From an upcoming lecture on Architecture and Design:
This guy I know wanted to get his daughters vaccinated against Covid. Got a special deal: took them across the border to Scarborough, handed them special forms that said they worked for a company called—I kid you not—”Matrix”; and told them that if anyone asked about their place of employment, they were to lie.
His daughters were, to their credit, kind of squicked out by this. It was obviously cheating; they ended up being the only two white people in the room. (This particular vax site was being run for front-line folks most vulnerable to infection, which tend to be disproportionately people of color for reasons we all know about by now.) They called their dad on this: it was unethical. It deprived two other people of protection.
Dad’s response? “I’m just trying to protect my family. When you’ve got kids of your own, you’ll understand.”
I heard this story, and I thought: is there a single evil perpetrated by human beings that doesn’t start with that very rationale? I’m protecting those that are dear to me. Me and mine come first. Cheating is okay as long as it serves our interests. Everything from shoplifting to genocide has its seeds in selfish genes.
And Dad was playing it as a get-out-of-jail card. Because sure, he’d cheated—but he did it for family, and that not only made it okay; it made it morally praiseworthy. Obligatory, even. We have taken kin selection—an act of utter Darwinian selfishness—and lipsticked it into something altruistic and noble. The very hallmark of the Good Human Being.
How often have you heard the sentiment Nothing is more important than family? And when you have heard it, has anyone ever disagreed? Family Values is the very bedrock of western so-called Morality.
I (30, she/her) am mad. I’m mad because multi-level marketing cults are taking my friends and brainwashing them into trying to commodify my friendship. I have a friend, (32, she/her) who we will call Francesca. Francesca is a very dear, dear friend of mine. We have been friends for years. Recently, Francesca decided to participate in yet another shitty makeup MLM. This is the second or third one. The story is always the same. A friend of hers gets suckered into this cult, Francesca “supports” the friend by going to parties, buying the crap, commenting and sharing on social media all the cult brainwashing posts, and then she buys the “presenter kit” because it has SO MANY THINGS WOW and its CHEAPER than buying it all individually and oh HEY LOOK, its EVEN CHEAPER if I also sucker MY friends into buying this crap, isn’t this great?! What a cool program that lets me get shitty makeup for cheap! Rinse repeat for the third time. (bonus points for MLMs that also convince her that this makeup is made of unicorn blood and snake oil and is in fact the Best Thing Ever (TM))
Meanwhile. I love Francesca dearly. I spend time with her on a near daily basis. When households were “bubbles” in our part of the world in the pandemic, she and her husband and kiddos were my and my husband’s “bubble” household. I was the one doing the grocery pickups for them when they had to isolate due to a Covid-scare. I’m the one she calls crying knowing I’ll drop everything to come help, and I’ve done that numerous times. She does the same for me.
But somehow, some way, this insidious, miserable, parasite of an MLM shitty makeup pyramid scheme has convinced Francesca that I am “not supportive” if I don’t comment on the posts, if I don’t attend her “launch party” zoom thing because she’s “so nervous, and hates presenting, and it would be SO HELPFUL to me if you were there”. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be involved. I hate these companies and their brainwashing and their horrible products so much. I would rather snuggle a spider, and I’m the kind of person who makes my husband remove them because they squick me out so much. But somehow I’ve been cast as a “bad friend” who “doesn’t support women in business” by not supporting Francesca and buying into this cult nonsense. I’m mad. I’m hurt. I’m so utterly offended that my friendship has been reduced to performances of support on social media, that these companies prey on female friendships and female solidarity to try and FORCE me to support her (read: support them and end up giving them more money in what has become a very successful business model for them and other MLMs by commodifying female friendships). “You don’t have to buy anything!” she says, but my time is also valuable, and so is my sanity and I hate everything about this.
So, dear Captain, I have a question for you: What the fuck do I do here? I’ve been politely ignoring, changing the subject, not engaging. I’ve unfollowed all the crap on social media without blocking her outright, because I don’t want to do that. But when she turns her big sad eyes on me and is hurt that I’m not supporting this thing she cares about, I feel guilty and it pisses me off. What script is there that communicates “I love you, but I hate this, and I would very much like the MLM to not be a thing in my life anymore but I want YOU to be in my life.” I feel like saying that is going to launch her into another sales pitch about how “This isn’t an MLM! I don’t want you to buy anything!” justifications and I just don’t wanna. Maybe the script I’m asking for is too big, and maybe it’s like asking you to be Friendship Shakespeare and write a whole comedy/tragedy script for me about how this shakes out, but I’m at such a loss and I’m sad.
Pockets (My racehorse show name is: Get Your Grubby Hands Out of the Pockets of My Friendship, Women’s Pockets are Too Small As it Is.)
FYI, I have exactly two modes with this kind of thing:
Here is $5, good luck with whatever that is!
Absolutely fucking not.
Here’s $5: For close friends and family members who are parents of Girl Scouts selling cookies, fellow artists crowdfunding, people raising money for mutual aid or charity, if the ask crosses my feed and I can toss a little bit of money in the hat without missing it and I actively want to, I do it when I can. I figure that pretty much every indie filmmaker in Chicago has been passing the same $20 bill around since Kickstarter launched in 2009, it’s just good karma to toss a little in the jar when you can and ask without apology when you need to. Plus, sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money.
Absolutely Not: For most MLM products, I mostly scroll on by like I never saw it. If I don’t want it, there’s no reason to even click. If I’m forced to engage, like, I get added to a secret Facebook group devoted to hawking the product, I leave the group immediately without comment or apology. If the person tries a more personalized pitch, I politely repeat “Oh, thank you, but it’s really not for me” until I can get out of the conversation. If it’s someone I really really like, I try not to judge them for doing whatever it is and also possibly try to forget all about it so I can keep liking them in an uncomplicated way. If it’s an acquaintance, especially someone who I suspect is talking to me only to try to make a sale, that’s much easier: *block*
I usually don’t provide reasons or argue. I realize that I could try to talk them out of selling whatever it is, but generally meeting attempts to evangelize with reverse attempts to evangelize is likely to make everyone mad, definitely waste a lot of my time, and will become more actively embarrassing for everyone the longer it all continues, so I don’t invest much energy on my way out of the conversation. Nobody likes a “I’m being mean to you because I’m worried about you for your own good” conversation, so I try to assume the person is an adult who is getting something out of doing whatever it is, and if they love the product or really want to do this with their time, so be it, I’m not the boss of them!
To help you with your situation, I want to dig into how this kind of hard-sell manipulation works, because it has the same framework as other kinds of manipulation but it’s so nakedly goal-oriented it might make the all the other kinds easier to see, too.
“I don’t want to spend money on things I know that I don’t want,”“I don’t want to cringe through social events that are really sales pitches for things I know that I don’t want,” and “I don’t want to lend my personal credibility to a giant scam by sitting politely through sales pitches to other people” are all reasonable, not-embarrassing positions to hold in life.
Same deal with “Friend, I’ve already told you that I don’t want to buy any of that or attend any of these things.” Even if you were being unreasonable (you aren’t), you don’t want to do it. That’s the best reason in the world to not do it.
In order to manipulate you successfully, your friend has to override your consent and turn your quite reasonable position and obvious disinterest into liabilities for you. She has to make you seem like the weird outlier who is reluctant to say the words “Absolutely not!” because feels riskier somehow than spending money and time on a thing you know you’ll hate. She is willing to piss you off to the point that you’re afraid that revealing how angry you are will piss her off too much and somehow “ruin” the friendship, which is it’s own special kind of audacity.
There are some very specific clauses of the supposed social contract that these predatory peer-to-peer sales schemes depend on for this kind of manipulation. A partial list:
A) Cultural mores and taboos around discussing money explicitly, asking for money, naming amounts of money, admitting you don’t have enough money, or that you do but you don’t want to spend it on this. (A capitalist culture where people are obsessed with money but it’s awkward and possibly rude to talk about money in direct terms is a perfect petrie dish for badness.)
