On the (Trans) Misogyny of NDN Cancel Culture

Featured image: “queering the waterways,” jaye simpson, performance, 2019.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to pull from my own experiences. I do this because I don’t own anyone’s experiences but my own. That said, I was undoubtedly inspired by several points of conflict that have occurred between Indigenous peoples on Twitter over the past several week and months, where many have expressed that lateral violence between Indigenous community members has reached a perceived peak. I am inspired by transfeminine folks that I call kin, who face transmisogynist violence online daily, and who feel isolated from and ill-supported by Indigenous community. They shouldn’t have to hold the weight of these conversations.

Given that people are now isolated because of COVID-19, struggling with the mental and physical affects of that isolation, and increasingly turning to social media platforms as one of the only places to reach out for connection to other people, the ability for folks to respond to complex forms of institutional violence has naturally increased following Black Lives Matter protests internationally that exposed anti-Black racism in America and Canada. But I’m also cautious to describe COVID-19 era conflict on Twitter, as exceptionally toxic—as it is often described—because online conflict between so-called minority groups are part of a cycle I have known for years.

I want to open with an example to provide a point of analysis. Recently, a well-known Indigenous figure with many followers posted a tweet that perpetuated a divide between the digital, namely Twitter, and “real” Indigenous community. Certainly, the figure meant to say that sometimes we should log off and reconnect with what we, as Indigenous peoples, constitute our real communities to be because social media can be loaded with abstracted conflict that takes us away from said communities. While a harmless assertion, the tweet immediately became a classic “pile on” from many segments of Indigenous community. The figure had unwittingly stumbled into a space of much debate about the loaded politics that get brought into conversations about the false Rez/digital binary. Indigenous folks from diverse backgrounds, geographies, and nations brought to the heated conversation their own baggage. Misunderstanding ensued. Subtweets followed. Rinse. Repeat. In aeternum.

One of the conflicts that came from the aforementioned Twitter thread resulted from the continued misgendering of a trans Indigenous youth by an internationally famous Indigenous creative based in Canada. In the thread, the creative posited: 1) trans people aren’t “real;” and 2) that the trans person in question was trying to “trick” him in order to get him “canceled.” When I confronted him about enacting one of the oldest rhetorics in the transphobia playbook, the creative then took to direct message to misgender me now, tell me, once more, trans people aren’t real, and use trans slurs and a series of profanities. Women and other queer and trans individuals would flood my inbox that day with their own stories about how he had verbally abused and harassed them, for years. Sometimes this harassment occurred on stages in front of entire audiences at festivals and industry events.

It’s important to understand that this is not an exceptional occurrence. In fact, I’m reminded about an instance at the beginning of my career, wherein I had gotten into what I thought was a minor Facebook conflict with an infamous Native “troll.” He and his friend, also an Indigenous man and creative administrator, verbally berated me, posted a series of hurtful statuses on Facebook about me after blocking me so I couldn’t stand up for myself (that were liked and interacted with by many of our colleagues), and attempted to get me, an Indigenous transgender youth (at the time), fired from my job. Years later, I would be asked to be a part of an accountability hearing at his institution. I declined because I don’t think it’s ethical to get anyone fired, nor is a capitalist industry where I enact my activism. I do my work to transform my community of Indigenous peoples. Then again, his nationalist rhetoric made him all “real” Native man. So, whose to say what’s The Truth, you know?

I think the rhetorics of “conflict” are interesting in the context of the aforementioned examples. I remember that, at the time the latter instance occurred, many of my colleagues told me that this was not abuse or (transphobic) violence. “That’s just two Native folks who don’t get along,” they would say. Conflict, in essence. Certainly, I have come to learn that I can’t equate disagreements with abuse because mutual survivance is central to my responsibilities as a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux person. Still, their rhetorics sounded so familiar to me.

My Métis mother once told me the story of when my Anishinabe father punched her until she thought she was going to die. She had to stab him in the chest to get away. My mom, a Halfbreed from Prince Albert, was vilified and degraded by my Anishinabe family for years, who still try to get me to denounce her when i see them, even after my father did time for sexual abuse of minors. When I asked my grandmother and auntie about the abuse, they replied, “Abuse?! No, my girl, your mother is just [a] crazy [Halfbreed].”

