My Online Encounter With Transphobia

(Originally written August 2016)

“People only notice the politics in stories they disagree with.” — in a conversation between Sheila Williams and Stanley Schmidt, Worldcon 2016

They say “words have power”. With these words:

“Eli will be entering college in a few days. Even when he was growing up, he had always been uncomfortable about not being able to do “boy sports” and other “boy things”. He was enrolled at a local all-girl Middle/High School in 6th grade, but finally understood at 13 that he was actually a boy…”

and other similar life story short descriptions accompanying a set of photo portraits, I became summarily banned from an online photography community by moderators with a transphobic and bigoted agenda.

— Eli

The purpose of writing this post is not to attempt to get back into that community per se — I have other avenues for my artistic project, and there is possibly a way that the moderators could be held accountable (see Epilogs), but simply to show WHY, indeed, this experience ironically demonstrates how my photographic project “Hearts on Our Sleeves — portraits and stories of transgender people” is so very necessary.

To begin: I am a photographer who often works with 4×5 large format cameras for my personal work. Think Ansel Adams with his old-fashioned camera with the bellows and dark cloth, and that would be me (except that I don’t have a beard, nor play the piano, and am certainly not as anywhere good a photographer as he was.) These cameras are heavy, and due to their archaic nature, more difficult to use and more expensive than the usual modern-style camera. That being so, this type of equipment tends to be mostly owned and used by somewhat affluent white men, typically 60 years or older. (Certainly there are exceptions, i.e. myself, who am neither elderly nor white, and I also just had an assistant at an event who is a (white) female in her 20s.)

The online community in question is the LFPF (Large Format Photography Forum) which was started in the late 1990s, so it has a long history, and to my knowledge most of the members and probably the moderators fit the above typical demographic description.

When I began the project, I created a thread in the forum to document its progress; whenever I had a new image, I would post the image and accompany it with the subject’s story summary, such as the one at the top of this essay. And so it continued, without incident, for three months.

The thread, including the images and text, can possibly still be read here:

(The images and text are similar to the ones found in the work-in-progress slides, see bottom of post)

I had received only positive comments on and off the thread since I created it, until Aug 22nd, when a member, Kent, raised a question as to “why is a political thread in a photography forum?”. (Note that all the image posts were accompanied by text and stories from the image subjects themselves, simply documenting their personal experiences. None of these stories addressed any sort of active political position, or even expressed simple civil rights advocacy.) As I and several other members made replies to Kent, eventually the moderators decided to close the thread because they seem to have deemed that it was too “political”, or “controversial”.

(Note that Kent himself has now said that the thread is, in fact, acceptable to him, and he no longer considers it political in nature; see Epilogs.)

When the “controversy” began, the moderators could have chosen to delete all comments deemed “political” and otherwise left the thread alone; this sort of deletion is frequently done on this forum. They chose to close the thread instead. When I inquired whether I could post future images in the (Monthly) Portraits posts, I was informed that it would be OK, but I could not post the text that accompanies the images. (Note again that all the text are personal descriptions from the people being photographed, and not my editorial commentary.)

This is when I felt I had to take a stand. The photos are of a subset of members of American society from all walks of life, not even any kind of “radical fringe group” or any organization with a specific political bent. There is nothing inherently political about these people’s individual personal stories; there is however a current insidious political climate in America which actively encourages the arbitrary demonization of various groups of people, including transgender people, that may make their personal stories appear to some to be “political”. (As an aside, ALL photographs can be seen to be “political” in the eyes of a beholder. A picture of a withered tree could be viewed as a testimonial to climate change, or the portrait of a child of any race taken in any type of setting, whatever that may be — ANY photo can be read to have subtext and implication.)

Indeed, when people like Eli are brave enough to agree to participate in my project and describe their sometimes difficult personal experiences, how could I then fail them by censoring their voices?

Throughout the course of the next day or so, it became clear that the moderators actually had an agenda, while hiding under the guise of “even-handedness” of not allowing politics into the forum.

I created a thread called “Censorship or Moderation” to call out the moderators on their actions. It garnered over 18000+ views in one day — considering that there are only 3000+ members on the forum and many are inactive, it was clear that many members were refreshing to see new replies.