B) Social ties, mutual expectations, euphemisms, and unspoken understandings as levers for fostering a sense of mutual obligation and discouraging direct communication where “yes” or “no” questions might be asked and answered.
C) Highly selective adherence to supposed rules of “good manners,” for instance, the belief that it’s always wrong to interrupt people, or that it’s always ruder to correct someone’s rude behavior than it is to do the rude behavior. This becomes kryptonite when combined with the target’s friendly human impulse to smooth things over and to save others from embarrassment.
How this combines, in practice:
Have you ever been in a restaurant where a lot of things are labeled “Market Price” on the menu? Market Price is usually code for “expensive,” and if you ask “So, how much will that actually cost?” you reveal yourself as someone who might not be willing or able to pay it. The price of a thing you’re about to buy is an obvious, not-weird thing to ask, and yet whole fields of marketing, sales, fundraising, and advertising are devoted to selling connection, emotion, identity, status, experiences, and narratives by placing incentives and complicated social frictions between you and what they’re trying to sell, in the hopes that some people will fall for the feeling so hard they won’t ask the price and others will feel so weird about asking that they’ll buy whatever at howmuchever. Companies that refuse to publish their salary range and who frown on you for asking directly about it in an interview are using the same tactic to sell you on accepting less. The harder it feels to ask an obvious, simple question, the more likely it is that strong manipulation is in play, and almost nobody is entirely immune.
This is part of why your “Francesca, I refuse to buy a $37 lip ‘gloss’ that tastes like a cross between diaper rash and chalk dust” refusal isn’t getting through the miasma of “It’s not just a business, it’s also FUN with YOUR FRIENDS” messaging the company is using on her. She told you that you don’t have to spend money, so why are you refusing FUN? With your FRIEND? She’s not SELLING stuff, she’s INVITING people to PARTICIPATE in EXCITING FUN STUFF WITH FRIENDS. Are you really going to put MONEY before FRIENDSHIP? I mean, even if you can’t be bothered to support a friend, she thought you were A Good Feminist who would at least want to show up for WOMEN in BUSINESS.
Manipulators like to complicate simple things. The most important stuff on their menus will always be listed as Market Price, and until you take the dare and ask outright, pretty much assume that you’ll be talking about what the manipulator wants to talk about for as long as they want to talk about it. For instance, by focusing the guilt trip about Francesca’s annoying sales behavior on whether or not you are “being a supportive friend right now,” Francesca glides right over the part where she knows that you don’t want anything to do with any of it.
Displaying good manners, upholding principles, and fulfilling the obligations of relationships are only ever expectations that the manipulator has of you, the target, and only when it’s to the manipulator’s advantage. Say Francesca does break you down and you actually agree to go to a horrible Zoom thing and you try to get out of it later, that’s not just cancelling an RSVP, no, that’s Breaking A Promise To A Friend. Uh-oh! As long as the manipulator can redirect your attention away from the record scratch of “I said no, so why is this still a thing?” and into the fascinating self-inventory called “Wait, am I a good friend who keeps her promises?” then there’s still a chance she’ll get her way.
It gets worse. Every time you resist her framing about “what supportive friends do,” possibly by pointing out that a supportive friend wouldn’t try to wheedle you into this shit in the first place and would take “no” for an answer the first time, she’s under pressure to respond with bigger and bigger emotional reactions so that “doing what Francesca wants” and “not making Francesca feel unappreciated” becomes the path of least resistance and the price of your friendship with her. Insisting on directness and explicit communication puts you in the awkward position of being the one to name the secret price out loud: “Francesca, if I say I don’t ever want to come to any of these parties or promote your products, would you really stop being my friend?”
This is a very awkward. It’s a simple thing that feels incredibly complicated to actually say out loud, with fear of embarrassment attached, and voilà, this how the person who is NOT doing something aggressive or embarrassing is pressured to agree to unreasonable stuff in order to “save” the manipulator from the prospect of entirely self-created humiliation. People in the grips of simultaneously receiving and delivering a hard sell tend to gain temporary immunity to embarrassment, or they take all the wrong messages from it. “Oh, I’m just so nervous and it would help me so much if you were there.” Yes, Francesca, it would probably be weird and embarrassing if nobody showed up to your sales pitch party or it was not fun to be there so nobody ever came again, that’s the good kind of anxiety, misgivings sent to help you avoid predictable unpleasantness!
The way to counteract this kind of manipulation, generally speaking, is to return the awkwardness to the sender. Reject the manipulator’s framing of the situation, especially framing that tries to make what is patently ridiculous seem reasonable and what is obviously reasonable seem ridiculous or shameful. Redirect lofty appeals to principle into extremely concrete, immediate actions. Translate euphemisms into plain language. Don’t attempt to argue what’s fair, or what’s owed, resist the impulse to provide reasons to unreasonable people. Instead, embrace your subjective needs and wants as good enough reasons. What is the person actually asking you to do? Are you going to do it? No? Then say it that way.
To apply this, the next time Francesca gives you the sales pitch or invites you to an “exciting,” “fun,” gathering of “Women In Business,” RSVP “no.” Then be boring, direct, and consistent in deflecting all the follow-ups.
Francesca: “But you don’t have to buy anything! Just come support me as a friend!”
You: “I’m just letting you know I won’t be there.”
Francesca: “But why aren’t you supporting me as a friend?”
You: “Uh, just telling you I won’t be there.”
Francesca: “But I get so nervous, it really helps when you’re there.”
You: “Sorry, you’ll have to do it without me.”
Francesca: “You never support my dreams.”
You: “I don’t think that’s true, but nonetheless, count me out for Wednesday!”
Francesca: “Don’t you want to help women in business?”
You: “Not this business, I won’t be there, but good luck!”
Over time, you can nurture the friendship by seeking her out on topics that interest you, and giving her a lot of positive attention when she is the great friend you know she can be, and make all MLM talk extremely repetitive and unproductive. If you answer “why” questions at all, be very direct and don’t explain or sugar-coat it. “Because I don’t want to.”
It’s not easy, because it means accepting some things (like the “unsupportive friend” label, if the alternative is giving in) and letting go of others ( like the unlikely chance of winning the argument that MLMs are badon the facts, no matter how true). Our friends want us to love them and believe in them wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy more than they want us to be searingly insightful about them, and while Francesca’s full of the sales propaganda brain goo, she’s going to hear all of your logical objections to MLMs as “I think you are being stupid” and the resulting defensiveness will either blow up the friendship then and there or get her to double down on converting you. Disengaging from these conversations quickly and with less guilt and friction is probably both a gentler and more realistic win condition than convincing her to agree with you, and for that “Oh, that’s just really not for me” is a more powerful argument than “MLMs are bad, because ______.”
It’s not easy because it rarely takes just one conversation to get it done. Even if you say something like, “Francesca, I love you so much, but you know I hate this sales stuff. I’m happy to support you with babysitting and hanging out with you, but please don’t ask me about this again, because the answer is always no'” reinforcing boundaries usually requires consistent actions over time way more than it does finding just the right words. By actions, I mean, is Francesca going to kidnap you at gunpoint and physically force you go log on to Zoom calls? No? Then you’re not going to any of them, grumble as she might, and as long as you continue not going, your point is made whether or not she ever concedes it.
So, I started by telling you about my personal “Here’s a small, token amount of money” vs. “Nope” approach and I wanted to revisit that.
One strategy for resisting manipulation successfully is to bypass all the “wouldn’t it be easier and more pleasant if you just gave in” pressure and embrace being notoriously difficult about that topic. It’s a matter of principle for you, so own it! Not as a logical arguing position where you try to convince Francesca to agree with you, but as something so carved in stone about you that there’s no point in even bringing it up.
