how not to write about a transgendered person

on february 15, kotaku ran a “feature” on dani bunten. i’m not linking it – you can find it pretty easily if you want – because it’s disrespectful in a way that, as a transgendered woman, makes me cringe. the article, written by luke plunkett, perpetuates a misinformed attitude about trans people that is downright dangerous in a culture in which we’re already as marginalized as we are.

specifically, the kotaku article is rooted in the idea that a transgendered woman lives a dual-gender identity, that she “was male” prior to her transition. the article opens with a photo of a trans game designer pre-transition, and goes on to refer to her by her given (birth) name and male pronouns. halfway through the article, it springs her gender identity upon the reader like a plot twist, finally showing us a picture of her post-transition and using her chosen name and pronouns. if a feature on me called me by my birth name and had a picture of me with a beard, i would shit myself and then the author.

as a transgendered woman, let me DISPEL SOME MYTHS.

transition is not some BEFORE / AFTER DIET PILL AD. a transgender woman isn’t a man before she A) chooses to identify as a woman or B) has her genitals operated on. and the latter is in fact irrelevant to the former: i identify as a woman, but i have no plans for surgery. when you are born into this society, you’re assigned a gender. i was assigned “male.” but though i spent many years struggling to fit myself into a male identity that doesn’t mean i consider myself to ever have been a boy or man. i had not yet come to terms with my identity as a woman.

identity is a complicated thing, one that every person, trans or otherwise, experiences differently, and i can’t claim to speak on the late dani bunten’s behalf. but i can speak as a trans woman who deals with transphobia on a daily basis, especially in spaces related to videogames. and i can tell you on authority: if someone identifies as a woman, you call her a woman. if she internalizes female pronouns, you use female pronouns to refer to her. if she tells you her name, you use that name and not one that was chosen without her consent. oh, she expressed regret once about leaping into surgery she might not have needed to get? doesn’t invalidate her identity.

transphobia is rampant in games culture: it’s dangerous to all transgendered people and all women. it’s dangerous to everyone who participates in this culture. i remember a tigsource thread on “girl game designers” where someone said: “if you go on a blind date with a female indie game designer, you have a 50% chance of ending with a dick in your a**” (i think the word the poster dared not type is supposed to be “ass.”) to perpetuate incorrect myths about trans people and our identities is grossly irresponsible for a site like kotaku.

i posted on twitter about the article this morning, angrily, because I WAS FUCKING ANGRY. stephen totilo, who currently runs kotaku, reacted defensively, calling the article an “earnest tribute” and that he thought the “word choice” was “valid.” he didn’t say this to me, of course. i don’t know whether he blocked me or was simply ignoring me, but he refused to engage me, tweeting his responses to my concerns at courtney stanton, who i think was retweeting my tweets so that he could see them. while i was writing this post he finally buckled under the pressure of piles of tweets from trans people and allies, and changed the pronouns in the article and announced plans to change the top photo, but that doesn’t address the fact that the article – whose title includes the words “transgender video gaming pioneer” – is more about the novelty of bunten’s transition (“the narrative,” as totilo put it) than her actual contributions to videogames.

so let me tell you about dani bunten and how much we all owe her. she was one of the earliest voices in games to recognize that videogames were becoming solitary experiences, and that they had tremendous potential as interpersonal, social experiences that they were failing to actualize. “no one ever said on their deathbed, ‘gee, i wish I had spent more time alone with my computer,'” is the quote most often attributed to her. her digital game design was strongly informed by that of board games, which has been really good at this interpersonal dynamic thing for quite a while – her best-known game, m.u.l.e., adapts a number of traditional board game ideas, like auctions, to videogame contexts. and if you can’t see how this is relevant to my work in 2012, you haven’t been reading my blog.

84 thoughts on “how not to write about a transgendered person”

  1. Mike,

    I don’t wish people didn’t call us out on the mistake. I’m glad that they did. I learned from an error in judgment.

    There are lots of other references in the article to the specialness of Dani’s work than the Meier quote.

    Anna’s paragraph on Dani is great, I agree. There’s also lots about what was special about Dani’s games in the piece. Sales were mentioned to explain the nature of her influence which was more of a peer-admiration and cult-favorite thing than it was a mass-appeal thing. Why in the world do I have to explain that here? The article couldn’t be more clear about that.


