Here's another good example of the limits of liberal "tolerance": in the name of equality and diversity, tech leaders have turned against a long-respected member of their community over his private and consensual sex practices. Sure, the scandal has revealed that Drupal developer and spokesman Larry Garfield has a penchant for BDSM broadly and also for a specific sub-genre of the kink centered on the fictional land of Gor, in which a subset of women serve as men's sex slaves. But more importantly, the situation has exposed strange taboos in the liberal-leaning Drupal community and how hypocritical their talk of tolerance can be.
Taking the brunt of the hypocrisy criticism is Drupal trademark owner Dries Buytaert. Buytaert's main gig now is chief technology officer for Acquia, a company he co-founded in 2007. But he's better known as the the creator and original project lead for the open-source content management software Drupal, which has attracted a huge and devoted community since its 2001 launch. Drupal is "supported and maintained" by the nonprofit Drupal Association, which also organizes Drupal conferences.
According to Executive Director Megan Sanicki, the association began looking into Garfield last October at the behest of another member of the Drupal community. That person had discovered Garfield's profiles on membership kink and dating websites and shared some screenshots with Drupal leadership.
But a Drupal Community Working Group investigation into Garfield found that he had not violated anything in the Drupal community's Code of Conduct, which probably should have been the end of things. No one has offered any evidence that Garfield discriminated against women in his professional life—in fact, many women whom Garfield has worked or associated with have rushed to his defense—let alone committed any more severe offenses or violence against them. Garfield himself says he believes women are every bit as intelligent as men and that his desire for female submission extends only to his own personal romantic/sexual partnerships. "The [dominant/submissive, or] D/s and Gorean community in general places a heavy emphasis on explicit, active, informed consent and constant communication," he notes, adding that he personally has "never, ever advocated for treating women, as a class, with anything other than dignity and respect."
But even if Garfield did hold sincerely sexist views in private, it hardly seems grounds for community expulsion in the absence of publcly articulated views or actions. The idea that women should be submissive to their husbands is a prominent feature of many religious faiths, and a value that plenty of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others still hold dear—typically with way less add-on feminism than you'll find in BDSM relationships. Would the Drupal Association feel as comfortable ousting a devout supporter of Islam or evangelical Christianity if it came out that their wives practiced voluntary submission?
If—as Buytaert says—the association is commited to treating people equally regardless of "their heritage or culture, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, and more," they seem to doing a pretty terrible job. People's preferences toward certain types of sex or particular fantasies can be no less innate than a sexual orientation toward same- or opposite-sex partners (and no more reason for alarm). And it's hard to imagine a woman receiving the same treatment and derision if it came out that she once worked as a dominatrix or wrote 50 Shades of Grey fanfic.
Meanwhile, Garfield was disinvited from the upcoming DrupalCon Baltimore, had his status as a conference track coordinator revoked, and (in a February phone call that both agree on at least the basics of) was asked by Buytaert to stop contributing to the Drupal community. (The request might not seem like a big deal to those outside the tech world, but "open-source communities/projects are crucially important to many people's careers and professional lives," explains John Evans at TechCrunch, "so who they allow and deny membership to, and how their codes of conduct are constructed and followed, is highly consequential.")
At this point, Garfield went on the offensive, telling his side of the story in a blog post that professed "no choice but to clarify some private details" of his life that were the subject of "a whisper campaign going around the Drupal world," one which was hurting him greatly professionally. Garfield explained his involvement in "hierarchical relationship" communities based on dominance/submission practiced with "informed, active consent," admitting that he is "involved in two such communities, specifically the BDSM community and the Gorean (Gor) community." From Garfield's post:
The former is by far the larger of the two and more varied, although I spend more of my time and activity in the Gorean community. It's a small community, and sadly much of what is found online about it is utter crap, just as most in the BDSM community find the '50 Shades' representation of BDSM to be harmfully misleading. The Gorean subculture is inspired by a science-fiction book series written [by John Norman] from the 1960s onward to today, and predicated on a strong sense of personal honor, integrity, and community. It also practices consensual Master/slave relationships, and has a strong gender bias toward male-Dom/female-sub relationships, but that is not the cornerstone of Gorean culture. […] The idea of consenting to give your significant other outsized control over your life may seem strange or uncomfortable to some. That's fine; it's not for everyone, nor does anyone claim it is, nor should anyone ever be forced into such a relationship. […] Yes, I have been involved in several consensual Master/slave relationships with women. I will continue to do so, but only with those who are also interested in such relationships. I discuss the social and personal dynamics of such relationships on private forums set up for people with similar interests. I know many people who are happily coupled in such relationships
After Garfield's post was up, Dries Buytaert responded with a post of his own, explaining that he was trying to break off the relationship because "Garfield holds views that are in opposition to the values of the Drupal project." Buytaert stressed that "the Drupal community is committed" to not discriminating against anyone based on "their heritage or culture, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, and more" and works hard "to foster a culture of open-mindedness toward difference." But Garfield "actively promotes a philosophy that is contrary" to these values and the basic belief that "all people are created equally," Buytaert wrote.
In a sentence now deleted, he stated that "when a highly-visible community member's private views become public, controversial, and disruptive for the project, I must consider the impact," and ultimately was not able to "get past the fundamental misalignment of values." Buytaert's explanation was updated several times in the face of public response, with him later apologizing for "causing grief and uncertainty…to those in the BDSM and kink communities" and stating that the situation was "never about sexual practices or kinks." It wasn't "Larry's alternative lifestyle" that was the problem, Buytaert suggested, but "confidential information" that he cannot share, as well the the underlying "beliefs conveyed in Larry's blog post."
