Beyond cancellation: accountability and the Sydney queer community

I am everything that Katherine Wolfgramme loves to poke at on her social media: lefty, non-binary, and a lover of queer theory. Because I am those things, I am concerned about the recent letter campaign against her. The campaign calls on Katherine to stand down — or be stood down — from her positions as an Associate of the Mardi Gras Board and an Ambassador for the Gender Centre. (In these comments I am only writing about the open letter to Mardi Gras published in early December 2019.)

Although this piece is forthright about the problems of that campaign, I am writing it as a call to dialogue. There are material issues raised on both sides, and our communities can benefit from talking through them. But that conversation cannot happen in the situation as it presently stands. It both highlights the need and presents an opportunity to develop accountability processes that go beyond callouts and cancellation in response to conflict and misconduct.  

I’m going to delve briefly into the substance of the campaign, mainly to highlight the important issues that are in play, the problems with unchecked interpretation, as well as the high stakes involved. But I’m focusing mainly on the accountability of the process, and I’m calling for the Sydney queer community to develop effective and non-violent accountability processes. This is a matter of fair process, transparency, understanding our history and being aware of different kinds of power. This is not about defending Katherine — it’s about the consequences for our community if we don’t find a way to raise and resolve the issues, which affect us all. Demands for accountability must themselves be accountable.

Roiling waters in the ocean

Personal statement

I’m making a call for accountability, so you deserve to know where I stand, where I come from, and how I’m invested in the issues at stake.

Some time back, in the aftermath of the same sex [sic] marriage plebiscite, I began writing a piece about how, during the campaign, it seemed everyone was using the term ‘queer’—even centrist LGBT advocates who previously found the term distasteful. I was interviewing Sydney queer folx about the changing meanings of queer, and found many were highly anxious about getting called out and cancelled for what they said to me.

As I was writing it, a new-ish friend, a mental health advocate, called me out on Facebook for posting a short piece on an MRI study of trans young people, accusing me of supporting eugenics.

That’s when I was diagnosed with PTSD, dating back to family violence and years of homophobic bullying in school. It resurfaced during the SSM debate and then triggered by the call-out, which was like an emotional dirty bomb exploding in my personal and work life. It took months to clean it up, and the queer meanings piece remains on hold.

So when people explain call-out culture with the trite exculpation ‘hurt people hurt people,’ I’m not buying it. I define call-outs as the attempt to use traumatic vulnerability in order to induce disability and shut someone down.

In communities already stressed by the slow violence of queer-hatred and acute crises like the religious discrimination ‘debate,’ the aftermath of call-outs and the consequences of cancellation can produce a chain reaction of psychological damage. It is something we need to tackle as a matter of urgency, in the name of community mental health promotion.

Callouts don’t always work, though; sometimes the target stands their grounds and a coordinated campaign is necessary, and we call that cancellation. As Kai Cheng Thom points out, cancellation has a carceral logic. Just like the imprisonment of low-income people of colour in the war on drugs, it treats people as disposable (Giroux, 2006).

Thom observes that trans women, in particular, often rely on community for their livelihood and other resources essential for survival. Thus, the ‘social death’ induced by cancellation can ultimately mean actual death. In a community where we know many people are grappling with stress-induced mental illness, the demand for cancellation runs a meaningful risk of inducing disability and provoking suicide. In these respects, cancellation can be called a non-state, decentred practice of necropolitics.

I am not taking aim at some straw figure, ‘callout culture.’ There are circumstances where I would argue that callouts and cancellation are justified: when there is no alternative pathway for justice against powerful people.

People forget that the #MeToo moment happened soon after the failure to convict Bill Cosby of rape, despite more than a hundred complaints being made against him. Calling out powerful figures, and demanding these revelations have social if not legal consequences, is a legitimate response to the systemic failure of the legal system to respond effectively to rape. Hand-wringers who ask what happened to the legal presumption of innocence are completely missing the point: the #MeToo movement should have been unnecessary.

However, within our community, I am saying we need to ensure that demands for accountability are themselves accountable. With this in mind, I will turn to the recent letter campaign against a Sydney trans community leader, Katherine Wolfgramme. In calling the campaign to account, I am not claiming to be a neutral observer. I am an interested party, a friend of Katherine, with a personal and emotional stake, privileged in some ways (white/educated) and not in others (disabled/precarious), and I am situated in a particular way (queer/non-binary/lefty/activist/academic).

