To the organizers of the European Perl Conference in Riga.
I have been involved in the perl community for 22 years. I feel a moral obligation to ensure people that I have introduced to it can continue to feel welcomed and safe. This letter is not meant to shame anyone, but it is public to provide some level of proof that people in the community care about enforcing codes of conduct.
There’s actually two issues at hand. The first one is that a person violated the Standards of Conduct (Code of Conduct) at the last Perl Conference in Pittsburgh and is slated to be a keynote speaker for the Perl Conference in Riga.
UPDATE: The keynote speaker issue has been resolved. The rest of this letter remains accurate.
The second issue is that after some prominent people raised concern, there was a perhaps hastily-written blog post that ended with a transphobic joke. The blog post was subsequently edited to remove the joke, along with some tweets relating to the issue.
Some have already pointed out the bad optics around this, and I’m not here to talk about that. I do care about how this looks to the world at large. This is an open letter precisely because handling this issue in secret would be worse than talking about it.
We’re going to cover Safety and Gender, and at the end some ways which we can resolve this issue. I am not the best person to cover these topics, but I am doing so because that lifts the burden from members of the minority having to explain again and again why something hurt because people want facts.
People will report Code of Conduct violations. The important question is, how will you handle those incidents and enforce your CoC?
The underlying issue is one of Safety. Vulnerable individuals attending conference must have faith that the code of conduct will be upheld. No one should be above reproach, and if a person violates the code at an event, it should inform decisions towards that person at other events.
This does not necessarily mean that the person need to be barred from the event — I do not hold an opinion on that matter — but some obviously feel that having the person be a keynote speaker does send a signal that perhaps the conference does not take ensuring the safety of attendees seriously.
You do not have to agree with me on this issue, but you also cannot argue about what trade-offs people make with their personal safety.
For additional information about safety, there is no better source than this collection of FAQs about Codes of Conduct
Assuming you’re still with me, you agree that people need to feel safe. But you’re struggling because you don’t think the behavior was serious enough.
we’re not talking about serious stuff! He just used the wrong name and pronouns!some random internet person
This belief is false. Misgendering trans people causes harm.
In the AP News article Misgendering is not a lightweight ‘mistake’ Karolyn Wilson explains that empathy can inform sympathies:
I can’t speak for transgender men and women, but empathy can inform my sympathies: if I feel insulted and demeaned when I am misgendered, how much worse is it for someone who has had to work so much harder than I have to make their outsides match their insides, for someone who is in so much more danger of being discounted as a person or persecuted for who they are?Karolyn Wilson, Misgendering is not a lightweight ‘mistake’
If you’re reading this and you’re cisgender, presumably you can think back to a time when you were misgendered. If that is not the case, perhaps imagine what it would feel like.
These situations, imagined or otherwise to this tend to have reactions that fall somewhere in a spectrum, but with typical reactions being:
- You could feel as Karolyn Wilson did — as less of a person, less solid, and less seen
- Or perhaps you will feel as I did when I first thought about this experience: Indifferent.
If you feel indifferent, and are not yet capable of understanding why gender identity is important you must start believing the lived experience of trans people. You should watch this video by Vi Hart (5 minutes). A quote from this video resonated with me when I first saw it:
My condescending teenager attitude came from a false belief that other people are basically like me.Vi Hart
I think watching that video and internalizing the line of reasoning Vi Hart uses can help those that are cisgender but not strongly attached to the concepts or expectations of gender.
Now at this point, if you’re still reading I hope you’re with me. Perhaps you’ve read to this point, but you take issue with the joke being characterized as transphobic.
The reason people had a negative reaction to the comment about the perl conference identifying with a different name is because the conference is not a person and drawing this absurd parallel is an attack. This is quite similar to saying ”I identify as an attack helicopter” which is also transphobic and an attack on the concept of gender identity.
I guess I’m done with this topic. As after this some people may label me as a SJW, I’ll pre-emptively tell you to watch The Straight White Man’s Guide to Feminism and Social Justice.
Right now people are upset. Several prominent people have called for a boycott of the conference. I’m sure this is not intended. Organizing a conference is very hard, it’s difficult to get the right kinds of help. It’s very stressful and then this happens and people are making demands and I know it must feel like you’re being attacked.
When people say things like “I am appalled by something you have done” it doesn’t mean they are attacking you. It coveys some amount of surprise, and they’re telling you this because they think you are better than the action and can decide to do something different.
Let’s walk it back. There are concrete steps that can be taken to alleviate this problem, and in fact shine.
- The SoC violating keynote speaker cannot be a keynote speaker.
- An apology for the removed blog post. It was a natural mistake — people will easily forgive such as thing if the apology is genuine.
- A commitment to safety must be made. It is not apparent if this conference has a Code of Conduct. The Glasgow conference did, but I don’t see this mentioned initially but I did not look very closely.