Blog Post

Case Study: What's at Stake in Crowdfunding?

Some more self location relevant to this post: Though this is a radically different topic, it feels equally important to take a moment to situate myself in relation to this discussion. I am a queer, feminist, cis-gendered woman who attempts to be an active ally to trans* folks in my work and my activism. I have also donated and worked to generate publicity for several trans*-related crowdfunding efforts, including one of the ones I explicitly name in this post.

None of these factors, however, make me an expert on the topic of trans* (1) experiences. For excellent academic and activist discussions, I would suggest Susan Stryker, Dean Spade, Zowie Davy, J. Halberstam, and Micha Cárdenas among many others (all of whom I’m happy to discuss).


So, continuing on my meditations about crowdfunding, Oculus rift, and affective labour from two days ago, I want to focus on something I actually intended to talk about in my dissertation (hey, it happens every once in a while…). Crowdfunding, after all, is not only used to fund films and gaming platforms.  It’s also sometimes used to generate funds for medical costs, including the often huge amount of money required for trans* persons requiring surgical intervention in the form of gender or sexual reassignment surgeries.

Campaigns working toward this goal have varied a lot, from the highly publicized campaign organized on behalf of Donnie Collins by his frat brothers, to Ashley Altadonna’s “Making the Cut”, to the more controversial “Kickstarther” effort. Part of the reason for the variations between these efforts is related to the funding platforms each is using. Kickstarter, as we saw, constructs a narrative about funding ideas, and explicitly forbids raising money for personal causes. Others, like Indiegogo, permit pretty much any type of campaign. Still another site, YouCaring, is explicitly dedicated to raising money for issues like medical expenses.

These distinctions are all important; I’ve written a lot more about all of these cases in another venue, and would be very happy to discuss the relationship between platform requirements and campaigns in more depth. However, my interest in the connection to Oculus Rift is more about the question of  ‘stakes’ in crowdfunding. The article I linked to yesterday by Joel Johnson highlights changes to Title III of the American JOBS act, which would allow venture investments of any amount, as a potential solution to the issue many had with Oculus Rift sale. And certainly, the current exclusion of small-scale investors is troubling.

But in the case of trans* folks using crowdfunding, the questions we need to ask and the actions that are required seem fundamentally different. I’ve donated to several trans*-related crowdfunding efforts, but none of what disturbs me about those campaigns is going to be solved by the legal shifts like the ones Johnson is referencing. To apply them to trans* G/SRS crowdfunding campaigns would actually be to imply that backers, by donating, should receive some kind of ‘stake’ or ownership of the trans* person and their body.

The question then becomes, perhaps, what it would mean or look like to crowdfund a political movement which challenges the structures that require folks to have to appeal to others in order to create a livable reality for themselves. While it might be tempting to suggest that this is a question not for crowds, but publics, my sense is that this would be a mistake. Not only have there already been several intriguing and successful political efforts which have used a crowdfunding model (such as the purchase of nearly 15 million dollars of American debt organized by Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street), but to cast these issues as belonging solely in the domain of publics would seem underemphasize the historical links between crowds and affect.  (2)

In the case of a site like YouCaring in particular, which so explicitly invokes and appeals to affect, I think we get a unique opportunity to use positive affective ties toward precarious subjects, like trans* folks, to shift the terms under which we understand caring and exceed the boundaries of the crowdfunding form.




(1) A couple of notes on language: I use sexual/gender reassignment surgery (S/GRS for short) throughout. For trans* folks, the distinction can be both significant and contested, and I don’t feel it’s my place to suggest, even implicitly, a preference for one over the other. Some trans* persons are also now using the language of sex/gender confirmation surgery rather than reassignment surgery, as a critique of the idea that there is ever necessarily a moment where one’s sex/gender coheres with an original assignation. The only reason I don’t also employ this term is that it has not been expressed as a preference by any of the specific people I am discussing.

I also use the term trans*, which is a recent attempt to make the trans- category more inclusive and wide ranging. A history of its usage can be found here.

(2) Of course, while some theorists have imagined publics as diametrically opposed to crowds, understanding the former as acting based on pure reason, this depiction is hardly uncontested. Queer and feminist public and counterpublic theories in particular have not only highlighted the gendered and racial exclusivity of traditional conceptions of publics, but have also suggested that the rejection of affect is a product and expression of those forms of systemic exclusions and inequalities . My argument (or conjecture, really—it should be clear that my thinking here is at a particularly early stage) is simply that there’s a particular force behind the recognized affectivity of crowds that means they shouldn’t be deemed either less significant than (counter)publics, nor entirely identical to them. 


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