Though the aforementioned Twitter thread, that created so much controversy around the false digital/Indigenous divide, all took place publicly, on a social media platform wherein many members of Indigenous creative communities observed the harassment, the herein unnamed creative will go on to work with key figures and institutions in Indigenous creative industries nationally and internationally. When his next work comes out, it will have the best slot at all the big festivals. No one, in any serious measure or way, will ever let his public display of transphobia and misogyny effect his career or livelihood. Truly, this is the last breath I want to give to men and misogyny. Everything I have written is a set up, a comparison, to what Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks experience online, and the uneven repercussions of “calling out” and being “called out” online.

Certainly, I know the categories I have laid out herein are precarious and escape colonial definition, as well. Cisgender Indigenous women would even come forward to posit that those “not real,” and also conveniently transgender, Natives who wanted to talk about the problematics of the false digital/real Native divide were actually perpetuating stereotypes about Reservations peoples (though I and those who contested the rhetorics at play were, indeed, “Reservation Natives”). Why are Natives so afraid of nuance and critique that would generate trans-positive resurgence and anti-maculinist forms of nationalism, that aren’t just rhetorical re-articulations of coloniality (I will elaborate herein). Why is it still controversial to say that rape, domestic partner abuse, homophobia, and transphobia all persist on Reservations. Because they do?

There is something else at play here. Is it trans identities that cisgender Indigenous peoples constitute as “not real,” as the aforementioned Indigenous creative suggested? Because, certainly, we can uphold Reservation peoples and our nations without falling into transphobic and misogynist colonial logics. Further, such a rhetoric is wilful ignorance regarding the fact that the gender binary is a colonial construct, and so-called gender diverse communities have long existed in Indigenous communities. Tl;dr – (trans) misogyny is a tenant of coloniality, and not inherently of Indigenous worldviews. Like, have you even read Emily Riddle or watched a Thirza Cuthand film?

Also notable is that the original poster of the tweet that created so much controversy remains unscathed as the instigator. In comparison, during the same week, several Indigenous women were called out on Twitter and chased off the platform for much less direct forms of participation in actions that resulted in them being “called out” by other Indigenous women, queer folks, and trans folks. An “Indigenous feminist” posted a transmisogynist article on Medium (that I won’t even link because it’s so violent), and Indigenous community, including non-binary and cisgender folks, sat idly by while trans women were forced to respond.

Why are Indigenous men impervious to critique online? They can publicly enact misogyny, harassment, sexual violence, and transphobia without negative consequence. Yet, it’s women, queer, and trans folks, and predominantly trans women, who are subjected to constant lateral violence and cruelty online and within creative industries.

An Abridged History of Misogyny in Popular Film

This review of misogyny in film industries is not robust. There are many places one could begin a discussion of how misogyny has incepted American and Canadian film, and such an analysis could span back as early as the medium’s very inception and men-dominated lens. But I want to focus in on a single point of analysis: men director’s treatment of women on their sets.

For generations, women were only present on sets as actresses and endured unspeakable violences because of their entanglements in the film industry [1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]. Countless actors including Alyssa Milano, Gabrielle Union, Lady Gaga, Terry Crews, Viola Davis, Jane Fonda, and Rose McGowan have come forwards to talk about their experiences of sexual assault in creative industries. And the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein has opened up a window into Hollywood, and exposed that women’s participation in film industries is widely associated with sexual abuse—women’s safety on set is the exception.

