Fighting for a Place in the Room by Sophie Blake

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Sophie Blake is a trans LD debater from a small school who loves teaching and giving younger debaters access to opportunities, and coaches several small school or independent debaters. Sophie values the scholastic value of debate and encourages debaters to become authors and methodological activists both inside and outside of debate rounds. Sophie emphasizes diverse and creative argumentation, and an increased communal prioritization and student awareness of the implications of community practices then the competitive nature of debate as an activity. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Sophie if you have questions about debate or need a friend in the debate community.  


CW: Transphobia, Mental Health


I scream into my lungs

as they lift outward

flying higher

still unheard

or rather unheeded


It’s a familiar sight: “the lecture hall, packed full of people, erupted with applause as the timer from the 2ar went off. Within seconds, the front of the room became saturated with swarms of coaches and competitors.” However, with analysis you recognize these debaters are all “males”, and notice the women are left in the audience.[1]

The first question is “What is wrong with this image?” Why weren’t women there to join the men.

Next comes: what is wrong with that paragraph? What happens to the trans people who are male-presenting, to pass in their communities, can’t or don’t want to transition, etc.? Are they assumed men?

What happens to the trans[2] person tapping on the glass outside of the room? Do they remain unheard, unnoticed?

Perlman’s article talks about how the bro culture permits constant acts of sexism, which results in exclusion of womxn. While this is true, I would maintain there is a similar cis culture that perpetuates microaggressive transphobia.

However, these concerns remain unheard from the rest of the community. Lindsey describes cis womxn as being in the back of the room. However, drawing from that metaphor, trans people aren’t even in that room in the first place. In order to receive conscious thought, to not have our pronouns assumed, to have a place to survive in the first place, we need to spread our voices. Without growing support, trans individuals’ plights are ignored.

Trans people are currently invisible in the debate community because (1) their voices are silenced by current conceptions of debate as a “Competitive Activity” that ignore accessibility, (2) microaggressive discourse makes the space unsafe, and discourages trans participation, (3) cisnormative feminist movements ignore and increase several trans-specific problems within debate. To prove this, this article will outline and analyze these issues through specific examples, and provide solutions.


Silence! This Activity is Competitive!

Conventional debate is fundamentally hierarchical, there is an economy of ballots, you require a certain number of ballots to get to outrounds. You pay to go to tournaments to get more ballots. Debaters and their arguments earn prestige based on how far they get in tournaments and how many bids they collect. Coaches advertise their career bids, and the number of bids they’ve coached debaters to receive, in order to get hired. This falls under the label “Competitive Activity.” However, people use this label to justify several things that actively harm debate being a competitive activity. If debate being a good competitive activity was the goal, structural fairness would become incredibly important to avoid certain teams dominating that competitive activity and crowding out talented debaters from new schools or deviant identity groups. However, what instead follows is debaters separating fairness into procedural and structural and prioritizing the former to win theory debates.

While Resource Disparities is an issue, it isn’t the focus. This is just an example of how ballots explicitly and implicitly endorse certain norms. Whenever you vote for a theory shell that frames the round as only caring about procedural fairness, even if you intentionally only desire to endorse Conditionality bad, you implicitly endorse framing fairness without accounting for structural fairness. A more egregious example I’ve come across is when someone wins a debate on the flow despite saying problematic slurs and misgendering their opponent. Sure, the judge votes them up because they won the disadvantage, but that judge is also allowing that behavior, making the activity less accessible.

This over time results in a buildup of implicitly and explicitly endorsed norms that make trans debaters invisible. We trans people aren’t even considered as existing in the debate space, because we don’t have enough representation generally or with ballots. This materializes in community norms and even tournament rules being exclusionary to trans people. For example, disclosure theory has become almost an undisputed rule, and open source disclosure seems to be on its way to becoming the same. This is because of judges who vote for these theory arguments, while ignoring the consequences of dueer[3] outing through open source disclosure, even when it’s brought up in round. Even worse is tournament organizers, who sometimes even frame their tournament’s as progressive and pro-LGBTQ+, are making open source of narratives and performances a rule. I have contacted several of these tournaments asking about their disclosure policies to avoid critical information being posted online, but never received a response. This forces pers to publicly out perselves in order to compete at these tournaments, and not doing so denies them more already limited opportunities to achieve success in this “Competitive Activity” in the form of a bid. Also, this results in a chilling effect on performances that call out problematic actions or actors within the community.


What Happens to the Few Trans Debaters in our Debate Communities?