A particular egregious post was then made by one of the moderators, Ralph Barker:

“As a side note, this position (of not allow the text to my images) also precludes other, similarly-presented projects, such as portraits of members of the American Nazi party, members of the KKK, or portraits of ISIS member showing their handywork…” (Ralph Barker)

THIS was the real “WTF??” moment. He COULD have made his point using, for argument’s sake, “Portraits of Black children in low-income neighborhoods of NYC”, or even “Portraits of Occupy Wall Street” (which in fact I have also done), but instead he purposefully chose to associate the subject of transgender people with three violent extremist hate groups that no reasonable person would disagree must be handled on a forum with extreme prejudice.

Neither he nor the other moderators made any sort of apology for this. Indeed, as other members joined in the discussion, they doubled down, and eventually, at least six members, including myself, were banned from the forum. Only after he banned me and a few others that this moderator actually dared to say that we “must have reading comprehension” for not “understanding” his reply.

The other icing on this cake-wreck is that, during the exchange, one member sent a nasty PM to another member calling him a “fag”. The offending party has been a member for over 6+ years, and this could likely not have been his first transgression, and yet HE is, somehow, still a member in “good standing” and continues to be active.

The moderators made the following statement:

“The thread was on watch from the start; based on experience we figured a high likelihood that it would go south. When it did, we were faced with a delete-vs-close judgment call. My judgment was that the thread would be a source of recurrent trouble. That’s a debatable call. But following up on the point I made to Bryan, if the topic is so inflammatory and so sensitive that a thread closure, well-judged or not, is taken as presumptive evidence of bigotry and elicits a torrent of nasty ad hominem attacks, we might indeed be well advised to steer clear of it.”

The only allegedly “ad hominem attack” the moderators received was in fact when I and several other members asked them to clarify Ralph Barker’s inflammatory words, above. So, they had “watched” the thread from the beginning. Perhaps that they knew they could not close and shut down a thread without cause, so they waited with bated breath for an opportunity, which eventually Kent conveniently provided.

So words have power; and these personal words:

“By the time I was four I knew I was not a girl, but back then, there was no option to do anything about it. I thought puberty would fix everything, but then I started having periods. I don’t remember anything at all about my 7th grade year because I was completely dissociated. When I came back to reality, I resigned myself to being a girl and completely buried any memory of my true male self….” (words of Dr. James Robinson)

apparently are “so scary” and “so dangerous” to some people, that they need to shut them down. In America, in 2016, where being transgender is by no means in any way an “illegal” circumstance, any more so than being Asian, Black, Gay or Lesbian, or being in an interracial marriage, even though there are still leftover bigots in this country in the 21st century who find any or all on that list offensive to them, and therefore may choose to brand them as political in an attempt at suppression.

— Dr. James Robinson, PhD in Biology with a particular love for Paleontology

“I see myself as a twin, Jane and James, joined at birth, and separated when I was 56”

A label does not define a person, but a person nevertheless lives under that label; e.g. I am Chinese American, and that label immediately defines me in the minds of a lot of people before they know anything about me. “Transgender” is also a label, but it no more describes that person any more than “Chinese American” actually describes the person that is me.


#1: While the moderators’ words and decisions are final — and they have been pretty smug about it, banning people left and right and deleting their posts — it just so happens that they are volunteer moderators, and the forum software and all its contents live on a server run by a friend of mine. He hosts LFPF and a few other sites, and spends quite a bit of time maintaining them out of the goodness of his heart. I have logged a complaint with him. As he has been traveling and I do not know what he will do or can do (well, I know he could unplug the machine if he chooses to, and *poof* the site would be gone), I hope that he will do the right thing and send these moderators a message regarding their behavior.

#2: Indeed, after much reflection, Kent has since come around and posted the following! Too bad I cannot answer him any more:

First, I’ve never had any problems with photos posted here, not even ones I might have found in poor taste. (Some of Frank P’s come to mind.) As far as Richard, he & I have been exchanging PMs — something we should have done earlier. Due to the timing of his original thread, I was questioning if it was more about political advocacy than photography. After some frank discussion between us, I now believe that was NOT the case. It was an example of us talking past each other. I never had any problem with his photos — they are well done. Now that we’ve discussed it, I have NO objections to his original post either. I’m all for bringing it back. Make no mistake — no one is pressuring me, it’s purely a matter of me getting more information and reconsidering. I think Richard is a great guy. (Kent from SD)

#3: the work in progress slides are here: