Wednesday, September 28, 2016

VOYA's Biphobia and My Response

The following is a guest post from Tristina Wright, author of YA sci-fi 27 Hours (Entangled 2017)

Trigger Warning: The following article contains instances of biphobia, misgendering, transphobia, and gaslighting.

Up until last week, I’d never written a letter to the editor for any reason. Sure, I’ve jumped in on conversations about biphobia and ableism and racism and more. I’ve lent my social media voice to active conversations, which has at times resulted in less than savory responses from people who don’t think these things are a big deal. I’ve learned a lot, become braver, made mistakes, and tried to speak out where I can, as my anxiety disorder allows.


Last week, librarian Angie Manfredi shared a screenshot of the VOYA Magazine review of Kody Keplinger’s RUN.


The review reads: Agnes is legally blind, and leads such a sheltered life that she cannot even take the bus home from school or attend parties. Bo Dickinson has a drug addicted mother, an absent father, and is rumored to be the town slut. Although opposites, they become good friends through their kindness and acceptance of each other. Bo’s cousin Colt is almost a brother to her; they have grown up together and are part of the family “you steer clear of because nothing good can come of getting mixed up with that bunch.” Agnes has a different problem; her parents hover over her and limit her activities so it is impossible for her to be a normal teenager, until she begins sneaking out to go places with Bo. When Bo hatches a plan to leave town to find her father, Agnes decides to go along, thinking she and Bo will live together. They steal a car from Agnes’s family and begin their road trip, along the way visiting Colt, with whom Agnes has a sexual encounter. When Agnes discovers that Bo intends to live with her father, they separate and she gets in touch with her parents, leaving Bo to a disappointing meeting with her father, and an eventual return to the foster care system. The story contains many references to Bo being bisexual and an abundance of bad language, so it is recommended for mature junior and senior high readers. –Rachel Axelrod. 304p. VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES, c2016. 

Many people, including myself, immediately noticed the microaggression in the final sentence. By putting bisexuality and foul language in the same breath as the reasons for the mature content rating, Voya Magazine was effectively rating a character’s sexuality as for mature readers only.
This is a biphobic statement because it equates sexual orientation with the act of sex itself. It says that bisexuality is only appropriate for older teenagers. It places bisexuality in the same column as foul language – something to avoid and watch out for.

Imagine being an elementary-age child or a middle school student and seeing something like this written about who you are. Many children have very strong feelings about their gender and sexuality at a young age. The choice we have to make as parents, teachers, librarians, caregivers, authors, etc. is how we foster those feelings.

Or, in this case, squash them.

The review sparked conversations on social media, namely Twitter, about the inappropriateness of the idea that bisexuality was something to be warned against. How it was telling that a character merely mentioning her sexual orientation warranted a mature content rating, but there was no mention of the actual sex scene between a heterosexual male/female pairing.


I participated in the conversation online for a while, my hurt especially sharp because it was Bisexual Visibility Week. This is a week-long celebration where we educate people about common stereotypes and microaggressions. The publishing community talks about books with respectful and honest bisexual representation. It’s a week to celebrate bisexuality and biromanticism and everything that entails. To see a phobic review from a major literary magazine during that week drove home the continuing need to fight against stereotypes and content warnings.

I decided to write an email to Voya magazine.


I didn’t expect to get a response. They are a major literary publication and I’m a relatively unknown debut author. But I needed to do more than speak up on Twitter. I thought perhaps someone over there would see my email and, at the very least, take it to heart for future reviews.

The editor in chief (EIC), RoseMary Honnold, did respond to me and it was not at all what I was expecting (however, given the events which have transpired since then, I should have expected it).

It’s been long enough that I can address this email without my anxiety taking over, so I want to unpack this response.

“I am sorry that you took offense…” This is the most non-apology statement ever. Celebrities use it. News media uses it. It places the blame of hurt on the person who was hurt instead of the person perpetuating the hurt. Already this email starts out placing the burden of my hurt on my own shoulders.

Then instead of addressing my concerns, she then continues on to talk about how great VOYA magazine is for teens and librarians and how very helpful they have been. That’s…great? But completely irrelevant. You can be an absolute saint and still mess up. That was the case here. Yes, VOYA is a respected magazine – that doesn’t free them from making mistakes. Your good deeds in the past don’t absolve you from missteps in the future.

