Suppressed Facts of the Free Software Movement and Its Community of Volunteers – Part V: How FSF Secrecy Ended Up Insulting People, Alienating Trans Developers

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 10:09 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

This wouldn’t have happened if no secrecy was entertained as an option

Summary: Having just uploaded this introductory video, we delve into the backstory or the real reason the FSF sank into somewhat of a crisis with the trans community almost half a decade ago

THIS post will hopefully not be misunderstood. It is by no means a criticism of individuals; it’s a bunch of constructive suggestions and some observations about what really happened several years ago at the FSF.

The FSF is the primary proponent of Free software; it is also the oldest (turning 36 years old later this year). The FSF supports the GNU Project and provides a supportive framework for it. GNU, in turn, facilitates many volunteers and developers who contribute to the cause of software freedom. Some of these developers are purely volunteers, whereas others are salaried by companies such as Red Hat (IBM).

“The FSF is the primary proponent of Free software; it is also the oldest (turning 36 years old later this year).”I myself am a proponent of the FSF and quite a few of us at Techrights (e.g. IRC) are FSF members. Some of us are trans. That’s not really the subject of debate here; instead, we deal with how secrecy can beget offence/insults.

In Historic First, Biden Picks Trans Woman, Dr. Rachel Levine, to Help Lead HHSOur general view is, technology and merits of programmers should be looked at irrespective of gender. We already see evidence of the president inaugurated today having the courage to act accordingly (article from yesterday shown to the right).

In Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV we talked about elements of secrecy being a peril; they breed suspicion and mistrust. We generally think that secrecy is a lot more risky than beneficial. It has the potential to cause embarrassment. With transparency, for example, the tone of conversations would simply not be the same (a higher level of restraint and ‘professionalism’).

Just to be clear, we don’t advocate leaking FSF ‘secrets’. We just want to better understand past events.

As somebody recently told us, “do you know GNU removed many voices that were against RMS?” (Richard Stallman)

“…do you know GNU removed many voices that were against RMS?”
“For example,” we’ve learned, “you can probably find that Matt Lee was silently wiped from the list of GNU speakers if you look at web.archive.org or something…”

Matt Lee blocked me in Twitter after I had politely responded to an RMS-hostile tweet of his. “Matt Lee was a sysadmin and he was calling on RMS to quit the FSF on Twitter,” we’ve been told, “after he quit MIT…”

SANDERS WARREN BIDEN: Tech Before GenderLee made no ambiguities/secrets about that. I met Lee in person a very long time ago (amicable meeting), so seeing his flippant reaction (blocking me in Twitter for a polite tweet) was a little surprising. And “also,” we’ve been told, “RMS is truly out of MIT, that was a final decision, but it’s not the first time he left them…”

And “still,” we’ve been told, “whenever RMS defended [himself] from this crowd, he did so silently…”

So there was more going on behind the scenes — something many weren’t privy to or aware of.

“RMS is truly out of MIT, that was a final decision, but it’s not the first time he left them…”
The case of point, which the video alludes to, is the Rowe incident. It apparently started after
Lisa Maginnis had leaked information about inside affairs at the FSF. “Lisa Maginnis was fired [sic] over this [as] she leaked something…” (according to our source)

If secrecy is an issue, then the organisation can become more vulnerable. We saw some FSF insiders (and maybe Alex Oliva also) trying to enhance transparency, but so far we see evidence of mostly backlash against those attempting to push in that direction (increasing visibility). I mean, what good is leaking of information that only few can see? As it turns out, Maginnis didn’t just leak it for everyone to see. The intent wasn’t to damage the FSF. The nature or purpose of the leak was to highlight a concern; We were told “she leaked that the FSF, in the 2000s, rejected a transgender woman from getting a job there on the grounds that she is “ugly, and would upset the rest of the employees”” (paraphrased).

Our source said that “this was only leaked to Leah Rowe [...] and Leah Rowe went everywhere asking for John Sullivan to be banned [...] err, not banned, I mean removed” (same effect).

But “this got Lisa fired,” [sic] whereas John Sullivan is still in the FSF. “Fired” is possibly not the correct term here, but either way, the person punished probably did not deserve this. Our source inquired, “do you remember when libreboot left GNU?”

“…she leaked that the FSF, in the 2000s, rejected a transgender woman from getting a job there on the grounds that she is “ugly, and would upset the rest of the employees” (paraphrased).”
Well, it came back. But much damage had been done prior to that. Our source noted that “the transgender woman that was rejected in the 2000s was Julia Longtin [...] a great mistake on the part of the FSF [sic] she would have done a great job…”

Some pages in the FSF’s directory list Julia Longtin as “Maintainer.”

Maginnis is no longer in the FSF, so we can say out loud (publicly) what we know (subjected to creative obfuscation that hides the sources).

And just to “clarify,” as the source told us, “Leah Rowe asked for John Sullivan to be removed, but I have found no evidence he was involved in the rejection of Julia Longtin [...] in fact, it seems to have been someone else, who has since left the FSF more than a decade ago…”

There’s reason to believe that it’s no longer an issue because, according to our source, Rowe is still involved, unlike those whom she accused; “she also accused two people of transphobia,” we were told, “who have also since left the FSF (both staffers)…”

“…she also accused two people of transphobia, who have also since left the FSF (both staffers)…”
“Lisa Maginnis was fired [sic] in 2016-ish or 2017″ and her blog posts for the FSF stopped at around that time. Maybe a monumental loss. Maybe transparency would averted that loss.

We’ve asked around about Maginnis and about the Julia Longtin incident. Some of that is rather old news and suppressed news.

“I do not have any insider information about that incident,” one person told us. “I tried to talk to Lisa after the incident, but couldn’t ever reach her again. The only contacts I had for her were the FSF email address, that no longer worked, and her IRC nick, that seems to have gone unused from then on. We’d had good rapport during LibrePlanet before that, and I was disappointed I couldn’t offer her any support at that time.”

That’s quite outdated. “I tried to talk to Leah Rowe about it back then,” this person recalled, “but she didn’t seem to be very happy that I was “investigating” the matter.”

In a sense, in order to better understand Rowe’s grievances it helps to know what actually happened. Nobody will be punished for merely talking.

“I tried to talk to Lisa after the incident, but couldn’t ever reach her again.”
“I talked to Richard Stallman,” one person told us, “and he told me something to the effect that he trusted Lisa hadn’t been wronged by FSF management. Nothing much different from his public statements on the matter at the time. So I don’t really know anything about what happened, other than what transpired to the public at large back then.”

We think that the key point is, someone said something rather offensive internally. This would be a lot less likely had there been more transparency and much of that old crisis would have been avoided.

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