Content Note: transphobia, TERF, fascism, harassment, images
I went back and forth on whether or not we should do this Q&A because I was worried about 1) unnecessarily freaking out other trans people who have been blissfully unaware of these stickers 2) giving this terf the attention they want, potentially leading others to their cause. I’m still not sure putting this out there is the right call, but I decided to do it because I think your blog is an important public archive of many things and I want this experience recorded somewhere. And I feel we need to stand up to this and expose it to light, because as silly and ephemeral as stickers may seem as a concept, the sentiments behind them are pretty sinister.
Earlier this summer, a person approached me about a spike in anti-trans stickering in the East End. They wanted to bring some attention to the trend after reading about my work with the #ProtectTransKids project. We agreed to monitor and document the stickers as well as reach out to others in the Pittsburgh region who may be seeing these stickers as well.
This is a really long Q&A because it is intended to be documentation of this harmful trend. The person interviewed spent a lot of time explaining the background of TERF harmful beliefs and actions, the art of stickering, and a deeply personal sharing of how this had impacted their life. We agreed to do this Q&A together, fully awared that it may draw TERFs out of the swamp to come at me. That’s why we used a pseudonym for the interviewee who has done a lot of hard work documenting and removing the offensive content.
If you see stickers like this, please take a photo with a geotag and send it to me. You’ll see information in this Q&A about how to address the sticker after you’ve photographed them. This is a traumatizing campaign of ignorance, misinformation, and disregard for the welfare of our trans and nonbinary neighbors.
Your Name: Stuck Stickly
Your Pronouns: they/she
Your Age: 30
How do you describe your identity? I’m butch. I think of it as the gender and sexuality equivalent of those 2-in-1 shampoo conditioners. Butch works really well for me personally because I identify as a lesbian and as non-binary and trans masc. For some people, those identities are mutually exclusive and it’s painful to be described as one when you identify with the other. But for me, the word “butch” holds all of my truths very nicely.
Let’s start with some basics. What is stickering and why do people do it? Stickering is any graffiti that involves adhering a (usually small, usually 2D) object to a public space like a lamp post or stop sign. It’s usually a little more subtle than flyers and other types of public messaging–you might not notice stickers if you don’t walk a lot or take the bus.
People sticker for all the same reasons people do other forms of public art or graffiti–to share a point of view or message, to show support for a group, candidate, or team, to promote a brand or an event, for the clout, to be playful (think of the “it’s hammer time!” sticker on the stop signs in Squirrel Hill), and, unfortunately, sometimes people sticker to intimidate or harass others.
Gestures like putting up lawn signs and window signs in businesses (especially when it’s not pride month) actually do make a difference and provide real relief in this moment when trans people are the political scapegoat for everything. Seeing that support means a lot, helps us breathe.
How often have you noticed ‘trends’ or ‘themes’ via stickering? Can you give some examples? My favorite example is not technically a sticker–longtime Pittsburghers are probably aware of the mysterious protractors glued all over town! I think that one is really fun. I enjoy finding protractors and pointing them out to friends. I love when sticker and graffiti artists use the medium to do playful and unexpected things like that.
If you’re out looking for stickers, you’ll notice trends that can last a week or even a year. In 2016 there were a lot of “Homes, Not Whole Foods” stickers around Pittsburgh’s east end, close to the now-demolished Penn Plaza. Earlier this year there were stickers with the Woody from Toy Story laughing meme that read something like “that feel when you yeet a scooter off the bridge.” That one made me laugh.
I’m still noticing a lot of “Marcher Arrant Walked Here” stickers. Pittsburgh was also picked for a Birds Aren’t Real sticker campaign, presumably because we have the Penguins and the National Aviary.
At some point, you noticed stickers with specific anti-trans/transphobic messages. When exactly did you notice this and why did it strike you? I first noticed the anti-trans stickers in December 2021.
I was already in the habit of casually scanning the city for stickers. For a few months in late fall 2021, there were hundreds of “Trump Won” and “Let’s Go Brandon” stickers all over garbage cans and the backs of stop signs. And there are white nationalist stickers that continue to crop up periodically in Pittsburgh and other cities. When out walking I would try to rip down these stickers. I started doing the same when I saw the anti-trans stickers.