  2. stephen: thanks for coming and trying to clear the air here, it’s appreciated.

    I understand that you want an image for kotaku that’s more progressive and female/GLBT friendly than how it’s usually seen (a haven for jerky, sexist straight male gamers). The problem is that it comes off to a lot of queer/female/etc people that kotaku is just publishing that article to have the appearance of being more progressive, without really coming from a position of understanding and empathy for what you’re writing about. In other words, it comes off as kind of a novelty or exploitation piece (even if that’s not what’s intended). The fact that the article led with a pre-transition picture of Dani Bunten kind of confirms this. Whether a good photo didn’t fit your format or not, it wasn’t in good taste, and had that article been written by someone with a little more of an understanding of trans people and their struggles, they would have understood that.

    Obviously you can’t get everything right, or write things that someone won’t object to. Me and Anna are both transwomen with similar opinions about a lot of things, and we had wildly different opinions of the Brenda Lauren piece here, for example. But kotaku could do much more to be sensitive and understanding about these kinds of issues, especially when you’re articles are as widely read as they are. You have an even bigger obligation than most to be as truthful and understanding of what you’re writing about is possible. That you’ve come here to try and start a dialogue is much appreciated, but that’s only the first step.

  3. Liz,

    Thank you. I asked Twitter readers for a better top picture a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, none came in right away. We still haven’t gotten any. I was able to get back to focusing on this story today, which is how I discovered this piece and thread. And so now I’m addressing the image issue.

    In lieu of getting the kind of image I was hoping for, I’ve just changed things using images from the web that I believe are fair to use.

    I think we’re good now. It was just a factor of time and the general lack of shots of Dani.

    As for what Kotaku’s up to, we’re not running pieces that somehow involve non-straight-white-male topics as a novelty, but that will only be proven if we stick with it. There weren’t zero stories like that in the past, but, yeah, we’ve run a lot more recently. This one wasn’t even intended to be that kind of progressive-minded story (“Obviously!” many people who are readers of this site would say). In this case, Luke writes gaming history articles on most weekdays and he wanted to write about Dani and her games that day.

    I appreciate having space here to chat with folks who didn’t like the story. Some criticism rings true and I can learn from it; not all of it does. It’s like anything else. I’d be a fool to dismiss criticism out of hand.


  4. :)

    Maybe they could compromise and use no pronouns. Just always refer to her as “DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE” no matter what the context?

    “It’s a shame, then, that so few can name DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE of the all-time greats, DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE.


    DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE born as DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE in 1949 is important to video games for any number of reasons, some trivial, some vital to the progression of the entire medium.

    DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE’s first game (yes, DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE’s first game, we’ll get to that), 1978’s Wheeler Dealers, was the first ever PC game to be sold in a printed box instead of a sleeve or plastic bag, a necessity born of the game’s inclusion of a custom controller.

    In 1983, DANI BUNTEN CREATOR OF MULE’s Ozark Softscape released one of the first games for Electronic Arts, and also one of the greatest cult hits in the history of the PC, MULE. A multiplayer…economic strategy…thing, MULE wasn’t a big seller, but it was very influential amongst developers, and retains a fanbase and community site even to this day.”

  5. Stephen Totilo,

    i think you did an alright job and i congratulate you in willing to communicate with people :3

    i think the only one who has the moral right to comment on the article in question is Dani.

    i think that what you are experiencing here is a movement (religion?) where the adherents’ have their social norms (which includes their own sense of what is blasphemous and what is sacred) and who can tend to try to force those on others as part of the belief system. it’s easier to scapegoat feelings on to some outside source than it is to examine where they are generated and how they progress — that tends to be a human trait, i find.

    that does not mean that their efforts do not have effects — there can be real power in internet shunning; loss of web traffic, loss of sales, etc.

    that said, argument can be good for the soul — engaging and life-affirming :3

  6. Saddened to see Jake relegated to “a total fuck” after one comment which, though provocative, was not so pointed as the way it seems to have been recieved.

    I don’t discount the reality of oppression and suffering of those who identify outside of the conservatively-established norms for gender identity, but nor do I think Jake does.

