A LETTER TO ALLIES, ACTIVISTS, AND YOU By Cobin Szymanski

This is not a piece of lamentation, reflection, or encouragement. In fact, you should finish reading this and be upset (at the very least) and ashamed. It’s time for the debate community to wake up, and to do that, you must learn, feel, and act.

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My name is Cobin Szymanski, and I am angry. I am tired. I am done. For too long, I have watched the debate community tolerate violence against non-binary and trans debaters, especially QTPOC. I have watched the movements to fix underlying structural problems in both debate and society morph into rich, white feminism. I have felt excluded by debaters, coaches, and judges. I have been misgendered, and isolated in spaces meant to include non-binary and trans debaters. I have listened to the community argue over “progressive arguments” without considering what they mean to oppressed folx. I have experienced the naivety of a community dedicated to “change”, and I am sick of it.

I am going to start by explaining what is wrong with debate. I do not hate debate, or the overarching community. If I did, I would not be writing this post. Rather, I appreciate the inherent value the activity provides to oppressed folx and want to push it to an even more inclusive space. But, before we begin, reflect on what you have done to support QTPOC debaters, and the overarching LGBTQ+ community. Because, you will later realize, it most likely has not been enough.

First, we need to be better about respecting pronouns. If you, right now, are not entirely confident on how to respect a person’s pronouns, proper terminology, and how to react to misgendering, read this. I, personally, have been misgendered more in the debate space than anywhere else. At a broader scale, misgendering is a systemic problem that the debate community needs to recognize. If you have ever accidentally or intentionally referred to someone by a set of pronouns they did not explicitly instruct you to use, you have most likely misgendered someone. 

Why is this such a problem? At the most fundamental of levels, assigning someone a gender and/or a set of pronouns that you have independently constructed is a reflection of our heteronormative society. In many cases, because the debate community is much less “progressive” than many would like to think, non-binary and trans folx do not feel using a gender expression that matches their identity. And even then, expression does not equal identity, many folx present in a socially constructed masculine or feminine way, but identify outside of a gender binary.

Being misgendered, for me, falls somewhere between just-stubbed-your toe angry and the deepest depths of confusion and sadness. Referring to a person by their deadname and/or incorrect pronouns is a fundamental assault on their identity. It is violence that, in many cases, further entrenches dysphoria. Existing in a space with preconceived notions of femininity and masculinity as a trans or non-binary person is inhernelty violent, and being misgendered makes it so much worse. For example, in Round 14 of NSDA Nationals this year, I was misgendered repeatedly through the round, and I couldn’t do anything about it because my family was watching.

(If you are reading this and are still confused, go back two paragraphs and read the guide again.)

Second, the performative allyship needs to stop. While the vast majority of debaters have ignored the lived experiences of QTPOC and other LGBTQ+ individuals, the few people who call themselves ‘allies’ don’t do enough. ‘allyship’, for most people in debate, means putting your pronouns on Tabroom. Yeah, that’s it. If you are reading this right now, and the only thing you have ever done to support trans, non-binary, and queer debaters is to put your pronouns on Tabroom, you are doing something wrong, like really really wrong. In fact, this nature of complicitness in debate is a major reason why underlying structural barriers for queer, trans, and non-binary debaters go unadressed. 

We need to do the difficult work to support QTPOC debaters and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, which involves structural change and reform. But, because too many people either do nothing or the absolute minimum, surface level reforms are made but nothing changes. Even worse, the debaters who “put their pronouns on Tabroom” are often the debaters that don’t educate themselves, misgender other debaters, stand complicit when judges make queerphobic comments, and listen to their friends’ transphobic jokes. We need to do better.

Being an ally requires more than ‘putting your ally hat on’. It is a constant process of education, activism, and relearning. It means using your cis-privilege to advocate for your non-binary, trans, and queer friends and debaters. And being a member of an inclusivity organization does not excuse you from this process of education and relearning. In my experience, those ‘advocating for change in debate’ misgender the most and have the most to learn. In addition, being gay, lesbian, bi, or pan doesn’t excuse you either. QTPOC, and LGBTQ+ debaters built the movement for LGBTQ+ liberation and have since been excluded. It is time that changes.

Third, our inclusivity efforts need to be more intersectional. Pick any organization dedicated to inclusivity in debate, and ask them what they have done for QTPOC debaters and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. The answer is most likely nothing. If you have ever talked about, fought against, or spoken up about sexism in debate, ask yourself: What have you done for your trans brothers and sisters? What have you done for non-binary folx? Have you been intersectional in your actions? Are you using your privilege in discussions to make room for QTPOC folx? Most likely, the answer to all of those questions is NO.

This is a problem that we need to fix. You all have forgotten trans and non-binary debaters in your efforts to tackle sexism. In fact, let’s be honest, efforts in the debate community are actively trans exclusionary, especially for QTPOC. Let’s not forget. What was Beyond Resolved founded on as an organization? Feminism, mainly for rich white cishet girls able to compete on the national circuit. And where is it now? Pretty close to where it started. While most of the efforts to fix debate and broader society are deeply flawed, there are organizations doing good work. For example, the Minnesota Debate Institute. It is possible to be intersectional; we just need to try.

Fourth, we need to develop a better narrative about progressive argumentation. I have been absolutely disgusted with the recent debate in our community over the direction of the activity. Too often, the debate devolves into “but we need real world education”, “but what about inclusivity”, “but that’s not fair”. We need to understand what we’re arguing about. The very existence and survival of QTPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals in this activity depends on the existence of theory and kritiks. Y’all are literally arguing whether QTPOC can engage with critical literature in a way that affirms their identity and challenges oppressive systems, and how such a change would impact ‘you’. I would have quit this activity if I had not found a way to engage with the literature of my community, and so many debaters are in desperate need of this too.

We, as a community, have regressed so far, that some online tournaments have declared “any non-resolution arguments will be met with L20.” Concerns about education and fairness in an activity that is inherently non educational and unfair to all LGBTQ+ and QTPOC debaters are merely a guise for exclusionary, racist, and queerphobic rhetoric. We need discussions of identity in debate, even if that means straying away from a resolution set by a massive organization, often chosen by outside interest groups. Boo hoo. Discussion of identity is a form of mutual healing and growth for all oppressed folx, and any argument against them is a defense of the inherently exclusionary status quo.

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Do not always expect QTPOC or LGBTQ+ debaters to educate you on issues that regard their oppression in both debate and the wider world. I have taken the time to write this because otherwise nothing would change. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or would like concrete steps to the help the QTPOC and LGBTQ+ community, contact me on Facebook or use my email, Cobinzymanski1@gmail.com

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