When data science meets queer theory …

… you get “Binary Explosives: On a Trans Landscape”.

About this event

In April 2017, a U.S. Border Patrol agent’s explosives-laden gender reveal party accidentally ignited a wildfire that burned nearly 47,000 acres across the southern Arizona desert. While many commentators readily framed the event as a metaphor for the violence of dichotomous gender, this talk asks how the wildfire might prompt new lines of inquiry for trans studies. Attending to the southwestern desert’s material and political nuances, I work outward from the 2017 wildfire to pursue trans studies analysis of militarism, migration, and environmentalism, and to imagine the possibilities of a trans landscape.

This event is hosted by UNC Charlotte’s School of Data Science and the Department of Women and Gender Studies.

From Eventbrite blurb

This was a 60 minute lecture about how people who hold gender reveal parties (i.e. parents) are destroying the world.

Yes, really. 🙄

About the speaker

The speaker Toby Beauchamp was from the University of Illinois’s Department of Gender and Women Studies. Beauchamp is a female who has taken testosterone, and has managed to grow a full beard, an essential factor in presenting as a trans man academic I find. She had a wobbly-sounding voice and looked diminutive on screen.

She has written a book Going Stealth (i.e. slang for people who aren’t ‘out’ about their gender identity) which argues that people with gender identities are monitored by the state because they are perceived as being a threat.

What is data science?

So before we launch into the utterly ridiculous lecture that Beauchamp gave, let’s just have a pinch-ourselves-so-that-we-know-that-it’s-real moment.

According to Wikipedia, Data Science is:

an interdisciplinary field that uses scientific methods, processes, algorithms and systems to extract knowledge and insights from structured and unstructured data,[1][2] and apply knowledge and actionable insights from data across a broad range of application domains. Data science is related to data miningmachine learning and big data.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_science

In other words, it’s statistics for the internet age and must rely on raw data to make sense of the world. Why a School of Data Science would platform an academic with such a crazy and tenuous theory really needs to be looked into. We all know it won’t be.

What actually happened

In April 2017, Dennis Dickey, a border patrol agent held a gender reveal party for his unborn son which became known as the Sawmill Fire. The explosives used instantly set the dry grass alight and ultimately created a 47,000 square acre wildfire causing over 8 million dollars of damage. What an idiot.

The product used in gender reveal parties is produced by a company called Tannerite. They produce targets for rifle practice which explode on impact from a rifle bullet. The explosive becomes active once two compounds are thoroughly mixed together and thus is described by the company as a ‘Binary Reactive Rifle Target’ (the word ‘binary’ being clearly to Beauchamp’s delight). The bulk of Tannerite’s business is clearly rifle practice, not gender reveal parties. Beauchamp failed to mention that a rifle would have been needed to detonate the target.

Another gender reveal party was blamed for contributing to one of several wildfires in California which happened in 2020. At the time California was experiencing unusually high temperatures of 121 Fahrenheit (normal highs are 70-80F), so the environment must have been extremely friable.

During the entire lecture Beauchamp failed to mention a single other common cause for wildfire. The National Park Service says that 85 percent of wildfires are human-related and main causes include ‘campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, equipment use and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson’. This is based on research over a 17 year period. So, no mention of gender reveal parties.

So what did she say?

Wah wah wah poor me!

Beauchamp began by telling us how awful it was at the moment for transgender people because of ‘anti-trans legislation’; i.e. individual states trying to roll back Biden’s recent carte blanche to the gender identity lobby. Especially upsetting to her had been the attack on ‘gender affirming healthcare’ for trans kids. Beauchamp was finding refuge in the work of Jules Gill-Peterson (a trans-identified man who has recently published a book Histories of the Transgender Child).

Interestingly Beauchamp kind of admitted that the lecture wasn’t really compatible with the field of data science, sort of admitting deep down she knows it is crap.

It’s not fair!

She talked a bit about her book Going Stealth, the conclusion of which appears to be that knowledge gathering about the topic of transgender people exposes the population to increased surveillance and, in particular, it allowed state agencies to frame trans people as criminals (probably recently allowing male prisoners to identify as female has not helped). Queer and transgender advocacy groups are responding to these attempts at ‘surveillance’, said Beauchamp.