While murder and rape is an extreme form of misogyny that has affected women in film industries, there is also the often ignored issue of masculinist cultures in the film industry and how that influences the overall culture on film sets. TikTok creator @kelitarosita recently produced a series of videos discussing Shelley Duvall‘s experience working on the set of the Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining (1980). Stanley Kubrick is widely renown for having excessive methods on set that would torture the women actors who worked for him. Kubrick told the rest of the cast and crew to never speak to her, to ignore her, and especially not to compliment her for her work on set, meaning that the entire set participated in creating this misogynist culture around Duvall (for thirteen straight months, while working 12 hour days isolated on set). Kubrick would cut her lines without notice, and set up traumatizing scenes without giving her any warning so she would react with genuine, sheer terror. Kubrick would shoot repetitive scenes with Duvall, to the point of emotional breaking and physical harm on her person. This mistreatment of Duvall would negatively impact her mental health for the rest of her life. On set, Duvall became physically ill and began losing clumps of hair. In 2016, Duvall made an appearance on Dr. Phil, clearly in a state of mental deterioration. All this was done, said Kubrick, to evoke authentic emotion from his actor. On the other hand, Kubrick was good friends with Jack Nicholson, and Nicholson would go on to have a decorated and successful career for decades. Nicholson would also speak favourably of Kubrick in the media for years to come, despite what he had witnessed.

Kubrick is not exceptional in his misogynistic torture of creative communities. Well known directors who are still widely taught in film schools, such a Alfred Hitchcock and William Friedkin, are renowned for abusing their women actors on set. And these are just the cases we know about. Within film studies and the film industry, an ethos of putting the art before the artist still permeates. Notably, on a recent episode of the podcast Reply All about the film The Exorcist, when the unethical treatment of child actor Linda Blair was brought up, guest host and actor Jason Mantzoukas replied, “that’s just how things were back then,” and moved on with the conversation.

While the abuse of actresses is an overt form of misogynistic violence that is normalized within the film industry, it provides a basis for analysis of the normalization of misogynist cultures within creative industries; namely, how entire industries of people are responsible for upholding misogynist forms of harassment. Further, entire communities of industry actors participate in maintaining silence around the misogynist actions of men, thereby perpetuating a culture of misogyny.

By sharing this history with you, I hope to show that cultures of misogyny are not “traditional” and have no place in Indigenous art and film. (Trans) misogyny is colonial violence, and our understanding of “traditional” nationalism has been deeply influenced by a colonized worldview regarding gender, sexuality, and the differential treatment of all those who are not men. Queer and trans creators want to see beyond that binary, to what comes after a coloniality of being, to get all Sylvia Wynter about it. As my colleague Anne Spice has said, what comes after we imagine otherwise?

Though the technologies have changed, now we are all soft content creators, the ways we infest misogyny into the very methods of the work we make, and into the legacies of the objects we birth, whether a film or a tweet, still apply.

Lateral Violence, Social Media, and Cancel Culture

I hesitated to use the term lateral violence in this text. I know now that the term “violence” is subjective and complex. Yet, throughout the trajectory of the conflicts I am about to share with you, the term “lateral violence” remained at the forefront of many Tweets and minds as the only idea weighty enough to encompass the kinds of hurt that can occur between Black and Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks.

For Black and Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks who have been marginalized within creative industries, there are many tactics for survival. One tactic is to take to social media platforms such as Twitter to express their concerns. Here’s where expressions of power become important. Black and Indigenous peoples with little, no, or precarious institutional supports take to social media because, quite literally, it is the only place they can seek mutual aid among one another; it is the only place for them to take back power in a small way. Twitter is a void wherein Black and Indigenous peoples can express hurt they have endured in a colonial-capitalist society. Don’t get me wrong, many a queer digital theorist, likely reflecting on Tumblr era movements, has written about how void-shouting only re-traumatizes oneself and others. Still, Indigenous trans youth have been able to find digital communities that can understand and mirror their experiences. Twitter is therapy. Twitter is self-actualization.

Twitter’s influence on creative industries has been precedent setting. Twitter is increasingly becoming a technology that is relied upon for maintaining an audience as a creative professional. The intersection of creative industries and textual interaction on the platform has made space for dialogs and interactions between people who might not have previously crossed paths because of socioeconomic stratification. Privileged social conservatives such as Jon Kay, Hal Niedzviecki, and JK Rowling have all recently gotten caught up in Twitter discourse that exposed their various politics based in white supremacy, misogyny, and transphobia, and marked them, and their rhetorics, as dying. But racists and transmisogynists losing their jobs and narrating their decent into obsolescence is not what I want to discuss herein because I am not interested in looking back at what has already happened. So don’t even ask me to comment on “the letter.” Social conservatives do a good enough job of ending their own careers; they don’t need any extra publicity from me.

