This post is part of Me, online, Mashable’s ongoing series digging into online identities.
I was locked in my friends’ bathroom on the phone with my thesis adviser and staring at Reddit. It was snowing pretty hard and though there was a window with some theoretical light streaming in, I felt like I was under a blanket, the flashlight of my attention pointed at a screen that I refreshed and refreshed and refreshed. I was discussing the critical thesis component required for my graduate degree, an MFA in creative writing. It was titled Masculinity and the Making of the Modern Nerd. It was a mess.
“Does that make sense?” my adviser asked, or something like that. I don’t know, exactly, what she’d said, other than the paper didn’t work, because I was preoccupied. We need a Kotaku In Action Action, a user typed. And they were typing it about me. Refresh, refresh, refresh.
“Yes, I think. Sorry, something weird and bad is happening right now?”
She paused. “Are you okay?”
“I think so? I think I’m fine.”
I’d been the Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, a popular website primarily by and for queer women and non-binary folks, for some years. I’d both written about Gamergate and assigned others to write about it. My entire first novel? It was (and still is) about the phenomenon of weaponized nerds, radicalized young men (primarily white and western) terrorizing women over games. At Autostraddle, in 2016 praising one of the central targets of Gamergate for doing as much good as can possibly be done in the wake of a harassment campaign against her, and then moving on with her gosh darn life like a woman on a mission.
I’d thought my biggest crime with this piece was writing it just a bit too saccharine; I was lavish with my compliments. The gamers on Kotaku in Action apparently thought it was more egregious than that — perhaps the worst offense in the entire world: that I might not be a “real nerd” at all.
I often say it is the butthole of the internet, and I’ve spent the last four years giving the world wide web a proctology exam.
I struggle to explain Kotaku in Action every time I have to, because it truly defies explanation and has the many heads of a hydra collective. It’s the Reddit forum that perpetuated GamerGate, a place to coordinate targeted rape- and death-threats against women in the games industry — when a user says “Kotaku In Action Action,” it is likely to these types of activities they are referring.
(and strategically so). It’s full of (mostly) dudes with no sense of culture or community outside their homogenous gaming forums; these rootless young men long to be a part of something bigger, something greater and so, Kotaku in Action it is. A place on the internet that’s part of the Manosphere and also includes Pick Up Artists, Incels, and Men’s Rights Activists. , calling it a “viral cancer,” and Reddit, in its infinite wisdom, decided to save it. A place that I’ve spent years researching in service of my fiction; I often say it is the butthole of the internet, and I’ve spent the last four years giving the world wide web a proctology exam.
When I was first alerted to the thread, I was scared. I’m no stranger to a good hate pile-on—I do work on the internet, after all, and writing for the queer community often means antagonizing some harsh critics, both without and within. The GamerGaters, though? I’d spent two years flying under the radar of these fine, upstanding gentlemen internet terrorists. I wrote for queer women, for non-binary folks. I thought that must be the reason why: They were uninterested in what I had to say because I was never saying it to a mainstream audience, to the normal set of gamers, and so I never got hit. I thought I must not be a threat; that wasn’t quite it. I was wearing armor. Armor I had no idea I’d ever put on.
I was filled with too much nervous energy after seeing the thread to stay in my apartment, so I went to the Strand and stress-bought a Virginia Woolf Saint Candle, a Moleskine notebook I didn’t need, and a book on drawing happy people. When it was time for me to get back to my own space, I found I didn’t want to. My head was filled with all the stories, the doxxing, the SWATting, the things that can happen if you walk through the digital world as boldly female. It’s dangerous to go alone; I didn’t want to be alone. I told my Dungeons and Dragons group what was going on — I figured they’d be the most likely to understand, being a group of gamers. And that’s how I wound up locked in my dungeon master’s bathroom, talking to my adviser as I watched the comments build up on Reddit.
The guy spends way too long jerking himself off in the first paragraph about how much of a nerd he is.
When I was growing up, in the 80s, geek and nerd was a derogatory slur. I don’t get the desire to identify with labels the popular people tried to shame us with… Anyhow, the term “geekery” makes my skin crawl. I guarantee you this guy knows fuck all about the history and intricacies of the various so-called “geek” interests.
I’m guessing he was alone for Valentine’s Day.
They were mean — but they weren’t threatening. There was only the one. The rest — just grousing. I’d seen much worse happen to other folks. To more feminine folks. Refresh, refresh, refresh.
I came out as trans last fall, but I’ve looked like this for a long time: close-cropped hair, chest flattened by a binder, every stitch of clothing I own from the men’s department. My fellow queer writers had seen me coming for years. But at the time this was happening in 2016? I was still white-knuckled from clinging to the sisterhood. Even though I’d get “excuse me, sir?” while walking about in public, right up until the point I opened my mouth to speak. Even though, more than once, folks had been very concerned when they happened upon me in the women’s room. Even though literally all my (repressed) internal barometers pointed to “not a woman.”