The gender reveal party story

Beauchamp used a Buzzfeed article to talk about the incident involving Dennis Dickey’s fatal mishap. Classy. Beauchamp said the gender reveal party went ‘horribly wrong’ and that:

As we know investment in binary sex assignments do tend to go horribly horribly wrong. And accordingly for many feminist, queer and trans commentators, the Sawmill Fire seems clearly symbolic of the widespread harm created by dichotomous gender systems.

Gender identity activist Jennifer Finney Boylan had written in his regular opinion column in the New York Times that ‘all this trouble could have been avoided if there was no such thing as a gender reveal party’, said Beauchamp. Thereby making the act of revealing the sex of one’s baby the crime, not the use of the explosives.

The perp

Of course, it is too useful that Dickey also happened to be a border patrol agent, so tenuous links were made to the treatment, illegal or otherwise, of migrants trying to enter the US from the Mexico. We were told stories of how people would leave bottles of water for these migrants trying to make the trip through, only for border patrol agents to pour the water away when found. Beauchamp claimed that hundreds died every year due to dehydration crossing the desert. Migrants were framed as ‘ecological others’. By comparison, ‘white masculinity’ was responsible for the binaries of between ‘human and nature, citizen and non-citizen, and self and other’.

Dickey’s gender reveal explosion treats the desert landscape as an otherwise empty stage upon which everyday militarism can be enacted for personal pleasure. Suggesting a propitiatory sense of belonging founded on White Settler logic, normative gender and sexuality and the policing power of US Border Patrol and Homeland Security.

The alternative view, of course, was that Dickey was just excited about the birth of a new baby. Dickey will be repaying the $8 million restitution package out of his pension fund for the rest of his working life. You know they could have gone for Tannerite, or changed the Federal Law regarding explosives, but no, they go for the little guy.

It’s not fair that testosterone is a controlled substance!

Because testosterone is a controlled substance (i.e. its distribution must be regulated), this meant that people who use it were being controlled by the government, making it difficult for them to cross borders. Beauchamp forgot to add that testosterone can be given in 3 monthly intramuscular injections since that would make her point seem rather less valid.

Beauchamp said that synthetic testosterone’s physical effects were described as ‘deviant’, but not by who, she then went on to talk about the detrimental effect of plastics and pesticides, so presumably it was an environmental agency.

Round gobi fish

Beauchamp claimed that all of our bodies were being disrupted by ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ and that this was affecting our understanding of ‘gendered embodiment’. Round gobi fish were changing sex due to the ‘toxic sludge’ that they were being exposed to. The academic who carried out this research (which I couldn’t find on an internet search) described the round gobi fish a ‘queer survivor’.

Transgender and gender non-conforming people were framed as incompatible with nature – physically constructed with ‘medicine, technology or even toxicity’.

A satisfying meme

Beauchamp liked this meme because it redirected criticism to the real baddies – cis heteronormativity, though she should have just said straight people, like the meme does.

A flight of fancy

Beauchamp likened the wildfire as a metaphor of trans people rebelling against the confines of dichotomous gender. Which rather destroyed her argument that the wildfire was a bad thing or that Dickey/cishetnorms were responsible for it. Again, failing to see the relevance to data science.

A bit of Butlerism via a series of mind bending quotes

This section (almost half the lecture) can be boiled down to everything is a construction in our own minds, nothing really exists, just with a lot more word salad. Trans rage was transformative.

By mobilising gender identities and rendering them provisional, open to strategic development and occupation, this rage enables the establishment of subjects in new modes, regulated by different codes of intelligibility.

Quote attributed to Susan Stryker

Another lunatic queer theorist (Hilary Malatino I think) was quoted at length. It turns out Malatino was recently hosted by Google to promote his book Queer Embodiment and the Intersex Experience. Which is nice.

