support shouldn’t look like calling us frauds or trying to change our minds. But another reason is that a former comedy writer turned full-time anti-trans activist, Graham Linehan, has been repeatedly defaming both Mermaids and its CEO, Susie Green, with his latest stunt being a social media campaign to revoke the charity’s funding earmarked by the National Lottery Fund (it’s currently “under review,” presumably a second time, since you have to be “reviewed” to be earmarked in the first place). Hbomberguy wanted to perform the stream in part to spite him, as evidenced by a donation incentive jokingly titled “Erase Graham Linehan From History”

His last motive, which is that he never completed the game as a child and wants to do so now as part of his enthusiasm for video game speedrunning, is self-explanatory.

Months prior to Hbomberguy’s tremendous success, an incident circulated among journalists that was significant for its explicit detail. Harron Walker reported for Jezebel on leaks that proved the existence of a secretive listserv populated by nearly 500 journalism insiders, in which several conversations were held to workshop Jesse Singal’s slanted and ethically questionable coverage of trans issues, alongside at least one confirmed attempt to defame a trans journalist. If the listserv contains any trans journalists, they’re closeted, as known trans people are excluded by design. In other words, the media’s frequent inability to cover trans issues fairly isn’t merely convergent incompetence and arrogance, but is at least in part the result of an explicit conspiracy to discredit us as authorities on ourselves while simultaneously privileging cissexist coverage as reliable. However, there was one particular line from Jesse Singal that came to mind from this incident during Hbomberguy’s livestream that’s bothered me enough to write about it.

Singal’s privileging of cissexism is no better demonstrated than his first foray into writing about trans issues, when he wrote a fawning apology for Kenneth Zucker in New York Magazine. As part of his piece he contacted three trans women, including Dr. Julia Serano (whose PhD is in biology, and whose published work includes numerous contributions to gender variance as a topic). All three of his trans sources informed him as to what the research actually says and where he should look to get a complete picture of the problem. He used none of them in the final article. And that brings me to my bother.

The leaked conversations revealed by Jezebel include the line from Singal seared into my brain ever since I saw it:

On other issues, of course, I would trust trans people more than anyone else—who better to talk about the humiliation of living in a state with a ‘bathroom’ bill, or the difficulty of getting hormones, or other stuff that only trans people have to deal with? But overall, no, I don’t think trans people are more qualified to write about the tricky science stuff going on here than I am. I’d just be lying if I said otherwise.

Bearing in mind his background is political science–he is a writer, not a researcher. And among his sources for his first article (which was rightly panned for its oversights, including by me), was a bonafide researcher whose credentials were earned in navigating that “tricky science stuff.” Dr. Serano isn’t more qualified because she’s trans, she’s more qualified because she’s a fucking doctor.

Singal’s position in this paragraph is something I’d agree with, were it issued in a vacuum and stripped of context. There is nothing physically preventing cisgender people from having a comprehensive understanding of trans issues, and while having lived experience often equips one to ask better questions, it doesn’t always lead to better answers just by itself.* And Flying Spaghetti Monster knows that there are plenty of people with trails of letters before and after their name who are apocalyptically wrong about things. But, crucially, Serano’s response is not held alone, and is in fact reflective of the scientific consensus, which started shifting in the 90s when evidence began to contradict the Zucker et al. models.

However, there is the former part of Singal’s statement that sticks out even moreso than this blithe arrogance: Singal will, of course, consult me as the expert on being humiliated.

And this, I think, is where we hone in on the current zeitgeist on trans people, and the undercurrent that worries me during Hbomberguy’s wondrous accomplishment. Insofar as trans people are gaining acceptance, it is largely because stories of our trauma and difficulty are being recognised. But when that is the only association with the word “trans,” it means that the least disruptive depiction of trans people in the well-meaning liberal zeitgeist is that of a victim or a corpse:

When I deliberately gave a university-level presentation at Wittenberg in March, one full of citations, stories, and information, people were in fact seeing the real me. I am a researcher, who writes and researches, studies and publishes, presents and lectures — sometimes even on transgender issues. I gave them the intelligent, prepared, professional woman I believe I am.

The public doesn’t want that: They’re looking for a train wreck to spill their guts onstage. They want to watch Hoarders for the same reason: to feel better about themselves. It doesn’t matter that the material was well researched and presented. It’s as though they invited Stephen Hawking to speak, then were annoyed at him for talking about physics instead of how much Lou Gehrig’s disease sucks.

Singal’s work is, at its core, a sophisticated repackaging of “the gays are recruiting the children.” It depicts trans youth as flighty, naive, impulsive, exercising poor judgement, as though we haven’t spent enough time considering cost/benefit; it depicts trans activists, specifically, as hysterical and vaguely explicitly predatory. Singal’s work doesn’t have to name me to damage me, simply by accepting it as accurate people will receive me with those same implicit stereotypes, as evidenced in their staggering arrogance on the occasions I’ve had to interact. In other words, it works very hard to reinforce trans people as authorities on suffering, and no more. Or, at least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the sneering contempt directed at me when I point out I that am Singal’s peer, not his subject.

This is not to decry Hbomberguy’s efforts. The importance of parents confronting their learned cissexism for the sake of fostering a genuine self-esteem in their gender variant children cannot be understated. Mermaids facilitates that vital work and the man is a bloody saint for making up the shortfall caused by Graham Linehan’s lies. I worry instead that this endeavour has been so successful at least in part because its constituent ingredients cannot challenge this image of the perpetual victim.** Trans people and trans youth especially face tremendous hardships, but those hardships are due in part because we aren’t seen as competent decision makers. We face lost opportunities, ended careers, antagonistic networking, stressful childhoods–these all contribute to our material precarity, the lack of access to healthcare, the dependence on abusive partners or parents, the need for survival sex work.

I’m glad so many people showed up for Mermaids. They sorely needed relief from the agitprop on which the British press is drunk. I only hope for the cisgender people reading this to take us seriously–as people, as workers, as friends, as experts–after all this is over. Because the consequence of the works of Linehan or Singal is to frame us as constitutionally incapable, unreliable, and untrustworthy. That’s the entire reason Mermaids exists to begin with.



*This conversation seems to collide often with a separate and distinct complaint about epistemic injustice, or the systematic exclusion of trans people in conversations about trans people. I share this complaint, but do insist on recognising it as tangential to the core claim of whether or not cis people “can” understand trans issues.

**This is a limitation of the medium of charitable fundraising, not a specific criticism of Hbomberguy. “Stopgap” charity is necessary, but not sufficient, if that makes sense. It can’t be the only work.


Edit, January 20, 2019: Replaced “vaguely” with a recent example that leaves less to the imagination.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … I … am Singal’s peer, not his subject.

    No, you rank at least a step above him in both knowledge and reasoning.

  2. says

    I agree with Pierce. And you’re also a step above him in valuing truth and evidence over comfortable interlectual laziness.

    And yay for Hbomberguy!

  3. says

    Game’s over but the chat continued (continues?). I think there was a real sense of relief among the brits in the spoken chat, from the overwhelming atmosphere of transphobia in news media there. The discord, of course, was hardly worth looking at. But the guest audio was interesting stuff.

  4. says

    Great American Satan @ 5:

    … the overwhelming atmosphere of transphobia…

    It never stops. Even left-leaning papers like The Guardian routinely give their platform to TERF arseholes like Julie Bindel (it’s the main reason I won’t subscribe to them) and as for Murdoch-owned rags like The Times, well, I’ll leave that up to your own imagination…