Category: Long Thought

A longer thought.

Gone, Gone, Gone

It’s been a few days now since Igal left us and I struggle to assemble coherent thoughts about how I’m feeling. I oscillate between numbness, anger, disbelief and anguish. In my mind, as if on a loop, I hear his voice and his laugh and see him smile. I don’t know what he’s saying, but I know he is telling a funny story. I also see the static and the silence of the times he would disconnect from us and retreat into his private world. Most every time he’d return to us from that retreat, except for this time. Igal, I will miss you so much.

Bearing the death of a person you care about is never easy. There is grief and there is a lot of mundane work to do. Notify people, plan the funeral, plan the memorial, process the deceased’s belongings, wrap-up their financial affairs. I feel so grateful for the closeness of the tech community here and for the circle of friends I consider family within that community. We have come together in an extraordinary way to help bear each other’s burden. I suppose if anything good can come from Igal’s departure (aside from the cessation of his suffering) is the knowledge of how much love we have for each other.

What makes the burden heavier, though, are the reactions by some who are less educated about mental health issues and who have little familiarity with what it is like to live with a history of trauma and chronic illness.

Comments such as “if we had only seen the signs,” imply that those of us who saw the signs didn’t do enough to help Igal. They imply that being aware that someone is depressed is the end all be all of helping them. It’s not. Simply knowing that someone has an illness does not give you the ability to cure them. We have very poor treatments for most mental health conditions and no cures. The treatments we do have come with an array of negative side effects, and in most cases simply seeking out treatment puts one on path of stigmatization and marginalization for the rest of their life. It also puts one’s autonomy at considerable risk.

Imploring those to reach out to their loved ones who might be in despair implies that suicidal people just need to know they are cared about. Most of the time they already know that they are loved and that people want to help them and often that is just one more obligation which makes their existence unbearable.

Similarly, encouraging those in despair to “just talk with someone,” is almost useless and very likely harmful. Responding to depression requires response by trained professionals. It is not a task for a lay person. Lay people not only lack knowledge about how to treat depression, they are lack necessary skills for managing their own emotional response to the distressed person. Mental health practitioners are specifically trained in how to temper their emotional state when others are in distress so that they don’t burden those they are trying to help.

The unpleasant truth of the matter is that there is very little you can do when one has decided to hide themselves away and refuse all connection with the outside world.

What we can do is to accept suicide as the societal problem it is and recognize that we all need to be involved in making our world a more livable place. Obviously this is a huge task and not something accomplished overnight or by a single individual. However, there are some things each of us can do right now:

  1. Recognize the prevalence of chronic (including mental) health issues. Think of the last user group you attended or the last time you were with a large group of friends. Got it? Okay. At least half of those people live with some kind of chronic health concern, including: depression, bi-polar, (complex) PTSD, ADHD, anxiety, chronic pain, and/or a history of trauma. If you’re thinking that’s not possible because so many of those individuals seem happy and engaged, then know that assumption is part of the problem.
  2. Recognize that those with chronic illness/pain are treated as lesser individuals. We are labeled weak for not being able to simply power through our illnesses as if it were a matter of will. We are labeled slackers by our co-workers if it is known that we take more time off work than they do to receive necessary medical treatment. Very little effort is put into modifying work and social environments to make them safer and more productive spaces for us to live in. When we outright ask for accommodations we are often told no, no one else is complaining, every one is treated equally. Our rights and privileges are reduced as soon as it is recorded that we have sought treatment for our conditions. Sometimes we loose autonomy altogether, or never had it full in the first place.
  3. Recognize the extreme pressure to pass as normal and the enormous energy required to do so. Because of the stigma associated with our conditions, we feel a great pressure to pass as normal by hiding our struggles entirely. Doing so takes a lot of energy and we are already exhausted from working much harder than our healthier counterparts to attend to the everyday tasks of life as well as managing our conditions.
  4. Work towards creating safe, inclusive environments. We should not wait to be asked to create safer and more inclusive environments for those with chronic health issues. We need to continually examine the spaces we help create and ask ourselves if they are welcoming to those who struggle. Is the space free of obvious triggers? Is there a quiet place where one can retreat when respite is needed? Is there a code of conduct in place to reduce the chance of re-victimization? Do we employ ablest phrases? Are people empowered to adjust the nature of their participation according to what they can currently give? Are they still considered full participants? Are we talking about our own chronic health struggles when we are able to do so?

