Guest Post Situation Update

Hello, Awkward Readers, it’s gonna be a long, weird one.

I want to update everyone on why some posts are missing from the site, as well as respond publicly to some emails from concerned readers about collaborating with Rae McDaniel and allowing them to link to their paid counseling and coaching work on the site.

I’ve responded to all emails and private messages I’ve received about this so far, but haven’t made a general, public statement yet not least because I wanted to be careful and do some due diligence first, including talking directly with Rae.

Here is what’s going on, as far as I can understand it, and what’s going to happen next as far as this site and our community is concerned.

Background

Rae McDaniel is a therapist based in Chicago who I contacted to be a source in an article I wrote for Vice in 2019. The editor and I were keen to make sure the difference between “My family is annoying” and “My family actively erases me” were represented in the piece, and Rae was extremely helpful and quotable in that regard. I had vetted them (as with any source) before contacting them, especially looking at client reviews of their practice, and other articles they’d been quoted in or written. We stayed email-friendly afterward, though Chicago winter and pandemic ensure that we’d never quite have that coffee we kept promising to have.

Later in 2020, they wrote offering to write guest posts for the site, and I accepted, agreeing to a trial run of 1-2 posts/month for October, November, and December 2020. Readers could direct questions to Rae about mental health, gender, and sexuality that I wouldn’t be able to answer meaningfully on my own, and I was happy to support an emerging writer.

Linking to professional work (i.e. “here’s where you can buy the book”) has been standard for all guest bloggers, and it was no different for Rae, though we did discuss making sure to include free resources as well. They answered four questions, the last being a holdover from December.

With me so far? If you’re a regular reader, you already know this, but I imagine this post will be read by newcomers, too, and I want to put it all in one place, especially since the posts themselves are still down.

Trouble Brewing

Starting Friday afternoon, I began receiving emails from readers, expressing concerns about promotion of Rae’s Genderf*ck Club on CaptainAwkward.com and alerting me to a Twitter thread that started with (from what I can tell) a screenshot of an Instagram ad for that business and its pricing and had turned into an absolute roasting.

It had been a while since I’d actually clicked on their professional websites, and I realize “________ has always been great…to me” and “______ is great!” are not at all the same, but the sudden influx and intensity of Rae-hate came as a complete surprise. What the hell was happening?

Either Rae had done something terrible that was just coming out, in which case, oh shit, or they were getting doxxed and harassed and everything they’d ever said or done was being combed through in the worst possible light, in which case, oh shit.

Without knowing quite which mix of “oh shit” I was looking at, I temporarily pulled all their posts from public view on Saturday evening. My first fear was for the Letter Writers, since they’d shared vulnerable stuff publicly, and I didn’t want them to be put on the spot, not as fodder for discussion, not obligated to comment on the situation or defend Rae/me/the site in any way, I just wanted them safely out of it for the time being.

The second fear was for Rae. I’ve had guest posters before, not everyone has liked what they’ve written, fair enough! But if what was reaching me on Saturday was any indication, every single inbox, social feed, and other method of communication they possessed was being flooded with hatred. If they’d done something problematic, I’d deal with it, but I have a larger following than Rae, and being the vector for a trans creator to be harassed and vilified more than they already were wasn’t something I wanted to risk either.

I pulled the posts, and in one of the most awkward emails in human history, I checked in on Mx. McDaniel’s well-being (Answer: Not great!), I let them know I was pulling the posts so they wouldn’t be blindsided, and we planned a phone conversation for Monday.

The Concerns

CaptainAwkward.com-specific Feedback: Some readers of this site feel that Rae’s posts on the site overemphasize their own paid practice at the expense of free resources, some people don’t like the advice at all, some do, but do not like the self-promotion, or the ratio of self-promotion to free resources, and some worry that vulnerable people seeking info might feel pressure to pay for something they cannot afford. This, I can fix.

McDaniel Therapeutic Universe Concerns:

These were consistent among everyone who emailed me (< 20 people), though the way they were conveyed varied: Reasons I should cut ties with Rae, things I should answer for or fix about Rae, things I should pass on to Rae. I’m not linking to the Twitter stuff. If you can read this, you can locate that. But I am going to attempt to sum up the things that readers shared with me, for the sake of transparency.