As debaters continue to conflate women with female and man with male inside and outside of rounds, this discourse reifies a gender binary, that erases the existence of transgender debaters. The implication is, you can’t be a womxn if you were born as a male-passing and you can’t be a man if you were born as female passing. Not only does this completely encode over the existence of intersex, non-binary, and multi-gender people[4], but also helps reinforce toxic notions in society writ large that contribute to internalized gender dysphoria and self-loathing.

The ‘good debater’ problem [5]reifies this cycle, because not only are trans folx left with few ‘good debaters’ as trans role models, but status quo “good debater” behavior informs other cis debaters to adopt the same transphobic microaggressions they never had to account for. Lack of compassion or realization of misgendering only continues to permeate the community.

For example, Judges often put on their paradigm that racist, sexist, homophobic arguments etc. are an instant loss. However, despite this, I and other trans debaters who call their opponents out on misgendering, have recognized lots of judges have odd misgendering brightlines that result in the judge dismissing it, is two times too many? Five? Ten? Additionally, many cis debaters use their in round or after round apology to shift the guilt. I’ve been told by my opponent’s teammate that I should feel guilty for making per cry by calling per[3] out for misgendering me.

To add on to my previous criticism of how debate being a “Competitive Activity” is leveraged, I also have a criticism of how tabula rasa is framed by judges. This isn’t to say having a judge attempt to be unbiased from their own opinions about politics or which side of the resolution is true is a bad thing. However, the way Tech>Truth is leveraged repeatedly doesn’t lead to actual production of good norms. The classic example being, better theory debaters can read extremely abusive positions and destroy novices. But more importantly, positions like discourse criticisms should require using your own philosophy to not vote for debaters who said R***** because they win 1ar font size theory. Before judges’ default to philosophical notions like pain being bad on a util flow, or fairness is important because everyone will quit debate over a single conditional counterplan, they should bring their paradigm as an educator into the round. That means that any microaggressive behavior should be dealt with first because it can actively harm the other debater through verbal violence, make the space toxic and less accessible, and prevent debate from becoming a safe competitive environment for the rest of their lives. When these concerns are ignored for the sake of a “Competitive Activity,” that pedagogically justifies doing anything for the ballot, and thus behaviors as egregious as debaters blackmailing their opponents. In fact, under status quo paradigms, it is competitively advisable to intentionally misgender your opponent in front of a “tab” judge to throw them off. Judges have a responsibility to promote a safe and equal space beyond anything else, as a prerequisite to have a debate. Because of this, judges should be much more receptive to theoretical, philosophical, or Kritikal arguments that deal with accessibility, survival strategies, and discourse relative to in-round procedural questions, or substance arguments.

All of these culminating factors result in a culture where the trans womxn never accesses the debate room as a debater; we are always at least one foot out of the room. However, not only is the trans womxn not in the debate room itself, these pedagogical choices also inform debate’s feminist movements. Which results in the disconnect this article reveals.

On a recent tournament weekend that was heralded as a big win for gender equality, I was dealing with one of my worst weekends in the activity. 6 opponents misgendered me a total of around 200 times, one achieving a new record of 72 times in 3 minutes at the same tournament. How could we have such a difference in experience?


Statistical Exclusion

Here are two studies that could potentially provide an answer.

1. http://www.vbriefly.com/2016/05/12/gendergapshin/

“I collected my data from tabroom.com and included 24 bid tournaments from the 2015–2016 season. I will continue to add more tournaments and possible more variables to my data set. I recorded school names, debater’s names, pre-elimination records, elimination records, and speaker-points. I was able to generate a list of genders from camp attendance sheets, Facebook, and websites that determine gender from names.

I generated this first graph by plotting seed frequency by gender. This graph shows that males consistently have better seeding than females, as the blue line, which represents males, is more towards the left than the red line, which represents females. Based on this graph alone, we can extrapolate that male debaters perform better than female debaters.”

Not only does this study conflate girls with females and boys with males to the detriment of transgender humans but data is collected based on determining gender from name only. This is not only a bad practice for determining gender of cis people–i.e. the author herself didn’t know where to put Jordan — but is incredibly problematic when applied to trans people who often retain names that do not match their gender identities.

2. https://www.vbriefly.com/2016/05/15/new-evidence-on-gender-disparities-in-competitive-high-school-lincoln-douglas-debate/#_ftn1

“Since Tabroom allows but does not require coaches to indicate the gender of debaters or judges, about 21% of observations for debaters and 50% for judges are initially missing gender labels. I adopt three strategies to assign genders to missing observations. First, I use 1990 Census data containing about 5,500 common baby names. The Census data corresponds to people who were 25 years old in 2015, which is a reasonable approximation for judges (who are often college or graduate students) as well as debaters. In cases where the same name appears in both the male and female Census lists, I assign the more common gender associated with the name. Second, I merge the Tabroom data with a list of common names of South Asian origin I found on Github, a website where programmers and researchers can share code and datasets. Third, I manually assign gender in what I believe are clear-cut cases [6]. After the three procedures, 99% of debaters and 96% of judges have assigned genders. The vast majority of the improvement is due to the official Census data.”

