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What Does the ContraPoints Controversy Say About the Way We Criticize?

What Does the ContraPoints Controversy Say About the Way We Criticize?

What Does the ContraPoints Controversy Say About the Way We Criticize?

Despite legitimate issues, recent controversies surrounding transgender YouTuber ContraPoints demonstrate some people's inability to create constructive conversations and criticism.

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Natalie Wynn, transgender advocate and well-known social media personality behind the popular YouTube channel ContraPoints, has recently faced criticism from the larger trans and nonbinary community that exposes an unfortunate rift within progressive online spaces and illuminates a growing need for larger understanding of nonbinary identities. In our increasingly polarized culture, it has also demonstrated the growing issue surrounding an inability for criticism to become constructive. 

As ContraPoints, Wynn has amassed a large following and mainstream praise in recent years because of her clever philosophical debates, her distinct visual style, and her hilarious yet well-written stable of characters (all played by Wynn herself) she uses in order to discuss transgender issues, as well as explain and expose the growing worldwide movement of white supremacy. Her work has even been credited with deradicalizing numerous young men within alt-right spaces. To many, Wynn has come to represent an increasingly important, intelligent, and necessary voice for the transgender community.

Yet, Wynn has found herself at the center of several major controversies and faced criticism from many in that community surrounding her views on nonbinary trans people, criticisms that have grown well past their well-intentioned conception.

In early September 2019, Wynn tweeted a string of posts expressing her discomfort when she finds herself in a room of cis (i.e. non-transgender) women, and the entire room then feels the need to share their pronouns due to her being in that space.

Contrapoints Tweets

"There’s this paradox where I can go to a sports bar in North Carolina and be miss/ma’am’d all night no question, but in self-consciously trans-inclusive spaces I have to explain my pronouns & watch woke people awkwardly correct themselves every time they say 'you guys.'" Wynn tweeted. "I guess it’s good for people who use they/them only and want only gender-neutral language. But it comes at the minor expense of semi-passable transes like me and that’s super fucking hard for us."

The practice of sharing pronouns has become an increasing trend within trans-inclusive spaces in recent years. Conceptually, sharing pronouns normalizes not assuming anyone's gender and prevents trans people from being misgendered, which studies have shown to cause significant psychological harm to a transgender person, especially one who may have recently come out.

However, sharing pronouns often only happens so as to intentionally make a space more comfortable for transgender people, so it tends to only happen when transgender people are perceived or known to be present in a space. This situation can often feel like a transgender person or persons are being singled out because they are trans, with everyone else recognizing their "otherness." This paradoxically denormalizes the transgender person’s existence in a space through a practice meant to do exactly the opposite. Yes, the practice of sharing pronouns needs to become more normalized, but in today’s increasing divisive politicization surrounding discussion of transgender people’s rights and mere existence, this is a decidedly uphill battle. And this paradoxical effect of sharing pronouns was most likely the commentary that Wynn intended to express with her tweets.

But her remarks quickly received stark criticism, mostly around how they come across as belittling of the issues facing nonbinary people, who often go by "they/them" or other, less universally accepted, pronouns. Without the practice of sharing pronouns, female (she/her) or male (he/him) pronouns are the predisposed norms within today’s society, nonbinary people will almost always be misgendered if they aren’t allowed to share their pronouns. Since Wynn is a woman who goes by she/her pronouns, something that firmly places her as what many consider to be a binary-identified gender (i.e. either a man or a woman), and is also what some would consider to be "passing," (someone possessing physical traits that are culturally associated with their gender that cause someone to not be read as transgender) Wynn often faces less likelihood of being misgendered then a nonbinary or non-passing transgender person would.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case when it comes to Twitter, legitimate criticisms of Wynn’s words quickly began to become more polarized and heightened, eventually leading Wynn to deactivate her Twitter profile. As the criticisms continued, right-leaning conservative and even far-right personalities and news outlets picked up on the story, using it as evidence of supposed leftist "cancel culture" being so out-of-control that they destroy even their own most prominent voices. These bad-faith stories also attempted to delegitimize the identities of nonbinary transgender people.

Upon learning of the twisting of the narrative for far-right purposes, Wynn returned to Twitter a week later with a statement, saying "My discomfort with gender-neutral language and explaining my pronouns does not outweigh the need of other trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. I regret expressing my feelings in a glib way that did not convey the importance of those needs. It saddens me that this mistake has been exploited by public figures to attack nonbinary people. Thank you to those of you who have criticized me in a measured and constructive way. I will try to do better."