I noticed these anti-trans stickers right away because I am trans and because I was aware of anti-trans stickers at Carnegie Mellon and at the residences of some queer families in Pittsburgh. Some of the anti-trans stickers and signs are very explicit and some of them are more cryptic–dog whistles for other anti-trans activists–you might not know that some of the messages or images are transphobic unless you’re trans yourself and even then, maybe only if you’re an activist well-versed in the anti-trans discourse.
I don’t think you support detrans and non-binary people who have in some way medically desisted by painting a picture of us as irreversibly broken people victimized by doctors who are too excited to provide trans care?! Anyone trans can tell you that’s not a thing. Gatekeeping hormones and surgeries isn’t the answer; expanding our access and quality of care helps both trans people and detrans people.
How long a period of time are you referencing? A few weeks? months? longer? At least eight months. I first noticed dozens of mass-produced transphobic stickers around Shadyside and Bloomfield in December 2021. By March 2022, they were still all over the place and seemingly being replenished regularly (I know, cause I was ripping them down!). A friend discovered that all of the first wave of sticker designs came from a British website and were identical to ones put up in women’s bathrooms on the Carnegie Mellon campus earlier in 2021. In April 2022 I noticed some handwritten ones targeting the swimmer Lia Thomas. Around the same time I also started to notice counter-sticker campaigns from people writing “Protect Trans Kids” and things like that. I still notice new transphobic stickers weekly, most of them small, weird, and likely printed on label paper at home or through an online service.
Activists like yourself often respond to hateful messages by either removing the sticker or altering/covering it up. How do you decide which to do? And is one response more effective than the other? This is a tough question, I’m still searching for the answer myself. There’s the practical question of time and resources. If I’m in a hurry catching a bus to and from work, it’s often faster for me to slap a new sticker (like the ones that some local businesses give away as promos, or the shipping labels you can get from the post office) over a hateful one than it is to take the time required to peel or scrape something off a metal surface like a pole. I try to carry “cover-ups” in my bag for this purpose. I hate the feeling of passing a racist and/or transphobic message and having to leave it up where others can see it and be hurt by it. I feel like I incur psychic damage whenever I see these stickers so I want to spare other trans people that pain.
I’ve seen lots of different styles of trans solidarity messages used as cover-ups all around town, they’re often very artsy and handmade. I love to see this support and to be reminded of all the craftiness and care in our community. But I’ve also seen some of these grassroots efforts to replace anti-trans stickers with pro-trans stickers spark a sort of back-and-forth sticker feud between the original anti-trans stickerer and the pro-trans stickerer. I find this exhausting–you aren’t going to change this person’s mind and they clearly have the time, resources, and drive to sticker every single day if they want to. I don’t, and even if I did, I’d rather put that energy into spending time with my loved ones.
You told me that the person or people responsible for this particular effort seem to have resources and time to be doggedly persistent in their efforts. Why do you think that? They appear to have ordered large quantities of terf stickers from that uk website. Designing and printing the little custom stickers also takes some money and time. And all that’s before you even get to the part where they’re constantly going out and sticking them up. There have been a lot of stickers across many neighborhoods for a period of at least eight months.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, some of the grassroots pro-trans stickers are being altered by the person or people with the anti-trans agenda. Not just written over or covered up, but actively altered by hand, using white out and sharpie in a way that preserves the style of the original down to the colors and shape of the letters. For example, they’ll edit a sticker that once said “Trans Rights!” so that it says something like “Male Rights!” in exactly the same style. Or if there’s a “Bans off Our Bodies” pro-choice sticker they’ll modify it to say “Bans off Real Women’s Bodies”. All of that’s a wild amount of energy and art supplies to expend on hand-editing a single sticker when you could just cover it up or rip it down. You might have to make those edits in broad daylight or with a flashlight to see what you were doing. And I imagine they would probably be very time consuming alterations to do, first waiting for the white-out to dry and then painstakingly recreating the letters just-so, all while crouched at some awkward angle in front of a pole on a street.
This suggests to me 1) They aren’t especially concerned about being caught doing what they’re doing, and 2) They either have a lot of time on their hands or the singular drive to devote all of their precious free time to placing anti-trans messaging in our streets.
What neighborhoods or specific spots have been included in this anti-trans effort? Personally, I have observed anti-trans stickering in Oakland and in the east end neighborhoods of Bloomfield, Shadyside, Friendship, Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Point Breeze, Regent Square, Edgewood, and parts of Squirrel Hill. I would not be surprised if there are stickers in other neighborhoods that I don’t visit often.