“Knowing if a book had mature content, which would include sexuality and ‘foul’ language…” There’s that double-down. Sexuality is considered mature content. But, curiously, only queer sexuality. And curiously more (as author Phoebe North discovered with some minor Googling) only queer female sexuality as far as VOYA is concerned.

She’s also insisting sexual orientation is for mature readers only. As if young children wouldn’t be exploring non-straight feelings. Our society is so steeped in heteronormativity that every child is assumed straight at birth. How many babies do you see wearing onesies that say “Ladies’ Man” or “Dad Won’t Let Me Date Til I’m 35” or “I Love Boobs” or how many times do we tell little girls that little boys hit them because they like them? We as a society perpetuated straight as being “normal” and everything else as “mature readers only” and even then there’s a hierarchy. Cis gay men are more favored than lesbians. Bisexuals are seen as stereotypes such as sluts and liars, and if you’re going to write about them, you must prove they’re bisexual. Trans narratives are seen as up and coming trends instead of real people. And any other letters of the queer umbrella exist in a literary desert where good representation is few and far between.

To add another layer, I cringe at the thought of what VOYA thinks about intersections of race and sexuality, how they would’ve reacted to this book if the bisexual character in question had been Black.

“I find it awkward that you feel it is relevant and necessary to announce and label your five-year-old child’s sexuality to me.” This was the most hurtful part of the email. Not only did she get my child’s age wrong, but she conflated sexuality and gender, which are two completely different things. When I say my child is genderqueer, it means that she (she still uses female pronouns) is exploring gender. Some days she asks all about being a boy and how one becomes a boy. Some days she refers to growing up as “when I become a daddy.” Some days she says she’s going to talk like a boy that day. Some days she says she feels like a girl. Some days she says she doesn’t feel like either. She’s exploring. She’s swimming up and down the spectrum, trying to find her place, and I’ll be damned if anyone is going to attack her for that.

Also, note the word “awkward” in that sentence. Here’s the thing about non-straight sexual orientations – people immediately relate them to sexual intercourse.

“How do you even have sex?”
“How can you be bisexual if you’re sleeping with a guy/girl?”
“Men shouldn’t do that.”
“Can I watch?”
“Can I join?”

Anyone queer is assumed to be defined by who they do or do not have in their bed at the time, which is irritating at best and harmful at the very worst. To place this on the shoulders of my six-year-old child is grossly immoral and wrong, and I’m especially uncomfortable this editor immediately considered my elementary child in this manner.

“Our writers and reviewers have various lifestyles and beliefs and that has never been a concern of mine…” That’s nice. Also, being queer is not a lifestyle. Gaming is a lifestyle. Living at a certain level of wealth is a lifestyle. Lifestyle implies choice. Bisexuality is not a choice. It’s how we were born. It’s not something that can be converted or prayed away or cured. Can it change over time? Yes, absolutely. Sexuality is a fluid thing and we evolve and learn more about ourselves as we grow (hopefully). But the only person who can dictate that is the self. No one else. So for the EIC of VOYA to not only label this as a “lifestyle” but to also say it’s of no concern to her makes me very concerned for the environment they foster at VOYA. Are queer people safe to be out of the closet there?

Based on this, my guess would be no.

“…the assumption that I or VOYA magazine might be bi- or any other kind of phobic is just that. Your assumption. A misguided one.” Note that she turns it personal. Even though it was revealed later she didn’t even write the review, she takes the idea of the sentence itself being biphobic and turns it into me accusing her and anyone at VOYA as being biphobic. This is gaslighting. This is, again, shifting the burden of hurt onto my shoulders plus accusing me of attacking her personally. How could you call me biphobic? I’m a good person.”

“Since this is Bi Visibility Week, I understand your need to find and destroy your enemies in a public forum…” Okaaaaaaaaaaaaay. So this statement is a doozy. Not only is it inflated hyperbole and paints me as a super-villain, but it undercuts my entire email by the level of exaggeration. By accusing me of looking for someone to fight during Bisexual Visibility Week, it undermines the validity of my concerns. It also insinuates I was looking to go after a big target to bring attention to Bi Visibility Week. That I was doing nothing more than starting trouble. That this was a marketing ploy. That this was nothing more than a stunt.

In the interests of visibility because the conversation was still ongoing, I posted my email and the reply to my Twitter.