A history of conflict

In 2018, Pride in Protest (PiP) campaigned for multiple seats on the Board of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (MG), and put forward a number of motions aimed at reducing police and corporate involvement in MG.

Katherine was also running for the MG Board, and concluded her statement at the AGM by stating she felt the PiP campaign was using ‘fascist’ tactics. She made similar remarks in an anti-PiP Facebook group and in response to comments left on her wall by Charlie Murphy from PiP. The following year Charlie was elected to the Board and Katherine was appointed as an Associate (non-voting) member, setting the scene for some conflict.

When I read the comments I remember thinking this was a very Katherine way of raising some real issues. Katherine is an old-school queen, arch as fuck, and she uses hyperbole to prod and provoke—but I know from our own interactions that she listens carefully. Taking queer aunt Eve Sedgwick’s approach of reparative reading, here’s what I understood Katherine as saying: in trying to reclaim MG for queer left organising, and calling out people who disagreed with them, PiP were (in her view) enacting an erasure of the diverse identities, politics, experiences, histories, and memorial and celebratory rituals represented in the broader MG constituency.

Even if she had used more measured, conciliatory and reflective phrasing, given how heated the campaign had become, I’m not sure it would have been taken as an invitation to constructive dialogue. Recognising that, her comments stated a position once and for all. But the recent letter-writing campaign makes it very clear that dialogue now needs to happen. As I will go on to describe, that will be challenging, partly because of how the complaint has been raised, and because the Sydney queer community does not have established accountability processes to draw on.

The letter campaign

The letter quotes an incendiary remark Katherine made in an anti-PiP group in the lead-up to the AGM:

“Many PIP have become non-binary and are trying very hard to take over the trans community to use as a political platform, they have no idea the damage their Queer Theory ideas are causing us and if any transgender person defends themselves they are accused of transphobia and are subject to mass hysteria from this group.”

Katherine Wolfgramme

The letter presents interpretations of the remarks drawing out a range of implications:

  1. The wording Katherine used—people ‘becoming’ non-binary—implies that non-binary people are voluntarily (and perhaps inauthentically) choosing this identity.
  2. The wording ‘take over’ implies that non-binary people are not genuinely trans, and not presently and historically part of the trans community.
  3. The remark about ‘Queer Theory ideas’ implies that non-binary identity was invented by academia, and further, that this implication draws on an unconscious repertoire of extreme right wing ideology.
  4. The statements are inherently racist, because they do not acknowledge that non-binary trans people and gender variance have existed in First Nations cultures for tens of thousands of years.

In the following sections I want to unpack some of the real issues that are being raised on both sides of this conflict. However, I also want to highlight the way the letter call for serious consequences on the basis of unchecked interpretations of Katherine’s words and conduct. But first, I need to say a bit about the interpretive politics that originate in academia and circulate in social justice movements.

Untested interpretation

One of the big moves in linguistic and cultural theory in the mid-20th century was acknowledging that readers are not passive, and that meaning is actively made by readers, through their engagement with a text (a book, a film, an advert, etc). This is canon in the critical humanities, and it is often taught to undergraduate students using Roland Barthes’ 1967 piece, the ‘Death of the Author and the Birth of the Reader.’ The takehome message is that the author’s intentions do not determine the final meaning of the text. In social justice organising, this premise lets us to talk about how a person with perfectly good intentions can write something that reproduces prejudice and oppressive social arrangements.

The open letter is quite explicit about interpreting Katherine’s words in particular ways. That’s not a problem and I’m not here to defend what she said. However, the authors went public without offering Katherine any opportunity to expand on what she meant or comment on how the writers had interpreted of her words. This is not an author-less text floating in a disembodied, discursive ether; this affects real people in our own community. If you’re going to accuse someone of symbolic violence, then you need to ensure you’re not engaging in violence of your own. You need to be self-reflexive about your own interpretation, and open to its contestation by others.

As happens with so much of the critical theory canon, Barthes’ argument in the Death of the Author is widely misunderstood. He was taking aim at a particular practice of literary criticism that claims to offer privileged insight into what the Author really meant.