We again encounter the common theme of conflating sex and gender, and it’s the same problematic study route based on names and Census predictions. None of which is surprising because they were related studies, but disappointing since they are the only major study of gender disparities in high school Lincoln Douglas that I’ve found. After looking a little closer though, you find the first footnote.

“In this paper, gender refers most closely to gender identity. See footnote 1 of the full paper for a more detailed explanation of the construction of the gender variable.”

Only for the first footnote to say the following:

“The data does not distinguish between biological sex and gender identity. It is probably safe to interpret summary statistics as applicable to either a “biological sex gap” or a “gender gap” given the small size of the population whose biological sex and gender identity differ, but there is no way to know this with certainty. Moreover, I exclude observations where gender is labeled “Other” due to concerns about reporting accuracy and sample size.”

In other words: the research says sex and gender is the same, but the discussion of the “gender gap” still refers to gender identity, and it’s probably safe to say that none of the non-binary or male passing trans folx gender experiences change discussions of gender. Regardless it’s hard to study gay people.

While this interpretation might seem a bit harsh, it’s clear that there is absolutely no desire to paint a picture that includes trans womxn, given that the entire footnote is about justifying how it wouldn’t scew the overall results of cis womxn that much because of how insignificant trans womxn are to the data pool.

It’s nearly impossible to empirically analyze discrimination against trans debaters because we barely exist in the activity: trans debaters’ numbers rapidly dwindle from harassment, and few of us are out as trans. But it is far more problematic to conclude, (as several cis people have encouraged me and themselves too), that there aren’t also many others closeted or not who experience violence for their trans identities in debate just as I do. Using numbers as an excuse for a lack of consideration is an attempt to gaslight trans debaters to avoid cis guilt.


Cisnormative Feminist Movements

As shown, cis feminist movements in debate often lack an understanding or motivation to deal with trans specific problems. However, some feminist movements in debate become not just unaligned with trans goals, but directly harmful when they endorse toxic ideas around passing. I previously criticized interchanging male=man and female=women, but when this distinction is not made by ladable feminists within the debate community and progressive groups and institutions, the result is not just feminist movements in the debate space recreating the same toxicity. In fact, when progressive institutions perform acts of gendered violence this can result in a feeling of validation of internalized trauma.

For example, when I find a website for womxn in debate, and see this interchangeable use, I immediately reach out to members I’m acquainted with to see if it’s a safe space for trans people. Someone still questioning their gender identity or new to the community, might internalize that if progressive institutions agree male=man, then they must not be trans. Even if they recognize this as a microaggression, they are likely to see this organization and potentially debate as unsafe. In fact, if it wasn’t for me knowing and contacting one of the students on their staff to ask about the environment, there are several instances where I would not have worked with these organizations.

Similarly, the way cis Feminist Kritikal Affirmatives are often performed in the debate space is problematic. Saying the word trans womxn twice in the 1AC while not reading a single trans author or talking about how the 1AC affects trans womxn in any distinct way besides “gender equality,” isn’t enough to say your feminism is intersectional or supports trans womxn. Increasingly debaters have just been sprinkling trans tokenism [7] in their 1ACs for the sake of a 1AR permutation. In general, these kinds of intersectionality perms should be held to a higher standard, because if this blippy intersectionality [8]isn’t rewarded with ballots, it will stop being strategic, and people will read Kritikal affirmatives that consider specific experiences. Alternatives like framing the aff as a transfeminist aff [9] based on solving trans issues with intersectional spillover or an AC that acknowledges that it works for cis womxn specifically are much better.

This trans tokenism by debaters in round, and cis feminist institutions is incredibly harmful. It presents the illusion of trans issue’s being dealt with, and prevents creation of trans-inclusive organizations with a similar purpose.


Solutions

However, despite all this we shouldn’t give up on our ability to recreate this “debate space”.

Even though ideally adult members in the community would take the lead in fixing these issues, they haven’t and many likely won’t until it picks up momentum. However, trans students are uniquely positioned to turn the often problematic “good debater” modelling on its head. Rather than justifying good debaters getting away with bad behavior, trans debaters should fight to acquire this platform in order to act as trans models and speak out to change the community.