I mentioned my circuit of elderly farming neighbors in a post the other day, and there was absolutely no point in asking Barbara Quandt, maker of homemade donuts and scourge of town council meeting agendas, to buy Girl Scout cookies and band candy fundraiser bars unless I felt like spending an hour, minimum, turning over her compost pile while she delivered a blistering, fully fact-checked lecture on the myriad crimes of the Nestlé corporation. She wasn’t buying it. So I knocked on different doors until I stumbled upon the town weed kingpin who lived down the road, and with his generous support I (unwittingly) provided sweet, sweet customer rewards for his clients and laundered drug money through the Girl Scouts of America and the Dudley-Charlton Regional School District’s music programs for nearly a decade.
Present day, much like the presumably late, indubitably great Barbara Quandt, there are products & causes where, no matter how much I like or love you, I’m just not buying your weight-loss shakes or putting a penny into the collection plate at your homophobic-ass church, and if you fail to heed the one face-saving “oh, that’s just not in my budget right now” I muster up, then I’m probably about to say some things I won’t regret at all, but you might.
On the other hand, there are people in my life, who, if they need a few dollars and I have a few dollars to spare, I don’t actually need to know what the money is for to give it away. That circle is small, and the amount of money I’m able to part with is necessarily low, which has the added benefit that my level of emotional engagement with what it’s for is also low. I don’t really lend money out (if I can’t give it away, then I can’t afford to lend it, either) and I don’t really believe in Teaching People Close To Me An Important Moral Lesson as a branch of economics. Sometimes it’s incredibly worth making a stand on principle, and sometimes it’s like, I have positive $5.00 and a deep deficit of interest in having a weird argument about this with you today, please go in peace.
I know! I know! This is how they “get” you! This goes against everything you stand for, and you are right to think so and resist the scourge! I strongly recommend Bartleby-level stonewalling about this whole topic for as long as you and Francesca are friends. But sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money, so if you periodically decide that there is a small “Supportive Friend” tax where, exactly once per year you will choose to buy exactly one extremely inexpensive item from Francesca’s latest scheme, NOT because it’s a good idea or you’ve given up your principles or want to enable predatory capitalism, but because it buys you the ability to say, “I already bought the ‘woodsy’ scented candle that smells like deer piss and bandaids, stop saying I’m not supportive” for another year, while you pray she comes to her senses, then I for one will not judge you, though Barbara Quandt (a legend!) definitely would.
This post is long overdue. Let’s get it over with.
🛑 Hey! If you write a comment about this article online,
disclose your stake in cryptocurrency. I will explain why later in this post.
For my part, I held <$10,000 USD worth of Bitcoin prior to 2016, plus small
amounts of altcoins. I made a modest profit on my holdings. Today my stake in
all cryptocurrency is $0.
Starting on May 1st, users of sourcehut’s CI service will be required to be on a
paid account, a change which will affect about half of all builds.sr.ht
users.1 Over the past several months, everyone in the industry who provides
any kind of free CPU resources has been dealing with a massive outbreak of abuse
for cryptocurrency mining. The industry has been setting up informal working
groups to pool knowledge of mitigations, communicate when our platforms are
being leveraged against one another, and cumulatively wasting thousands of hours
of engineering time implementing measures to deal with this abuse, and
responding as attackers find new ways to circumvent them.
Cryptocurrency has invented an entirely new category of internet abuse. CI
and all kinds of other illicit cycles are being spent solving pointless math
problems to make money for bad actors. Some might argue that abuse is inevitable
for anyone who provides a public service — but prior to cryptocurrency,
what kind of abuse would a CI platform endure? Email spam? Block port 25.
Someone might try to host their website on ephemeral VMs with dynamic DNS or
something, I dunno. Someone found a way of monetizing stolen CPU cycles
directly, so everyone who offered free CPU cycles for legitimate use-cases is
now unable to provide those services. If not for cryptocurrency, these services
would still be available.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that these are a bunch of script kiddies.
There are large, talented teams of engineers across several organizations
working together to combat this abuse, and they’re losing. A small sample of
tactics I’ve seen or heard of include:
Using CPU limiters to manipulate monitoring tools.
Installing crypto miners into the build systems for free software projects so
that the builds appear legitimate.
Using password dumps to steal login credentials for legitimate users and then
leveraging their accounts for mining.
I would give more examples, but secrecy is a necessary part of defending against
this — which really sucks for an organization that otherwise strives to be
as open and transparent as sourcehut does.
Cryptocurrency problems are more subtle than outright abuse, too. The integrity
and trust of the entire software industry has sharply declined due to
cryptocurrency. It sets up perverse incentives for new projects, where
developers are no longer trying to convince you to use their software because
it’s good, but because they think that if they can convince you it will make
them rich. I’ve had to develop a special radar for reading product pages now: a
mounting feeling of dread as a promising technology is introduced while I
inevitably arrive at the buried lede: it’s more crypto bullshit. Cryptocurrency
is the multi-level marketing of the tech world. “Hi! How’ve you been? Long time
no see! Oh, I’ve been working on this cool distributed database file store
archive thing. We’re doing an ICO next week.” Then I leave. Any technology which
is not an (alleged) currency and which incorporates blockchain anyway would
always work better without it.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cryptocurrency scams and ponzi schemes
trussed up to look like some kind of legitimate offering. Even if the project
you’re working on is totally cool and solves all of these problems, there
are 100 other projects pretending to be like yours which are ultimately
concerned with transferring money from their users to their founders. Which
one are investors more likely to invest in? Hint: it’s the one that’s more
profitable. Those promises of “we’re different!” are always hollow anyway.
Remember the DAO? They wanted to avoid social arbitration entirely for
financial contracts, but when the chips are down and their money was walking out
the door, they forked the blockchain.
That’s what cryptocurrency is all about: not novel technology, not empowerment,
but making money. It has failed as an actual currency outside of some
isolated examples of failed national economies. No, cryptocurrency is not a
currency at all: it’s an investment vehicle. A tool for making the rich richer.
And that’s putting it nicely; in reality it has a lot more in common with a
Ponzi scheme than a genuine investment. What “value” does solving fake math
problems actually provide to anyone? It’s all bullshit.
And those few failed economies whose people are desperately using cryptocurrency
to keep the wheel of their fates spinning? Those make for a good headline, but
how about the rural communities whose tax dollars subsidized the power plants
which the miners have flocked to? People who are suffering blackouts
as their power is siphoned into computing SHA-256 as fast as possible while
dumping an entire country worth of CO₂ into the atmosphere?2 No,
cryptocurrency does not help failed states. It exploits them.
Even those in the (allegedly) working economies of the first world have been
impacted by cryptocurrency. The price of consumer GPUs have gone sharply up in
the past few months. And, again, what are these GPUs being used for? Running
SHA-256 in a loop, as fast as possible. Rumor has it that hard drives are up
Maybe your cryptocurrency is different. But look: you’re in really poor company.
When you’re the only honest person in the room, maybe you should be in a
different room. It is impossible to trust you. Every comment online about
cryptocurrency is tainted by the fact that the commenter has probably invested
thousands of dollars into a Ponzi scheme and is depending on your agreement to
make their money back.3 Not to mention that any attempts at reform, like
proof-of-stake, are viciously blocked by those in power (i.e. those with the
money) because of any risk it poses to reduce their bottom line. No, your
blockchain is not different.
Cryptocurrency is one of the worst inventions of the 21st century. I am ashamed
to share an industry with this exploitative grift. It has failed to be a useful
currency, invented a new class of internet abuse, further enriched the rich,
wasted staggering amounts of electricity, hastened climate change, ruined
hundreds of otherwise promising projects, provided a climate for hundreds of
scams to flourish, created shortages and price hikes for consumer hardware, and
injected perverse incentives into technology everywhere. Fuck cryptocurrency.