  • Concern (and clear confusion, we could safely use the word “bewilderment”) about the differences between:
        • Practical Audacity, a counseling practice with a licensed therapist-patient relationship that is well-defined, heavily regulated, and covered by HIPAA laws about privacy.
        • Genderf*ck Club, a free, moderated Facebook group with roughly 3000 members, where members must abide by community rules about content and privacy.
        • Genderf*ck Club, paid, small-group coaching, which, according to Rae, presently has 18 clients.
  • Biggest concern was that paid Genderf*ck Club coaching practice is too expensive/inaccessible for many trans people, especially people of color and people who struggle financially, and does not offer sliding scale. Just, general ethical concern about whether this should be a paid thing at all, ever. Lots of iterations of “Of course, people should be paid for their labor, but…”
  • Also very serious concern about the marketing of said service, “neg”-y language (“Invest in yourself!”), worry that the free Facebook group is a recruiting tool for a paid MLM-style situation. Some extremely unfortunate (and now deleted) website copy advising “creative” funding sources like securing loans from family & friends or gig economy jobs to pay for the program certainly did not help with this impression, and one reader made the point that for trans people, this often means sex work. With so many free resources and communities, nobody should ever pay for coaching or a support group they cannot easily afford.
  • Coaching is less regulated than therapy, with fewer legally mandated privacy protections. Because coaching is less defined and less regulated, it’s important for clients to understand: What is the coach’s approach to privacy and safety, and what is the code of conduct like for group participants? What happens to their personal data and information they share online, during a program and after a session is over? Do the posts you make the first month or so of your transition survive on the Internet forever, readable by others? Could the coach or another group member hit on participants, out participants, doxx them, or harvest their personal details for a book or a screenplay without consent?
  • Free space for The Unbearable Whiteness And Thinness of who gets to be a high-profile, public trans or non-binary person and real, legitimate intra-community frictions and grievances around race, micro-aggressions, safety, visibility, representation, and money.

On Monday, Rae and I talked on the phone. I ran everything in the above list by them, they apologized for putting me/the site/you in this position, and they did their best to address those concerns with me, and we figured out what to do about it with respect to this site.

The Decisions

The decision of what content appears on this website and who writes it is mine to solve, and here is how I am going to solve it:

  • The blog won’t be hosting future guest posts from Rae McDaniel. Whatever valuable advice they have to give, there’s no way to uncouple it from controversy, and it’s not fair to anyone to pretend otherwise.
  • At their suggestion, the four existing posts they wrote will remain offline until they can be re-edited to remove links to Rae-centered communities and include additional free resources. They’ll keep their byline. This one was on me, and I’m sorry I let both Rae and all of you down by not exerting more oversight and reading the fine print.
  • Letter Writers will receive a PDF copy of the edited questions and answers for their own reference before republishing. If at that time they no longer want their question to appear on the site for any reason, they’ll get final say, no questions asked.
  • Why keep them at all if it’s so problematic? I don’t know, publishing a giant list of why everyone thinks you possibly suck and then erasing the work you did so nobody can see it isn’t how I roll. Pretending something never happened isn’t how I roll, either.
  • Either way, the issue of re-editing the posts or retiring them will happen by the end of February, 2021.
  • I’ve received suggestions that I should recruit an alternate guest blogger or bloggers to cover trans issues to make up for what happened here. I’m going to be real honest right now: I am disinclined to invite any guest bloggers on any topic for a good long while. “Hey, come take your best shot at something that just went down in flames, it will be your job to make up for everything that went wrong last time. I’ll totally vouch for you, and in return, I’ll become publicly answerable for all of your business and life decisions, plus, I’ll write a long, weird post after” isn’t exactly a tempting bargain.
  • What I will do about future guest posts (if any): Anyone posting content here will be paid at least a nominal fee for their writing and we will have a formal written agreement about that. Most likely, guest writers will keep right on plugging their book or platform or professional work in their bio, but there won’t ever be the implication that free content is offered in exchange for self promotion. It’s clearly not working.
  • I’ve received suggestions and not a zero amount of demands that I host an open thread to discuss all of this. Absolutely not.

Editorial decisions and responsibilities here are mine, and I deeply, deeply appreciate everybody who wrote to me about this and regret any stress that Letter Writers and readers may have already experienced during the week’s social media…events. “Are you sure you want to collaborate with/vouch for this person given x concerns you may not have been aware of” is fair game with ANY guest writer at ANY time for ANY reason. Please, always, always, always tell me.

Editorial decisions are mine, and I’ve made them.

But the work of re-establishing trust with patients, clients, and Rae’s online community members is Rae’s work, not mine. The work of re-imagining their business and making sure that people clearly understand what they’re getting into when they read information about it online is Rae’s job, too. The work of debating all the concerns, like, is life coaching even A Thing that should exist? Is it a thing that should ever be advertised? I don’t know! Seems like a life coach question. Commissioning four blog posts doesn’t make me somebody’s Director of Communications. I don’t even argue with my *own* Twitter haters. 

