Editorial: Transphobic Language and the Horus Heresy

Goonhammer is unusual in the modern content ecosystem for focusing hard on written content, often long form and detailed, with images only used for flavour or to help explain particularly complex details. We know that how we say something can change minds and influence understanding as much as what we say, because words are our business.

We’re also unusual in that we’re not one or two people putting out content, but dozens of people regularly writing on subjects that fill us with passion. We, unlike many other content creators in this space, cannot rely upon a single author to ensure clarity of message. We all have to be on the same page, and be shepherded to the right destination by our editorial staff. There’s a surprising parallel in this to the way in which the games we write about are created.

A book like the ones that Games Workshop put out are not the work of a single person. Even in the unlikely situation of one author having written all the words, a dozen other hands will have touched it: proof readers, editors, layout artists – an army of people set on ensuring the book is of a high quality and ready to print. There’s a lot of high stakes here too, because unlike us they can’t just go back and edit a book if they got something wrong. It’s vitally important then, that it be as right as it can be before it goes to print.

It’s important when it comes to the rules and the effect it has on the games we all love, but recently we’ve seen an example of where it’s even more important.

Let me give you a bit of a background on the topic at hand before we look at that mistake, because you need to understand the context it lives in to grasp why it’s such an error.

The experiences of trans people are myriad and varied and complex and I absolutely don’t speak for all or even most of them. But there are some commonalities, and one of them is, sadly, experiencing bigotry and discrimination from others. Perhaps there’s a trans person out there who’s not experienced any, but if so I’ve never heard of them, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be possible in a society that is so rampantly transphobic.

Trans people have been used as the butt of jokes for decades, had their lives interfered with by society for longer, and excluded from many of the rights and freedoms that other people take for granted. Trans healthcare is an exhausting uphill battle that forces people to present themselves in certain ways, ways that conform with expectations set by cis (non-trans) people who do not personally understand the trans experience, or be penalised harshly. Trans people are often the victims of violence and abuse, oppressed not just by governments and authorities, but by communities and individuals, in ways that are depressing, dangerous and sometimes deadly. Most people in the LGBTQ community know a trans person who has died far too young.

Into this boiling pot of stress and fear is poured bile and viciousness by a small percentage of the population who believe that trans people deserve this treatment, or worse. They are not the majority of people but they have loud voices, and they are relentless. There’s a joke in the UK that there’s only a few hundred dedicated transphobes in the UK, but they all have newspaper columns. It’s not really much of a joke.

The language of hate these people use poisons the discussion of trans issues. They use a trick that has been used by bigots from time immemorial to reframe discussion in the public eye by using terms and phrases that seem innocuous and unremarkable from the perspective of an uninformed observer, but slowly build together to create a twisted version of the real world that doesn’t reflect reality but instead their own hate.

“The process by which Space Marines are created relies inherently on the hormonal and biological make-up of the human male, meaning that only males can be subjected to the transformation.”

You can find this in the new Horus Heresy Rulebook.

“The hormonal and biological make-up of the human male” sounds innocuous if you are not aware of the process that’s going on to alienate people from their trans friends, family, co-workers and neighbours. If you do not know enough about this miserable “debate” to know the words used to imply hate rather than state it outright. To someone who does, this sentence is viciously coded.

Let’s get the science out of the way: There is no specific hormonal or biological make-up of a human male. Sex is basically a pair of giant buckets of characteristics we lump people into. There is no single specific indicator of sex, there are hundreds, and almost every human who has ever existed is a jumbled mix of them. If you have enough traits of one kind we crudely decide you are “male”. Enough of another and we go for “female”. Not enough of either for us to make a snap judgment on little evidence? Well those people are intersex and they get “fixed”.

Do these traits have significance? Of course, some of them! Particularly medically many of these hundreds of traits can be very important. The big buckets we’ve invented to crudely dump people into? Much less important. So this statement is nonsense on the face of it.

“But this is fiction!” You might be saying “it doesn’t matter!” And that’s fine, I guess, but as an author I still take care with what I write, and I still use the real world as a baseline to refer to. I wouldn’t write a book where there’s no gravity but instead blavity that does sort of the same thing but is sticky, like a jam, and just write that as if it was sane and not explain the difference. Fiction, especially genre fiction, often deviates from the real world considerably, but those deviations are of interest. This isn’t being called out as a deviation from reality, it’s being stated like understood truth. It isn’t a defense that it’s fiction because it’s not creating anything, it’s just using an untruth without recognition or creativity.

Now let’s hone in on the other side of this. How we express ourselves, the words we choose, matter. How we say something is as important as what we say. If I wanted to express to someone that if they could just get everything tidied up they could leave early for the day I wouldn’t, despite on the face of it the words being acceptable, say “Work Sets You Free”. And I certainly wouldn’t say it in German. Because despite each of those words individually being fine, and it communicating something appropriate stripped of all cultural context, it has cultural context and I’m not quoting a fucking concentration camp.

Using the words printed in the Horus Heresy rulebook, even if the underlying meaning made sense (it doesn’t) wouldn’t be appropriate because it mimics the language used by bigots to foster hate and division. It’s a bad misstep and if it was a single author I would be displeased and maybe reach out but ultimately, you know, a person makes mistakes from time to time.

But the author of this book isn’t one person.

Maybe a dozen people would have seen these words before print. Each one might say: well it’s not my job to check for this! To which I’d say “ok whose job is it?”. Because it should be someone’s. There should be someone who is checking the output of a major publisher to ensure they’re not, accidentally or otherwise, parroting the language of bigotry.

Games Workshop has a problem with bigots, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We all know it, and though many of us do our best to promote communities that are inclusive and diverse and punch fascists in the face as hard as possible, that’s much harder if Games Workshop puts shit like this in their books like a weapon ready for use by bigots. I’ve already seen bigots use this passage as a cudgel. They will continue to do so for years to come. This language will haunt this game, that I love, for years. Of course this isn’t helped by stuff like Games Workshop using this specific page as the product image on their webstore. That’s a bad look! Don’t do that!

We need Games Workshop to do better, so our communities can be better and, most importantly, safer. We need them to employ sensitivity readers and check their language for issues. We need them to make inclusivity and diversity a core part of their identity and creativity, not just a statement they put up on a website every year or two.

It’s fucking pride month, but I don’t feel very proud of Games Workshop today.

Please sign this excellent open letter if you can but also make your feelings known to GW directly. Don’t harass or insult staff, but write emails to them directly to make clear your dissatisfaction with this. If we make it clear to them how much this means to so many of us, maybe we can make some change for the better.

Have any questions or feedback? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at contact@goonhammer.com.