Abandoning the focus on authorial intention meant readers are no longer enslaved to approved interpretations of literary works. The irony here, of course, is that the letter writers adopt the role of the Critic, announcing the true meaning of Katherine’s comments and demanding other people hold her accountable for their implications.

The death of the author becomes death to the author.

I am not making, here, the accusation often thrown at people who identify latent prejudice in popular texts. That accusation goes along these lines: ‘it wasn’t racist, you made it racialised, therefore you are the real racist here.’

Rather, I’m saying the letter writers’ own text is — or should be — open to contestation: Are other possible interpretations more reasonable? Does it speak for others? Does the interpretation enact violence of its own? Is it justified by the critical theories it cites?

However, the writers have refused to give Katherine—or any other interested members of the community—any opportunity to do so. The campaign goes straight from an initial reading to call-out and cancellation, with the implicit threat of targeting any person or organisation who says ‘hey, wait a minute’ with similar treatment.

And as a queer, non-binary lefty, I want to say hey, wait a minute.

What the open letter ignores is that Katherine was talking about Pride in Protest. Specifically. Not about abstract, universal relations between queer, trans, and non-binary people and identities. She was talking about their platform and their tactics. What Katherine said is inflammatory, to say the least, but the letter’s interpretation of her remarks goes well beyond her words. In the following section, I take a step back to see if I can highlight some of the issues being overlooked in the heat of the conflict.

Unpacking the issues

In this section, I want to unpack some of the issues on both sides that may be obscured by the conflict. Given the right forum, there are genuine issues that could be raised for discussion, and doing so would benefit our communities. In the following section, I’ll discuss what happens if this conflict is ‘won’ without having a constructive dialogue about those issues.

On becoming non-binary. The word ‘becoming’ need not imply that non-binary identification is not meaningful and authentic. The people asserting that we voluntarily choose our gender and sexuality are right-wing politicians and religious conservatives. (For instance, this claim underpins the disingenuous moral panic about ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria.’) In the past decade our communities have come under sustained attack: on trans kids, Safe Schools, over marriage and the religious discrimination bill. This has two consequences.

Firstly, young people who are sexually and gender diverse have been growing up with a target on their backs, so it is not surprising they have strong feelings about language use and their activism is correspondingly fierce.

Secondly, in the face of this onslaught, we have adopted a strategic essentialism that asserts we are — all of us — ‘born this way.’ People who assert they have chosen their sexual orientation or gender identity have come under fierce criticism for letting the side down (see: Cynthia Nixon).

However, in queer theory, becoming is not a dirty word. As Simone de Beauvoir acknowledges, we are born human and become gendered. The whole point of queer theory is to critique the regulatory function of identity categories (Reeders, in press) so as to expand the possibilities for understanding our experience and living our lives.

On the possible articulations of queer, trans and non-binary. The open letter claims that Katherine’s remark about ‘taking over’ implies non-binary people are outside trans, wanting in. It interprets this as ‘implying that they (non-binary people) are not genuinely trans or part of the trans community.’

I understood the remark as expressing concern with claims by non-binary members of Pride in Protest to speak for the trans community in advancing the group’s political platform. However, both interpretations concern the question of how trans and/or non-binary politics articulate with each other, recognising (of course) that they are closely related and overlap extensively.

The overlap is not perfect, though. There are some trans people who identify as non-binary, and some trans people who do not identify as non-binary. There are some non-binary people who identify as trans, and some non-binary people who do not identify as trans. I fall into this last grouping, because reasons. We can recognise here that personal identification does not mean someone is opposed to other people identifying differently, both personally and collectively.

This poses a question of how our community organisations, rituals and politics should approach the articulation (the interconnections) of trans and non-binary people, groups, identities and experiences. This cannot be resolved at the level of abstract, disembodied, impersonal discourse — the traditional comfort zone for academic theorising — because it involves real people and their lives, relationships, cultures and politics.

Older trans folk grew up in a different time and have had different experiences, through which they have developed their own distinctive culture and politics. They fear losing that distinctiveness as younger people join the queer community and the trans movement with different understandings, experiences and identities. (Even Contrapoints, aka Natalie Wynn, has expressed similar reservations.) I don’t agree that non-binary people are ‘taking over,’ but I can certainly understand where that concern is coming from.