The most heavily hit streets I’ve seen are Ellsworth (Shadyside), Liberty (Bloomfield), S Highland (East Liberty and Edgewood), Penn (East Liberty and Point Breeze), and Craig (Oakland).
You mentioned that some businesses such as the East End Food Co-op and Square Cafe are vigilant about removing fascist messages. Does that make you feel safer? When I was helping a friend move this spring I was going to the East Liberty Goodwill a lot, and I noticed there was often a lot of anti trans stickering in front of the Square Cafe, and that it was being covered up and removed regularly. That felt good, to see that people were proactively removing hate messages targeted at trans people. To clarify, I don’t actually know if that clean up was done by the management, staff, or patrons. I do appreciate that they fly the progress pride flag, which many people recognize as celebrating bipoc/trans people in the lgbtqia+ community. Some other local small businesses and musical groups show up for us when they’re going pole to pole to put up their own flyers and stickers and in the process cover-up and rip down any hate messages they find.
Let’s talk about the sticker messages. How would you categorize them broadly? And what are some of the messages? **Content Warning** Broadly, I’d characterize all of the anti-trans stickers as “terf” messages. Terf is an acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, a movement that now tends to refer to itself as “gender critical” or “GC”. This is a flavor of transphobia espoused by people who might consider themselves feminists, and even pro-choice and pro-gay, but who double-down on the idea that biological sex is immutable and invariably falls neatly along a binary. It can look a little different than the types of anti-trans discourse spewed by white Christian Nationalists but, unsurprisingly, it always intersects.
In the terf worldview, trans women are “autogynephilic” men who infiltrate “women’s spaces” with predatory intentions. Terfs consider trans men to be miserable deluded butch lesbians and tomboys who were pressured into becoming men in order to survive in a patriarchal society. They believe that straight trans people are enforcing rigid gender roles when they transition and erasing gay men and lesbians. They believe that queer trans people are somehow forcing cis gay men and women to sleep with us as a form of corrective rape (they call this the “cotton ceiling/boxer ceiling”). They believe that trans children transition because they may be more readily accepted as straight trans men and straight trans women than as gender nonconforming cis gay people. Terfs often like to say (and sticker) that “non-binary isn’t a thing”. They’re proud of being “dinosaurs” — claiming to be the remaining old school feminists in an academy gone too woke. They trace their dinosaur lineage to the militant British suffragettes of the 1890s/early 1900s, and appropriate the purple, white and green colors of the Women’s Social and Political Union flag (ironically, these are also the colors of the Genderqueer Pride flag). In their world, all penises are defacto instruments of rape. They think that acknowledging that some trans men and non-binary people also get abortions is an act of violence against women.
Even if street art stickering isn’t your thing, having a sticker on your bike, laptop, water bottle etc can be a way to signify support–even better if you want to get artsy and diy about it. Also, we know that other cities are getting hit with anti-trans hate stickers, so it would be great if Pittsburgh could be a leader in how to address that through mutual aid and making art.
Terfs also like to position themselves as advocates for the less than 1% of trans people who have desisted or detransitioned, campaigning to prevent access to trans care in the name of preventing more people from transitioning and regretting it. They use the lizard emoji as a detrans icon, because some lizards shed their tales for survival but can regrow them (this fits with their whole narrative about butches and tomboys transitioning to cope with society and regretting it). I’m gonna digress here, because I think I am uniquely qualified to speak out on this one. By some metrics I count as a person of “detrans” experience–I once took testosterone for months before I decided I didn’t want to keep taking it. Even though I didn’t end up liking T for myself, I am so glad I had access to hormone replacement therapy via informed consent and had the opportunity to try using it to relieve some of my dysphoria. Everyone should have that opportunity. I don’t think you support detrans and non-binary people who have in some way medically desisted by painting a picture of us as irreversibly broken people victimized by doctors who are too excited to provide trans care?! Anyone trans can tell you that’s not a thing. Gatekeeping hormones and surgeries isn’t the answer; expanding our access and quality of care helps both trans people and detrans people.