This statement appeared to be largely accepted by the community, as it represented one of the too-often times that a creator who has made a mistake, albeit one that perhaps was blown out of proportion, has acknowledged and accepted responsibility for their actions and the ramifications of them, and promised to do better. However, this appears to have only been the eye of the storm.

On October 12, Wynn released her latest video on the ContraPoint’s channel titled "Opulence." In the video, which discussed Western culture’s preoccupation with the aesthetic of being wealthy mixed with relatability over actually having wealth, Wynn poked fun at the entire Twitter situation, which again came across as belittling of the salient issues involved, even if the humor was aimed more directly at how Twitter over-escalates a controversy.

Ironically, an even larger controversy quickly formed around Wynn’s decision to cast Buck Angel as a voice-over artist within the video. Buck Angel, a well-known figure in the transgender community, garnered mainstream attention as a transgender porn star. He also made numerous television appearances on shows such as Maury Povich or Howard Stern throughout the 2000s, educating the public about transgender issues, on top of his social activism for the transgender community. However, he has become a much more divisive figure within the transgender community itself due to his transmedicalist viewpoints.

Transmedicalism is a belief that one needs to experience the medical condition known as gender dysphoria in order to be considered truly transgender. Gender dysphoria is the experience of distress caused by the mismatch between one’s biological sex and gender identity. Gender dysphoria can be a mentally excruciating experience, often best treated through an individualized mixture of socialization as one's true gender identity, therapy, hormone replacement, and/or gender-affirming surgeries, an experience colloquially known as transitioning.

Transmedicalists believe that being transgender is contingent upon suffering and/or medical treatment. This ideology completely erases, and is harmful towards, nonbinary identities, as well as binary-identified transgender people who may experience what is known as gender euphoria, or joy at having their gender affirmed. Transmedicalists, who often, unfortunately, face varying levels of suffering, trauma and bigotry due to their experience with gender dysphoria, often see those within the transgender community who do not experience a similar level of suffering to have not "earned" being a part of the community. Transmedicalists view attempts to help promote the well-being of nonbinary identities through acts like normalizing pronoun sharing or educating about transitioning without any medical treatment to be a belittlement of their own suffering. But nonbinary and trans people who don't medically transition just took a different path within the wide and diverse umbrella of the transgender experience. Yet, transmedicalists often target them with mocking, questioning of their genitals, intentional misgendering, name-calling, and other harassment tactics.

While Buck Angel has not engaged in direct harassing behavior as a transmedicalist, he nevertheless has made his support for the harmful viewpoint known. Responding to a tweet that stated "I’m sick to death of transgenderism," Buck responded by saying, "I just want you all to know that I am a transsexual man who transitioned 23 years ago. This is not a representation of us all. Many of us transsexuals are also appalled and upset at the hate and anger coming from the transgender agenda. It saddens us..."

Prominent and influential transmedicalist viewpoints are often taken up by bad-faith actors within right-wing spaces in order to justify hatred towards transgender communities. They argue that even those within the transgender community hate the "transgender agenda" because it is characterized by what they see as a deliberate attack against culturally accepted gender norms, when in actuality, it simply attempts to ensure the comfortability and safety of all of those within the transgender community. Buck Angel’s views were even quoted by Garham Linehan, a transphobic right-wing Irish comedian whose actions against the British transgender community were the inspiration for prominent YouTuber Harris "Hbomberguy" Brewis to create a video game live-stream of Donkey Kong 64 for the transgender charity organization Mermaids. The live-stream, which became famous for featuring numerous notable trans-supportive guests like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chelsea Manning, Mara Wilson, and even Natalie Wynn herself, raised over $347,000.

Buck Angel’s inclusion in ContraPoints' "Opulence" video once again sparked a slew of criticism against Wynn for her perceived continued failure to understand the issues faced by the nonbinary community, which have become exemplified by Angel himself. Most of Wynn’s critics, such as YouTubers Jack Saint and Sarah Zedig, are often clear that they don’t believe that Wynn has any outwardly anti-nonbinary viewpoints. However, her constant mistakes as well as lack of properly addressing them, have led to frustration from some within the nonbinary and transgender community, as well as a growing inability to take her actions in good faith.