But, to be sure, these aforementioned “cancellations” were not the result of the Indigenous, Black, and trans folks who did the calling out. What did cause said cancellations was the capitalist actors at the helm of the institutions those who were “cancelled” worked for (also white people), who saw these parties as being disposable (a measure that actively resists exposing and working on racist cultures throughout organizational structures). They became scapegoats of a predominantly white industry that wanted to paint institutional racism as “a few bad eggs,” however misplaced their cruelty became. Those who were doing the “calling out” online were never met with a respectful dialog by the childish industry actors, some 20-40 years their senior, who instead doubled down on their racism and transphobia. Unable to speak out against the institutions they felt scorned by, these actors projected that hatred and anger on Black and Indigenous communities, and portrayed themselves as good rational creatives and victims (read: white- and colonial-coded), whose only pursuit is The Truth; and positioned those who called them out as demons (no jokes, they went right back to the 1400s for their racist rhetoric), irate, irrational, and violent actors (read: the same thing white people have been calling Black and Indigenous peoples for centuries to legitimate scientific racism). So, on one side we have folks with institutional alignments worried about profit; and on the other there are impoverished and socially stratified communities who are asking, simply, to be able to survive and thrive.

What I do want to focus on is the relationship between what has been called call out culture, misogyny, and Indigenous communities online. Not all online “call outs” are cut and dry cases of confronting racists and transphobes. While Indigenous youth are turning to social media to speak out and attempt to rebalance inequitable communities and industries, Twitter has become an infamous “burning dumpster fire.” Certainly, online voids are not moderated for their ethics. But, as previously stated, Twitter has become an industry hotspot where creatives increasingly need an audience in order to support their careers. Additionally, many millennials grew up in an era of monetized identity politics, and it’s no secret that a few careers have been launched by the spectacle surrounding online forms of call outs. But the space where Indigenous peoples project their egos and identities into virtual worlds for monetary compensation is exactly where lateral violence and spectacle surfaces.

As aforementioned, a search for “respectful dialog” can be loaded and neoliberal. But Indigenous peoples know we can encode digital objects and virtual proper beings[1] with Indigenous and queer ethics. Indigenous peoples have argued that the internet is a continuation of their own worldviews, and just another space and temporarily they see and interact with through their own teachings and outside of a colonial order. As my friend Alicia Elliott, who I have learned a lot from about these kinds of interventions, once said to me, “we don’t have to play [their] game.”

Yes, “cancel culture” is here. Yes, cancel culture is here to stay. It hasn’t always been called cancel culture, and it will mutate with time. We will debate its semantics for years. There will be many evolutions of its title. But, just as our movements continue to digitize, so too will our modes of enacting lateral violence. Cancel culture has always been here, and it comes in waves. 

In 2014 I penned a “call out” entitled Know Your History. This is just what we called it at the time, though the discourse around that term has become loaded. Notably, I am taking responsibility publicly for writing this call out for the first time. I say this with a complete lack of ego. I doubt the specific moment this post encapsulates means much to anyone outside of a handful of people, nor do I harbour any belief that this post achieved anything meaningful in the long-run of MMIW community politics, which are still rife with conflict and lateral violence. In fact, I feel a little shame to own up to writing this post. No doubt, my techniques were brash and I was young when I wrote Know Your History. When I posted the call out, I was in my early twenties and I could count the Two-Spirit people working in community activism nationally on one hand (we hadn’t enveloped “queer” and “trans” embodiments into the discourse because, for me, that moment in Indigenous community was characterized by a discourse centred on resurgence as tied solely to roles and responsibilities regarding “The Land” and being in lodge). And folks were retiring in their mid-twenties because of stress-induced illness resulting from online lateral violence. Folks in my community were being threatened with the then new phenomenon of “doxxing,” and their Twitter lives were starting to affect their real lives in harmful ways. What’s notable about the conflict leading up to the call out is that it occurred solely between Black and Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks.

When I wrote Know Your History, it was the first time I noticed that: 1) Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks are called out publicly at a higher rate than Indigenous men; 2) Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks are called out publicly at a higher rate than Indigenous men by each other; and 3) when they are called out, they have a higher rate of losing their careers, not because of firing or cancellation, but because of their own ethics and fear of a culture of bullying in creative industries among women, queer, and trans folks.