A personal note
This rant has been a long time coming and is probably one of the most
justified expressions of anger I've written for this blog yet. However, it
will probably be the last one.
I realize that my blog has been a source of a lot of negativity in the past,
and I regret how harsh I've been with some of the projects I've criticised. I
will make my arguments by example going forward: if I think we can do better,
I'll do it better, instead of criticising those who are just earnestly trying
Thanks for reading 🙂 Let's keep making the software world a better place.
If this is the first you’re hearing of this, a graceful migration is planned: details here↩︎
“But crypto is far from the worst contributor to climate change!” Yeah, but at least the worst offenders provide value to society. See also Whataboutism. ↩︎
This is why I asked you to disclose your stake in your comment upfront. ↩︎
Hello, Awkward Readers, it’s gonna be a long, weird one.
I want to update everyone on why some posts are missing from the site, as well as respond publicly to some emails from concerned readers about collaborating with Rae McDaniel and allowing them to link to their paid counseling and coaching work on the site.
I’ve responded to all emails and private messages I’ve received about this so far, but haven’t made a general, public statement yet not least because I wanted to be careful and do some due diligence first, including talking directly with Rae.
Here is what’s going on, as far as I can understand it, and what’s going to happen next as far as this site and our community is concerned.
Rae McDaniel is a therapist based in Chicago who I contacted to be a source in an article I wrote for Vice in 2019. The editor and I were keen to make sure the difference between “My family is annoying” and “My family actively erases me” were represented in the piece, and Rae was extremely helpful and quotable in that regard. I had vetted them (as with any source) before contacting them, especially looking at client reviews of their practice, and other articles they’d been quoted in or written. We stayed email-friendly afterward, though Chicago winter and pandemic ensure that we’d never quite have that coffee we kept promising to have.
Later in 2020, they wrote offering to write guest posts for the site, and I accepted, agreeing to a trial run of 1-2 posts/month for October, November, and December 2020. Readers could direct questions to Rae about mental health, gender, and sexuality that I wouldn’t be able to answer meaningfully on my own, and I was happy to support an emerging writer.
Linking to professional work (i.e. “here’s where you can buy the book”) has been standard for all guest bloggers, and it was no different for Rae, though we did discuss making sure to include free resources as well. They answered four questions, the last being a holdover from December.
With me so far? If you’re a regular reader, you already know this, but I imagine this post will be read by newcomers, too, and I want to put it all in one place, especially since the posts themselves are still down.
Starting Friday afternoon, I began receiving emails from readers, expressing concerns about promotion of Rae’s Genderf*ck Club on CaptainAwkward.com and alerting me to a Twitter thread that started with (from what I can tell) a screenshot of an Instagram ad for that business and its pricing and had turned into an absolute roasting.
It had been a while since I’d actually clicked on their professional websites, and I realize “________ has always been great…to me” and “______ is great!” are not at all the same, but the sudden influx and intensity of Rae-hate came as a complete surprise. What the hell was happening?
Either Rae had done something terrible that was just coming out, in which case, oh shit, or they were getting doxxed and harassed and everything they’d ever said or done was being combed through in the worst possible light, in which case, oh shit.
Without knowing quite which mix of “oh shit” I was looking at, I temporarily pulled all their posts from public view on Saturday evening. My first fear was for the Letter Writers, since they’d shared vulnerable stuff publicly, and I didn’t want them to be put on the spot, not as fodder for discussion, not obligated to comment on the situation or defend Rae/me/the site in any way, I just wanted them safely out of it for the time being.
The second fear was for Rae. I’ve had guest posters before, not everyone has liked what they’ve written, fair enough! But if what was reaching me on Saturday was any indication, every single inbox, social feed, and other method of communication they possessed was being flooded with hatred. If they’d done something problematic, I’d deal with it, but I have a larger following than Rae, and being the vector for a trans creator to be harassed and vilified more than they already were wasn’t something I wanted to risk either.
I pulled the posts, and in one of the most awkward emails in human history, I checked in on Mx. McDaniel’s well-being (Answer: Not great!), I let them know I was pulling the posts so they wouldn’t be blindsided, and we planned a phone conversation for Monday.
CaptainAwkward.com-specific Feedback: Some readers of this site feel that Rae’s posts on the site overemphasize their own paid practice at the expense of free resources, some people don’t like the advice at all, some do, but do not like the self-promotion, or the ratio of self-promotion to free resources, and some worry that vulnerable people seeking info might feel pressure to pay for something they cannot afford. This, I can fix.
McDaniel Therapeutic Universe Concerns:
These were consistent among everyone who emailed me (< 20 people), though the way they were conveyed varied: Reasons I should cut ties with Rae, things I should answer for or fix about Rae, things I should pass on to Rae. I’m not linking to the Twitter stuff. If you can read this, you can locate that. But I am going to attempt to sum up the things that readers shared with me, for the sake of transparency.
Concern (and clear confusion, we could safely use the word “bewilderment”) about the differences between:
Practical Audacity, a counseling practice with a licensed therapist-patient relationship that is well-defined, heavily regulated, and covered by HIPAA laws about privacy.
Genderf*ck Club, a free, moderated Facebook group with roughly 3000 members, where members must abide by community rules about content and privacy.
Genderf*ck Club, paid, small-group coaching, which, according to Rae, presently has 18 clients.
Biggest concern was that paid Genderf*ck Club coaching practice is too expensive/inaccessible for many trans people, especially people of color and people who struggle financially, and does not offer sliding scale. Just, general ethical concern about whether this should be a paid thing at all, ever. Lots of iterations of “Of course, people should be paid for their labor, but…”
Also very serious concern about the marketing of said service, “neg”-y language (“Invest in yourself!”), worry that the free Facebook group is a recruiting tool for a paid MLM-style situation. Some extremely unfortunate (and now deleted) website copy advising “creative” funding sources like securing loans from family & friends or gig economy jobs to pay for the program certainly did not help with this impression, and one reader made the point that for trans people, this often means sex work. With so many free resources and communities, nobody should ever pay for coaching or a support group they cannot easily afford.
Coaching is less regulated than therapy, with fewer legally mandated privacy protections. Because coaching is less defined and less regulated, it’s important for clients to understand: What is the coach’s approach to privacy and safety, and what is the code of conduct like for group participants? What happens to their personal data and information they share online, during a program and after a session is over? Do the posts you make the first month or so of your transition survive on the Internet forever, readable by others? Could the coach or another group member hit on participants, out participants, doxx them, or harvest their personal details for a book or a screenplay without consent?
Free space for The Unbearable Whiteness And Thinness of who gets to be a high-profile, public trans or non-binary person and real, legitimate intra-community frictions and grievances around race, micro-aggressions, safety, visibility, representation, and money.
On Monday, Rae and I talked on the phone. I ran everything in the above list by them, they apologized for putting me/the site/you in this position, and they did their best to address those concerns with me, and we figured out what to do about it with respect to this site.
The decision of what content appears on this website and who writes it is mine to solve, and here is how I am going to solve it:
The blog won’t be hosting future guest posts from Rae McDaniel. Whatever valuable advice they have to give, there’s no way to uncouple it from controversy, and it’s not fair to anyone to pretend otherwise.
At their suggestion, the four existing posts they wrote will remain offline until they can be re-edited to remove links to Rae-centered communities and include additional free resources. They’ll keep their byline. This one was on me, and I’m sorry I let both Rae and all of you down by not exerting more oversight and reading the fine print.
Letter Writers will receive a PDF copy of the edited questions and answers for their own reference before republishing. If at that time they no longer want their question to appear on the site for any reason, they’ll get final say, no questions asked.
Why keep them at all if it’s so problematic? I don’t know, publishing a giant list of why everyone thinks you possibly suck and then erasing the work you did so nobody can see it isn’t how I roll. Pretending something never happened isn’t how I roll, either.
Either way, the issue of re-editing the posts or retiring them will happen by the end of February, 2021.