This list is by no means exhaustive. It just happens to be what I’m thinking about now, in terms of my own community and how we are responding to the loss of a dear friend. I hope that we can transform the the pain of this experience into some kind of positive change. That would be a good way to honor Igal’s life.

Note: For simplicity, I’m using “chronic health” to refer to both chronic physical and mental health conditions. Most mental health conditions are chronic and often concomitant with physical ones.

Bold Ideas Uttered Publicly: PyCon, Richards and Responding to Conduct Violations

One thing quite noticeable at this year’s PyCon US is that the Python community’s efforts towards increasing diversity are starting to work. More women are attending and children are being included in an integrated way (coding!). To be clear, we still have a long way to go. Twenty percent attendance by women is an improvement, but it by no means demonstrates parity, and other minorities and those with intersectional identities remain greatly underrepresented. What’s important, though, is that actions of the Python community, including adoption of a code of conduct, are showing real results. Hats off to the PSF and to various PyCon organizers around the world. You are doing good work, thank you.

In the days that have followed the main part of the conference, and while the code sprints were still going on, word reached the internet of a certain code of conduct violation, how it was handled by all parties involved and what the consequences were (or continue to be).

And now we start heading to the heart of my post.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about the tactic of public shaming as a tool for combating institutional oppression. Is it ever appropriate? Under which circumstances? When is it most effective? Does it have some other empowering use? What’s the best way to respond to backlash? I think about this every time I am witness or subject to an aggression. Or when I am the organizer for an event where an incident is called out publicly before I have a chance to respond privately. Or when others make the decision to document publicly another’s transgressive behavior. I think about it especially when that person is then subject to a torrent of negative backlash including threats of violence and death.

Tech is dominated by white, straight, able-bodied, middle- and upper-class men because our industry reflects the social structure of the society in which we live. Our demographics are the result of the racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, sizism, ableism, etc. that persists in society that we allow to propagate within our own, smaller community. That’s why increasing diversity, whether you want to recognize it or not, means combating its enemy: institutional oppression.

How does one fight oppression to increase diversity?

It’s not easy because the tactics available to those who oppose institutional oppression are limited and judged by the very institution that is oppressive. Those from and to a certain extent those who ally themselves with oppressed groups, by definition, have less social capital and the associated benefits than their counterparts. When a queer person, or a person of color, or, god forbid, a disabled queer person of color reports that they have been subject to or a witness of transgressive behavior, they are taken as less authoritative about their own experience than their straight, white, abled counterpart would be. They get less attention and support from the social structures that are supposed to aide them. And quite often they are subject to violence in its many forms.

These responses are not accidental. Those who benefit from the status quo, whether they realize it or not, have a vested interested in maintaining that status quo. That means working to ensure that any threat to it is rendered ineffectual. The best way to do that is to discredit the person who generated the threat. If the threat is the reporting of a transgressive act that the dominant social class enjoys with impunity, then the reaction is to attack the person who reported it.

And that’s exactly what happened this week to Adria Richards.

PyCon made efforts to transform the status quo of a male-dominated environment where sexualized speech is acceptable to one where it is not so that women and others felt more comfortable participating. At least two attendees continued to acted in ways that were no longer acceptable. They probably weren’t the only ones. And I’m sure more than one person was made uncomfortable. But one person chose to speak up about it.