What beliefs would those be? In Garfield's decade-plus association with the Drupal community, no one has publicly accused him of treating women as inferior, trying to coerce people he knew professionally into sex, or even talking about his sex life at all in professional settings. Many men and women who know him from these settings have spoken out in his support, including 120 Drupal "developers, supporters, and funders," who told Buytaert that they are concerned with his actions and, if Garfield did not violate the law or Drupal's Code of Conduct, he should be welcomed back and offered an apology. The Drupal community should not "discriminate against people for who they are on the outside, for what they believe, for what they value, or for how they lawfully, consensually, and peacefully live their personal lives," it said.
It's equally unclear what sort of other behavior of which Garfield is being accused. Garfield says he does not know, and has publicly asked Buytaert and the Drupal Association to enlighten him; they have stayed mum, not even revealing the basic nature of the alleged info. As John Evans writes at TechCrunch, "Dries & co. could surely have told the community substantially more (indeed, anything) about Garfield's problematic behavior, if any, without revealing sensitive information. For instance, they could have said they'd received reports of threats, harassment, or coercion by Garfield, if any such reports existed. They have said nothing of the sort."
But "just trust us is not enough," Evans continues. "Especially since it also seems possible that the CTO and co-founder of a heavily funded pre-IPO company has participated in expelling a man from what has been his professional community for the last twelve years, ignoring that community's own Code of Conduct and Conflict Resolution Policy, because it was decided he was guilty of, essentially, thoughtcrime; that no real accusations have been made, and no allegations of problematic behavior have been cited, because none such exist."
The few Drupal threads floating around as evidence that Garfield's chauvinistic views crossed over into his tech life are laughably non-offensive (see some examples below) or only suspect if read in the least likely and charitable light possible. And the writing being used as "proof" that Garfield truly believes in male supremacy come from the kink forums he posted to—i.e., places where one's persona, comments, etc., tend to serve as an extension of sexual fantasies or fetishes, not credible indicators of full-time values. Some have claimed that by not hiding his identity better in these forums, Garfield deserves what he is getting, but keep in mind that these were registration-required sites in which he had been participating for over a decade that only came to light after another Drupal devotee found them last year and then (against the site's terms of service) screenshotted them to share more widely.
Throughout all this, Buytaert and others opposing Garfield insist that it isn't about "sexual practices and kinks" and what Garfield does in his own time is fine—it's the fact that he "flaunted" it online which made a difference, or it's the "underlying" belief system behind his sexual kinks. Their statements sound a lot like some of my older relatives talking about gays and lesbians a decade or so back—if a man wants to have sex with another man in his own bedroom, that's fine, just don't go holding hands in public, or calling another man your boyfriend in front of the children! Buytaert et al. seem to suggest that sexual practices and kinks are relegated to things that happen in the flesh, in the bedroom, and entirely on the physical level. But for many BDSM practitioners, part of the fun lies in rituals and rules that extend beyond the bedroom, and role playing often (or exclusively) happens in online forums. Saying you're cool with someone's sexuality unless they ever talk about it or allude to it in public doesn't really hold water.
"In the past, Dries might've kicked Larry out because 'BDSM is a threat to family values'," notes Nadia Eghba at Medium. "Today, leaders like Dries kick Larry out because 'BDSM is a threat to gender equality;. Unfortunately, the end result is the same….If diversity is our dogma, call me 'spiritual, not religious'. I still pray for the same things as you, but I won't be at the witch trials."
John De Goes, organizer of the programming conference LamdaConf, expressed similar sentiments in an Inc interview. "In this new world order, it's not sufficient to conduct yourself with the highest standards of professionalism, as Larry Garfield has reportedly done," said De Goes. "Instead, you must have the right private beliefs and values, and you must restrict your private consensual sexual behavior to the list of approved behaviors. Everything you say and do must be examined with a microscope to judge whether you are morally worthy of inclusion into the community."
Inc points out that "the deeper question about how much tolerance should be afforded to controversial views is one that has popped up multiple times in open-source communities" in recent years, from Brendan Eich's removal as CEO of Mozilla over his opinion on same-sex marriage to the drama surrounding LambdaConf's inclusion of programmer Curtis Yarvin (who runs a neoreactionary blog in his non-professional life).
Buytaert was at first quite explicit on his answer to this question. In a section of his blog post that's now been deleted, the Drupal head opined that "someone's belief system inherently influences their actions, in both explicit and subtle ways," and wrote that he is "unwilling to take this risk going forward" with regard to Garfield's potential beliefs about sex and gender potentially spilling over into his professional life. And here's the real rub of it:
Larry's continued representation of the Drupal project could harm the reputation of the project and cause harm to the Drupal ecosystem. Any further participation in a leadership role implies our community is complicit with and/or endorses these views, which we do not.
Whether Buytaert himself believes that Garfield is a sexist pervert is irrelevant—he's clearly worried that other people will perceive Garfield as a sexist pervert, and afraid that this will create bad public-relations for Drupal. Rather than practice what he preaches about tolerance, respect, and creating "a culture of open-mindedness toward difference," Buytaert offered up Garfield for social-justice sacrifice in order to appease prudes and busybodies. Here's hoping the tech community continues to reject this sort of phony promise of diversity and attempts at inclusiveness through exclusion.