Current debaters and first year outs are also uniquely significant because of our current positionality within the community. more debaters should write articles about their experiences in debate to promote discussion and create new debate-specific evidence the community can use. This is uniquely important because when doing research for writing this there were only 7 articles about womxn in Lincoln Douglas debate with two explicitly conflating gender and biological sex. Only two mentioned trans womxn, and SunHee Simon’s was the only one that outlined potential solutions.

In order to avoid microaggressions we need to make all debaters aware of their discourse. We should place specific focus on the creation of new transfeminist movements. Trans role models are key to showing trans people that they can survive and thrive in this space, as well as forcing cis people to acknowledge the presence of trans debaters to avoid transphobic practices and cut down microaggressions. While these movements should be predominantly led by trans models due to their awareness and understanding of microaggressions, I think we can and must use established feminist organizations.

This would entail 1. Getting rid of cisnormative discourse such as conflation of gender and sex, inside and outside of debate rounds. 2. Creating spaces explicitly for non-cis men as opposed to explicitly for cis women. This can be a way to reframe existing feminist movements in debate. 3. Have at least partially trans leadership of these programs, and have all the leadership be explicitly pro-trans, embracing everyone gender deviant, regardless of their origin. Making sure trans voices are guiding the movement is a necessary step to avoid becoming an ad campaign for cis institutions.

Despite recognizing the risks of intersectionality there are two reasons why I think this approach is valid 1. Trans womxn debaters can’t be crowded out of feminist debate spaces much more than they already are, so adding cis womxn to our movement won’t make the situation any worse. 2. Due to risks of outing and the status quo silencing of trans identities in the debate space building an influential collation between only trans identities that could reshape large institutions would be impossible, especially if cis women work against our movement.

In addition to increasing trans representation in these communities, people, especially those in progressive feminist institutions, should become more conscious of per’s gendered language. Interacting with trans individuals can help with this, but also recognizing the impact of words, and taking 10 more minutes to go through your website and correct microaggressions, or reading an article about how trans womxn are affected by therapy confidentiality.

Judges: Resulting from my previous criticism of Tabula Rasa the flow should not blind you to the impact of your ballots. Many are likely to object that this model is idealistic for debaters to not prioritize the ballot above the accessibility of the invisible other. However, if you reframe the “role of the ballot” (if you will) judges should stop giving the ballot to implicitly (or explicitly) endorsing anti-dueerness, racism, sexism etc. That doesn’t mean you have to throw out your “vote for the better debater” paradigm either, but like you wouldn’t consider a debater who blackmails their opponent with outing a good debater, this framework just provides you even more reason to consider concerns of accessibility and structural fairness. Was the person without a coach get misgendered several times, but still managed to exempt an independent voter against their opponent whose coaches wrote out the 1AR and 2AR a better debater, even if they dropped the 7th procedural fairness justification on their flow while freaking out?

Any misgendering not followed by an immediate correction within the next 3–5 seconds[10] should be enough to warrant a ballot, but more than 5 regardless of immediate correction is also too far, because yes people can make a mistake with pronouns but immediate correction isn’t difficult (if it is then don’t speak at 400 WPM), nor is watching oneself for the remainder of the speech/round after a single mistake, especially when that single instance can haunt a debater for 30 minutes or even days, (I myself have the toxic habit of beginning a tallying count during their speech, which often leads to me missing arguments because I only hear the pronouns). Even if people can’t adapt to someone’s neologism i.e. if they have a disability that makes it impossible to do so, they should train themselves to do speeches through saying my opponent, or the aff/neg and let their opponent know that they have a speaking or focus accommodation before the round to lessen the impact. Also, if trans debaters feel comfortable doing so, I would advise shouting your gender pronoun [11]whenever pers misgender you, it doesn’t speak over their speech besides the wrong pronoun, and allows pers to recognize and correct perselves.

I previously argued that cis debaters shouldn’t try to shift guilt to the trans people they misgender by pressuring the trans debater to accept their apology. However, this doesn’t mean they should gaslight the trans debater and pretend they never misgendered per. This also isn’t to say that cis people should not feel guilty for misgendering either. The best response I’ve encountered, is to sincerely apologize, without any snide comments that shift blame, not pretending it didn’t happen, and then regardless of the trans person’s response, reflecting on what you did, followed by practicing to not do it again.

