The Genderbread Plagiarist

Sam Killermann, the “It's Pronounced METROsexual” guy who invented the Genderbread Person, is found to have plagiarized from the work of intersectionally marginalized people while using it to paradoxically "advocate" for them in his public talks and brand new book. Here's the investigation.

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  1. This story is about two problems. One is about being a bad "ally". The other is about plagiarism.

    On 16 January 2012, a brand new Twitter account called @ActuallyMetro debuted and promoted a newish web site called ItsPronouncedMetrosexual.com. The first tweet was a self-promotion for a "visual aid for explaining gender," called the "Genderbread Person":
  2. Amazing, truly. This one tweet turned the whole world on its gingerbread head. 

    This white, cis, straight guy from Texas had announced the beginning of a new day, a veritable revolution for showing how everyone could truly understand things like the interrelationships of sex, sexuality, gender, and expression (because apparently it had never been explored before like this). He had somehow broken through the darkness to find the light which trans people hadn't, and he came up with an infographic to show cis and trans people what this complicated puzzle of life was all about. He hoped his infographic and his talks could speak implicitly for the faceless trans and gender-non-conforming people struggling for civil rights he takes for granted.

    Except that he hadn't imagined this model at all. It was not original — not from him, anyway.

    That's how several problems began: from a self-described "ally" speaking for marginalized people, to using the collective work of those marginalized people to brand himself as that "ally" without actually lifting up those people so they could be heard first and foremost (and without owing credit to those people). 

    This is a textbook case on how not to be an "ally" and how never to plagiarize the work of intersectionally marginalized people and call it your own. This is the case of a white, cis, heterosexual guy named Sam Killermann.
  3. Part I: Building the case

  4. Sam Killermann's appropriation of work by trans and gender-non-conforming people didn't actually begin on January 16th. On 7 November 2011, he posted to Twitter a shout-out for his brand-new blog that he'd come up with a way to "break through the gender binary" — using a so-adorable-you-could-pinch-[pronoun] "Genderbread Person":
  5. His tweet packed some genital innuendo. Bad start, dude.

    His inaugural post also vowed how this gender problem was one he was ”going to tackle the balls out of”:
  6. Mr. Killermann's brand-new infographic looked vaguely like a gingerbread cookie cutout with (tacked atop) a Play-Doh rainbow brain; a be-my-Valentine heart; the transgender icon over [pronoun] crotch; and eyes (looking eerily like a super-rare, double-annular solar eclipse on the planet Tattooine):
  7. Because this infographic was so new, so truly groundbreaking, Mr. Killermann inserted a pair of watermarks with the URL of his spanking-new web site (just in case anyone missed the same URL down at the bottom). Given the way that watermarks are employed to protect intellectual property, it was easy to deduce this move as an implicit declaration of his copyright or intellectual property ownership.

    Wait a second. 

    Right under this new infographic on his November 7th post, Mr. Killermann added a single, almost forgettable footnote of a mention that his infographic was inspired by something he'd seen elsewhere. There was also an itty-bitty thumbnail of that original example which his infographic appropriated (it wouldn't be useful to have it any larger than a thumbnail, we suppose he was thinking). This would be one of the only — if not the only — mention that the "Genderbread Person" wasn't legitimately his original creation or his legwork:

    "I was first introduced to the Genderbread Person through Tumblr… Then I saw another version (pictured right) somewhere else on the web."
  8. After his really big and colourful infographic with the anthropomorphic, bordering-on-creepy gingerbread person, he admitted he found something like his "Genderbread Person" on "a fun, and sometimes informative, microblogging platform" called Tumblr. He admitted how (as a white, cis, straight guy) some of the versions he'd seen hadn't sat well with his intersectionally privileged world view:

    "There are also a few other versions floating around, but they all have their issues. I wanted to create a new and improved Genderbread Person, so I did.”

    Mr. Killermann didn't mention how what he'd seen online may have been the collective working efforts of trans people and, instead of building a new brand from their work, maybe he should have been finding ways to advocate for them by boosting their voices in their name. That kind of selfless advocacy is how one earns the respect of being seen as an ally by those who experience intersectional marginalization and violence.

    Anyway.

    So wait, he found the gingerbread elsewhere?

    Mr. Killerman's tiny footnote didn't point directly to the Tumblr page of origin, but to a Wayback Machine capture of the Tumblr page (which all but assured that referral URLs from itspronouncedmetrosexual.com would never reach Tumblr). It doesn't really matter, because the Wayback Machine didn't archive that Tumblr, but instead displays the current page through the Wayback Machine page wrapper.

    The Wayback Machine URL Mr. Killermann chose was dated 22 November 2011, meaning that he added this footnote after his November 7th post. That's fifteen days. A fortnight plus a day. 

    Maybe he'd done some legwork of his own volition and wanted to discover where the original infographic came from. 

    No, not really. 

    A comment on his post, left by someone named K-G, had questioned Mr. Killermann on why he chose to completely re-do the infographic they'd created previously. It's possible this triggered the tiny footnote after the fact.

    Mr. Killerman went only as far into his attribution research to find this page on Tumblr (which didn't even match the thumbnail version he inserted in his edited post):

  9. OK. So now we know Mr. Killermann found a Tumblr called Brucel (short for Bruce Lawson) where this infographic was posted. This is also where his research for attribution and historical precedent began and ended.
  10. Two months later, Mr. Killermann revamped the “Genderbread Person” as a "new-and-improved" version we'll call “Genderbread Person 1.5":
  11. On this version, posted 15 January 2012, Mr. Killermann removed his URL watermarks and replaced them with a QR code and his web site's URL, now found just below the headline — this time in a noticeably larger point size. Like v1.0, no attribution is mentioned anywhere on the infographic.

    Retroactively, Mr. Killermann added the following note to this posting, showing his understanding of body and gender had somehow evolved:

    “Please check out the new-and-improved Genderbread Person v2.0.  It’s a heckuvalot better and just as free to share/print! I’m leaving this up for now for those who want it, but I’m no longer endorsing it as the effective model.”

    The next day, January 16th, he launched his Twitter account for the web site:
  12. With considerable fanfare about two months later, on 22 March 2012, Mr. Killermann posted the big news that he had learned even more about body, gender, and sexuality. Now, his “Genderbread Person 2.0” was replacing his “Genderbread Person 1.something”:
  13. This new version, whose graphic is actually titled “Genderbread Person 2.1” (it seems the gender learning curve for a white, cis, het guy takes several revisions to get closer to something he can put his own head around), has an enlarged QR code and a stylized brand mark for "itspronouncedMETROsexual.com" (in case anyone who stumbled onto it didn't realize it came from somebody in particular — such as a random Tumblr post — or that maybe somebody wanted some explicit credit, if not some social media good-lovin’):
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