I’ve received suggestions that I should recruit an alternate guest blogger or bloggers to cover trans issues to make up for what happened here. I’m going to be real honest right now: I am disinclined to invite any guest bloggers on any topic for a good long while. “Hey, come take your best shot at something that just went down in flames, it will be your job to make up for everything that went wrong last time. I’ll totally vouch for you, and in return, I’ll become publicly answerable for all of your business and life decisions, plus, I’ll write a long, weird post after” isn’t exactly a tempting bargain.
What I will do about future guest posts (if any): Anyone posting content here will be paid at least a nominal fee for their writing and we will have a formal written agreement about that. Most likely, guest writers will keep right on plugging their book or platform or professional work in their bio, but there won’t ever be the implication that free content is offered in exchange for self promotion. It’s clearly not working.
I’ve received suggestions and not a zero amount of demands that I host an open thread to discuss all of this. Absolutely not.
Editorial decisions and responsibilities here are mine, and I deeply, deeply appreciate everybody who wrote to me about this and regret any stress that Letter Writers and readers may have already experienced during the week’s social media…events. “Are you sure you want to collaborate with/vouch for this person given x concerns you may not have been aware of” is fair game with ANY guest writer at ANY time for ANY reason. Please, always, always, always tell me.
Editorial decisions are mine, and I’ve made them.
But the work of re-establishing trust with patients, clients, and Rae’s online community members is Rae’s work, not mine. The work of re-imagining their business and making sure that people clearly understand what they’re getting into when they read information about it online is Rae’s job, too. The work of debating all the concerns, like, is life coaching even A Thing that should exist? Is it a thing that should ever be advertised? I don’t know! Seems like a life coach question. Commissioning four blog posts doesn’t make me somebody’s Director of Communications. I don’t even argue with my *own* Twitter haters.
Anyway, I can write that open thread for you right now:
People with longstanding grievances, legitimate and otherwise, with Rae and people who love mess will flock to a new, higher-profile forum. “Well, did you hear X?””I heard from their roommate that ______.”
Rae will not be able to comment. There’s literally no way they can defend themselves publicly without further endangering the trust, privacy, and safety of their community. But they’ll have to read it and relive it all and not say anything and it will all be so much worse than it already is.
At least some of Rae’s patients, clients, and community members will end up reading, and some of them will feel honor-bound to defend Rae, which will in no way detract from the narrative that Rae is a toxic mastermind.
Kind, well-intentioned readers will defend Rae – “I don’t see what the problem is, here” – and “You go, Captain!” me. This will make everything worse. (Please, never “you go, Captain!” me in response to criticism, especially criticism from marginalized people. Ne. ver. Thank you.)
Someone will say something transphobic, racist, ableist, or otherwise gross. Many someones. People will take breaks from roasting/defending to do multiple 101-style corrections. That will spawn side-quest arguments.
There’s always one: “I always knew this would happen.” Here is your gold star for clairvoyance.
I’m severing ties between Rae McDaniel and this website, not doubling down by hosting an episode of Defending Your Life. There’s transparency, and then there’s masochism. No Trial-by-Blog Comment.
Time for the elephant in the room, as people ask me what I actually think. Is Rae actual Satan, what’s up with Rae, do I trust Rae, would I recommend Rae, will there be A Denouncing and is it cocktail attire, etc. This is the part where I disappoint literally everyone!
If I discovered that a charismatic, unethical therapist was for sure luring gender-questioning people into an expensive pyramid scheme via my site without my realizing it, I’d yeet them and their work from my site and my life, so hard, no question. If I knowingly let that continue? I’d yeet them, and then hold still while you yeeted me. The first move has to be to limit harm, and protect people, which is why I pulled the posts and why there will be no more of them.
On the other hand, summarily erasing a trans contributor from my site and hanging them out to dry in the midst of a furious doxxing is not my favorite. The calls for Rae’s utter cancellation did not seem to be coming from inside Rae’s house. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and if Rae’s patients, clients, and community members ever come forward with reports of sketchy actions and practices, there would be absolutely no reason not to believe them. But if you want someone to confirm absolutely that there is no possible way 18 people could like Rae’s work enough to want to pay for something between therapy and discussing their lives with 3,000 strangers all at once unless they were tricked, you’re going to have to find someone without a Patreon for that.
I personally thought Rae’s blog posts here were gentle and kind and pretty good for someone who had never done this before, though I definitely take the point about auditing and diversifying links so it didn’t feel like a sales pitch for one particular outlet. I didn’t like some of the marketing and sales copy I saw in the wild, at all, and I can absolutely see why people would think it’s ooky. The stuff about paying for coaching specifically with debt or gig work needs to be nuked from orbit.
I think the questions about privacy and safety and coaching are valid, though again, nobody who wrote to me suggested that the worst things are actually happening, just that they might happen. Which is fair! Vulnerable subject matter + ambiguous rules + power dynamics is a breeding ground for badness, and the more marginalized the community, the harder it is to speak up or remove Missing Stairs. People should ask questions like these. Spelling things out will only help to keep everyone safe, and in Rae’s shoes, at minimum, I’d absolutely be fire-walling my free work from my paid work (making sure they are named different things is a good start) and publishing privacy policies and codes-of-conduct in 50 point font so that everybody knows exactly what they are getting into.
But, again, not being legally required to follow specific privacy guidelines doesn’t mean it’s fair to assume that nobody is following any ethical guidelines whatsoever. Lots of people pointed to the “I am a therapist but I’m not your therapist” in the Genderf*ck Club language as proof that something sketchy is going on, but one of the legal obligations for coaches who are also licensed therapists (like Rae) is that they must make clear disclaimers that coaching is not therapy. If people think those disclaimers are about trying to exploit loopholes, like, fuck it, if I were your therapist, this would be secret, but I’m not, so let’s do skywriting, I don’t know what to say. Definitely don’t hire someone you think would do that to be your life coach, or your anything.
It comes down to trust, in the end. People trust me to not doxx them when they ask me for help, though I feel compelled to say that it is actually in my posted rules for asking questions that I can publish the content of questions I receive on the site and in other media. (If you think coaching is un-regulated, wait until you hear about advice bloggers!)
If the people Rae actually serves trust Rae, and Rae is in fact trustworthy, everybody will find a way forward, and time will tell. If this was the early rumbling of a volcano of badness, time will tell that, too.
All collaboration has risks, that people won’t like the content, that something problematic will happen, that the relationship will sour or need reexamined, that there will eventually be posts like this one. I’m not prepared to put my community, not to mention my own credibility and livelihood, on the line more than I already have, which is why I’m ending the working relationship now.
The Lesson: Intentions Aren’t Magic
Most of all, after processing emails, combing through Twitter rants, and a long conversation with Rae, I think that at least some of what is happening right now is a lesson called Intentions Aren’t Magic. This is never, and I mean never, a fun lesson. It’s a lesson you only learn when something goes wrong.
I don’t know what it’s like to be Rae’s client, patient, or follower, but I do know something about running a public space where people work out vulnerable things, and the responsibility and growing pains that come with that. One of those growing pains is definitely learning that intentions are not magic. You can have the best of intentions and still do harm. You can really, really, really want to help people and do harm. You can have the best of intentions and underestimate the power that you wield when you go from scrappy beginner to supposed expert. Part of the path of evolving from a “we’re all pals, here!” communication-style to a high-profile, professional public presence is poking at all the loopholes and considering how someone who had never met you would read what you say. The bigger the profile, the more you have to consider how people who actively despise you would interpret what you say, and make sure you protect yourself and those around you as best you can. Whatever you intended when you set out to help people, if how you’re selling yourself reasonably leads strangers to conclude you’re running some kind of pyramid scheme, earnestly explaining what you intended comes after fixing it.
