What I’ve learned from Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day – and why I’m calling it off

The real mission has to be making everyone feel welcome, period.

"Objectify A Man in Tech Day" has become much bigger than I expected since I first wrote about it. At first I was excited, but now I see the scale of the discussion and coverage is creating a number of valid risks - and as a result, I'd like to call off the event.

The widely-covered event started out as a lark that emerged when I got fed up with experiencing - and seeing other women writers and presenters in gaming and tech - fielding irrelevant compliments on their appearance when people referenced their work.

I hoped the result of what we began calling "#Objectify day" would catalyse discussions about the way we use language and how seemingly-innocuous "compliments" are belittling and distracting. A lot of people liked this idea, understood the intention and found it fun.

My goal was that humor and empathy could help people open constructive dialog about sexism. And for a while it seemed like it could work! But there were also a lot of problems with my approach that came to light thanks to the feedback of some trusted friends and colleagues, and I take their concerns extremely seriously.

The dialogue's been great, but the end result - a day of circulating a hashtag on Twitter - runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point. #Objectify is not about celebrating objectification or about making people feel uncomfortable, but I'm increasingly worried that point will be lost and that harm can be done.

My friends and I have done our best to put clear information about our goals out there, but the sad fact is we can't expect everyone to read up or treat one another with respect. And there are some problematic risks even assuming everyone does "get it": We liked people comparing #Objectify to the Hawkeye Initiative but that also means we must consider similar criticisms, and the very real risk that our event would solicit homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other prejudices.

Though we wanted to call out gendered language, focusing on men in this way makes some dangerous assumptions about gender norms and sexuality:

For one thing, the event as it stands currently ignores the fact that gay men, trans men, men of color and any other man outside the "straight white guy privilege" zone are already victims of objectification. "Objectify a man" risks using harmful language toward people who may be vulnerable.

For another, some people feel that an environment of men tossing cute comments at each other ends up reducing women's sexual agency to a joke, since the compliments won't actually have the same effect on their intended recipients. But it's worse if the compliments do affect someone negatively -- is potentially triggering men who have body issues a victory for anyone?

We also need to consider people who live outside of the specific gender binary our society enforces: There are trans women, genderqueer and non-conforming people struggling every day not to be misgendered, and people living quietly with gender issues they may not share in the open. If these people end up caught in the crossfire of our event it doesn't matter whatsoever how well-intentioned we are: We risk actually traumatizing them.

I hoped discussions of gender norms would be one of the positive outcomes of #Objectify, and that attention to the issue would make it all worth some inevitable hostility. But for some people who may be exposed to the wrong kinds of language on the planned day, misunderstanding can be actually harmful, and that is absolutely not a risk I want to take.

"Starting dialogue" this way isn't worth potentially triggering others, putting them at risk or making them feel unsafe. I feel naive that I failed to fully consider the potential ramifications and want to apologize to anyone that was made uncomfortable or who felt threatened by my choice to approach an issue in this way.

There are a few good things, here: it's been an incredible learning experience, and I am still proud of the respectful attention my colleagues, friends and readership have given to issues of objectification and of making women feel welcome in tech. I've had positive conversations that would have been impossible even a year ago. That it took off in a larger way than I ever could have expected shows on some level that people care about change, and that makes me glad.

But the real mission is making everyone feel welcome, period. What I wanted to encourage through humor was caring, empathy and a willingness to listen and educate - now I've been asked to change course, and by calling a halt to #Objectify I hope I'm modeling those same qualities myself.

When people tell you they are hurting, are afraid or feel excluded, you don't get obsessed with your own sense of righteousness, you listen That's what this has always been about.

If you've been paying attention, I hope you continue thinking about the words you use to describe other people and their work. Please continue aiming to listen to and care for everyone who needs your help to feel respected, safe and welcome in tech -- or anywhere.

If you understood and appreciated our intention we thank you for your support, but we ask that if you've written about Objectify to please remove your post, or at least modify it to reflect our reasons for reconsidering this event.

Thanks for your compassion.

Leigh Alexander, gaming and social media culture journalist, is Gamasutra editor-at-large, columnist at Edge, Kotaku and Vice Creators Project, and contributor to Boing Boing,Thought Catalog and numerous others. This post first appeared at her blog, Sexy Videogameland.

There'll be no more objectification. Look at this lovely picture of a baby giraffe instead. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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