I want to suggest the answer here is a facilitated and ongoing dialogue between trans and non-binary young people and elders. There is enormous potential for learning in both directions: for young people to receive support from elders and for elders to understand that ‘Queer Theory’ is not coming to erase them.

On the connections between queer theory and politics.  Although theory does not resonate with Katherine, I see her community organising practice as profoundly queer in its ethos. As distinct from queer theory, queer politics emphasises the possibility of creating community and political coalition based not on common identity, but in shared purpose in challenging hatred and heteronormativity. (See for instance: Queers Read This.)

Katherine is a First Nations trans woman who founded Sydney’s Candlelight Vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), which she has produced in partnership with the Gender Centre’s own event since 2018. The ceremony includes participants who are non-binary — some who identify as trans and others not — along with cisgender allies, people of colour, First Nations, migrants, young people and older people, abled and disabled, educated and not.

The Candlelight Vigil embodies the best of intersectional politics: it is diverse and inclusive, practical and relational, simultaneously celebration and memorial, personal and political. Katherine may not use the language of intersectionality and queer coalition, but she certainly practices them.

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2019

Conclusion. Both Katherine and the open letter raise pressing questions on material issues — issues that will not be resolved if the campaign succeeds and Katherine resigns from her positions. How we resolve this conflict is going to affect our communities for years to come.

We need to have a conversation about the articulations of these identities, experiences, histories, and politics, both in community organisations like MG and in political coalition around Safe Schools, religious discrimination, illicit drugs and other issues that arise and affect us in different ways. In the next section, I address what happens if the campaign succeeds and that conversation doesn’t happen.

Toxic accountability

Right now, the letter campaign is in danger of enacting toxic accountability. This depends on what happens next.

We are human and we bring all our flaws to our efforts to connect with each other and change the world. When conflict and misconduct occur, communities and movements need processes, sometimes formal but more often informal, for responding to conflict, acknowledging grievance, holding people to account, hearing apology and negotiating reintegration (when appropriate).

The fairness and effectiveness of these processes varies enormously. It is not healthy when exile is the only option. Restorative justice holds open the possibility of ‘reintegrative shaming’ — acknowledging wrongdoing and negotiating re-entry to the fold, where this is appropriate (it isn’t, always). By contrast, toxic accountability refers to practices that enact violence even as they claim to respond to it.

Tada Hozumi argues activists may fail to recognise a difference between structural privilege on the one hand, and interpersonal and collective power relations on the other. For instance, I’m sure many of the signatories to the open letter personally experience significant oppression. However, in joining a public campaign to exile Katherine Wolfgramme and destroy her livelihood, they are exerting enormous collective power. And they are not doing so in a way that makes this exercise of power accountable in itself.

Hozumi proposes two requirements for preventing the abuse of accountability processes:

  1. Transparency — being clear about what the issues are and how the process will unfold. Human rights lawyers call this procedural fairness. The people initiating an accountability process also need to be honest about their own emotional investments and the political values (and agendas) that are in play.
  2. Accountability — the accountability process must itself be accountable. Is it consistent and explicit about the values that ground the process, and what can be done when the process itself does not embody those values?

As I mentioned in my personal statement, the case for call-outs and cancellation is clearest when the target is powerful and otherwise unaccountable. The need for transparency and accountability is particularly acute when the target is a trans woman of colour.

In 2016, Kai Cheng Thom wrote about the troubling familiarity of a campaign in her own community to shun a trans woman deemed problematic. (I am not saying that’s what’s happening here, but it adds to the need to proceed carefully.) She analysed the ‘script’ that such campaigns often seem to follow, and identified four ways in which cancellation campaigns fail trans women specifically:

  1. Trans women are less likely to have access to activist language and education. Thom writes: ‘the intense focus that we place on using politically correct terminology, language, and ideas in conversation – as opposed to actually making concrete changes to social and economic practices – can be both elitist and ableist.’
  2. Challenging behaviour can be a trauma response. Cancellation punishes trans women for behaviours that are often survival responses to violence and trauma (and I would add here, misogyny, racism, etc);
  3. Higher standards of accountability.Trans women and femmes may be placed on a pedestal as ‘perfect victims of oppression’—and then taken down, harshly and publicly, for failing to live up to that standard;
  4. Social death can be real death for trans women. Thom writes ‘Trans women, though, literally derive life support from our social networks. We access shelter, care, jobs, even food through word of mouth and communal knowledge.’