Nowadays, roughly 150,000 people stop by this place every month. Some of those people are old fans. Some are brand new. Whenever I make a mistake, regular readers let me know and give me a chance to fix it, which is a gift they are giving me. The gift of seeing mistakes as aberrations, of assuming I would want to know and correct them, is a gift of trust. I have hopefully earned some of it, or nobody would still be here, but nobody ever gets to have so much trust banked up that they get to stop earning it.
Some people only ever see the mistake, or just plain don’t like me or what I write, or don’t think I’ve done enough to earn their trust, and those people leave, and never come back. That is entirely fair. They do not have to give me the benefit of the doubt or take my good intentions into account. I’m no different, in that, I don’t care if he’s nice to dogs, I don’t care if he made a fair point you liked once upon a time, I’m never reading anything that comes after the words “by Matthew Yglesias” in this lifetime again, and if you continually Tweet his shit into my feeds to try to make me, I am eventually going to mute you. Everybody gets to consider the source, and the sources’s sources, and hit the back button.
(Iam somebody’s Matt Yglesias and I’m going to have to live with that shame forever. But it’s fair!)
Some people are probably always going to trust Rae less after whatever happened this week and bring up the list of concerns when they hear their name. Some people are going to go through anything they have ever said in public with fine-toothed combs. Some patients, clients, and followers are probably going to have tough questions, and my heart breaks for those people the most, because the place you go to be safe and seen shouldn’t ever be something you feel like you have to answer for.
Some people are always going to trust me less and feel less safe here because Rae McDaniel posted on my site a few times, and once I post this, it’s going to mean brand new people suddenly dislike both of us. It sucks. But it’s still fair. Defending my supposed honor about this, against young trans people on social media and elsewhere online, is bad and you should not do it. I cannot stress this enough, in a stressful week from hell, my worst fear is that posting more about this will raise Rae’s profile even more in a way that harms them and their community members and the young trans and queer strangers who were like “wtf is life coach” on a Saturday night.
Whenever I mess up, I get criticism that says, “I care about you, please do better,” and I get criticism that says, “Do everyone a favor and die already.” I have seen a lot of the second brand coming at Rae this week, and I want to say, if you’re reading, I hope you only listen to and follow the first kind. I’m so sorry it ended this way.
Hovertext: The part where it gets really weird is when you realize you've made up entire memories to explain why you wrote down the note.
Red Button mashing provided by SMBC RSS Plus. If you consume this comic through RSS, you may want to support Zach's Patreon for like a $1 or something at least especially since this is scraping the site deeper than provided.
One sweltering summer day in 2019, I was packed, sardine-like, onto a bus barreling through downtown Seattle, heading for the Ballard Brewery District. A former industrial sector, the Ballard neighborhood was founded by Scandinavian fishermen, and almost became a city unto itself in Seattle’s early days. Gradually, its boat-repair shops and warehouses gave way to the city’s densest concentration of breweries, though the scent of cured salmon and smørrebrød still just about lingers in the salt air.
On this particular day, a different crowd of pioneers was remaking a space in Ballard in their own image.
I slithered out through the transiting masses and disembarked, arriving at my destination: Stoup Brewing. I was here for the monthly happy hour of a queer social group I had joined, and I was nervous. I knew the owners well, having written a profile on them; I had whiled away countless afternoons at Stoup, attended dozens of events, and even hosted one in the space. But I had never done so as an openly queer person. I had only recently come out, and even then, only to my inner circle.
I ordered my beer, took a deep breath, and announced that I was here for the event. In response, I watched flickers of recognition, processing, and acceptance pass through the eyes of the staff. Without missing a beat, they told me to have a great time.
What I saw when I entered the room made my already-racing heart surge. It was packed as densely as the bus, only with queer women and trans or gender-variant people talking, shouting, laughing, and connecting, beads of condensation rolling down pint glasses like the sweat on their brows. I never knew there were so many of us until I saw us all gathered together in one, welcoming place. It was the first time I ever asked a woman for her number. I didn’t call, but it was a start.
Stoup is co-owned by brewer Robyn Schumacher, a gay woman, along with straight allies Lara Zahaba (also the creative director) and Brad Benson (head brewer). Zahaba’s sister, who is the brewery’s longest-standing employee, is also queer, as are several members of staff. The team has intentionally carved out a warm environment for LGBTQIA+ and female-identified people in an industry otherwise dominated by bearded bros and cold, industrial atmospheres.
Despite the nautical, masculine roots of the neighborhood, the District itself is anomalous, with female owners at the helm of six of its 13 breweries. For many members of the queer community, venues like these function as safe spaces (which is appropriate, given that the concept of safe space is important in both the LGBTQIA+ and women’s movements due to their shared history of cis-het-male violence).
Within patriarchal American culture, the default setting for public space is masculine. For many women or queer people to feel fully comfortable, there must be intentional signaling that a place is meant for us, which is often lacking, especially in beer-centric venues. This not only interferes with our ability to enjoy these spaces, but often keeps us away altogether—reinforcing both the stereotype of such spaces as designed for cis-het males and the homogeneity of the crowds. (This experience is all too familiar to people of color navigating the world of craft beer.)
As one respondent, a female brewer, says, “Some people see a homogenous taproom, in both staff and customers, and just chalk it up to, ‘That’s just the way things are,’ when in reality, there are steps they can take and conversations they can have to ensure that diverse groups do feel safe and welcome in their brewery.”
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR STRUGGLE
It is alienating to be the only person who looks like you in a brewery, and it can be intimidating and even frightening to not know how many of your people are there. Queer erasure—the removal of queer people and identities from the public eye—is compounded by the often-invisible nature of sexual orientation and gender identification.
Most LGBTQIA+ people have learned, whether through lived experience or inherited trauma, to operate from a baseline of hypervigilance, constantly readjusting the costumes we don in public spaces, including our family’s living rooms. We have to do this, when statements such as “beer is for everybody” have had an asterisk next to them for centuries—denoting, for many, everybody but you.
But the place where everyone not only knows your name, but knows your struggle, is the antidote to erasure. There is an incredible lightness of being when you cross the sacred threshold of even the dingiest gay bar, knowing that no explanation is needed here; safe amongst your chosen kin, you can finally take off that costume and exhale.
While John Yarno, a brewer and cis gay man at Urban Family Brewing Co. in Seattle, advocates for the acceptance of queer culture into the mainstream, he also recognizes that “these environments are critical, because they’re places we can go where we are 100% safe and we can be 1,000% who we are without ridicule, without judgment.”
After all, these spaces can truly mean the difference between life and death. Disproportionate rates of isolation, loneliness, depression, and suicide have long haunted the LGBTQIA+ community, and have only taken on greater gravity in the social-distancing age. “There’s a loss of connection,” says Tanya Barrios, a cis lesbian Latina woman who is the marketing manager at Samuel Adams’ Boston taproom. “That was the big reason I would go to queer bars—to be around the people I felt most comfortable with. […] Zoom can only do so much.”
But queer spaces have been disappearing since before the pandemic, which has only accelerated the trend. Despite agreeing that creating space is important, many queer brewery owners are hesitant at the prospect of being known as “the gay brewery.” Why? “You’re either the LGBT brewery, or the brewery that makes good beer,” says Julie Verratti, co-founder of Denizens Brewing Co. in Maryland and a cis gay woman. “Once people pigeonhole you like that, nobody looks at anything else, and that is infuriating to me.”
In other words: Being queer can be bad for business. This perception may not actively factor into a brewery owner’s marketing scheme, but it still permeates the cultural consciousness. Thus, while most owners don’t hide their identities, “It’s not the first thing we say,” notes Thad Briggs, who co-founded Mountain Toad Brewing in Golden, Colorado, along with his partner Brian Vialpando. “Sometimes it takes [people] a little time to clue in [to the fact] that Brian and I are more than just a management team.”