Anyway, I can write that open thread for you right now:

  • People with longstanding grievances, legitimate and otherwise, with Rae and people who love mess will flock to a new, higher-profile forum. “Well, did you hear X?””I heard from their roommate that ______.”
  • Rae will not be able to comment. There’s literally no way they can defend themselves publicly without further endangering the trust, privacy, and safety of their community. But they’ll have to read it and relive it all and not say anything and it will all be so much worse than it already is. 
  • At least some of Rae’s patients, clients, and community members will end up reading, and some of them will feel honor-bound to defend Rae, which will in no way detract from the narrative that Rae is a toxic mastermind.
  • Kind, well-intentioned readers will defend Rae – “I don’t see what the problem is, here” – and “You go, Captain!” me. This will make everything worse. (Please, never “you go, Captain!” me in response to criticism, especially criticism from marginalized people. Ne. ver. Thank you.)
  • Someone will say something transphobic, racist, ableist, or otherwise gross. Many someones. People will take breaks from roasting/defending to do multiple 101-style corrections. That will spawn side-quest arguments.
  • There’s always one: “I always knew this would happen.” Here is your gold star for clairvoyance. 

I’m removing some links from four blog posts, not doubling down on a problem by hosting an episode of Defending Your Life. There’s transparency, and then there’s masochism. No Trial-by-Blog Comment.

The Conclusions

Time for the elephant in the room, as people ask me what I actually think. Is Rae actual Satan, what’s up with Rae, do I trust Rae, would I recommend Rae, will there be A Denouncing and is it cocktail attire, etc. This is the part where I disappoint literally everyone! 

If I discovered that a charismatic, unethical therapist was for sure luring gender-questioning people into an expensive pyramid scheme via my site without my realizing it, I’d yeet them and their work from my site and my life, so hard, no question. If I knowingly let that continue? I’d yeet them, and then hold still while you yeeted me. I do not think that this is what is happening. But when a bunch of trans and non-binary readers write in to say, I don’t like this, I don’t feel safe with this, the first move has to be to limit harm and protect people, which is why I pulled the posts and why there will be no more of them.

On the other hand, summarily erasing a trans contributor from my site and hanging them out to dry in the midst of a furious doxxing is not my favorite. The calls for Rae’s utter cancellation did not seem to be coming from inside Rae’s house. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and if Rae’s patients, clients, or community members ever come forward with reports of sketchy actions and practices, there would be no reason not to believe them. But if you want someone to confirm absolutely that there is no possible way 18 people could like Rae’s work enough to want to pay for something between therapy and discussing their lives with 3,000 strangers all at once unless they were tricked, you’re going to have to find someone without a Patreon for that. 

I personally thought Rae’s blog posts here were gentle and kind and pretty good for someone who had never done this before, though I definitely take the point about auditing and diversifying links so it didn’t feel like a sales pitch for one particular outlet. I didn’t like some of the marketing and sales copy I saw in the wild, at all, and I can absolutely see why people would think it’s ooky. The stuff about paying for coaching specifically with debt or gig work needs to be nuked from orbit. 

I think the questions about privacy and safety and coaching are valid, though again, nobody who wrote to me suggested that the worst things are actually happening, just that they might happen. Which is fair! Vulnerable subject matter + ambiguous rules + power dynamics is a breeding ground for badness, and the more marginalized the community, the harder it is to speak up or remove Missing Stairs. People should ask questions like these. Spelling things out will only help to keep everyone safe, and in Rae’s shoes, at minimum, I’d absolutely be fire-walling my free work from my paid work (making sure they are named different things is a good start) and publishing privacy policies and codes-of-conduct in 50 point font so that everybody knows exactly what they are getting into.

But, again, not being legally required to follow specific privacy guidelines doesn’t mean it’s fair to assume that nobody is following any ethical guidelines whatsoever. Lots of people pointed to the “I am a therapist but I’m not your therapist” in the Genderf*ck Club language as proof that something sketchy is going on, but one of the legal obligations for coaches who are also licensed therapists (like Rae) is that they must make clear disclaimers that coaching is not therapy. If people think those disclaimers are about trying to exploit loopholes, like, fuck it, if I were your therapist, this would be secret, but I’m not, so let’s do skywriting, I don’t know what to say. Definitely don’t hire someone you think would do that to be your life coach, or your anything.

It comes down to trust, in the end. People trust me to not doxx them when they ask me for help, though I feel compelled to say that it is actually in my posted rules for asking questions that I can publish the content of questions I receive on the site and in other media. (If you think coaching is un-regulated, wait until you hear about advice bloggers!)