Anyway, major content warning. Here follows a horrible yet sadly incomplete list of Pittsburgh terf sticker nonsense for your readers:
- -“Adult Human Female”-“Team Terf” with a purple, white, and green dinosaur (Terfs think they are reclaiming being called “dinosaurs” for their antiquated views; purple, white, and green are British suffragette colors)
- -“Everything is Transphobic” with a trans flag (they think trans people baselessly accuse everything of being transphobic and receive special treatment)
- -“Celebrate Diversity By Silencing Women” with a rainbow pride flag-“Autogynephile” or “AGP”
- -“De-trans Awareness” with a lizard symbol (Detrans people are obviously valid! I would argue that advancing the quality of trans care will do more to advance care for detrans people than the terfs and their pals will)
- -“Women are Born Not Worn”
- -“Feminism Doesn’t Intersect With Penis”
- -“Misogyny is the most accepted form of hate”
- -“Women’s Sport: No Extra Balls”
- -“Trans Women Are Men and Most Have a Penis”
- -“I Stand with JK Rowling”
- -“Men’s Sexual Rights Movement” with a trans flag
- -“Woman Isn’t a Dirty Word”
- -“Non-Binary Isn’t a Thing”
- -“You can’t abolish sexism while creating entire ‘identities’ that revolve around it”
- -“Why is is unacceptable to identify as a different race but acceptable to identify as the opposite sex?”
- -“Is it inclusion or intrusion?” with the venus “woman” symbol over inclusion and the male symbol over intrusion
- -“2 Sexes, 3 Sexualities, 7.9 Billion Personalities”
- -“Cotton Ceiling is Rape”
- -Quotes from the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984 with “Trans Women are Women” added to the list after “War is Peace” etc.
How are the stickers harmful or threatening to folx in Pittsburgh? In the eight months since I first started noticing the stickers, anti-trans rhetoric continues to ramp up from every corner of public discourse. The stickers are a gut-wrenching reminder that if you’re trans, maybe the person next door to you or even in the same building as you thinks you’re a groomer, thinks you need to be forcibly detransitioned or eliminated, as some public figures have recently argued. These messages can reinforce the fear and anxiety that many of us live with. They can also radicalize, embolden, and incite violence from the people who hate trans people or people who are receptive to hating trans people.
Please describe how noticing these stickers has impacted you personally. I feel pain and fear for myself and for my community, seeing these anti-trans hate messages everywhere around Pittsburgh on a daily basis is exhausting and demoralizing. As a trans Pittsburgher, it’s especially grim to find hate speech plastered to the bus stops I use every day and in front of bars and cafes where lgbtqia+ people congregate. It’s creepy–many of these stickers happen to be in places where I walk, so I wonder if I’ve passed this person many times and not known it? Do we ride the bus together? Do they live near me?
Do you think this is just random people with common cause or a more organized, intentional effort? Perhaps a local cell of TERFs? Is that a reach? I wish I knew! Social scientists and extremism researchers who read this blog, how would you go about answering that question? I’ve heard of other altercations with terfs in this city, it does seem like Pittsburgh has a terf problem. And the cryptic, terf-y insider nature of many of these slogans weirds me out. Are they trying to antagonize a very specific subsection of the trans community that spends too much time on trans activist twitter? Are they trying to dog whistle to other terfs? I do have a gut feeling that a lot of the actual stickering that I encounter is one person, perhaps occasionally supported by a couple like-minded friends. I think this for a few reasons: 1) the handmade alterations of the pro-trans stickers seem done in the same style. Those alterations are also such a bizarre thing to do that my imagination balks at the idea of more than one person being behind it 2) one person can cover a lot of stickering ground if they have the time and inclination–look at Marcher Arrant.
The stickers are a gut-wrenching reminder that if you’re trans, maybe the person next door to you or even in the same building as you thinks you’re a groomer, thinks you need to be forcibly detransitioned or eliminated, as some public figures have recently argued.
Have you heard of this happening elsewhere? Oh yeah, and unsurprisingly lots of stories are from across the pond–Surrey, Belfast, Edenborough, Cambridge. I found a story online about a full-blown sticker fight between terfs and trans allies in Oxford, uk. Closer to home, there’s footage of terfs being confronted while putting up the same stickers in Manhattan. Some transphobic and antisemitic/racist stickers were placed at a high school in California. Anti-trans stickers cropped up in Madison and Chicago. I am sure it’s happening all over because transphobia is all over. But take heart, because in the reporting I’ve found about these cases in other cities, there’s almost always mention of the stickers being countered with pro-trans messages and other public shows of solidarity with the trans community. This week I read about City officials in Burlington, VT responding to terf stickers in their town with a very clear public message of zero tolerance for anti-trans hate.