    I am saddened to see this completely unironic tirade of what Jake rightly points out as “fighting fire with fire.” I see a lot of vitriol and anger on display here and not a lot of reasoned thought or the tolerance (a terrible word- ‘understanding’ is a more hopeful word) that LGBT have fought hard to secure for themselves in places like Canada.

    I’d like to see an elevated dialogue on a subject that is actually not a question of “first-year philosophy” for many people- it continues to be a complex and nuanced problematic.

    Unfortunately, living in Toronto and moving in bohemian circles where this conversation often crops up, it’s too often that I see blunt, infantile, outbursts of (genuine, but ill-placed) anger and resentment instead of elevated dialogue.

    If someone “self-identifies” as a capitalist or a scientologist I will respect them to the degree that common etiquette ascribes, but I’m not bound to respect their “identity” just because they have identified with it. It is possible to disagree respectfully. When one behaves with such unbridled arrogance, however,it does nothing for their cause.

    Remember that our right to “identity” was not solely secured by the politics of civil rights, but also by a politics derived from capitalist consumer culture–we are all entitled to (consume according to) our chosen identity (or what is cynically called “lifestyle”) insofar as this fits nicely with the requisites of our capitalist consumer economy. I would be wary of aligning an actual politics of anti-oppression with the ideological tools invented or otherwise appropriated by those very forces of power and oppression. We may find one day that all our political causes have been absorbed and sterilized by an arrogant, entitled, culture of identity-consumerism. This cannot be allowed to happen.

    I also see a possible problem with the ideology of victimhood which is very much wielded as a “cudgel” to shut down critical or questioning voices- leaving only the choir of an insular consensus. The State of Israel and the US following 9/11 used precisely these methods to justify aggressive and unilateral attitudes instead of engaging directly in diplomacy and dialogue. Pretending like the dialogue is ancient history (or first year philosophy) is either incredibly naive or the worst kind of cynicism.

    In any case, I for one would like to see a more open, amicable, and elevated conversation taking place instead of all this adolescent anger.

    Looking forward to checking out Auntie’s work at forallgamerssake this week in T.O.!

  7. “i think that what you are experiencing here is a movement (religion?) where the adherents’ have their social norms (which includes their own sense of what is blasphemous and what is sacred) and who can tend to try to force those on others as part of the belief system.”

    Hereby nominating Anna as first girlpope of the holy mother church of transgender whoz with me

  8. eben. dude.

    i feel like i’ve been explaining this a lot lately, but i’m going to explain it again.




    voices from the margins have to shout to be heard.

  9. HEY STEPHEN TOTILO. I used to be a BOOK EDITOR and I got to thinking about exactly why I was dubious about your assertion that this article was a “tribute.” So I went ahead and edited it to make it into a tribute and left some comments on the stuff that I thought was kinda objectionable. Where information on MULE was lacking I stole the last paragraph of Anna’s post because you said you liked it and generally agreed with what it said about Dani Bunten Berry, so WHY NOT?

    If you want to talk about the article “standing or falling on its own merits,” and if you do think it’s important to make Kotaku into a place that’s more inclusive than Kotaku before your time, then would you do this for me? Would you download the doc:

    And would you read the edits and comments, and let me know what you think would be so wrong with maybe doing it this way? And does this maybe show you why the article is causing A Stink and what’s still problematic about it and the way it presents DBB’s life, especially when you’re calling it “a tribute?”

    Thaaaaanks, jeanne

  10. This whole conversation and the rather hamhanded tribute which sparked it makes me wish we could actually talk about Dani Bunten’s life, gender and legacy in ways that could honor the complexity of the choices she made in life and all the factors that affected those choices.

    Dani Bunten was an incredible pioneer of multiplayer digital gaming in a time where “solo gaming” ran rampant in the commercial sector and the internet was like a precambrian tidepool just beginning to form the molecules of text-based multiplayer worlds.

    Dani Bunten was also a transgender woman who transitioned at a time when the discourse around the possibilities of gender identity and expression were starkly different than they are now, 20 years later. She wrote about her conflicts over re-embodiment and surgery, and it seems likely that if she had been born decades later, her life path probably would have looked quite different simply due to different ways that we talk about being trans, whether surgery is THE definitive choice for all trans people — not to mention how differently her family, friends, and colleagues might have treated her transition in 2012 rather than 1992.

