Tumblr lulls you into a false sense of security: Most posts are so ephemeral that unless tons of people reblog them, they seem to vanish without trace. Of course, the reality is that even after you delete something, it can live on in other people’s reblogs, biding its time until someone spots it and it goes viral.
For Cantrip Games CEO and Keyboard Cat creator Brad O’Farrell, the return of long-dead Tumblr posts is a serious problem. The whole thing began with a screencap of an unposted tweet: “I hate when people say that transgendered people have the soul of one gender born into the wrong body. Only humans have souls." The post was eventually deleted, but thanks to reblogs like this, it will never die.
If you search O’Farrell’s name on Tumblr now, half of the top posts are accusing him of his transphobia or digging up other controversial statements from his blog. Many suggest that the post was only ever deleted because of Cantrip Games’ Kickstarter earlier this year, which raised over $360,000 on an original goal of $20,000. As Tumblr user chibisokka put it:
“oh my god what trash. two fucking years of people calling him out on this post and he finally deletes it when it might cut into his FUCKING PROFITS”
The context is that I am, myself, a queer person and I was making a joke about other people telling me I have no soul. I obviously do not think trans people are subhuman. The wording of the joke was originally written as “gay men think they have the souls of women” and was referencing something that someone had actually said to me once in real life.
I posted the screenshot on my blog and said 'haha look at this offensive thing I typed but decided not to post' because at the time only my real life queer friends read my blog (only a handful) whereas my twitter was followed by a larger audience of thousands of people that I didn’t want to offend. And then some people who were not my friends started reblogging it and demanding I explain myself and fuck that. This was three years ago.
He went on to add, "I’m not going to endlessly be put on trial for something that I do not actually believe, especially something that I said amongst friends that was taken out of context."
To many of his detractors, this was not enough. Tumblr has an active social justice community, made up of bloggers who call people out on offensive statements and opinions, particularly when relating to issues within the queer community. The argument in this case is that as a presumed cisgendered white gay man, O’Farrell does not have the right to make transphobic jokes. The excuse of “the quote was taken out of context” does not sit well when no actual apology has been made. A request for comment to O'Farrell was not returned at press time.
The recent return of O’Farrell’s old Tumblr posts may partly be because the LGBT and social justice communities are currently very sensitive to appearances of public transphobia. The so-called “bathroom bill” has been receiving a lot of coverage over the past few weeks, particularly in connection to a transgender girl who was wrongly accused of making students uncomfortable by sharing a girls' changing room—a rumor that was originally spread by anti-trans organizations.
O’Farrell’s statements may seem like small fries by comparison, but they have inspired comparisons to situations where people who self-identify as queer are actively transphobic. “IM A QUEER PERSON SO I CAN BE A TRANSPHOBIC SHITHEAD,” writes Tumblr user rokkan. “I’M SURE THATS THE EXCUSE THAT TERFS USE TO EXCLUDE US FROM WOMEN-ONLY SPACES AS WELL.”
The comparison to TERFs may not be completely apt, but it’s understandable. The acronym refers to Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, a small subset of feminist activists who believe that transgender people are “faking it” to gain entry to women-only spaces. TERFs recently made the news for being one of the groups that helped to spread rumors about transgender teen “harassment” relating to the bathroom bill.
O’Farrell further fanned the flames by describing the Tumblr social justice community as “up its own ass about slacktivism” and joking that there’s no point in boycotting his game (e.g., Story War) because any profits go directly to his bank account, where he then donates to LGBT rights organizations.
The case of O’Farrell’s clash with online social justice advocates seems to have more to do with personality than political values. Whether O’Farrell is actually transphobic is up for debate, but the way he dealt with Tumblr-based criticism only led to more problems in the long run.
On a regular blog, it’s easy enough to make an explanation or public apology that will be seen by most of your readers. On Twitter, you can delete any offensive statements with relative ease, and the originals will only exist if people made screencaps. But on Tumblr, the only way to backtrack is to make a groveling public apology and hope that people read it before they see your original post reblogged elsewhere. Unfortunately, that isn’t a desirable option for most people. Particularly when they don’t really feel like they did anything very bad in the first place.
Update: This article has been edited to address grammatical errors and to include key context from O'Farrell's explanation of events,
Photo via josephasfoury/Tumblr