Indeed, Angel’s inclusion in the video was made even more problematic as the video also featured the aforementioned Harris Brewis in the voice cast, which only caused to highlight the stark contrast between Brewis’s fight against transphobia from the likes of Graham Lineham and Angel’s viewpoints being co-opted to support the exact same transphobe. Brewis, who appears to not have known Angel would be in the video prior to its release, responded to the controversy stating "I'm hurt and upset at being forcibly associated with a shithead and don't really know what else to say."

Wynn posted a statement to her Patreon page (which can only be accessed if you pay to become a patron) states "Some people have taken my association with [Buck Angel] as evidence that I am secretly a transmedicalist…I want to let you all know, first of all, that I am not a transmedicalist, I have never been a transmedicalist, and I will never be a transmedicalist. I included Buck as a voice actor in my last video for other reasons, which I will discuss at length in my next video. Thank you so much to those of you who have given me the benefit of the doubt throughout all this." Many have criticized Wynn for putting her response behind a paywall, as well as teasing an explanation to come in the future, as representative of a failure on her part to understand the importance and ramifications of the situation.

Besides Harris Brewis, "Opulence" also featured the voices of several other prominent activists, including Kat Blaque and Oliver "Olly" Thorn (a.k.a. Philosophy Tube). Upon learning they were also featured in the video, many of Wynn's critics took to the social media platforms of these other influencers, demanding that they address the controversy with Wynn. At this point, almost all have responded, including transgender activist Kat Blaque, who points out that she herself appeared in a video with Buck Angel five years ago and stated that "everyone’s criticisms of Buck are valid. I also think denying his contributions to trans representation to be silly. Buck Angel can be both trans misogynistic trash and a person who’s positively contributed to trans rep."

Blaque’s response perhaps most succinctly articulates the complexities involved in the entire situation. Without question, Buck Angel was one of the most influential voices leading to today’s increased awareness of transgender issues in the mainstream. His past and present work, such as his partnering with Perfect Fit Brand to create affirming sex toys for trans men, has helped many in the transgender community. However, the good he has done cannot erase how his transmedicalist views have also contributed to the harm faced by some of the less-understood members of the transgender community who do not wish to medically transition.

The negative does not outweigh or erase the positive, but neither does the positive outweigh or erase the negative. As with many things, the situation is beyond a simple binary qualification of good/bad. Similar to how the existence of or the harm faced by the nonbinary community is ignored, situations like these often get lumped into being simply positive or negative by our society, which loves to see things in stark black and white terms. As this whole situation demonstrates, there are still many who are even less understood, heard, or stood up for. But when an ability to see the nuances in-between an issue seems impossible, how can we expect to see those that call the spaces in-between "home?"

While criticisms of Wynn's inclusion of Buck Angel do have tangible weight to them, the continued way they have been expressed has moved beyond what many would consider acceptable criticism. The incessant demand that collaborators, associates, and friends of Wynn respond to the controversy, or even disavow her, has greatly outweighed the legitimate concerns beneath. Oliver "Olly" Thorn, creator of the similarly philosophically themed YouTube channel Philosophy Tube, and PBS Host and YouTuber media critic Lindsay Ellis, have often collaborated with Wynn and previously publically acknowledged that they are her friends. Additionally, as part of their work, Thorn has previously discussed his struggles with abuse, mental health, depression, and suicidal thoughts while Ellis recently opened up at the 2019 XOXO Festival about her experiences dealing with online harassment, abuse, and isolation caused by bad faith, alt-right commentators. Both Thorn and Ellis have directly felt the effects on someone’s emotional and, eventually, physical well-being that are caused by the constant wall of online negativity, regardless of if it stems from ill-intentions or legitimate criticisms, and have shared elements of these plights with their fans. In light of the ContraPoints controversy, both still faced a flood of harassment intended to force them to respond. Thorn acknowledged this in his statement, saying "I've also been harassed, threatened, doxxed, had my private life speculated on and my love one's insulted; in recognizing the feelings of those who kindly raised their concerns in a polite way, I do not wish to legitimize the great many people who used their hurt as cover for unacceptable toxic and abusive behavior."