The YA book community immediately responded. They were upset and offended at such a reply. Several people said they would be emailing as well. Many called out VOYA Magazine directly for their callous and offensive reply. Many authors, agents, and editors stated they would be requesting their books not be sent to VOYA anymore for review. Several librarians reached out to VOYA in alarm, asking what steps they would be taking regarding the review in question and to prevent this from happening again. There was talk of ads being pulled from VOYA Magazine entirely.

It has since been removed, but VOYA Magazine did post my email and their response on their website as a letter to the editor and then emailed me to inform me of this fact. I’m not sure if I was supposed to be flattered or what, but after an outcry, the post was deleted.

VOYA Magazine locked their Twitter account and began blocking various authors, editors, agents, and librarians. This serves two purposes. With only a block, the blocked user could simply log out and be able to read the timeline anyway. But with the addition of a locked account, they effectively kept everyone shut out. They continued to block people over the period of about a day and a half. I wasn’t blocked until sometime in the early hours of the next day, which I found amusing.

VOYA Magazine then issued their first apology on their public Facebook Page.
Again with the blame-dodging. This mentions nothing about their response to me and puts the onus on the queer community. They demanded an apology. They took offense as if it was a choice. With this apology, and even with RoseMary’s email to me, VOYA took the defensive. Amanda MacGregor, a book reviewer who’d worked with VOYA for thirteen years, then announced she’d submitted her resignation in light of VOYA’s response.

When the first apology didn’t go over well with the book community, the reviews editor, Lisa Kurdyla, issued an apology as well.

It’s a better attempt, but it still shifts blame and still makes a similar statement in the email to me in the claim that she isn’t –phobic or –ist and is a good ally. Here’s the thing: I do not decide if I’m not –phobic or –ist or a good ally. All I can do is my best and hope that those in the affected communities view me as such. To claim it in this instance is another form of gaslighting. “I’m a great ally! If you can’t see that, that’s your fault.”

Concerned readers, librarians, authors, editors, and agents responded to the two posts, asking polite questions and tackling the issues of gaslighting and blame-shifting. At this point, I still hadn’t heard anything from them. No apology, nothing.

VOYA Magazine then deleted both Facebook posts and all the comments therein and went dark. But people took screenshots of some very unsettling behavior.
I don’t know who for certain is behind the VOYA social media accounts, but in the end it doesn’t matter because they were never reined in, nor did VOYA Magazine ever disavow them or apologize for any of the commentary. A third apology appeared.

I found out about this apology three hours after it had been posted. At that time, I still hadn’t heard anything personally from VOYA. This particular apology mentioned me by name publicly, which was a start, but my inbox remained empty.

This apology, while long, also evolved into gaslighting and blame-shifting. The most egregious example is bringing up the fact that the original review was several months old and my email was the first they’d heard of anything being wrong with it. Since it went months without any push-back, the complaints now, according to them, lost their merit and reinforced VOYA’s belief that I had instigated this to attack them and bring attention to Bi Visibility Week.

They then go on to claim that they have the right to defend their staff against accusations of bigotry and biphobia and, once again, list out how great of a magazine VOYA has been for youth advocacy.
When folks discovered this third apology, many asked if VOYA had emailed a private apology to me. Many asked if VOYA would respond to the disquieting discovery Phoebe North had made about VOYA’s troubling pattern of rating F/F and queer girls as mature content while leaving M/M and M/F books alone, despite many of the latter having far more sex and explicit language than many of the former.

It was only when asked and I made a comment about it (three hours after this third apology was posted), did VOYA publish a fourth apology. This was from RoseMary herself.
RoseMary then copied and pasted the top bit from the Facebook post and emailed it to me.

I didn’t respond. My plan was to let the apology sit for a day and see how I felt about it then. But I spent several hours reading comments on the two Facebook apologies.
As of writing this post, I still haven’t responded to her or to VOYA. I’m going to do so now, here, publicly. I feel it is only fair and in the interest of visibility since they posted all of their attempts publicly as well.

Dear VOYA Magazine,

When I received the copy/paste job, which indicated you’d put it up elsewhere before sending it to me, I considered accepting it. I figured it was the best I’d get from you and maybe, just maybe, you would sit back and take the advice of countless people in the book community who gave their valuable time and words to educate you when none of them were under any obligation to say one word to you.

Then I went on Facebook and saw both apologies and the comments which followed. I saw one of your owners purposefully misgendering an author simply because they had a female-sounding name. I watched in horror as the commentary from VOYA became more and more abusive and hateful, a lot of it along the same lines as the original response to me only a few days ago.