Still, it was shocking to see, this assumption that I was a man — a popular man, at that!
I love my family, my queers; we are a people used to existing in the strange gray area. We are a people used to taking slurs from the mouths of hate-filled adversaries and tattooing them on the soft muscles of our hearts, making celebration and community out of words meant to hurt us. I figured I was just a failure at femininity; that the definition of woman was broad and that my masculinity fit within it. Those are all true things, they’re just not true for me. Still, it was shocking to see, this assumption that I was a man — a popular man, at that!
It’s annoying to me when popular hacks call themselves nerds. Especially because having been a nerd back when the word meant social outcast. It was them who came in and caused all beatings and insults.
Back in my friend’s bathroom, my adviser asked, incredulously, “They think you’re a guy?”
“I think so,” I replied and I read her some of the comments.
I explained it to her; it had happened before, this confusion. When I identified as a woman, I published under the name “Ali,” which, for half of this world, isn’t a woman’s name at all. My photo was next to my byline and people didn’t really read what the website was about if they found it from an outside source. I wrote largely about technology; my longest-running column was titled Queer Your Tech. A lot of folks (wrongly) consider that some “boy-stuff.”
She didn’t believe me until months later, when I was taking over her website from her former designer (I maintain the websites of a few authors I know). As he was passing me all the information I needed, he conducted the entire transaction calling me “he” in all the emails. HE THINKS YOU’RE A DUDE my adviser texted me, privately. In digital space, where I never have to open my physical mouth, where I am simply a collection of characters on a screen, no one ever looks at me with their eyebrow raised; no one ever corrects themselves. I am whatever I am assumed first to be. And I’m doing and saying the “boy-stuff.”
“Yup,” I responded. “I told you.”
Eventually, I did come out of the bathroom. I waited. These were tamer than the reports of what happened to the women who crossed the GamerGaters. I was expecting the worst — surely, if it hadn’t happened yet, the worst would be coming and it was only a matter of time. I waited through the night for something to happen.
And nothing ever did.
“Do they even know you spent the entirety of seventh grade eating lunch in the guidance counselor’s office because you were too unpopular to eat in the cafeteria?” my friend Laura said from my couch the next day. “You — you’ve never been cool. Except to me, you were cool to me.” Laura and I have known each other since the fourth grade. She stuck with me through my obsession with the musical Cats and my childhood assertion that I was an alien from Saturn. And now, she was volunteering to be my questing buddy. To keep her eye on the thread, to make sure I was safe, so I wouldn’t have to keep refreshing it.
“It’s taking everything I’ve got not to jump on and say something to these people.”
“Don’t do that. That’ll make it worse.”
Looking like a dude was armor; it played on the subconscious prioritization of all things manly.
What I meant was: Don’t do that, they’ll figure out I’m one of the things they hate. Because I’d developed a hypothesis, one that keeps proving itself even now, years later. I said things they disliked, disagreed with. They called me an SJW (social justice warrior), but I looked masculine enough that the Kotaku in Action Action never materialized.
Looking like a dude was armor; it played on the subconscious prioritization of all things manly. I’ve watched queer femme authors get harassed so intensely that they have to leave the internet, and many of them aren’t even trying to poke the GamerGaters. The cause isn’t in the content, or the severity of the imagined offense. It’s in the gender presentation of the author. Those that the heteronormative world deems masculine people can talk; those they deem feminine people better watch their backs.
And the things about the way I present online one might perceive as feminine (allying myself with women, the over-prooving of my right to speak on a subject) were but small scratches in an armor built of clipper cuts and and computer-speak. “Boy stuff.” The reason I was never considered a threat wasn’t because of who I was speaking to; it was because of who I was — ultimately, not like those “other girls.” Weaponized nerds use their masculinity as a sword; now I know I can wield masculinity as armor to go questing in the darkest caves, in the buttholes of the internet. My masculinity allowed their eyes to slide right over me. Allowed isn’t even the right word; encouraged, perhaps.
Two years later and not much has changed. It’s still happening; I am one variant, one echo of it. It wasn’t the masculine half of that got chased off the internet, for instance. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to me, or to queers, or to 2016, or to GamerGate. This is just the way it is, out there, on the internet. I could’ve identified as trans at the time this happened, instead of as a woman, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s the nature of being squeezed into two dimensional space while being squashed by the patriarchy. I am whatever people assume me first to be. I am safer online because of it.
A.E. Osworth is the Managing Editor of Scholar and Feminist Online at Barnard College and Part-Time Faculty with The New School’s Creative Writing Department, where they teach digital storytelling. You can find their writing at Autostraddle, where they contribute regularly, and Argot Magazine, where they are a columnist. You can also catch up with them on Twitter or Instagram.