In her own statement, Lindsay Ellis said "I do find [Angel’s] behavior troubling, and I don’t agree with his statements on NB identities. I agree that his positions do real harm to the community, and I wish Natalie had not collaborated with him. That said, she will address the issue in a future video, and I trust her to do it in a thoughtful way… I was not involved in "Opulence"... Therefore with regards to calls for me to 'apologize,' I have to ask, apologize for what? There is only one logical answer - apologize for being friends with Natalie. I don’t mean to say that criticisms against Natalie are illegitimate, although I do not agree with many of them, nor am I saying that people should not make criticisms against her content (keyword: content). But what I am saying is that trying to compel people you do not know, in this case, a group of YouTubers, to say things they may or may not believe in order to placate your idea of who they *really* are, or to excommunicate their real-life friends, that I can’t get down with…. You cannot delegate who is a 'good person' and who is a 'bad person,' because as much as it feels like you know us, you don’t… But more infuriating is the words that are being put in all our mouths that no one has said - how many times does Natalie need to clarify her beliefs on NB identities and transmedicalism?... It begs the question, why would one repeated fall upon the sword apologizing to a community that jumps at every possibility to apply the worst possible interpretation of any perceived transgression...."

Lindsay Ellis’ powerful statement showcases how this situation, which has on all sides of the issue been rooted in legitimate criticisms and responses, continually ignores that the other side is human, flawed, and able to feel the emotional weight of the issues surrounding them. Wynn’s critics do have legitimate arguments, eventually grew into a fervor that demanded only one response, a response that put unrealistic and harmful expectations on those involved.

This whole situation, from Natalie’s perceived belittling of the plight of nonbinary people, to Buck Angel’s transmedicalist views, to the seeming inability for many critics of these personalities to assume positive intent, to even the very acknowledgement of the existence of transgender identities outside of a cultural binary, exemplifies our modern era’s inability to perceive and conceptualize ideas outside of pre-existing boxes. We constantly talk in binary terms such as "good or bad," "male or female," "right or wrong," "liberal or conservative." We consistently refuse to see the nuances of a situation and accept that something may actually be complex and unable to be definitively pinned down. How many times must we be faced with problems of increasing polarization, even within our own communities, until we acknowledge that it’s time to sit down and listen to each other?

To be clear, ContraPoints giving a platform to Buck was wrong, and there is a reasonable argument to be had that her response to the criticism of that was bad. But that doesn't mean going to her friends to demand they disown someone that they care about is remotely appropriate. There is a difference between defending and disowning someone. Wynn's colleagues made clear they did not defend her actions. Yet asking someone to disown a person that they love is a form of emotional abuse. To attempt to isolate Natalie from those that care about her through online dogpiling and harassment is also a form of emotional abuse. Demanding that a loved one publicly disavow her, and to use tactics of harassment on those loved ones to try to force that response, is gross, abusive, and downright wrong.

Yes, from the looks of it, Wynn has displayed a consistent lack of proper understanding and support of the non-binary community. But, answering perceived bigotry with abuse and harassment isn't the answer. You have every right to stand up and defend yourself, your community, and those you love. Just don't do so in a way that ignores someone else's humanity and then demand everyone else co-signs that.

Sadly, however, social media and specifically Twitter forces people to try to engage in constructive debate in the most witty and quotable 280 characters (or less). Sadly, this ends up encouraging attempts to "win" a conversation, to "out debate" the other side and earn the most likes and retweets. It toxifies what should be an earnest, vulnerable and honest discussion, even when the discussion is entered into with the best of intentions or the most understandable of reasons. This is compounded by the fact that it is even easier than ever to forget someone's humanity and only see them as a personality or a profile page. Today, we keep entering into a cycle of de-platforming or debating turning into abuse and harassment or unsaid endorsement of such tactics, even when it's seemingly justified by the most righteous of causes. The controversy around Wynn is only the most recent example. 

Having discussions with someone who disagrees with you doesn’t mean you're meeting in the middle or selling out your values. Sitting down to talk doesn’t even mean you acknowledge that both sides or grievances in a situation are equal. It’s about treating others with mutual respect and seeing the other side as human. Perhaps everyone needs to learn that, as long as you feel safe and healthy, we need to begin to create conversations; not with the goal of justifying a preconceived viewpoint or "winning" the argument, but with the goal of learning and opening ourselves up to understanding that the answers may not always be so immediately apparent and the world cannot be so easily defined. That is a truth that perhaps best embodied by the very existence of nonbinary people in the first place.

Jessie "Gender" Earl identifies as nonbinary and is a transgender activist and writer. She hosts PRIDE’s own Nerd Out series, as well as her own YouTube channel, which you can subscribe to here!

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Jessie Earl

When not discussing Star Trek or Wonder Woman, Jessie makes videos and writes about transgender topics and pop culture.

When not discussing Star Trek or Wonder Woman, Jessie makes videos and writes about transgender topics and pop culture.