A lot happened in just a few days.

Not once did anyone else at VOYA step in and say something. Not the other owner, no other employees, no one. The words of the owner chillingly mimicked the tone of the editor in chief to me, so how am I supposed to believe any apology is genuine? How am I supposed to think for even a moment you’re actually sorry about the review or your treatment of me or your attitude toward the book community and the queer community as a whole?

And I realized this:

You’re not sorry about the review. You’re sorry you got caught.
You’re not sorry about the email to me. You’re sorry I posted it and exposed you.
You’re not sorry about your attitude. You’re sorry people keep calling you on it.

Your email to me was unprofessional at best. You insulted me. You insulted my child. You insinuated I was out to destroy you and that my email had something to do with Bi Visibility Week. You are a major literary magazine which claims to advocate for the younger generation, yet you call things like genderqueer “Twitter lingo” and still claim it can’t possibly apply to a child. You are woefully out of touch and condescending toward the generation you claim to speak for. You were brutally hateful toward me and other authors who write for the younger generation.

So, no, I don’t accept your apology. I can’t because I don’t trust that you mean it.

Sincerely,
Tristina Wright

While my part in the incident seems to have come to a close (I hope), VOYA Magazine continues to insult and belittle nearly anyone who comments on their Facebook posts. The other owner, Edward Kurdyla, put up a short post which basically asks everyone to back off while they sort things in house. It gives no indication anyone – especially Phoebe North or Angi Manfredi or Tess Sharpe – was even heard. They’ve also banned YA author Hannah Moskowitz from their page entirely.

As far as my role in everything…

No, I didn’t write the initial email with the agenda of taking down a literary magazine. No, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Bi Visibility Week. I would’ve reacted the same way no matter what time of year.

Part of me wishes I’d never said anything. Part of me thinks if I’d never written that email, none of this would’ve happened. All the people who’ve been hurt since then wouldn’t have gotten hurt. My oldest child wouldn’t have been insulted. I wouldn’t still be hurting and guilty over everything that’s happened since then.

Yes, I know a lot of that is bullshit and, as my friends have told me several times, I might have prevented teenagers from being hurt in the future. Prevented queer children from being harmed by a magazine that doesn’t respect who they are in the slightest.

Throughout this entire fiasco, VOYA has insisted they are the victim. They’ve apologized for somethings but not others. They’ve dug their heels in on insisting the timing is suspect and intentional. They’ve insulted YA authors and others in the industry over and over with hateful and unprofessional remarks. Every apology they’ve posted thus far has been nullified within mere hours once VOYA starts responding to questions and comments.

I don’t know how this will all end. An overturn of management, perhaps. New owners. The magazine folding. Nothing at all. Maybe they’ll just wait it out until people forget or bank on most of their subscribers not paying attention to social media. I don’t know. I don’t have any idea what I would want to happen beyond children being protected from such hate.

All I know is, for me, I can never trust VOYA Magazine again.

But I do want to address the queer teens out there who may be watching this all unfold.
I’m on your side. These fierce and giving authors are on your side. We stand with you in your high times and your low times. We stand with you in your closet where it’s safe. We stand with you outside of your closet where it might be scary. We walk with you in your halls. We give you our stories so you can see others like you and have an afternoon of pure escape like you deserve. We’re here for you. We understand you. We respect you. We love you.

And we will always defend you.
==
For more information, please see the following posts:

And for continuous updates, please follow YA Author Saundra Mitchell on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaundraMitchell

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thank you so much. This is brave, clear, and interesting. I saw it on my phone so I could not see any of the excerpts (they appear tiny), will have to re-read. but I just wanted to give you a quick shout-out for your initiative. I appreciate your analysis of the "micro-aggressions" and the way that initial letter tried to turn the tables on you. What do you want to bet that never would have happened if you were a straight white male writing in to complain about something -- I have a feeling she never would have tried to turn the tables and accuse the guy with the kind of accusatory tone she used, making the assumptions she made, towards you. It's good you stood up for yourself and I hope you notice what good company you were and are in. I feel oddly compassionate towards Voya staff at the same time, as I have witnessed how difficult for people of all stripes, sometimes including me, to just plain admit, out loud and in public, without further blaming or externalizing, that they were wrong. Just wrong. Just messed up. Thank you for noticing the bizarre (but perhaps common?) bias and contradictions in their attitudes, I think that level of specificity adds helpful spotlights all over.

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