That she chose to do so publicly isn’t really for me, or any of us to judge. As I mentioned before, as someone not part of the dominant social order you have limited options for calling attention to transgressive behavior. You can do so to the individual or individuals demonstrating the behavior, you can report it to the social structures available to you (parents, school, organizations, government, etc.) or you can report it publicly.

The first option is obviously risky. If you don’t have as much power as someone, it is scary to interrupt them and tell them what they are doing is wrong. If you have past experience with violence (as most people with minority identities do), then your experience tells you this is not a good idea because the confrontation may become violent. Additionally, when you are a in a room surrounded by people who look exactly like the person or persons committing the transgressive act it’s sensible to assume that you will not be the person who will have support in a confrontation.

The second option also carries risk. If you do not have a significant history of an organization helping in these matters, there’s a good chance they won’t. Asking them to do so takes emotional work, and handling rejection thereafter takes even more emotional work. Plus, organizations, like the people that run them, also have a vested interest in maintaining the status quos from which they benefit.

Furthermore, it’s not anyone’s job (except perhaps your caretakers’, when you’re young) to remind you how to behave. Ignorance of appropriate social norms is not an excuse for transgressing them. Richards had zero obligation to be polite to the developers or to educate them. We are well into the post-colonial era. Feminism is not a new idea. Get a book and educate yourself.

And that’s how we arrive at the public option. Sometimes publicly outing someone’s bad behavior is the safest, most effective way you can respond. This is particularly true when you don’t have a lot of time to figure out what to do, when you are in the minority position and when you are in an environment that feels unsafe.

It is entirely acceptable for someone to take whichever option they feel to be the best course of action based on the situation at hand and the person’s lived experience up until then. It is not anyone else’s right to determine that for another. This is true regardless of how unskillfully you believe the person handled the situation.

No conference organizer likes dealing publicly with issues, but…

As a conference organizer who has been in the position of responding to public reports of conduct violations, I can tell you it doesn’t feel good to be denied the opportunity to deal with them privately. Not only do you have to process why the person reporting the incident didn’t come to you first, but you have to deal with a much larger response and you have to do so immediately. You no longer have the luxury of time, nor the ability to be distracted by the other million things you’re supposed to be keeping track of while running an event. While it may not feel so at the time, that you are forced to deal with things promptly and publicly is not necessarily a bad thing. There is value in doing so for your community.

Let’s talk about shame for a moment.

Shame isn’t always a bad thing. When you’ve done something you know to be wrong and you feel shameful, that is an appropriate response. If someone calls out your behavior publicly and you feel shame as a result, that’s probably a sign you should pay attention and evaluate your behavior. Shame is contextual. It doesn’t work the same way going up the power hierarchy as it does going down. Power magnifies shame and magnifies the damage it does when applied incorrectly. A young child can’t shame a parent and have the same effect as when a parent shames a child. A white male using shame against a women or a person of color to uphold his social status is not the same thing as a women or a person of color using public shame to bring visibility to inappropriate behavior.

Being the trigger of shame in others while documenting a broken system is not the same thing as enacting revenge.

At one point in Never Sorry, Ai Wei Wei says something like “the broken system must be documented.” I found this statement to be very powerful. Often we feel powerless to change the monolithic systems around us, no matter how broken we know them to be. One power we can exercise is to document what we see and experience.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel your only option is to say nothing or say it publicly? Absolutely say it publicly. Howard Zinn explains the power in this act very eloquently:

“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”

That quote above encapsulates why the reaction to Richards’ act has been so strong, far stronger than the reaction to the code of conduct violation that prompted it. The checking of male privilege and the imposition of consequences for unabashed exercise of that privilege is threatening to all those who enjoy it, as well as those who are ambivalent to its exercise.

Most disappointing of all? SendGrid’s response.

