The Complicated Explication of Danielle Bunton Berry

Hey, CW here, folks. This is about a trans woman, who did some cool things, and died, but it’s also about how bad and limited my means are to communicate about her. You won’t miss much if you skip it, and if you want to know a more traditional approach to Berry’s legacy, you can check it out here on this eight year old GamaSutra link that I am not going to vouch for, but which presents a number of the quotes I sourced before realising I was in trouble.

This isn’t really how I wanted to handle this.

I had the idea for this month of doing a Game Pile article about the M*U*L*E board game. The hope was that last year, I’d be able to play it at a con, get a handle on it, then use that honest writeup as a entry point to then talk about the videogame that inspired it – which I have played, but not a lot, and I was a small child.

Then, as is the way of Game Pile stuff, I was going to use that game as a launch-off point to talk about something related, and since it’s Pride Month, I was then going to talk about something queer related. In this case, the idea was going to be to talk about and explain the history and work of a trans woman named Danielle Bunton Berry. Then, I’d circle around and show how on the box for the board game, Danielle was credited as ‘Dan Berry,’ a fact that at the time leapt out at me.

I was immediately annoyed by this, when I first learned of it, and I thought this was a good, solid narrative.

But I couldn’t write that article. Not properly – not really.

Ostensibly, it’s pretty easy to talk about a trans person who made a thing. You use their name, you use their pronouns, you attribute any pertinent data to the information you’re presenting. In most cases, it simply isn’t worth mentioning that they’re trans – unless the actual specific issue at hand is about their trans status or their ability to speak to the issue, it’s not important to bring up. You see this basic journalistic standard violated by hacks, it’s not standard practice and if you see someone introducing someone at random in a story unrelated to their trans status as say, “Johann Schooper (born Janet Finn)” then that person is deliberately invoking that particular trope as at best a bad habit, and at worst to otheringly frame the narrative of the trans person as deceitful.  Which means that, for example, as above, I simply address Berry as ‘Danielle,’ and refer to ‘her’ accomplishments. That’s easy.

Now, if the story involves something attributed to someone at two ages in their life, maybe with physical attribution to a thing presenting that obvious question, then you usually should introduce the date of say, a legal change, much in the same way you would a marriage. So if work was attributed to Claudette Bottom before her marriage, and you were discussing that work, but she had become Claudette Scratchingpost after her marriage, then you’d just mention that they were the same person. So far, so good.

The challenge then becomes that Berry herself referred to stages in her life by the gender presentation she had at the time; she bemoaned ‘getting worse at programming’ when she transitioned, for example.

Mostly it came down to that particular quandrary of attribution, and Berry’s own words being available on the internet but only in a limited way. There are quotes from Berry about how she wanted to be treated, and indeed, how she regretted details and methods of her transition – which honestly, is a kind of intimate, self-searching information that I don’t feel qualified to be making judgment calls about implementing, and which also betray very clearly that in addition to her existing gender experience, she was treated really badly and in a really misogynistic way by the culture around her.

I have remarked in the past how the driving challenge of trans people’s lives isn’t in any way internal – there’s no widespread issue of ‘being trans’ that presents unique problems to all trans people. There is however, widespread issues of ‘cis people treating trans people badly for being trans,’ from whence almost all the actual problems lay. When I read Berry’s writing from Usenet about her own experience and her regrets about transitioning the way she did and at the speed she did, that’s after decades of having her critically important, foundationally meaningful work discarded and disregarded, and being frozen out of every major project she’d have been perfect for after that point.  It’s not hard for me to imagine that this divide, this social feeling of disconnect from the work of ‘Dan Berry’ was something imposed on her from a life that treated her really terribly. And because she did write about herself at that time, would she still, if she knew her family were getting to credit her for her work in a new project that was introducing her to a new audience? How do I unpick that?

And then that puts me in the position of telling a trans woman, a dead trans woman, a dead trans woman who is by all accounts much smarter than me, what she really thinks, which is incredibly shitty. I can’t even verify a lot of the things she said, or do a deep dive on her usenet history, because bitrot has taken a lot of those places away, and archives of the same are all, now, curated by people, many of whom were curating Berry’s work to minimise the gender stuff.

I don’t have some uplifting final point here. I really was hoping to do a piece on M*U*L*E that chained into talking about how we need to treat trans creators better, and what I really found was the limit of my competence. I’m pretty confident now that ‘Dan Berry’ is a proper attribution for the M*U*L*E board game, assuming that Berry’s family are doing it out of respect for her choices and that they can be trusted to do so. I’m assuming the best of faith I can here, hoping and hoping that everyone involved in this process is nice, but  it’s a huge guess and I can’t be sure I’m doing the right thing even by entertaining this question.

I have to hope everything involved is nice.

And tell as much of the story that I can, when I can handle it.

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