The Darkness That Claims Us

TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of suicide, violence, transphobia, depression and forced outing.

Let me start, selfishly, by saying that this is not the post I wanted to write.

I’ve been away for a while. You may have heard about this little game I worked on. I was absolutely swamped with testing duties for a few months, and then the project wound down and I was let go (in keeping with the cycle of game development), and somehow I still ended up with more on my plate than I expected. I’d been thinking, over the last week, about writing about trans issues again; it seemed especially relevant because I’m preparing to give a talk at Women in Games Boston in July on the subject of treating trans people with respect, and because the whole Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival controversy recently flared up once more, leaving me with all kinds of thoughts and feelings. So my triumphant return to blogging was going to be a Ranting Fangirl post on women’s space and trans inclusion and letting me pee in peace, for the love of God, in a bathroom where I won’t be harassed and insulted and…this is not that post. It’s not a Ranting Fangirl post, either. I suppose it technically qualifies, but it didn’t feel right to slot this into my own silly little categories.

Last night, my friend Amy pinged me on Steam to ask me what I thought about ‘that IndieGoGo thing’. And that was how I first heard about Chloe Sagal.

That link goes to Quinnae Moongazer’s post on the subject, which you should read. Quinnae explains the facts of the situation well and says a lot of stuff that I largely agree with – enough that I initially thought this post would be redundant. Maybe it is. Still, I’m moved to speak.

If you’re really not going to read that post, then the basic facts are these: Chloe Sagal is an independent game developer most famous for the game Homesick, which is available for free. Recently, she launched a campaign on IndieGoGo seeking to raise funds for, as she claimed, medically necessary surgery to prevent potentially lethal metal poisoning. The campaign was canceled by IndieGoGo after she’d raised $35,000, and all the donations were refunded. Afterward, in the face of transphobic abuse from at least some commentators, Sagal posted a link to a Twitch.tv channel where she attempted suicide. Emergency services came to her aid, and she’s reportedly in the hospital recovering.

Following Sagal’s suicide attempt, Allistair Pinsof, who had covered her IndieGoGo campaign on Destructoid, published statements on Twitter and TwitLonger claiming that Sagal had misrepresented herself and her goals for the IndieGoGo campaign, and that she was actually trying to raise funds for genital reconstruction surgery, (or sex reassignment surgery, or SRS). He further stated that he had agreed to conceal that information following a previous suicide attempt on Sagal’s part as well as threats that she would try again if he revealed the truth. After hearing that Sagal had in fact attempted suicide again, survived, and been hospitalized, Pinsof felt empowered to share all the information he had. He did this in direct violation of Destructoid’s social media policy and the instructions he had been given by the site’s staff. In doing so, he forcibly outed Sagal as a trans woman to the entire world.

I hesitate to spread this information any further. I don’t like airing anyone’s dirty laundry. But frankly, it’s already out there. The damage has been done. Allistair Pinsof has caused grave, irreparable harm to Chloe Sagal and, as a secondary consideration, to his own career. He’s been suspended without pay from Destructoid, his staff access has been frozen, and they’re currently investigating the matter and deciding whether or not they will allow him back. Chloe Sagal is in a hospital somewhere, and I can only hope she’s getting the help she needs, though Pinsof claims she complained of mistreatment the last time she was in the hospital. When she returns, it will be to a web full of strangers talking about her. Some will be sympathetic. Many, too many, will be hostile, to varying degrees. Already, if you search for Chloe Sagal on Google, even if you add the title of her game, Homesick, many of the first results lead you to articles about the IndieGoGo campaign, about the scandal and controversy that has erupted as a result, about how she lied and deceived people into showing her sympathy and human kindness. I hesitate to add to the noise. But I find I can’t stay silent.

I don’t know Chloe Sagal. We have never met. I haven’t even played Homesick, though I’m going to have to fix that. I confess that I would never have heard about this situation at all if Amy hadn’t told me about it. I’m not as into the indie game scene as I should be, I don’t follow most gaming news sites, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But here’s what I think, and feel, and I apologize if it’s all a little disconnected.