I have never signed an open letter or call out that was connected to industry actors because my own ethics are that healing cannot simply consist of self-appointed judges, juries, and executioners composed of unseen minor celebrities, against one lone, solitary figure. I’ve never signed my name to an open letter, including this one until today, because I don’t personally want to monetarily benefit from anyone’s “call out” and, in the case of Know Your History, I was genuinely scared of the repercussions and harm I might experience if I did sign publicly. That said, I have participated in one other private call out between an institution and a group of Indigenous people, publicly acknowledged Indigenous feminist activism against abusive men in my writing as a form of “call out,” you could say, and was a behind the scenes supporter of another public letter. I have also harboured constructive critique and dialog between Indigenous peoples in my work, something that was typically stymied between Indigenous creatives, writers, and academics when I started my career. But the public call out measures, such as letters, came only when all other measures were exhausted and the people in question were physically  and emotionally abusive, often sexually, for extended years, without remand, remorse, and with a continued will to hurt Indigenous youth. These are some of the tactics of “calling out” I have witnessed within Indigenous online communities. And, still, I question myself daily about how effective or ineffective these tactics were, especially because they all happened within Indigenous industry and represent a select few peoples’ interests.

Let’s return to the Twitter post I referenced at the onset of this essay, wherein a Native man falsely asserted there was a divide between the digital and “real” Indigenous community. The divide isn’t so much digital. Tik Tok has shown us that plenty of folks who live on Reservations turn to digital media to express themselves. The divide that is emerging is between a newly formed Indigenous cultural elite, a select few, with wide digital audiences, and robust and diverse Indigenous communities who are now starting to exercise their power to vocalize unrest, just as we did with our settler peers to ensure our own successes in leading Indigenous discourse. Increasingly, Indigenous peoples are moving into positions of power and privilege where they, like anyone else, can abuse that power. Surely, as Indigenous peoples, we have all been traumatized by colonial industry. But if we stymy generative dialog and critique, then we are no better than those who swept the wide rape and abuse of women actresses on sets under the rug. We, too, are participating in normalizing rape culture and misogyny in Indigenous industry. 

Yet, by the same logics we used to “cancel” white people, we now feel we have the right to “cancel” one another. We created an aesthetic that people can be cancelled online. Further, Gen Z is now operating with a mirrored ethics that holds if they cancel folks, this will bring them new forms of visibility. We made ourselves the brand. We are the product. And brands and products can certainly be canceled. The problem: we are not objects; we are complex peoples.

We are reaching a precipice wherein we must supersede the limits of white-managed institutional identity politics, including the fetishization of Native men by Canadian audiences and the simultaneous demonization of Indigenous women, queer, and trans folks. Native men have proven that its more than allowed, its condoned, even, for them to perpetuate misogyny and transphobia, and that they will be protected by white and Indigenous administrators alike because of identity politics. I’m reminded of the continued reference of the murderous American Indian Movement within our communities and within settler communities. These misogynies, and the silence surrounding, have been woven into the nationalist rhetorics of our communities for generations. Of course we can’t see them and don’t want to confront them.

This post is just a starting point. For queer and trans Indigenous folks to devise a way forward will take years of work within the community. But I’m moved to see Indigenous researchers such as Madeline Whetung already thinking through what queer and trans justice can look like from an Indigenous worldview. I’m moved by the fact that some are admitting they don’t have the answers yet, but are always centring care and actively resisting a coloniality of logic that emerged before them (that pursues mastery and superiority). I’m moved by thinkers, makers, and doers who know the way you do things defines your decolonial ethics just as much as what you say and how you say it. I’m moved by the Indigenous Millenials and Gen Z folks who are now working towards a rhetoric for ethical online engagement, for all of our futures, and not getting stuck in the same 1980s/1990s argument, that heavily relies on colonial logic, about the traditional/untraditional binary.

