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Mastodon shows its stripes

There’s a new (2015) trans flag making the rounds over on Mastodon, an early ActivityPub platform.

The trans flag with a black stripe in the middle.

It was created by Raquel Willis in 2015 to raise awareness to the tremendous amount of violence black trans people face. Trans people in general have it bad, but it’s so much worse for them.

Some people on Mastodon, me included, pointed out that the black stripe replaced the white stripe. It was handled with as much tact as can be reasonably expected from people who feel like they’re being excluded. The context, I now understand, is that it’s there for black trans people to carve out space in an identity they’re made to feel excluded from.

Without context, it wasn’t clear this flag was an option for people who needed it, rather than an attempt at replacement. Yes, the former is the charitable thing to assume, but…well. My whole point here in this article is that something about the medium of short posts discourages charitable interpretations by allowing little room for context.

People reacted to these expressed worries about the misunderstood intent of the flag the way people do when strangers criticize something they like. I think this was inevitable and driven by the nature of the medium. People imported all their toxic behavior from Twitter, and so we get the same messes.

I did it too. Mea culpa.

Here’s the problem with Mastodon, and Tweet/toot-length posting in general: there is no room to build up to a point, so all you get is points. Punchy, context-free points.

“You can’t not know what the white stripe means!”

“Anyone who has a problem with the black stripe is blocked.”

“I always had my suspicions about them, and this confirms it.”

And on it goes.

There is a problem in the binary trans community of trying to exclude nonbinary people. It’s real. See: the whole ContraPoints fiasco. She didn’t mean to, but the unintended reads of her now evolved-away-from treatise on identity vs. perception (“The Aesthetic”) and some bad tweets (Never Tweet) led to a lot of binary trans people going mask off about what they think of nonbinary people. That’s the context we see the stripe change in lacking any other information.

So, lacking the context possible in a longer form medium, the gut reaction to seeing the nonbinary/gender-noncomforming representation on the trans flag replaced feels like an attack.

The nice thing about a spacious medium like a blog is I can reassure you that Raquel Willis is part of a writers’ collective for trans and nonbinary people and has said strongly pro-nonbinary things on Twitter. I have no doubt she’d have a problem with someone using her variation on the trans flag to exclude nonbinary people. I don’t think she meant to do what a lot of us worried about when we first saw it.

Without that context, though…

I can see why someone would get their hackles up. I sure did, and had to walk it back when I realized this whole thing might be impossible to discuss in a medium of short posts. And, you know, racism is a huge problem, and it was imported to Mastodon along with all the other toxicity, so people are on guard. Any criticism of the flag, no matter how well-intentioned, can look a little racist. In exactly the same way that swapping out our stripe, and that’s canon, can look a little sus.

It would be nice if people on both ends of it made charitable assumptions, but we’ve all dealt with enough people being exactly what we think they are that it feels dangerous to do otherwise. So it’s two groups within a group assuming the worst because they feel like they have to.

This whole situation on top of all the others made me doubt that Mastodon is going to end up much better than Twitter. I can’t decide if the toxicity that puts people on edge is endemic to the medium or if it’s just spilling over from Twitter refugees treating it like Twitter.

Anyway, black trans lives matter.

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