First: you never, ever, ever out someone without their consent. I’ve had it done to me more than once. Sometimes it was done with the best of intentions. Sometimes it was done with deliberate malice. It was awful, every single time. I wasn’t always as open about my history as I am now, and I still feel the impulse to run and hide sometimes. In the last couple of years, I have made a conscious choice to speak openly about this part of my life. Nevertheless, I don’t want to be outed to random people. I don’t go around wearing a neon sign that says TRANSSEXUAL. I don’t bring it up in job interviews or casual social situations if I can help it. I discuss it if and when it becomes relevant, or when I feel comfortable speaking about it, and otherwise I leave it alone. Because, simply put, trans people are among the last acceptable targets. We can be mocked and abused with relative impunity. Discrimination laws often fail to protect us fully, or protect us at all, even in states with comprehensive gay rights legislation. In the wrong time, in the wrong place, being trans could get me fired. It could get me thrown out of any business or organization you care to name. I could be assaulted. I could be killed. I am lucky to live in a state where, by and large, trans people are protected under the law, though that law excludes public accommodations (including public restrooms, restaurants, and movie theaters, among other places). I am lucky to spend most of my time in cities like Boston and Cambridge, where municipal legislation provides greater protections. And, as I said, I have chosen to be open about all this, to say it all on the web where a cursory Google search for my name could give the whole game away. It’s still not okay to out me to anyone without my consent. I may not be comfortable revealing that information in all circumstances. You may think that you have my implied permission to out me, based on a talk I gave or I post you read, but you would be mistaken. You need my direct permission. And you need it every time. To out me without my knowledge or express consent is rude at the least and life-threatening at the worst.

And in the case of Chloe Sagal, whose trans status may not have been so widely known (though it does seem she was at least somewhat open about it), and who was already struggling with suicidal depression, it’s unconscionable.

Second: yes, Sagal lied about the precise nature of the medically necessary surgery she needed. But make no mistake: SRS is medically necessary surgery. It is the recommended course of treatment for transsexuals like Sagal and like me. Not every trans person feels the need to get it; some are comfortable between genders, or are fine without the surgery as long as they can present themselves as the gender they identify with. But in my case, I want it, and I need it, and it’s obvious that Sagal does, too. I’ve managed to get along without it, for the time being, while I try to find some stability in my life and carve out a path to completing my transition. Not everyone is capable of that. And thanks to a concerted campaign by people who had no business interfering in the first place, most HMOs don’t cover SRS or any transition-related medical care. This is beginning to change, but only gradually. If you don’t have insurance at all, you’re pretty much screwed. When you factor in all the costs involved, SRS basically costs as much as a car (either new or used, depending on where exactly you get it). It’s true that the body alone is capable of surviving without SRS, but the cognitive dissonance is so overpowering that the stress alone can cause complications, and suicidal depression can result. As it did in Sagal’s case, and as it could have done in mine. Saying ‘well, you can survive without SRS’ is so true-yet-inaccurate that you might as well start with the assumption that we’re all frictionless spheres floating in a vacuum.

Let’s discuss depression for a moment, actually, because depression is another condition that people consider largely psychological even though it can involve physical medical treatment. As some of my friends know, I suffer from chronic depression. For the last few years, I’ve taken medication to treat it – specifically Celexa. I tried seeing therapists, but I found that therapy alone wasn’t effective. Celexa allows me to manage my condition. Without Celexa, I’m not necessarily in a horrible state of mind all the time, but I can fall into profoundly bleak depressive episodes that leave me seriously contemplating suicide or self-harm. In the grips of these episodes, I have acted irrationally. I have threatened to hurt myself. I have attempted to hurt myself. I’m lucky to have survived, and fortunately I was inept enough in my previous attempts at suicide that I didn’t cause any lasting damage.

With Celexa, my moods even out. It’s not that I never feel sad or depressed on Celexa – I do. But the depression doesn’t run as deep. Instead of feeling suicidal, I feel sad, or angry, or bored, or restless. My extended depressive episodes become bouts of ennui, and they don’t generally last as long without outside stressors. It’s unpleasant, to be sure, but it’s manageable.

