tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[personal profile] tim
Edited to add, 2014-09-23: There's no point in protecting a harasser anymore; X is Al Billings. As of this writing, he is still employed by Mozilla as a Security Program Manager on the Security Assurance Team.
Back in July, a person claiming to be a Mozilla community member made threatening comments on my colleague Christie Koehler's blog. The comments were also directed at me, referring to "you two" -- Christie and me being two of the people who have been most outspoken about Mozilla's problems with equality. The anonymous commenter wrote "we don't want you around", and told us that if we didn't like Mozilla's policies about discrimination and harassment, we should go somewhere else. It's unclear which "we" the commenter intended to speak for.

These comments were absolutely a threat. Saying "we don't want you around" strongly suggests intent to create a working environment that will be hostile for us, and indeed, on its own, it is a comment that contributes to a hostile working environment. The nebulous "we", as well, is the kind of comment that provokes fear over just how many colleagues of ours "don't want us around".

And these threats were in retaliation for Christie's and my public speech about our grievances as LGBT employees of Mozilla. The message is clear: if you speak out about how you're being treated, you will be threatened and harassed.

On the Internet, few actions are truly anonymous. Christie's blog software records commenters' IP addresses. Also, every time you send an email, the headers include the IP address of the computer you used to send it (unless you go to some effort to obscure your identity). Mozilla has some well-trafficked internal mailing lists, and I save a lot of the email I receive in them. These facts together meant that I was able to confirm with a high degree of certainty that the comment really was written by a Mozilla community member: a Mozilla employee who works in the Mountain View office, where I also work. I'll refer to this person as "X". Christie contacted Mozilla's HR department, who contacted X, who admitted that they did indeed write these comments, giving us total certainty about the commenter's identity.

The article from a former Kixeye employee using the handle Qu33riousity, in which he calls out the company for its environment of homophobia and racism, has been making the rounds. Some people find stories like that one shocking. To me, it's just a much more extreme example of what happens when companies tolerate casual homophobia, sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. When there are no consequences for abusive behavior, that behavior escalates to an arbitrarily great extent: an absence of consequences for small violations gives people permission to disrespect others in bigger ways. And that's one reason why it's so harmful to tell a person who is experiencing oppression to "just get over it" and "not be so sensitive".

After X made their comments, and during the long interactions with HR that Christie shared with me, in which she tried to convey to Mozilla administrators that X's behavior was abusive, not just part of a "conflict" between two employees, I experienced stress in a couple of ways. My IBS (a stress-induced illness) got worse. I had trouble sleeping. It got harder for me to focus on work. It's hard to concentrate on what you're doing when you've been told your co-workers don't want you around.

What should a company do when an employee has engaged in public retaliation against other employees for speaking up in favor of civil rights? I think that since the original hostile comments were public, the person who has made those comments should make a public apology, with their name attached. A public apology shows that they take seriously the harm they have done to the community. And X did harm the community: for one thing, they harmed me and Christie, who are part of the community. For another thing, they increased the level of hostility in the community towards LGBT participants. X is a person who has previously claimed to be an LGBT ally, but their actions make clear that they are okay with LGBT people as long as those people merely participate in a social order controlled by heterosexual men, and don't question heterosexual male dominance. Excluding LGBT contributors hurts the community because it arbitrarily excludes people who have something to bring to the project based on criteria having nothing to do with merit.

Instead, Mozilla HR treated X's actions as an individual slight against other individuals, completely ignoring the way in which X hurt the community. The message I take from this is that I'm not part of the community. X, as well, denied having harmed the community and even threatened to report Christie to HR for harassment after a brief email exchange in which she requested that X make their apology public. By encouraging Christie to resolve the matter directly with X, then Mozilla HR put Christie in a situation where she would be the target of more abuse.

Though X refused to make a public apology, and HR declined to ask them to do so, I still have the option of naming them in public. I'm choosing not to, since I fear that I would experience further retaliation for doing so. Several of the comments on Christie's blog post from earlier expressed disbelief that someone who was really in the Mozilla community would do such a thing. If I were to name X, they (and others) would have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of knowing that yes, it really could be one of us. My past experience tells me that people often deal with this kind of cognitive dissonance by blaming victims. Perhaps some people would decide X's comments weren't so bad after all, that there was a justification for them, that Christie's and my actions somehow justify abuse. I don't feel like there is a right answer for me in this situation: naming X would expose me to further abuse, while by declining to name them, I know that I may be accused of making it all up. Because there is no right thing for me to do in this situation, I'm choosing not to name X not because I think it's right for them to have privacy while we pay the costs of the actions, but rather, out of fear for my personal safety and my livelihood.

X's actions were one point along the same continuum that includes what Qu33riousity describes at Kixeye. They also lie along the same continuum that Skud describes in "On being harassed":

Have you ever had to show your male colleagues a webpage that calls you a fat dyke slut? I don’t recommend it.