"DOING GAY THINGS MAKES US UNSUCCESSFUL"
While I understand the reasoning behind owners’ reluctance to commit to the “gay brewery” moniker, as it denotes its own flavor of exclusivity, I can’t help but feel saddened by it. I am not alone in dreaming of a future where being a “gay brewery” would be embraced as a successful business model—a sentiment shared by many of the workers I interviewed.
But maybe queer space doesn’t have to be physical, and you don’t have to call yourself a “gay brewery” to make LGBTQIA+ people feel welcome. Some breweries find safe places can be temporal, hosting events catered to the queer community that challenge the business case for straight-passing.
Brian Van Den Oever, co-owner at Red Bear Brewing Co. in Washington, D.C., proudly declares that “doing gay things makes us successful!” With three gay male owners, Red Bear is the only 100% queer-owned brewery in the city, and it has hosted drag events, such as bingo and trivia, since its inception. “We aren’t a ‘gay brewery,’ but you can be yourself at Red Bear,” Van Den Oever adds.
As proof of success, Red Bear had a line around the block during its opening days. “We had the [queer] community to market to […] and the neighborhood desperately needed something like us,” Van Den Oever says. The business has continued to thrive even through the pandemic, with offerings such as “DRAG-livery,” where beer-to-go orders are delivered by a drag queen with an optional one-minute performance.
At Dorchester Brewing Co. in Dorchester, Massachusetts, co-founder and CEO Matt Malloy is gay, and the brewery has found similar success hosting events expressly catered to the queer community. “I’m not here to create a ‘gay brewery,’ [but] I’m here to make sure everybody feels comfortable being able to celebrate who they are,” Malloy says.
Allies can host these events, too. While founder Sam Gilbert is a cis-het man, Temescal Brewing in Oakland, California became known as a beacon for the queer community through its Queer First Friday events under the leadership of Theresa Bale, a cis lesbian woman who had led operations and events (she recently moved on from the brewery), and Kai Villegas, director of operations and a cis gay man.
CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE
From programming and partnerships to marketing, social media messaging, and physical spaces, breweries are constantly sending signals that can bring queer people in—or keep them out. Sadly, regardless of how progressive they think they are, many beer businesses are still doing the latter—and this issue is compounded by intersectional experiences of “othering.”
“There have definitely been occasions when my wife and I have entered a bar or brewing company together, and haven’t been greeted, or had our greeting to staff returned,” says one queer, multi-racial survey respondent. “It’s fair to chalk some of this up to the person, but we’d be foolish to think that absolutely nothing related to those repeated instances has to do with our relationship, or the color of my skin (a super rad shade of brown).”
Schumacher has seen complaints on brewers’ forums from people who “think it’s gratuitous” for breweries to make overt gestures of inclusivity because it should be obvious that all are welcome. The good news? Some cis-het male craft beer workers and survey respondents, particularly in the liberal “bubbles” of Seattle, Denver, and the San Francisco Bay Area, do recognize that their social position colors their perspectives.
One respondent puts it bluntly: “I’m a privileged-ass middle-aged white guy with a beard. The whole world listens to me, regardless of the actual value of what I’m sayin’ at the moment. I am already three laps ahead just by dint of birth and upbringing. I’m playing this game on Easy.”
The problem is that learned helplessness often comes with such privilege. Many owners are stymied when subtle shifts such as marketing and messaging fail to bring new people in: “I try to hire a diverse staff, but I can only hire from people that apply, and [it] seems that I don’t always get a very diverse candidate pool,” one says.
Still others fail to grasp the systemic injustices that create disparities in the first place: “The perception [that] you have to be a white male with a beard to be in this industry [is only] true because that’s the majority of who’s interested in it,” says another owner, adding that most breweries “don’t have the resources to hire anyone, let alone be worried about diversity.”
When diversity and inclusion are seen as a luxury, queer erasure reigns. Again, the familiar refrain: It’s not so much that LGBTQIA+ people are purposefully being excluded, it’s that “no one really cares,” as one respondent says, adding that “80% of brewery owners are all the same—they only preach diversity to get more sales or to ensure they have good press on their side.”
The difference, respondents say, between paying lip service and actually being an ally is taking action. “It’s not enough for breweries or brands to say ‘everyone’s welcome,’” says Marquita Reese, a cis queer brewer and chairwoman of the diversity and inclusion committee at Sloop Brewing Co. in East Fishkill, New York. “You have to proactively make people feel welcome.”
Steven Fuller, owner of Wackadoo Brewing in Fountain, Colorado and a bisexual man, agrees: “You can’t just sit in your brewery and expect everything to come to you. The most important thing is getting out there, because […] a brewery is the heartbeat of the community.”
“Community” is an often-overused and even problematic term in the world of craft beer. “You have to think about what’s implied by the word, [...] and how non-inclusive that really is,” says Michele Wonder, a cis lesbian woman who is a retail sales associate at Perfect Pour Services in Portland, Oregon. “That [means] listening to [...] queer people […] about the way they feel when they walk into your space.”
Aesthetics may not be the primary concern for many brewery owners—yet design, decor, music, lighting, furniture, color schemes, bathrooms, and even tap handles create an ambiance that ultimately sends a message about who a space has been envisioned for.
“From the beginning of designing the taproom, it was very thoughtful that we [didn’t] want this to feel like […] the places that have historically excluded people, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” says Bale. She describes Temescal’s pastel palette and bright design as “very soft,” in contrast to the stark, industrial vibe of many breweries. Sloop, too, has an approachable, playful, and primary-colored scheme that Reese describes as “cute and kitschy.”
That isn’t to say that a brewery has to use bright colors or minimalist monochrome to be queer-friendly. But a space that looks like all other typical breweries is more likely to attract all the typical customers. “When most people walk into a space, they can feel whether [they] belong,” says Van Den Oever. “There are subtle things you can do that can help [those who identify as] more feminine feel welcome. […] Gender norms should [be] challenged, and we’re here for it."
Red Bear, for its part, boasts a rustic look that is not explicitly gendered, yet offers a warmth that concrete walls and spent-keg tables lack. And its wraparound bar sends quiet messages of equality, with everyone positioned the same distance from the bartender.
“All our bathrooms are gender-neutral [… and] in one of them, we have a changing table. We are a family-friendly establishment. We don’t use aggressive tones. We don’t use aggressive verbiage. We try to stay gender-neutral in our communication. I think those are good steps towards being inclusive to all genders,” says Van Den Oever.
Ari Sanders, a queer woman and director of taproom operations at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, says the brewery recently installed inclusive bathroom signage and began selling Pride merchandise year-round. Music, too, can speak volumes, and she ensures that “artists of color and different gender representation” are on rotation at Fullsteam.
But in order for LGBTQIA+ people to experience such inclusive settings, they first need to be welcomed in. Collaborations are an effective means of outreach for owners with an authentic desire to create safe space, whether it’s by partnering with queer-owned breweries or LGBTQIA+ groups outside the industry. Many LGBTQIA+ workers and owners saw the reach that the racial equity initiative Black Is Beautiful had, and wonder if it’s possible to sponsor a similar project for the queer community. Others call for a collaboration brew day akin to those hosted by the Pink Boots Society. (The U.K.-based GBH contributor Lily Waite is launching similar initiatives under the banner of The Queer Brewing Project.)
“Find a local charity organization or civil rights organization that you already have some connection with and talk to them,” Reese suggests. “Start going to their events, start donating money, start showing up for them, and you’ll create a program where people show up for you.” For instance, Samuel Adams’ Boston taproom, Barrios says, recently partnered with the Transgender Emergency Fund, and created a beer in its honor for National Coming Out Day. Collaborations, Bale agrees, help breweries both “bridge [their] connections” and step back to let other people have a voice. “It’s not just putting both logos on a beer and trying to get the most sales—it’s about what happens during that process, too,” she says.
What happens is that two different communities come together, and they make something. They don’t just create a new beer: Their partnership signals shared values, letting queer people know they are welcome in each respective living room.