So many people think depression is all in the brain. And that’s another true-yet-inaccurate statement, though actually there are a lot of factors involved and it’s not necessarily all in the brain. The fact that depression is a psychiatric issue doesn’t mean it’s a purely emotional problem that can be overcome through sheer willpower. It doesn’t mean it’s not a biological problem. The chemicals in my brain don’t work properly. I take medication to manage the symptoms of that problem, just as I take medication to manage the symptoms of my other health problems. The medication is not the only part of my health regimen, but it’s an important part. I would probably get very sick (maybe not physically so, but there would be some physical symptoms and a lot of emotional suffering) or die without it. Similarly, my gender dysphoria is a psychological issue that probably has at least some physical basis (current theories include differing brain structures, hormone washes in the womb, body chemistry, all kinds of things) and is treated, in part, through medication and surgery where indicated. I take hormones to adjust my body chemistry to something my brain can live with. Eventually, I hope, I’ll have surgery to further ease the cognitive dissonance. It won’t be a cure-all, but it will make things better. It will keep me alive, and healthy, and relatively happy.

A few months ago, I was speaking with my father about the various prisoners who have sued to get hormone therapy and SRS while serving their time – most notably Michelle Kosilek, who likewise has attempted suicide while awaiting treatment. I said then that we shouldn’t be asking why prisoners should be getting medically necessary care, including SRS, on the taxpayer’s dime. It would be cruel and unusual treatment to let prisoners go without the medical care they require. We should be asking, instead, why our health care system doesn’t give the same care to free trans people. Why so many trans people have to scrimp and save and jump through so many hoops to get the treatment they so badly need.

That’s a bit of a digression, but here’s my point: we shouldn’t be asking why Chloe Sagal lied to try and raise funds for SRS. We know why: in part, because she obviously suffers from depression and wasn’t acting rationally (and I’ll circle back around to that), but more importantly, because I doubt she would have raised $35,000 if she had told everyone it was for SRS rather than surgery to remove a metal fragment and prevent lethal metal poisoning. The stigma surrounding trans people, our bodies and our needs is just too great. We shouldn’t be asking why Chloe Sagal lied. We should be asking why our society made her feel forced to lie. We should be asking why, when the emerging medical consensus is that SRS is necessary treatment for transsexuals like Chloe Sagal, like me, that it saves and improves lives, we have to work so hard and reach so far just to try and snatch that brass ring.

Third: A related point. All the rhetoric surrounding this feeds into the stereotype of the trans person as a deceiver. You know this stereotype. You’ve seen it play out in commercials, TV shows, movies, plays, books. The cheeky commercial about the ‘man posing as a woman’ who keeps hinting at some deep, dark secret. The comedians’ rants about picking up girls at the club and finding out they had Adam’s apples and body hair. The murdered trans woman who lied and seduced poor, insecure straight men who ended up putting her into a shallow grave, and oh, no, it’s horrible that she died, but if she hadn’t lied, surely it wouldn’t have happened. (Never mind that blunt honesty can also kill us, when someone is already pathologically, homicidally repulsed by the very thought of a trans person.) And now, the trans woman who lied to the whole Internet to get surgery she didn’t really need – I mean, no one really needs that stuff, right? It’s all in our heads, isn’t it? We could get therapy and fix it if we really wanted to, but oh, no, now it’s all trendy to be trans (never mind that we have records of transgender people going back to the ancient world) and everyone wants to mutilate their genitals. Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth.

Yes, deception was involved. No, that’s not good. But it’s wrong to play up that aspect, to sensationalize this story, to feed that stereotype. Not all trans people are like that. Chloe Sagal probably isn’t really like that. In her desperation, she made a mistake. She made a number of mistakes. We are human. We err. She still didn’t deserve to be outed. She doesn’t deserve our scorn or derision. She deserves our sympathy.

And on that note, let me state again Chloe Sagal was clearly under intense emotional strain. As I said, I have experienced episodes of profound, terrible depression, and I have done desperate, irrational things in the throes of it. I do not believe Chloe Sagal can be held responsible for her actions in this case. She deserves our sympathy. She has mine. The IndieGoGo campaign was canceled. Everyone got their money back. And now she’s in a hospital after her second suicide attempt in an alarmingly short span of time. Her reputation is forever tarnished. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But I doubt it will be easy for her. We don’t need to make it harder.