    She has a legacy as a pioneering game designer and a legacy from her odyssey as a trans person who eventually ended up memorialized in a warning on Lynn Conway’s infamous “TURN BACK YE FETISHISTS” web page. Both of those things are of inestimable importance to me, and I’d find a life story that focused on one or the other sadly incomplete.

    Unfortunately, the latter topic is incredibly fraught, and to do it justice would require a sensitive touch and a nuanced understanding of the subjects involved that the top-paid journalists in the world can’t seem to get quite right for the complex tragedy of say, the life of Michael Jackson. I’m not surprised that game journalists can’t create the tribute that Dani Bunten Berry deserves, especially while surrounded by a drooling horde of commenters who scream bloody murder about how articles shouldn’t be written just because someone is gay, trans, a woman, etc.

    Here’s hoping that things continue to improve from our present dismal state of affairs. Thankfully, they have since the days when Dani left the industry. Slàinte.

  11. “Remember that our right to “identity” was not solely secured by the politics of civil rights, but also by a politics derived from capitalist consumer culture–we are all entitled to (consume according to) our chosen identity (or what is cynically called “lifestyle”) insofar as this fits nicely with the requisites of our capitalist consumer economy. I would be wary of aligning an actual politics of anti-oppression with the ideological tools invented or otherwise appropriated by those very forces of power and oppression. We may find one day that all our political causes have been absorbed and sterilized by an arrogant, entitled, culture of identity-consumerism. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

    I feel bad sometimes that I don’t write all of that out, but sheer cynicism and my ability to see what Anna and co’s inevitable response will be tends to cause me to be concise.

    I’m quoting the shit outta that, though.

  12. Since when does being transgendered fit nicely with the requisites of our capitalist consumer economy? If it did fit nicely with such requisites I would be able to find more clothes that fit me nicely and wouldn’t have to wear the same fucking pair of boots literally every day of my life.

    What you’re saying sounds like it could easily equate to “Affluent mainstream gay people are part of the problem now,” and I guess rampant consumerism that DIVIDES US INTO TRIBES is a marginally better problem to have than dehumanization. One leads to THE CAPITALIST MONOCULTURE WHERE EVERYTHING IS FOR SALE and the other leads to people being dragged to death behind trucks in the heartland. Or “tributes” like this one!

    I guess if you’re not trans you should shut up when trans people say “Hey, you’re writing about us in an insulting way.” If you are trans, then dude, what are you doing with this anti-oedipus crap?

  13. blah blah blah blah blah blah. this is what i read from your article. just because you think that something is disrespectful doesn’t mean it really is. today’s world is really annoying, everyone is complaining and discussing about bullshit. there are more interesting things than to read about who you are, or who you want to be. And tigsource was right.

  14. gosh todays world is so annoying! PEOPLE ARE HAVING DISCUSSIONS i liked the old world where no one said anything ever *pisses on xboxlive headset* SHUT UP WORLD STOP POISONING MY MIND WITH IDEAS

  15. The “if you’re not trans then shut up” line is really cute. If you’re not white or male, you should shut up. If you don’t hate communists, then shut up. If you don’t support christianity in America, then shut the hell up.

    Like I said, fighting fire with yet more fire.

  16. Does anyone have a archived link of the original unedited story?

    I just found all this today, and so far all I’ve been able to gather about what was changed was the top picture and the pronouns. While I definitely these two things were important errors, reading these comments makes it sound like there were other significant differences between the currently available version and the original.

    The article seems pretty clear about Dani’s accomplishments as a developer, but based on some of the comments here it seems like some of that was missing.

    And just to keep the comment flamewar going…
    Anna, I recognize that your anger over mistreatment/ignorance of these issues is completely justified, but is it productive? You certainly are not obligated to champion the topic, but people are obviously interested in what you say. I don’t mean to impose a responsibility to censor yourself, I just feel like you could affect more positive change.

    Either way, I’m glad that you are keeping these topic visible, and calling people on their bullshit.

  17. Jake, the line was “if you’re not trans you should shut up when trans people say ‘Hey, you’re writing about us in an insulting way.’” Because trans people are more likely to understand the ways in which they’re oppressed than non-trans people.

    Analogizing this to “if you’re not white or male than you should shut up” is bullshit, because white people and male people are not oppressed as a group, so it’s not like other folks have trouble understanding our plight. As Douglas Adams said, “It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them,” but not vice versa.