We live in a post realty world, that’s undeniable. We need to express as much concern about seeking nuanced ways of relating online as we do about the physical spaces we share, and not just through forms of dogma and idolatry. Anyone who needs to be a sacred figure of the movement has their career, capitalism, in mind. Refuse dogma. Refuse blind idolatry based on identity. Promote true, reflexive dialog. Refuse “rationality” and “logic.” Normalize emotion-based movement and thought. And, yes, refuse identity politics, respectfully (but honestly, Native trans folks have always been great at this because we live in the margins of these colonially defined identities). 

The Future isn’t Female, the Future is TRANS.NDN

I’ve been thinking about how, in “trans community” online and in epicentres such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, non-Black and non-Indigenous trans women, until recently, have been beyond reproach for instances of anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and other forms hurt; and have, at times, even hurt trans-feminine Indigenous youth I support. We appear to be witnessing a quiet, generational, and discursive divide within trans communities that I think only trans folks with community organizing backgrounds, and robust knowledge of trans discourse, might be able to feel the subtleties of. Yes, trans people can hurt each other, too. Many of us who have been talking about lateral violence between trans folks, in close quarters with our kin, know this to be true; so why is it so difficult to address publicly?

This is one of the most difficult topics I have ever had to approach, and certainly one I never wanted to discuss in front of cisgender people and transmisogynists whose reductive rhetorics have violently painted trans women as abusers for decades. But we need to start admitting that folks who have experienced extreme forms of misogynist violence can, in fact, hurt others. As an Indigenous person, I know that Indigenous folks with PTSD can hurt those around them when they leave their traumas untouched and unaddressed. To all the sick transmisogynists reading this post, do not lift my words for your own usage. My whole life is structured around protecting trans Indigenous youth; in fact, stop reading, this text isn’t for you. But we are now witnessing the consequences of refusing a nuanced discourse for how violence permeates queer, trans, and Indigenous communities across identities. We need pathways to healing hurt enacted by all peoples, outside of a monetized identity politics that is managed by white and cisgender administrators. I wish it was as easy as Trans.NDNs finding utopia in queer and trans communities in the city because recent events show that any form of identity politics, even trans identity politics, can be monetized and used to hurt and cancel one another.

To be clear, trans womanhoods are valid. Non binary peoples are valid. They, we, I don’t need to prove anything to the cisgender people reading this. But the monetization of how trans folks express their identities in a settler colonial world and industry always abstracts those identities. Over the past several months, I’ve seen Indigenous transfeminine youth attempt, and almost succeed at, killing themselves because of the hurt they experienced during abstracted conflict with non-Indigenous and non-Black trans women. I say all this without seeking a coloniality of “justice” that queer and trans community seem so caught up on. Sometimes community is sitting with discomfort. That said, the fact that you might share proximity to someone doesn’t necessarily make them your community either (a queer ideal that also goes against Indigenous queer and trans sovereignty). Community, for me, is very much earned, yet always fluid, reflexive, and adaptive; not static and caracal. And, for me, the future isn’t trans, queer, female, or even Indigenous (because I’m becoming increasingly critical of how people with loaded agendas have come to define all these terms as something to be used against others and not the generate decolonized worlds). The future is for Black Trans folks. The future is for Black Trans women. The future is for trans Indigenous women. The future is for Trans.NDNs.

If you hear me, kin, and you want to know more, might I suggest starting with watching Thirza Cuthand’s film Woman Dress. For Cree peoples, what we now might call queer and trans communities have long existed and were, at times, integrated into Indigenous communities in specific ways. Yes, we are now forced to describe who we are using colonial language, just like our cisgender peers did with blueberry pie and KFC, especially because of the emerging intersection of institutional neoliberalism and Two-Spirit discourses (but, again, that’s another argument for another day). While different, all of our resurgences hold the same weight culturally.

Imagine everything I could have done for my trans kin if I hadn’t had to spend the last decade of my life explaining to my community that I am valid, that my life is worth something, that my siblings’ lives are worth something, that we need to protect transfeminine Indigenous youth, and that we are your kin, too. ekosi. This is the last time I will ever talk about any of this because we are done explaining our humanity to the peoples who are supposed to see us the most, and then shame us for fleeing to urban centres when they refuse to see us or see us a little too violently. It’s time for us to create our own, collective future. I hope to see you there.