Fifth: Allistair Pinsof probably violated journalistic ethics at some point (possibly multiple points) in this whole ordeal. He chose to conceal information that might have been of public interest; he later chose to reveal private information that wasn’t of public interest in what I can only read as a fit of pique.

Pinsof may have killed his career in revealing this information. I don’t know if I would honestly wish that on him. As much as I condemn his actions, as much as I think he made some grave mistakes, I have to acknowledge that he, too, may have been operating under emotional duress. Someone he’d spent a great deal of time speaking with, someone he talked down from suicide, had attempted to kill herself live on the Internet. He was upset, he was angry, and he did some profoundly stupid things as a result. He seems to understand that, now, though I still think some of his thinking on the whole matter is flawed. He’s made a decently heartfelt if slightly flaky apology. I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know what I want out of any of this. It’s really not my place to want anything to come of this, save perhaps for greater understanding and greater sympathy among the general public. I wish none of it had happened. I wish this wasn’t a story I’d heard too many times before.

This is such a difficult thing. The world makes it so hard to be trans. Even now, as open as I am about all this, I know that if I could go to bed tonight and wake up in a world where I had always been female, where I grew up as the little girl I should have been and blossomed into the woman I should be today, and I could just forget about all this transgender business, I would. I would never have chosen this, had I been given the choice. Every day, I and others like me have to walk this tightrope, no wider than a bit of dental floss, really, and keep our eyes raised to the heavens and pray we don’t fall. Too feminine and we’re a caricature. Too butch and we’re just men in women’s dresses. Too quiet and we’re invisible and easily trampled. Too loud and we’re read and ostracized or castigated or assaulted or killed. Too shy and we’re alone. Too flirty and it’s our fault if we’re assaulted or raped or murdered. Too close-mouthed and we’re liars and deceivers; too open and oh, God, are we really on about all that trans activist stuff again? Too much of anything and we could be destroyed…but, if I may borrow from Audre Lorde, our silence won’t protect us, either.

We face verbal, mental, emotional and even physical abuse every day. We get all kinds of shit from clueless cisgender society at large, from right-wing zealots, from trans-exclusive radical feminists, from religious fanatics who think we’re going against God’s will, from hardcore atheists and skeptics who don’t think there’s any scientific justification for transgender identity (or believe that it’s a psychological disorder that should be stamped out), from old-school trans people who think you have to cleave to traditional gender roles and stay under the radar, from new-school trans people who think anything explicitly gendered is crap (even if you’re genuinely girly or butch) and those who aren’t completely open about their history are traitors to the cause, and of course, worst of all, from ourselves. I’m my own worst enemy. I bet Chloe Sagal is hers. Honestly, I think it’s the human condition, but it’s so much worse when you have so much reason to doubt yourself already.

I don’t talk much about my religious beliefs, except in the vaguest terms. But there’s a hymn I sing to myself as the seasons change, or when the winter is cold, or I feel lost and alone and I want to think that it won’t always be so. It’s a humble, homely little thing, and I’ve always been a bit too embarrassed to sing it or show it to anyone else. But I drew the title of my post from it, and I’d like to share it with you all now.

Blessed mother, sweet life-bringer
By the waking morn we pray
By the sacred moon we call thee
Let there come another day
Let the sun shine on a green world
Let your loving children play
Do not let the darkness claim us
Let there come another day

This is my life, and the life of everyone like me: struggling, day after day, not to let the darkness claim us. So often, we falter. Too often, we fail. I’ve had so much to say here about my own thoughts and feelings – more than I really wanted to, when this is not my story, but Chloe’s. I can only pray that this, together with the stuff I’ve linked to, gives you some insight and inspires some sympathy.

And for you, Chloe, if you ever read this, I pray that the darkness will never claim you. I pray that there will be many more days ahead of you, and that you will find everything you need, and everything you’ve hoped for. I’m very sorry this happened. I’m sorry I felt compelled to share this, and if you ever ask me to take this down, to take your name and your story out of this, I will. Likewise, if you end up soliciting donations for your SRS, I’ll happily post the link here and share it far and wide. I wish I could tell you it will get better. But all any of us can do is hope, and try our best to help one another, however we can.

All we can do is try not to let the darkness claim us.

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