Christie's and my experiences, and Qu33riousity's experiences, and Skud's experiences, are all different. I don't mean to equate them. But the common element involves environments that enable harassment: that make people feel like it's okay to harass a colleague because they're queer, female, or a person of color. The common element is environments in which people who are queer, female, and/or people of color are routinely considered less than other people, where they're treated unequally.

I just want a working environment in which I, and all of my colleagues, can be safe, and free to collaborate productively together. And many people at Mozilla feel that they have that already. I don't feel that I do. I just want to be treated the same way as everyone else; I want to be able to expect what many of my colleagues expect, which is that they won't be treated unfairly because of their sexual orientation. I also want to feel confident that if I speak out about how I'm being treated, my concerns will be taken seriously and that I'll be respected. I want to know that I won't be shamed for "playing the victim" or be treated with contempt if I say that it hurts when people attack me. I'm just asking for what most people who are not in a gender and sexual minority can already expect.

A public apology from X would help ameliorate the harm to the community that they chose to do with their anonymous comments. I'm sad that creating a safe and productive environment for everyone isn't important enough to Mozilla for that to happen. X told Christie that, in effect, they refused to make a public apology because it would make them look bad. This is the definition of abuse: being asked to put your abuser's needs ahead of your own. We were effectively told that our safety was not as important as X's reputation. And no one in a position of authority stepped in to counter that message.

I'm also copying what Christie wrote below, since I think it's that important.


Back in July, someone claiming to be a “Mozilla member” made threatening comments here on my blog, directed towards myself and my colleague Tim Chevalier. I reported the comments immediately to Mozilla HR. It look nearly three months, but I can now report a resolution.

The person who left the comments is a Mozilla employee. They have been contacted by Mozilla HR and directed not to make these kind of comments to Mozilla employees or community members in the future, or else face disciplinary action. They have also issued an apology to me personally. Unfortunately, the person has declined to provide a public apology and isn’t being compelled to do so.

I find the lack of a public apology disappointing and a detriment to the Mozilla community. Those who violate community conduct standards should face the consequences of their actions and they should have to face them publicly.

Why? Many reasons. Without having to face consequences, abusive behavior is likely to continue, and likely to escalate. When those who violate conduct standards are held publicly accountable for their actions, it gives those who might have been a target of such behavior in the past a chance to finally speak up. And, it demonstrates that the Mozilla community takes its employees’ and contributors’ conduct toward one another seriously and doesn’t tolerate abuse. A public apology gives those who transgress an opportunity to make amends with the community.

In the case of the person who left the threats on my blog, their desire not to look bad is being placed above our (mine, Tim’s and others from marginalized groups) need to feel safe, and thus represents a refusal to acknowledge their deleterious effect on our entire community.

The commenter’s actions harmed not just the two of us who were the direct targets, but the Mozilla community as a whole by setting the example that if a queer person feels they are being discriminated against at Mozilla and speaks out about it, they will be penalized with a public threat. Why was the original comment a threat? Because saying “we don’t want you two around” implies that they would do their best, either directly or indirectly, to make sure Tim and I were not able to continue to be around. Furthermore, their use of “we” created anxiety that there was not just one, but many people at Mozilla who wanted to force out people who speak out against discrimination.

More generally, the commenter’s actions set a precedent that if somebody is in a vulnerable minority group, they must choose between being silent and accepting what they experience as discriminatory treatment or risk being humiliated and threatened if they speak out against it. Being in a situation where the only choices are to accept abuse without criticizing it or be retaliated against for speaking up, is unfair. A community where people in minority groups are treated unfairly is one that many such people will either leave, or not join in the first place, because they don’t feel welcome. And driving away people in minority groups hurts the community. It deprives the community of all that minority group members can contribute, and means Mozilla won’t have the best employees and contributors it can possibly have.

In the lack of acknowledgment that the commenter’s actions harmed the community, I hear unwillingness to say that Mozilla values its contributors who are queer. If harming us does not harm the community, then the only logical conclusion is that we’re not an important part of the community. It’s hurtful to see that the facts apparently point to this conclusion.

While it’s true that I could reveal the identity of the anonymous commenter, I don’t feel comfortable doing so publicly, here on my blog because I fear a lack of support from the Mozilla community. On the one hand, many of you expressed your outrage and disapproval of the commenter’s behavior, but on the other hand, some of you also expressed doubt that the commenter could even be part of the Mozilla community. Also, I have not seen a lot of outspoken support for those who speak up on these issues, and have certainly experienced a lack of institutional support on behalf of Mozilla leadership.

What I will do is encourage those of you who have been the target of threatening behavior, even if it seems insignificant, to document and report it.

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Tim Chevalier

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