Again, I am not saying this pattern completely fits the letter campaign. But Thom’s first observation certainly applies: the intense focus on language can be élitist and exclusionary.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks noted the irony that ‘revolutionary feminist thinking was most accepted and embraced in academic circles. In those circles the production of revolutionary feminist theory progressed, but more often than not that theory was not made available to the public. It became and remains a privileged discourse available to those among us who are highly literate, well educated, and usually materially privileged’ (2000, p. 5).

In 2016, Thom observed that access to this privileged discourse now extends through activist cultures, which are both engaged with and extend beyond academia. However, she notes that ‘call-out culture is used as more than a tactic of accountability when it comes to trans women: It’s a system that can be leveraged against us by people with more power and privilege, who have greater access to activist language and cultural norms.’

Given the fact of unequal access to activist language, and given the importance of language use to the conflict at hand, it is essential that we negotiate a constructive dialogue that includes all the parties with a stake in the outcome, mediated by an experienced facilitator—so that everyone has a fair chance to be heard.

What needs to happen?

Right now, our communities are in a world of pain, facing down another punishing round of politically sanctioned queer-hatred. We need to be clear about where that hatred is originating from. In Conflict is Not Abuse, Sarah Schulman writes: ‘Our transformation into a conscious, accountable, and healing culture requires an openness about differentiating real danger from projected danger.’ We need to handle this conflict in a way that strengthens our community and its integrity and diversity. Here are my own thoughts on what needs to happen next.

There is an urgent need for a constructive, facilitated dialogue between the letter writers and Katherine Wolfgramme. It should identify what claims are being made, what issues are being raised, and what values govern the process. It should include third parties who have a personal interest in the issues at stake, because the outcome of this conflict affects our whole community. I am confident that a good faith conversation will show that while both sides hold different views, they agree on what matters and they can learn from each other.

That conversation could lay the groundwork for a community forum or panel discussion to explore the complex articulations between queer, trans, and non-binary needs, experiences, histories, and identities, with the goal of finding common ground for an effective political coalition as we respond to the ongoing epidemic of queer-hatred and trans-bashing in Australian society.

We need to establish a lasting community-wide process for resolving disputes and responding to misconduct. It could be formal, based in an organisation, or informal (but codified for transparency). It should be based on the principles of restorative justice and truth and reconciliation. The truth is we are fragile, proud, and tough. Conflict and misconduct are inevitable — we need to meet them with a reparative process rather than re-enacting violence and reproducing trauma.

I want to see acknowledgment of queer community roles. (This is loosely based on Don Kilhefner, but without while acknowledging his cultural appropriation and disavowing his disdain for queer partying. Revised: see note 1.) There are emerging voices, whose job it is to shake things up. There are established leaders, who get shit done. There are elders eminents, who mentor young people and remember and represent our history. (None of these categories depends on age, or holding any formal organisational role.) Acknowledging the interconnectedness of these roles is the answer to two toxic dynamics: eating our young, and knocking off older leaders.

Lastly, we need properly funded, queer-led community mental health promotion and culturally safe mental health services.

Feedback welcome

If you have suggestions for how to improve this post, or thoughts from different perspectives, I welcome them in the comments. If you feel like calling me out, don’t worry, I cancelled myself a long time ago.

Revision history
  1. Thanks to MJ for pointing out that I needed a more critical discussion of the cultural appropriation implicit in terms (youth, adult, elder, ancestor). I have taken from the work of Don Kilhefner. Don (twitter handle ‘GayTribalElder’) comes from the Radical Faerie tradition which explicitly draws on shamanic traditions, albeit through the lens of white settler epistemology. I need to revisit this question more fully at a later time, and I’ve inserted ‘established’ and ’eminents’ as placeholders in the meantime. It is interesting that English has no words for roles within affective structures (rather than, say, institutional hierarchies) that are not lifted from other cultures.