What I find most disturbing about this incident is the response of SendGrid, Richard’s employer up until this week. Rather than having the insight and moral courage to stand behind their employee they gave into the fervor of the mob. That news of Richard’s firing is at the top of the MensRights and WhiteRights subreddits is telling. SendGrid chose to go in the wrong direction on this moving train. They claim to want to build their developer community “across the globe,” but the qualifier they add with their actions is “as long as you are a white male or don’t make white males angry.” I suppose this is none too surprising when you look at SendGrid’s leadership team: Only one out of the twelve company leaders is a women. SendGrid has put into words the unspoken rule we already know: Speak out and you risk your livelihood.

How to we move forward from this incident?

We keep doing what we’re doing. Speaking up when we feel we are able to. Asking the communities of which we are a part to continue adopting and enforcing codes of conduct. Making allies and supporting each other and groups like the Ada Initiative. Avoiding employment, when possible, at companies who, like SendGrid, decide not to advocate for their minority employees the moment is become inconvenient. Pressuring our peers and managers to embrace the change required to make a diverse workforce possible.

I’ll close with a final quote from Mr. Zinn:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Update 22 March 11:31 PDT with some further reading, now that this is getting some sensible coverage:

What Keeps Me at Mozilla

Note (added 30 December 2016): I quit Mozilla in August 2015. You can read why here and here. Most of what’s written below is still reasonably accurate, as far as I know. Except I think Mozilla being mission-driven is mostly horseshit, more about marketing than reality. Working for Mozilla might still be a good resume builder, but be weary of their ever-declining relevance. If you’re not a straight, white cishet man, be prepared to put up with a lot of bullshit, including lack of diversity across the board, co-workers potentially proselytizing to you without your consent, and other harassment that goes unchecked.

Doing good is part of our code.

A friend of mine is considering an offer to work at Mozilla and asked the question “what keeps me at Mozilla?” Below is my response to them.

(Note: As a couple of colleagues have indicated in the comments, this list is very-US centric. Benefits and even ability to work for Mozilla varies by your country of citizenship/residency.)

  • Near total flexibility in working environment. I can work at home, or from our Portland space, or any of the many Mozilla offices.
  • Ability to travel and go to conferences. Different teams have different policies about this, but over the last year I have been able to go to the conferences I’ve wanted to. Plus I can book travel to the MTV/SF offices whenever I feel like I need actual face-time.
  • Good salary and benefits. I don’t know exactly how Mozilla salaries compare to other Bay Area companies, but compared to Portland they are awesome. Last year I was able to pay off my student loan debt, save 10% of my salary AND buy a house. The health insurance is pretty good (not perfect; e.g. we don’t have complete coverage for trans folks yet). Paid time-off is plentiful as well (by US standards, anyway). And, having a flexible work environment means you can use for PTO for actual vacation as opposed to running errands or going to medical appointments.
  • Relative freedom in selecting your tools. You pick your hardware and operating system. You have root on your own machine. You can request a new laptop at least every two years (some people seem to get them sooner). There are gadgets like tablets, Android and now Firefox OS phones. If you need something to get your job done, you will get it.
  • Significant choice regarding what projects you work on. That’s not to say you can work on whatever you want according to whim alone. There is oversight, and your projects need to fit within Mozilla’s high-level goals. But within your functional team, you often have a great amount of say in what you spend your day-t0-day time doing. And, if you get in a position where you’re not doing what you really want to be, there are avenues for changing that.
  • Ability to work for mission-driven, open source oriented organization. Jobs at such organizations are rare because such organizations are few in number. At Mozilla, you have the honor of working for a project that has a ton of world-wide visibility and impact. We are working on initiatives that really matter, such as keeping the web open and bringing that open web to as much as the globe as possible (with Firefox OS).
  • You will work with brilliant, driven folks. These folks far outnumber the assholes. And it’s not just employees you’ll be working with. You will become part of a global army of awesome volunteer contributors.

If that’s piqued your interest, head on over to our Careers website and see if any of the open listings interest you. Got questions? I’m happy to answer them.

Oh, and to any co-workers who are reading, free free to add your own responses to ‘what keeps you at Mozilla’ by leaving a comment.

