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Ten years a Wikipedian

Screenshot from the author’s Wikipedia user page, featuring various “Fun Facts” about them and a headshot.

Ten years ago today, I made my first edit on Wikipedia. I still remember what it was without even having to look it up, as it was so random and fun: I added the (awesome) Led Zeppelin song “Four Sticks” to the page “List of musical works in unusual time signatures”. I don’t remember what motivated me to make this edit. I suppose I had the same trajectory as many editors, visiting the site regularly and then realizing “Hey, I can edit this page myself!”

But as many novice editors do, I failed to add a citation, and was dinged for it. Apparently my assumption that it was obvious to all (musicians, anyway) that this piece was in quintuple meter wasn’t good enough. I happened to have the Led Zeppelin Complete book of sheet music on my shelf, so I added that as a reference. I was dinged again for not including specific page numbers. Wow, I thought, these Wikipedians are hard-ass!

Since that day, I’ve made thousands of edits, started dozens of new articles, contributed hundreds of photos (to sister project Wikimedia Commons), and presented at local meetups and international conferences. The peak of my activity was mid-2016 through late 2017. Since then I’ve greatly decreased my editing due to burnout from trans-antagonistic* vandalism, as I’ll discuss later in this article. But on balance, I’m glad to have contributed to this free encyclopedia.

Prior to 2014, I was barely an active editor. I made only three edits in 2008, and 40 the following year, when I created my first article. The subject was of dubious notability by Wikipedia’s standards, and the page is still tagged as such; I won’t link to it here. But I learned something about article creation in the process.

In 2014, I got emotionally invested in an article about a sensitive issue (unrelated to gender), and got involved in heated discussions on the talk page. I ended up filing a complaint about another editor, and learned something about Wikipedia’s administrative procedures in the process. While that report turned out to be premature, I would make much more productive use of reporting features in the future to counter vandalism and harassment.

In 2016, I began devoting a lot more time to Wikipedia editing. I didn’t have a day job and wasn’t doing other volunteer work at the time, so it made sense to use my available time and skills to do something productive. I began to focus on editing and creating biographies of marginalized people who are underrepresented in the encyclopedia, particularly transgender and black folks (like myself). I joined the Women in Red WikiProject, and took advantage of their monthly initiatives to create a number of biographies of women (trans and cis).

While editing articles was my primary activity, I also began contributing a lot more photos to Wikimedia Commons. I’d decided the previous year to stop trying to make money licensing photos directly, and instead just post all of my new work to Flickr under a Creative Commons license, and ask for Patreon contributions and tips to cover my expenses. I post a selection of these photos to Commons, only if I think they will be useful for illustrating articles.

Here again, I’ve focused on black and trans folks, but also have contributed a lot of photos of protests, especially since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I’ve debated whether to continue this practice, however, as it might be putting activists in danger.

Also starting in 2016, I began attending meetups at the Wikimedia Foundation, whose headquarters are just a couple of miles from my home in San Francisco. I attended the Wikipedia 15 birthday celebration that January, shortly before a change of leadership and during a time of a lot of controversy surrounding the Foundation.

A few months later, I was invited by long-time Wikpedian Pete Forsyth to present on a panel about transgender issues at the inaugural Bay Area WikiSalon (which he co-established) in April 2016. I’ve continued to attend and take photos at many of these salons.

In October 2016, I gave a presentation on transgender issues at WikiConference North America in San Diego. I talked about my experiences and frustrations being one of few openly trans editors working alongside cis editors on articles about people like myself. My expertise and personal experience attracted the attention of the Foundation, and I was invited to give the inaugural talk of the QueERG LGBTQ+ Speaker Series in June 2017.

Though I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on my efforts to improve coverage of marginalized people on Wikipedia, many editors are not happy with what they see as unacceptable activism and “identity politics”. Regardless, I choose to disclose my race, trans status, and other significant aspects of my identity on Wikipedia, on my blog, and on my social media pages in an effort to be transparent about my frame of reference. And as a queer black trans person, I see activism as a matter of survival.

As I’ve discussed in my talks, what is considered to be a “neutral point of view” (one of Wikipedia’s fundamental policies) in the U.S. is that of a straight white cisgender male. So people matching most or all of those criteria might not feel that their edits are biased in any way, and might not understand the point of identity disclosure. (Many marginalized people wouldn’t agree with my disclosure either; identity politics is obviously a hotly debated topic.)

I was aware that openly stating my real name and trans status on my user page could expose me to vandalism and harassment. But I wasn’t prepared for the months-long targeted onslaught of hate I endured from a particularly determined stalker.