Stickers the medium are a popular form of artistic expression. They are also a form of vandalism. Tell us about some of the positive, affirming, and constructive ways that stickers can benefit the community. I think street art is a good thing. Stickers are a really neat visual medium and form of public art, they can be mass-produced or lovingly hand-crafted, they can be many different sizes, they can be holographic, they can be weather-proof or they can fade and bleed more each time it rains… People put them in highly visible spots or in really sneaky little nooks and crannies for you to discover. While it’s true that stickers can do damage to certain surfaces, they’re usually pretty low-key in terms of “vandalism”.
People sometimes put up stickers with QR codes that lead to a resource guide like how to acquire and use abortion pills at home, or to an original song they wrote and recorded. Stickers can be really silly, fun, and creative. They can draw attention to issues like gentrification and racism. Stickers, or, to quote Derry Girls, “self-adhesive labels” aren’t meant to last forever, they’re very much of the here and now. That’s neat.
What is the best response from the general community? If you’re an ally and you see transphobic content in the streets, you can peel it off, rip it down, cover it up, cross it out, report it to the city…whichever one of those actions aligns with your abilities and values.
Is it helpful for others to photograph the anti-trans or other hateful stickers with, note the location, and share it? Does exposure mitigate the impact? I wish I knew. Again, this is a question I’d turn around and pose to any social scientists and other professional researchers of hate movements. I have seen the approach of posting stickers/memes with a red X over the image on twitter. That way people can still see what it is (unlike when you blur or pixelate an image) but it makes it unusable for people wanting to repost. I personally document what I find, but when I find hate speech I don’t post it publicly because I’m not interested in amplifying those messages. I went back and forth on whether or not we should do this Q&A because I was worried about 1) unnecessarily freaking out other trans people who have been blissfully unaware of these stickers 2) giving this terf the attention they want, potentially leading others to their cause. I’m still not sure putting this out there is the right call, but I decided to do it because I think your blog is an important public archive of many things and I want this experience recorded somewhere. And I feel we need to stand up to this and expose it to light, because as silly and ephemeral as stickers may seem as a concept, the sentiments behind them are pretty sinister.
If you’re an ally and you see transphobic content in the streets, you can peel it off, rip it down, cover it up, cross it out, report it to the city…whichever one of those actions aligns with your abilities and values.
If someone wants to find stickers for themselves, where should they look? Busstops? High traffic pedestrian areas?
Bus stops, traffic poles (the ones with the buttons at crosswalks) and lampposts in business districts that get a lot of foot traffic. S Highland (both in Edgewood and East Liberty) seems especially afflicted these days.
What are some affirming ways to send trans positive messages to the community that don’t involve low-grade vandalism? Morgan M Page (writer and artist behind the trans history podcast One From the Vaults) recently joked on twitter that “One of the minor annoyances of the current political moment for me is that the type of performative allyship I used to roll my eyes at 6 years ago is now something I’m genuinely relieved to see.”
Lol. That’s such a mood for me too. Gestures like putting up lawn signs and window signs in businesses (especially when it’s not pride month) actually do make a difference and provide real relief in this moment when trans people are the political scapegoat for everything. Seeing that support means a lot, helps us breathe. We especially love the unexpected sight of a baby boomer going about their day in a pro-trans shirt! Heartwarming stuff.
I did read on the history of the art of stickers and say that sticker artists send samples back and forth via the postal service. Could creating a local project around that be useful? That’s so cool! Please pass along that source, I’d love to learn more about that history. Sharing stickers among pen pals appeals to my inner 90s kid/Lisa Frank sensibilities. Even if street art stickering isn’t your thing, having a sticker on your bike, laptop, water bottle etc can be a way to signify support–even better if you want to get artsy and diy about it. Also, we know that other cities are getting hit with anti-trans hate stickers, so it would be great if Pittsburgh could be a leader in how to address that through mutual aid and making art.
Is there anything else you’d like to share? Trans people need you to stand up and speak out right now–there’s an onslaught of anti-trans athlete legislation animated by white supremacist pseudoscience. There are campaigns to block our already insufficient healthcare access and to take trans affirming books out of schools and libraries, to take trans children out from loving and affirming homes. Call it what it is, fascism, and don’t accept it.
Thank you, Stuck Stickley. While we know this gives attention to people craving it for the wrong reasons, we hope this information gets more eyes on the problematic behavior. Regardless of what response this generates, let the record show that people like Stuck and myself are willing to resist. You are not alone, friends.
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