Coaches: 1. Don’t out your student, control information that goes to parents and other students as the dueer student requests, similarly don’t treat them weirdly around other students or they will catch on. 2. Check students’ behavior, encourage them to use neologisms i.e. ze, per, xe to refer to everyone not just the dueer student or students to avoid misgendering closeted students. This also means stopping them from using slurs like f***** to refer to dueer people and monitoring their behavior in rounds against debaters from other schools. And 3. stand up for your students in and out of round. Most importantly stand up to other adults, whether this be the head coach of another school whose debater just engaged in that behavior, it is rare for a coach to be confronted on their behavior because of potential drama leading to losses however that resistance is the only way to unseat these practices.

Tournament organizers: uni-sex bathrooms are always a plus, even if the school doesn’t have one, I would recommend designating a teacher’s restroom as a nonbinary bathroom. There’re few things in debate more emotionally frustrating and invalidating then being misgendered 100 times and then being forced to use a cis bathroom. Don’t make policies that force debaters to out themselves, reach out to trans debaters in the community when implementing a new policy, and listen to pers concerns to modify your policy such that it’s not exclusionary, right now the open source policy is the biggest concern but there have been and will continue to be others I’m sure.

Camps: Place more focus on arguments and diverse groups who don’t have representation in the debate space, as opposed to those that are already constantly sparking conversation and debate, not to say those other categories important, but it is sad to see that stuff like ableism and trans experiences in debate rarely receive discussion because they are by rule put last on the docket.

To all the trans debaters out there, the advice I was granted could not be truer in my experiences. Even though it can assist in spreading trans voices, don’t force yourself to do performance debate if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. Even if it’s only way for you to survive in debate, it’s not something that should be taken lightly. Performance regarding trans identity, will be a double-edged sword. You will face misgendering and microaggressions at a similar or greater rate than when closeted, you will encounter slurs, and all manner of human selfishness, exploring how many ways debaters can tell you your pain doesn’t matter. Yet you will find a voice, and be able to speak out against these instances, and for that voice, my hands bleeding, I’d gladly grip the sword again.


Descending now

I hear the calling

Of hundreds of my kin

Flying higher still

Making their voices heard.


Other notes:

Women was intentionally used in a few points of the article when referring to cis women only from the perspective of a gender essentialist, womxn is far preferable to be used for all womxn including cis womxn and an example of a shift in language this articulate endorses.

I recognize that some people still find the term “queer” unpalatable, I’m not using it or dueer as a slur but rather a reclamation and synonym for all deviant genders, sexes, and sexualities as in Kritikal theory.

I recommend reading Lindsey Perlman’s article if you haven’t already because it kind of acts as a precursor to this one.

No offense is meant to any particular person, I have no idea how this article will be received, given that people get into flame wars over disclosure on Facebook, but I need to post it for other trans debaters regardless.


Footnotes:

[1] An imitation and re-analysis of the intro to Lindsey Perlman’s article “Fighting for a Place at the Front,” heavily paraphrased even in the none-quoted parts.

[2] I’m not going to scientifically justify the existence of trans people in this article, go find that elsewhere.

[3] Stands for disabled kweer and acts as a further elaboration and criticism on “FROM “QUARE” TO “KWEER”: TOWARDS A QUEER ASIAN AMERICANCRITIQUE”, I’ll likely write an article on it in the future so I won’t elaborate beyond that for now.

[4] https://medium.com/@chriscoles_66854/against-biology-against-the-sexed-body-gender-compulsory-heterosexuality-and-the-molecular-8121f0b04ad5 I agree with a majority of this article in its criticism of biological sex, yet since most people who are unfamiliar with dueer theory, would have difficulty accessing an alternate expression without first reading Coles’ article, I will still use the term.

[5] If anyone desires further explanation please leave a comment. There have been other articles attacking the idea of the ‘good debater’ being someone who wins lots of rounds, so I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel and dilute the focus of my article.

[6] Not gendered pronoun that replaces person. You can google the conjugation. One of the two main pronouns (along with they) I’ve seen other trans people prefer. I alternate between the two in this article.

[7] This also happens commonly with race.

[8] This isn’t to say intersectional affs are bad, but rather those affs have a responsibility to address each group they claim under their banner during their speech individual, and/or use an author’s prior analysis and defend that specific author’s intersectionality.

[9] This aff can be potentially problematic for cis womxn, I would recommend reading trans authors who talk about intersectionality, and contacting trans debaters about it.

[10] I would recommend this article by SunHee Simon https://www.vbriefly.com/2018/01/26/community-resolution-4-gender-in-debate-by-sunhee-simon/#_ftn3~QLSMD, which describes ways to deal with pronouns on an individual level.

[11] All of this assumes you exchanged pronouns and triggers at the beginning of the round, which is a good norm if you are comfortable doing so.