    And it’s not like the injunction was for non-trans people to shut up completely. We can still talk all we want about every subject except how much better we understand trans people than they do! In fact we can even talk about that, because comments like Jeanne’s never actually seem to stop anybody from talking.

  18. You missed my point.

    Equality doesn’t even invite the possibility of anyone telling anyone else to shut up about anything, knowledged or not. Only the politics of oppression and division does that. Until we as people start moving past the idea that there can only be the oppressed and the oppressor, there will continue only to be the oppressed and the oppressor.

    Case in point: it’s absurd to imply that belonging to a certain group of people necessitates any sort of experience. Is the straight white male cosmetic surgeon unqualified to comment on trans issues despite devoting his life’s work to gender reconstruction? Is the autogynophiliac who only has passing experience with trans pornography more qualified than him based on their self identification as “a woman inside”? How trans do you have to be offended or not offended? Is genderfluidity trans? How about those who don’t think gender exists? You’ve instantly turned an inclusive group into an exclusive one simply by ascribing them special powers of commentary on a subject.

    Fighting fire with fiiiiire.

  19. Hahaha that is such fucking bullshit. “Until we as people start moving past the idea that there can only be the oppressed and the oppressor, there will continue only to be the oppressed and the oppressor.” Yes, if only we close our eyes and pretend oppression doesn’t exist, it will go away!

    No one is saying anyone is unqualified to talk about trans issues. It’s just that, if you’re a straight cis guy like me and trans people are saying that you aren’t understanding their experience, maybe consider the possibility that they’re right and you’re wrong?

  20. The true threat to equality is that some trans people have told a cis guy that he doesn’t understand their experience! Won’t anyone think of the plastic surgeons?

  21. “Case in point: it’s absurd to imply that belonging to a certain group of people necessitates any sort of experience.”

    (a) It’s not absurd and I’m curious as to why you think it’s absurd, unless you’ve LITERALLY NEVER IMAGINED WHAT IT MIGHT LIKE TO BE IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES THAN YOUR OWN.

    (b) Usually when people say “case in point,” they’re providing an example that proves their case in a pretty sound and commonsense way — as if the entire situation can be meaningfully encapsulated in a single point of data. This is not what you have done here! Can you see why?

    And you can only move beyond the paradigm of oppressed/oppressor I guess when such power relations don’t exist. If you’re in the position of the oppressor you have the luxury of ignoring them, otherwise you don’t. Is this controversial? I mean do you get why your “shut up” is logically different from mine in this case? I am saying “you can’t comment usefully on how I as a trans person feel in this situation, therefore shut up.” You are saying “I’m sick of hearing about identity politics, therefore shut up.” I mean seriously do you see how that’s different

  22. also putting more “i”s into your misguided fire analogy doesnt magically make it true, it makes it look like you’re plugging your ears and screaming FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE over and over while everyone tries to explain trans politics to you

  23. i just want to congratulate xtc/Ante Flixelante on a successful blog, where all us freaks can get our freak on and express our silly and absurd and glamorous little peeves and desires and follies.

  24. When I refer to someone’s gender I mean the gender they physically are, is this a terrible thing?

  25. True, but, hm. A better question might be, if I don’t know someone’s identity (either by not knowing them well enough, or at all), is it a terrible thing to refer to someone as what they appear to be?

  26. You are called “Sir” because you aren’t a woman, you are a man. If you want to be both, then you should continue to be treated as both. Where do you get the audacity to think you can “Go into a womans bathroom, while being a male…”

  27. i had read this article a little while ago and had a bit of trouble really getting it. i mean i understood it and it makes complete sense, but i didn’t really feel it. had i read the kotaku article previous to yours i wouldn’t have found anything wrong with it. i have a lot of privileges and i am aware that i can be very insensitive in many ways that i’m privileged. anyway, i just finished reading part of a zine (“Shut Up & Love the Rain” by Robnoxious) and he’s explaining how his dad (he still refers to her as his dad) came out as transgender and throughout this story (and all the other times he speaks of his dad) he always refers to her with female pronouns. and somehow reading this it just kinda clicked for me. so yeah, if anyone is maybe having trouble with understanding the difference, try reading something written how it should be, with the person consistently referred to as their chosen gender; it might click for you.

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