Coraline Ada Ehmke

Blog

On Opalgate

On June 18 of this year a friend on IRC expressed his frustration with tweets by a person named Elia (@elia). Elia tweets frequently about transgender people, expressing the tenet of biological essentialism that states that your assigned gender at birth is the only gender that is valid. Things reached a head when Elia, during the course of a heated discussion, stated that transgender people are delusional and out of touch with reality.

In Elia's Twitter profile, he proudly proclaims that he is a maintainer on opal, a Ruby to Javascript transpiler that has gained some popularity this year. This raised a red flag for me.

The important question is: would you be comfortable contributing to a project in which one of the maintainers considered you delusional and whose biological essentialism brought into question your gender identity? For me personally as a transgender woman, the answer is a resounding no.

I took it upon myself to bring up this point in the form of an issue on opal's Github repository.

Transphobic maintainer should be removed from project

Elia Schito is publicly calling trans people out for "not accepting reality" on Twitter. His Twitter profile mentions that he is a core contributor to opal. Is this what the other maintainers want to be reflected in the project? Will any transgender developers feel comfortable contributing?

What ensued was just plain nasty. The response from other project maintainers was decidedly negative and included personal attacks against me, including questioning my skill as a software developer. The argument continued over whether a maintainer's publicly stated opinions had a bearing on the community around the project– which is the main point that I was trying to raise.

But the primary representative of the project in this discussion, who goes by the Github handle meh, went on to state that he would knowingly and gladly accept working with a child molestor or cross-burning racist as long as their contributed code was good. (It was later revealed that meh has created a number of Github projects with homophobic, sexist, and otherwise problematic names.)

The resulting pile-on of responses ranged from those supportive of my case and those who were not. The latter camp was bolstered by sock-puppet accounts once the issue hit Hacker News, 4chan, and gamergate sites. Many sexist, homophobic, and transphobic comments were made over the course of the day, with the issue hitting 374 comments from 67 participants before finally being locked by project owner Adam Beynon.

A separate issue was opened calling for the project to adopt a Code of Conduct. This issue also attracted the vitriol and ire of a large number of people, who continued making very negative and personal comments (436 comments from 60 participants).

I think that no matter what your opinion as to the validity of the issue that I opened, it is clear that things got terribly out of hand. Personal attacks including transphobic comments were completely out of line and irrelevant to the larger discussion.

On June 21st I apologized to the project owner for the matter getting out of hand:

Adam,

First off, I wanted to say that I'm sorry for the way this whole issue turned out. I don't think that this has been a positive experience for anyone.

When Elia's tweets were brought to my attention and I saw that he identified himself as a core contributor to opal, my immediate feeling was that I and people like me (transgender women) would be incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of contributing to opal after seeing that one of its core contributors was transphobic. I was looking for a statement from the project owners that essentially said that his opinions did not reflect those of the other maintainers or the overall project. meh's responses made that impossible and things really took a nose dive from there.

Now that both of the issues have been closed and a Code of Conduct has been adopted, hopefully everyone can get back to writing interesting code. I also reached out to Elia to apologize for how things turned out.

Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can do anything.

Best,
Coraline

I got a nice and thoughtful reply, reproduced here in full:

Hi Coraline,

Thank you for getting in touch. Unfortunately the whole thing happened when I was largely away from a computer (and WiFi), otherwise I think it could all have been handled a lot better on my part as well. Both issues quickly turned into an insult filled show from both sides — mainly made up of trolls looking just to jump into the argument and take it away from the original point.

I will apologise on behalf of some comments made by some opal contributors. Now I have looked through all issues (which are very long), some comments and responses were inappropriate to the situation. It does also reflect that maybe I have been very naive in the past into how much discrimination is still present within the industry, and my take away from this is that I absolutely need to make a stronger effort in ensuring all contributors and users of my projects (and others I am a member of) feel that we are more welcoming of all users, and more firm against members not wishing to obey our new Code of Conduct. A COC is still something that I feel should not be necessary in a civilised society — but judging by some commenters not being able to act appropriately, it is very much needed.

I will again thank you for emailing and apologising, but I do hope that this has not discouraged you from speaking out or making others aware of the discrimination that a lot of people still face in tech (and other sectors) today. Your efforts are very much appreciated and needed, and I still think you did the right thing in speaking out where you saw discriminatory comments.

Here's to us both trying our best to improve the community.

Thanks,
Adam.

In the end Adam Beynon accepted a pull request from Github user Strand McCutchen to add version 1.0 of the Contributor Covenant to the project. It's important to note that unlike version 1.3, the latest incarnation of the code, this early version does not include provisions that affect behavior outside of an official project space.

I've been asked if I regret having opened the issue in the first place. I have only two regrets: the inflammatory title that I opened the issue with, and the behavior of those who responded to the issue. If I could go back in time, I would have titled the issue "Do transphobic comments by a maintainer reflect the values of the opal team?" I think that unlike the title, the body of the issue was clear in my intent.

As to the responses to the issue, I can only say that they reflect the negative knee-jerk reaction that many people in our field have against anyone who raises questions about diversity and inclusivity in open source. This is a problem that exists in the larger community that was reflected in the opal incident, and is a problem that we as an industry cannot fail to address. As marginalized people continue to fight for their voices to be heard, social justice questions are not going away any time soon.

November 30, 2015