(Photo of Firefox billboard courtesy of Fligtar.)

Death Threats in Open Source Are not Occurring in a Vacuum

Individuals who make death threats start with less egregious behavior and systematically test the boundaries of the communities in which they exist. When they get away with small violations, they often move on to larger ones. They watch what others are able to get away with, too. The pattern of behavior is common among abusers. If you’re an abuse survivor, you know this implicitly.

The open source community consistently condones the type of behavior that can escalate to death threats. The “free as in freedom” philosophy has created a haven for privileged individuals to act without accountability. Harassment, discrimination and exclusion of women, queer and trans people, racial minorities and other individuals from marginalized groups are commonplace. This is not okay. Not only is it morally wrong to exclude people in this manner, but communities thrive on diversity and stagnate without it. Open source is no different, and we have largely been failing to address this issue.

If you’re not actively working to make your community welcoming to a diverse set of individuals, you are part of the problem. If you are a white, straight cis man and you look around at your community and the majority of what you see are straight, white, cis men, then you are part of the problem. If your project or community does not have a code of conduct and you are not actively providing meaningful enforcement of those standards, then you are part of the problem. If you are not holding your technical leaders accountable for their behavior that is harming the community, then you are part of the problem.

We can no longer operate under the fantasy that maintaining healthy open source communities is solely a matter of technical skill or competence. As Matthew Garrett recently stated:

No matter how technically competent a community leader is, no matter how much code review they perform or how much mentorship they provide, if they’re expressing unacceptable social opinions then they’re diminishing the community. People I know and respect have left technical communities simply because people in positions of responsibility have engaged in this kind of behaviour without it causing them any problems.

Want to lessen the number of death threats that women (and others) in open source receive? Adopt a strong code of conduct and enforce it. Do not allow misogynist, sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. comments or behavior, no matter how trivial they feel to you. Don’t ask people like me to explain to you ad nauseam why a fellow community member saying “we don’t want you around” is a threat. Don’t argue when we say that a co-worker  who advocates against universal marriage is advocating legislative violence. Instead, hold those who make these statements accountable.

In other words, reducing and eliminating death threats in the open source community starts with being intolerant of microagressions.

On Accountability

Back in July, someone claiming to be a “Mozilla member” made threatening comments here on my blog, directed towards myself and my colleague Tim Chevalier. I reported the comments immediately to Mozilla HR. It look nearly three months, but I can now report a resolution.

The person who left the comments is a Mozilla employee. They have been contacted by Mozilla HR and directed not to make these kind of comments to Mozilla employees or community members in the future, or else face disciplinary action. They have also issued an apology to me personally. Unfortunately, the person has declined to provide a public apology and isn’t being compelled to do so.

I find the lack of a public apology disappointing and a detriment to the Mozilla community. Those who violate community conduct standards should face the consequences of their actions and they should have to face them publicly.

Why? Many reasons. Without having to face consequences, abusive behavior is likely to continue, and likely to escalate. When those who violate conduct standards are held publicly accountable for their actions, it gives those who might have been a target of such behavior in the past a chance to finally speak up. And, it demonstrates that the Mozilla community takes its employees’ and contributors’ conduct toward one another seriously and doesn’t tolerate abuse. A public apology gives those who transgress an opportunity to make amends with the community.

In the case of the person who left the threats on my blog, their desire not to look bad is being placed above our (mine, Tim’s and others from marginalized groups) need to feel safe, and thus represents a refusal to acknowledge their deleterious effect on our entire community.

The commenter’s actions harmed not just the two of us who were the direct targets, but the Mozilla community as a whole by setting the example that if a queer person feels they are being discriminated against at Mozilla and speaks out about it, they will be penalized with a public threat. Why was the original comment a threat? Because saying “we don’t want you two around” implies that they would do their best, either directly or indirectly, to make sure Tim and I were not able to continue to be around. Furthermore, their use of “we” created anxiety that there was not just one, but many people at Mozilla who wanted to force out people who speak out against discrimination.