Wrapping up

Beauchamp ended on a whimper, rather than a bang, informing us that there was an intersectional feminist group called Daughters of the Dessert who oppose gender reveal parties and help the local community. There was also a billboard on Highway 62, presumably near the site of the wildfire, which says: ‘Transgender people deserve healthcare, support, justice, safety, love’.

I couldn’t shrug harder if I tried.

Preparation for the Q&A

This thread, by an ‘Indigenous feminist’, who has she/her pronouns, was recommended reading in preparation for discussing what questions might be asked. The data science students would need fifteen minutes to discuss what they might want to ask. Students were basically told not to make Beauchamp look wrong. Faculty members facilitated the break out groups to ensure that students did not stray into any overt criticism of the utter shite we had just heard.

The Q&A

Students were told ‘don’t be shy’, predictably met with several seconds of deadly silence given the 15 minute breakout to ensure no debate. In any case there was nothing remotely relevant to data science to comment upon in the talk, other than that fact itself.

One of the university lecturers, an anthropology academic, got the ball rolling. There had been discussion about the ‘politics of care’ versus the ‘politics of solidarity’. She said her group had discussed that data science could show up who were the oppressed groups, but then this could also contribute to surveillance practices – much like Beauchamp had suggested at the top of her talk.

Beauchamp bemoaned the fact that facial recognition technology was being programmed to recognise when people were transgender (i.e. trying to map the effect of cross sex hormones).

Another academic felt that people in power didn’t want transparency because they didn’t want people to know what they were doing.

It all felt a bit tin foil hat.

Statistics gets a mention

Finally an actual student spoke up. He expressed his support for diversity and used phrases like ‘ecosystem’ when he just meant people, but finally dared to point out that the number of people with a gender identity is so small it is almost impossible to gather meaningful statistical information about them.

One of the data science faculty members agreed it probably was difficult to generate reliable statistical data but asked was it even appropriate in the first place, since many transgender people would be scared about how the data might be used. Conversely they might not have the option to express their gender identity in which case no data gathering could take place. (By this point the audience had halved to just 15.)

Beauchamp responded that gender was mutable and in influx and therefore regardless of reporting measures we could never fully know who’s in the room. The anthropologist said that her discipline was the one that we needed to listen to, as when it was difficult to gather data, the stories that anthropologists collect were the ones you need to hear. ‘Just a little fun fact of politics,’ she quipped. Beauchamp laughed and then spoke of her upset at being described as statistically insignificant.

A berserk moment aka as Black Lives Matter

One of the School’s administrators, a black middle aged woman, spoke out. She said she had 2,300 undergraduate students under her care. She thought it was terrible that they weren’t able to capture the ‘constellation’ of gender identities that the students might have. This ‘valuable’ information was ‘falling through our fingers’. She mentioned that she had discussed with another colleague that they knew some of the students would ‘use their powers for evil’. Part of educating these students was getting them to understand their own selves ‘in terms of their whiteness’.

Gender reveal parties, according to the administrator, were a ‘very white thing’, and claimed that black people would only spend their money on practical things. She described this as ‘peak caucasity’ which consumes everything in its ignorance. She seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself.

In order to get people to that next level we are really going to have to start a whole lot of self-studies. Self-identification. They are going to have to feel pain. And white folks don’t like to feel pain, Doc. You know that. They like to do everything, talk about it and this and that. But people of colour are just asking white people, just sit in the pain for a little bit. That’s when the transformation happens. So the arc of your whole project, just felt very white to me. I had just to say it, you know.

For me, the takeaway from your talk is how white ignorance can burn a world down.

White people have to examine your whiteness, because it is destroying all lives, trans lives, everybody’s lives.

Imagine being a student and having to ask this woman to do her job for you

It was quite funny though watching Beauchamp having to suck it up and thanking her for her comments. She did her best to explain to the admin lady that almost the whole talk had focussed on intersections, including migrants and that the gender party reveal itself was eugenics. Surely next time Beauchamp will include a section on white privilege.

So there you go …

Critical race theory trumps gender identity ideology. All anyone could do was watch slack jawed as the administrator of a data science school delivered an openly hateful and racist speech.

The admin lady was right about one thing though, Beauchamp is definitely on the run from herself.


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