Collaborations can, and should, be intersectional. At Bosk Beer Works in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville, Washington, head brewster Rachael Engel recently made a collaboration beer with Métier Brewing Co., the only Black-owned brewery in Washington State. She is also looking into creating a beer with other trans brewers to show the industry that “we’re here, and we make good beer, too—and it’s okay for more of us to do that.”
The importance of intersectional collaboration dates back to the Stonewall era, says Julia Astrid Davis, a brewer and queer trans woman, when the movement for queer rights divided into two camps: those who were willing to riot in the streets for change—represented by Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson—and those who wanted to melt into the mainstream, which tended to be straight-passing and white. The latter group gained prominence, and to this day, Black trans women are among the Americans who suffer the most.
Verratti knows something about this kind of coalition-building. With a background in political organizing, she serves her current constituency under the motto of “unified by beer.” She sits on the board of the Brewery Association’s diversity committee (and is the former chair), and is supporting initiatives such as a mentorship program. “Diversity is not just about race. It’s not just about sexual orientation. It’s not just about gender. It’s everything,” Verratti says. “Any type of underrepresented population is who we’re trying to target with these programs.”
Davis affirms that “if we want this to be about the whole LGBTQ+ community, we have to include all of us, not just the [...] ones who are most visible.” Appropriately, Briggs describes a collaboration beer created by breweries in Golden, Colorado in which each participant donated a portion of sales to a local charity; Mountain Toad Brewing chose the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
Of course, among the clearest indicators of inclusivity are the people who appear on both sides of the bar—and most craft beer crowds still look an awful lot alike. “I hesitated to get a job in the industry because I didn’t see many people who looked like me [in] bars, in advertisements, [or] online,” says one bisexual Latina survey respondent. As Zan McColloch-Lussier, a queer trans man and veteran beer marketer, says, “People will assume they aren’t invited if they don’t see themselves.”
Bale notes that the industry needs to “see more [...] queer folks in positions of authority and decision-making,” and many survey respondents say out staff and owners make them feel welcome in a brewery. While many queer workers are reluctant to self-identify for reasons of safety, this can perpetuate erasure, and those in positions of relative security can help lead the way.
“All of us who are already in the industry have to look at ways that we can either give up some privilege or reach out to our friend groups,” says McColloch-Lussier. He describes how, while working at Seattle’s Fremont Brewing, he would share open jobs on his social media, so that “people who know me [...] know it’s a queer-friendly environment.”
Engel often spends time in the taproom after her shift ends to show queer and trans people that “maybe it’s okay to stop and have a beer [here],” she says. And Kathleen Culhane, brewer and cellarer at Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors, Minnesota, has flown the Trans Pride Flag in the fermenter room at her own brewery and others, ensuring it’s “one of the first things people see when they walk in the front door.”
At Dorchester, the brewery’s openness has helped a new generation of queer people see a place for themselves in the craft beer industry. Malloy describes an encounter with a younger crowd of gay men: “I gave them a lot of special attention, because I realized they had never really been to a brewery before. When I was pouring beer, [… I heard one of them say] ‘Do you think he’s gay?’ I leaned over and said, ‘Yes, I am gay. And as gay people, we can drink craft beer, too.”
Schumacher says that as an openly gay owner, “People come to me and apply for jobs because of that safety.” Briggs emphasizes it’s not only about “making the right hiring choices,” but “actually reaching out when [LGBTQIA+] people do come in. If you notice that there’s a same-sex couple, approach them and welcome them. […] Make sure they feel this is a nice place for them to come back to.”
But hiring more LGBTQIA+ staff shouldn’t be about “fulfill[ing] a quota,” says Barrios. “The end goal is that whoever is behind the bar or [...] working on the floor is representative of the [general diversity of the] U.S.” Yarno agrees that nobody wants to be hired or promoted simply “because you need a certain percentage. […] That marginalizes us.” However, he adds, no group should have to work harder than others simply to be seen.
Here, owners must consider their audience. “If you only post [jobs] on your social media, your customers are the ones who are applying,” Bale says. According to Barrios, increasing diversity involves “addressing things like how you hire, where you hire, what neighborhoods you’re hiring in, [and …] online applications,” since internet access is not a universal utility.
Danielle Snowden, a cis queer woman and brewer at Earthbound Beer in St. Louis, Missouri, says she plans to share job postings with QTPOC STL, a local advocacy group for trans people of color, to broaden the brewery’s reach. For her part, Reese and her team at Sloop founded Open Waters, a paid brewing internship for underrepresented people, designing the curriculum based on what Reese wishes she would have had.
PRIDE IS A MINDSET
Ultimately, we’re all here for the beer. Owners need to think critically about “what’s being offered and our perception of who it appeals to,” says one respondent, citing a dearth of low-ABV options as one kind of message about the drinkers a brewery wants to attract. Bale agrees that offering a range of styles and strengths is important, since “you connect with your community [by] being intentional about creating products for them.” Beer names and cans make statements, too. Red Bear has a Kellerbier called Dungeons and Drag Queens. Engel named one of Bosk’s core beers TERF Tears IPA.
Some breweries go beyond beer to attract new drinkers to their space. Denizens, Red Bear, and Dorchester are among those offering wine, cider, seltzer, and even cocktails to their clientele. Broadening their drink offerings in this way opens the door for gateway experiences, too. After all, sometimes all it takes is the right setting to encourage a person to try something new.
Because breweries have not traditionally been marketed as welcoming spaces for LGBTQIA+ people, Malloy says, there is an opportunity to help some members of the gay community cultivate an appreciation for good beer and cider. “We’re really trying to create offerings everybody wants to drink […] so they can learn that this stuff is for them, too.”
A growing number of breweries also release a special beer for Pride month. In more conservative areas, this is a defiant show of support. But in geographic “bubbles,” Pride is so widely accepted, this gesture can become commoditized and even exploitative. As Audra Johansen, a brewer and queer woman at Seattle’s Ravenna Brewing Company, describes, “Oh shit, Pride’s coming up; just slap a label on whatever’s in the tank and call that our Pride beer, and donate 10 or 20% to whatever charity.”
“I think a lot of breweries look at [Pride] almost more as a potential revenue stream,” Engel says. “They do performative Pride stuff just to sell some more product, and [… then say,] ‘Now we can go back to doing what we want to do for the rest of the year.’ [But] I’m trans 24/7.”
Vialpando agrees that some breweries “come off as disingenuous.” He isn’t alone in recognizing that if it’s become good business practice to support Pride, that’s good news for the whole community. But many view the participation of big-name companies in Pride as an attempt to capitalize on the literal blood and tears shed at Stonewall and beyond.
Ultimately, work remains to be done: Malloy says Dorchester is the only brewery that has ever participated in Boston’s Pride Parade (where it won “best float”), and adds that “I would challenge my fellow brewery owners to step up and participate.”
The consensus: Breweries should participate in Pride because they care, and donate some or all of the proceeds to a reputable LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization. But what’s more important is what they do for the other 11 months of the year. “Okay, you made a beer,” Sanders says. “Now what? Are you actually living it?”
It’s time for the industry to embrace its queer nature by clearly and proactively inviting LGBTQIA+ people to step into the living room and leave the costumes behind. Not just to make money or save face, but because they truly believe in inclusivity.
After all, Pride was never intended to be a marketing scheme. It’s a mindset—and honoring it requires dismantling the old beer culture and involving everyone in building something new. Since “it can feel like we’re putting the burden on the people who are struggling the most,” as Schumacher says, industry leaders must help those who have been erased write themselves back into the story of craft beer.
If anyone believes in the power of storytelling to drive change, it’s me. I want to love the craft beer community and the breweries that are part of it. But I still need this industry to love me back, exactly as I am.
Words by Holly Regan Illustrations by Colette Holston