More generally, the commenter’s actions set a precedent that if somebody is in a vulnerable minority group, they must choose between being silent and accepting what they experience as discriminatory treatment or risk being humiliated and threatened if they speak out against it. Being in a situation where the only choices are to accept abuse without criticizing it or be retaliated against for speaking up, is unfair. A community where people in minority groups are treated unfairly is one that many such people will either leave, or not join in the first place, because they don’t feel welcome. And driving away people in minority groups hurts the community. It deprives the community of all that minority group members can contribute, and means Mozilla won’t have the best employees and contributors it can possibly have.

In the lack of acknowledgment that the commenter’s actions harmed the community, I hear unwillingness to say that Mozilla values its contributors who are queer. If harming us does not harm the community, then the only logical conclusion is that we’re not an important part of the community. It’s hurtful to see that the facts apparently point to this conclusion.

While it’s true that I could reveal the identity of the anonymous commenter, I don’t feel comfortable doing so publicly, here on my blog because I fear a lack of support from the Mozilla community. On the one hand, many of you expressed your outrage and disapproval of the commenter’s behavior, but on the other hand, some of you also expressed doubt that the commenter could even be part of the Mozilla community. Also, I have not seen a lot of outspoken support for those who speak up on these issues, and have certainly experienced a lack of institutional support on behalf of Mozilla leadership.

What I will do is encourage those of you who have been the target of threatening behavior, even if it seems insignificant, to document and report it.

Update 3 October 19:45 PDT: Read Harassment, Accountability, and Justice for Tim’s response to this issue.

Response to Nice Girl’s “The Dark Side of Feminism”

The recent post The Dark Side of Geek Feminism, authored by the pseudo-anonymous Nice Girl, and the mostly uncritical responses to it concern me for a couple of reasons.

First, it attacks all of geek feminism based on the actions of a few unnamed individuals. I find this problematic because there is no certification for being a geek feminist. Anyone can call themselves such. Certainly, there are those who call themselves feminists and claim to align themselves with our efforts to support women (in tech, geekdom and elsewhere), but then undermine those efforts with their actions. Or support women to the detriment of other oppressed groups. Folks who do this should be called out on their behavior. It’s not an attack or a condemnation to do so, it’s an opportunity for dialog and for social change.

Furthermore, the author discounts the need for accountability, equating it with vigilante justice. She claims that “naming and shaming” means “trying these things in the court of public opinion” and that both are “wrong and dangerous.” I find this conclusion to be flawed. Without question, it is a person’s decision whether or not to name their abuser. There are plenty of good reasons for not doing so. However, it’s clear that the author is withholding such information not to protect herself, but in order to protect potential abusers and derailers: “[Naming people] can completely ruin someone’s life. The internet lynch mob that it inevitably creates can haunt a person for years.”

Another aspect of the post to consider is use of the term “lynch mob” (quoted above) and the author’s response to being called out on its inappropriateness. Rather than reflecting on why it’s inappropriate to use such a phrase, she simply says she was being hyperbolic and accuses the person who called her out of trolling. What this tells me is that the author clearly doesn’t understand intersectionality and how it relates to privilege. For me, this kind of understanding, or at least the willingness to achieve it, is a prerequisite for engaging in feminist dialog in the first place.

Which leads me to wonder, is the author really engaging in a feminist dialog, or is she promoting an anti-feminist agenda?

I ask because Nice Girl’s post feels like an attention-stealing effort and an attack on anti-oppression dialog. Rather than having a productive conversation about specific people’s behavior, we’re discussing unidentified “bad feminists,” whom we have no ability to address because we don’t know who they are or the full content and context of what they said.

Nice Girl says she believes “naming and shaming” to be unfair. However, the approach she took is even more unfair because it attacks everyone associated with geek feminism; any one of us could be the person she’s talking about.