Fortunately, these attacks, though distressing, did not discourage me from editing. If anything, I worked even harder to create and edit articles about trans people during this period of time. I also created a proposal to combat harassment by protecting user pages from editing by anonymous and new users. This change was approved and implemented on the English Wikipedia in late 2016, and I gave a presentation on the subject at WikiConference North America in Montreal in August 2017.

I’ve had a lot of productive conversations with current and former Wikipedians on issues of representation and harassment, particularly with Anasuya Sengupta and Siko Bouterse of Whose Knowledge?, a campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities on the Internet, and with Jake Orlowitz, Chris “Jethro” Schilling, Ryan Kaldari, Sydney Poore and the Anti-Harassment Tools team at the Wikimedia Foundation. I am encouraged by the number of allies working to amplify the voices of folks like myself, and challenge notability standards that currently prioritize the coverage of cisgender white males.

However, I’ve been worn down by the amount of vandalism and micro-aggressions I’ve witnessed on articles about trans and — especially — non-binary people and subjects. The edits that cause me distress are not just obvious vandalism, like replacing entire pages with the text “There are only 2 genders”, but also discussions on the articles’ talk pages that question the validity of non-binary genders and pronouns.

Persistent vandalism is often addressed by locking the page so that only registered users can edit it, for a period of time or indefinitely. However, some pages get pending changes protection, which still allows everyone to edit, but allows only logged-in users to see edits made by new or anonymous editors until those edits are approved. This keeps most “only 2 genders”-type vandalism out of the public eye, but trans editors like myself still have to see it.

Trans-antagonism on talk pages is even harder to address, as talk pages are rarely locked even for highly controversial articles. Some editors just ignore talk pages, but they are an important part of article development. Adding a page to my watchlist adds both the article and its associated talk page, and exposes me to trans-antagonism not only in those places but sometimes also in the edit summary (which was the primary way my stalker attacked me after my user pages were protected). Some people even create accounts with inflammatory usernames for this purpose, though they are usually banned quickly.

Some ask why I edit articles on subjects that are triggering to me. It’s a fair question, but I really don’t have much interest in editing articles on general, relatively uncontroversial subjects like songs in unusual time signatures. I did spend a fair amount of time editing an article on the October 2017 wildfires in Northern California, as I was walking outside wearing a gas mask for part of that time, but it’s not my area of interest or expertise.

The thing is, if all trans people are driven away from editing Wikipedia by trans-antagonism — which comes from established editors and administrators as well as anonymous users — then only cisgender people will decide how we should be represented in the encyclopedia. That, to me, is unacceptable. But as much as I want to be included, I don’t feel that I should have to volunteer my time to be abused. I face enough ridicule and discrimination in my daily life as it is.

Regardless, I’ve realized that this issue extends far beyond Wikipedia. There’s simply a huge amount of ignorance about trans people, particularly non-binary folks like myself, and not much accurate information published in what Wikipedia considers to be reliable sources. Whose Knowledge? and others are helping to address these gaps, but it’s a long, uphill battle.

So for now, I’m making very few edits to Wikipedia articles. I’m still contributing photos to Commons, and most of the edits I’ve made this calendar year have simply been adding photos and Commons categories to existing articles. I keep thinking about resuming the creation of biographies of trans folks, but whenever I look at the history of trans articles I’ve worked on and see the subjects getting repeatedly mocked and misgendered, I can’t stomach it.

Folks who don’t have to live with their very existence being questioned every day might not understand why I can’t just suck it up and ignore the trolls and haters. Or respond (for the umpteenth time) with coherent arguments on why singular they is perfectly grammatical. Or explain (for the umpteenth time) why it’s not only unnecessary, but actually harmful to include a trans person’s deadname if they didn’t gain notability prior to transitioning.

I don’t wish to discourage other marginalized folks from editing Wikipedia, but I do see the encyclopedia as an unsafe space for trans editors at this time. Many will argue that the Wikipedia community is not obligated to provide a safe space for all editors. Whether or not this is true, an encyclopedia that is truly representative of the human population needs to include diverse editors as well as diverse articles. Trans people will be more inclined to volunteer their time to edit Wikipedia if they can do so in a welcoming and supportive environment.

*I prefer to use the term “trans-antagonism” rather than “transphobia” because I find that most attacks on trans people are rooted in ignorance and/or hatred, not fear. Some also feel that using the suffix “-phobia” to describe something other than mental illness is ableist, though I’m not sure how people actually suffering from phobias feel about this.