If the people Rae actually serves trust Rae, and Rae is in fact trustworthy, everybody will find a way forward, and time will tell. If this was the early rumbling of a volcano of badness, time will tell that, too.

All collaboration has risks, that people won’t like the content, that something problematic will happen, that the relationship will sour or need reexamined, that there will eventually be posts like this one. I’m not prepared to put my community, not to mention my own credibility and livelihood, on the line more than I already have, which is why I’m ending the working relationship now.

The Lesson: Intentions Aren’t Magic

Most of all, after processing emails, combing through Twitter rants, and a long conversation with Rae, I think that at least some of what is happening right now is a lesson called Intentions Aren’t Magic. This is never, and I mean never, a fun lesson. It’s a lesson you only learn when something goes wrong.

I don’t know what it’s like to be Rae’s client, patient, or follower, but I do know something about running a public space where people work out vulnerable things, and the responsibility and growing pains that come with that. One of those growing pains is definitely learning that intentions are not magic. You can have the best of intentions and still do harm. You can really, really, really want to help people and do harm. You can have the best of intentions and underestimate the power that you wield when you go from scrappy beginner to supposed expert. Part of the path of evolving from a “we’re all pals, here!” communication-style to a high-profile, professional public presence is poking at all the loopholes and considering how someone who had never met you would read what you say. The bigger the profile, the more you have to consider how people who actively don’t like you would interpret what you say, and make sure you protect yourself and those around you as best you can. Whatever you intended when you set out to help people, if how you’re selling yourself leads strangers to incorrectly conclude you’re running some kind of pyramid scheme, earnestly explaining what you intended comes after fixing it. 

Nowadays, roughly 150,000 people stop by this place every month. Some of those people are longtime fans. Some are brand new. Whenever I make a mistake, regular readers let me know and give me a chance to fix it, which is a gift they are giving me. The gift of seeing mistakes as aberrations, of assuming I would want to know and correct them, is a gift of trust. I have hopefully earned some of it, or nobody would still be here, but nobody ever gets to have so much trust banked up that they get to stop earning it.

Some people only ever see the mistake, or just plain don’t like me or what I write, or don’t think I’ve done enough to earn their trust, and those people leave, and never come back. That is entirely fair. They do not have to give me the benefit of the doubt or take my good intentions into account. I’m no different, in that, I don’t care if he’s nice to dogs, I don’t care if he made a fair point you liked once upon a time, I’m never reading anything that comes after the words “by Matthew Yglesias” in this lifetime again, and if you continually Tweet his shit into my feeds to try to make me, I am eventually going to mute you. Everybody gets to consider the source, and the sources’s sources, and hit the back button.

(I am somebody’s Matt Yglesias* and I’m going to have to live with that shame forever. But it’s fair!)

Some people are probably always going to trust Rae less after whatever happened this week and bring up the list of concerns when they hear their name. Some people are going to go through anything they have ever said in public with fine-toothed combs. Some patients, clients, and followers are probably going to have tough questions, and my heart breaks for those people the most, because the place you go to be safe and seen shouldn’t ever be something you feel like you have to answer for.

Some people are always going to trust me less and feel less safe here because Rae McDaniel posted on my site a few times, and once I post this, it’s going to mean brand new people suddenly dislike both of us. It sucks. But it’s still fair. Defending my supposed honor about this, against young trans people on social media and elsewhere online, is bad and you should not do it. I cannot stress this enough, in a stressful week from hell, my worst fear is that posting more about this will raise Rae’s profile even more in a way that harms them and their community members and the young trans and queer strangers who were like “wtf is life coach” on a Saturday night. I’d ask you, as a personal favor, to be very, very thoughtful about how tagging people into discussions about this online might affect them and people around them. 

Whenever I mess up, I get criticism that says, “I care about you, please do better,” and I get criticism that says, “Do everyone a favor and die already.” I have seen a lot of the second brand coming at Rae this week, and I want to say, if you’re reading, I hope you only listen to and follow the first kind. I’m so sorry it ended this way. 

*Ed. note, because of course, there are already weird emails about it, I have no juicy secret interpersonal drama with Matt Yglesias, I just don’t like his first-year seminar “Problems I Just Found Out About That Don’t Affect Me: Are They Real? In This Article I Will Definitely Not Ask Any Of The Many, Many, Many, Many, Many People Who Actually Know, Or Look It Up, Or Listen To Anyone Who Knows, Or Cite Them, Or Wash My Dishes” approach. Miss me with Permanently Surprised Punditry. You get to just decide someone sucks and not read them anymore with your free time you’ll never get back, was the point.

As you were.