I’d be having a much different response if the author had written factually about her experiences and not given her post the damming title The Dark Side of Geek Feminism.

[Note: Wondering why is it not appropriate to use ‘lynch mob’ in the way the author uses it? Because it is powerful term that evokes institutional violence against oppressed groups.]

More reading on intersectionality includes: the Geek Feminism Wiki and The Angry Black Woman.

Language Matters: Stop Using “Guys” to Address Mix-Gender Groups

Hi guys. Hey guys. You guys.

Several times a day, in the course of normal workplace communication, I receive messages addressed in the manner indicated above. And I’d like it to stop. I’m not a guy, and don’t want to be referred to as such. Furthermore, every time I read “you guys” I am reminded of my minority status in an industry that is predominantly male.

I would have the same reaction if I were addressed in group email or conversation as boys, or dudes or men. These descriptions aren’t any more accurate than using gals, women, ladies, or girls would be.

I realize that to many it’s perfectly acceptable to refer to a mixed-gender group of people as “guys.” I’m asserting that it’s a terrible habit and requesting that those of you who are accustomed to using it begin using alternative, truly gender-neutral words.

For example:

  • If you’re addressing something to one or two people, try just using their names!
  • If you’re addressing a group of people, use any of the following: team, y’all, folks, everyone.

(Please comment if you have other alternatives, and I’ll update my post accordingly.)

I understand how ingrained the “guys” habit might be for some of you. It was for me. After several months of concerted, conscious effort, I still slip and say it on occasion. But the best way to get rid of old habits, is to practice new ones. Start with email, where you have time to re-read and edit. Then move on to speech. If you say it out loud, correct yourself.

I’m not sure when I started paying attention to this particular construct. It was sometime over the last year, if not longer ago. And it was a result of my gaining more knowledge and experience with issues around gender minorities in tech. It might sound trivial to you, but language matters. We should focus on promoting language of inclusion, and eliminating that of exclusion.

Civil Partnerships are Anything but Equal

Recently a co-worker posted the following on his personal blog (which was syndicated on Planet Mozilla):

Civil partnerships and marriages in the UK give exactly the same legal rights and operate under the same constrictions.

Opponents of marriage equality inevitably issue statements like this to make their views seem reasonable and non-discriminatory. And far too many people believe it to be truth without examining it critically.

Let’s use the UK as an example and review some of the ways in which civil partnerships are not, in fact, equal to marriage:

1. You cannot have a religious ceremony. From the Wikipedia entry on civil Partnership in the UK:

It is prohibited for civil partnerships to include religious readings, music or symbols and for the ceremonies to take place in religious venues.

That’s right, even if your religious community allows same-sex marriage and wants to be a part of your ceremony, it cannot. You are only allowed a secular ceremony.

2. The constraints on the gender of the parties involved make both civil partnerships and marriage trans-phobic. If you change your gender in the UK and are married, you must get a divorce and then enter into a civil partnership with your now ex-spouse. And visa versa.

3. Civil partners of male peers or knights do not receive a courtesy title to which the spouse of a peer or knight would be entitled.

4. UK civil partnership law does not allow for legal same-sex marriages performed in other countries to be recognized as marriages in the UK. If you are legally married in, say, Canada, and then emigrate to the UK, your relationship status is downgraded to a civil partnership.

5. You do not get to say that you are married or that you have a spouse (for legal purposes or otherwise). This means that even if the intent of UK civil partnership law was to provide the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, there will be loopholes wherein certain rights are only granted in the case of “marriage” and/or to “spouses.” I read somewhere, though I don’t recall where, that one example of this is in the case of private pensions.

Limiting “marriage” to opposite-sex couples sends the message that same-sex relationships are inferior, not deserving of marriage, but only of an expressly different and entirely separate institution.

Please think about these things the next time you read or hear someone say that civil partnerships are just as good as marriages for us queer folk.