Trans identity of Wikimedia awardee steers their work

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Wednesday August 30, 2023
Share this Post:
Pax Ahimsa Gethen was recognized by Wikipedia for their contributions to the site. Photo: Gwen Park
Pax Ahimsa Gethen was recognized by Wikipedia for their contributions to the site. Photo: Gwen Park

It's been the go-to hub of information for many since the early aughts, serving as an online, easily accessible encyclopedia.

But what if the information on Wikipedia's reference pages is erroneous, lacking credible sources, minimal, or altogether absent?

Cue volunteer "Wikimedians" like Pax Ahimsa Gethen, who edits and adds to pages to ensure their accuracy and detail. Gethen, a resident of San Francisco, is a longtime contributor to Wikipedia and other Wikiprojects, namely the open-source photo repository Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to their volunteer work for Wikipedia, Gethen said they make a little money from their posts on Medium and from sponsors on Patreon.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently recognized Gethen's efforts, bestowing the title of "2023 Media Contributor of the Year" to them as part of the annual Wikimedian of the Year Awards.

During their tenure as a contributor, Gethen — who identifies as queer, agender and transmasculine — has worked to improve the representation of nonbinary, transgender, queer, and Black leaders and activists on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, founded in 2001 and operated by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, is an open-source platform, meaning that anyone can edit its reference pages, though people are not supposed to edit their own pages. Gethen first gave this feature a try in 2008, editing rock group Led Zeppelin's page, adding the song "Four Sticks" to a page listing of songs with unusual time signatures.

In a phone interview, they explained, "I transitioned in the year 2013 ... [a]nd after that, I started getting more interested in gender and transgender issues and social justice issues in general ... I ended up concentrating particularly on the biographies of marginalized people, especially transgender folks, nonbinary folks and Black folks — that's what I spent the most time on."

They've edited the pages of notable Bay Area queer and trans figures, such as Transgender District co-founder and former president Aria Sa'id.

"We love Pax!!!" shared Sa'id in an Instagram message to the Bay Area Reporter.

She added, "[I'm] always grateful for Pax and their commitment to sharing my work and other amazing trans and nonbinary changemakers' work to the world in all the ways they do."

Other Gethen-edited pages include that of late trans activist Felicia Elizondo, current National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon, Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project Executive Director Janetta Johnson and first openly trans Lutheran minister Megan Rohrer.

NCLR and Johnson did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Rohrer, a former bishop in the Protestant denomination, resigned in June 2022 amid accusations of racism over his firing of a Latino pastor. In March, he filed a federal lawsuit against the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as the B.A.R. has previously reported. More recently, Rohrer was removed from the ministry of the ELCA, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. It's all on his Wikipedia page.

In a phone interview, Rohrer said he's run into Gethen at a couple of events.

"It was lovely to hear a little bit of their story of wanting to make trans visibility a thing ... and being really proud of people who are out moving and shaking and wanting to find ways to celebrate activists who are getting cool stuff done in the world," Rohrer said. "So I thought that was kind of neat. I was like, 'I didn't even know you could do that [i.e., recognizing trans people on Wikipedia] as an advocacy justice option.'"

Rohrer specifically touched upon the significance of Gethen's Wikipedia contributions when speaking with the B.A.R.

"Especially in a time where people are only being recognized after their death when they're trans, this is really life-saving, important work to help people imagine futures and have heroes," he said. "Even if it's the full life of someone, and it's the ups and downs of what they went through in their work life, helping trans people imagine living to what happens next is life-saving work. So I'm so grateful that they do it."

Gethen has also edited the pages of people who reside outside of the Bay Area, such as actress Ivory Aquino and Raquel Willis, a Black trans activist. They've branched out internationally as well, contributing to the pages of LGBTQ individuals in other countries.

They've established a straightforward process for selecting candidates; they then add to the individuals' pre-existing Wikipedia pages or create new ones from scratch.

Explained Gethen, "Basically, I just read things on social media or wherever, and if I see an interesting person, I look them up on Wikipedia. And if they don't have an article, and I think they should, then I'll write one. ... And if they do have an article and it's not in good shape, then I'll try to update it."

Since anyone can edit the site's pages, Gethen has actively monitored the pages of those who are gender-nonconforming, as they are particularly at risk for inappropriate or inaccurate content, they noted.

"For transgender issues, the first thing I look at is vandalism. People are very often misgendering trans folks, especially nonbinary folks. We get a lot of vandalism on those," they said.

In general, Gethen's page content reviews consist of verifying information and links and ensuring the use of credible sources.

Working to verify info

When it comes to confirming a person's gender identity, Gethen shared that they look at verified social media accounts to determine that information, seeking the person's self-identification on platforms such as Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

It's not always a foolproof method though due to the relative ease with which verification is possible for some social media profiles.

"It's become more of a challenge lately now that verified accounts on X [formerly Twitter] are pretty meaningless. So that's something else that we need to figure out how to deal with as a community," Gethen said.

What they don't do is reach out directly to LGBTQ individuals whose pages they are editing, as they've found in the past that people then attempt to direct the content.

"Sometimes I've mentioned to somebody, 'Hey, by the way, I took a photo of you' or 'Hey, by the way, I worked on your Wikipedia page,' but I don't allow anybody to dictate to me how they are portrayed on Wikipedia. I've had some people attempt to do that; it's very uncomfortable. I want to make it clear to them this is not your page; it's a page about you."

If there is any content on a person's page that requires adjusting, it's important to take the right steps when it comes to requesting revisions.

Said Gethen, "I tell them, 'If there's any inaccuracies or vandalism, you should speak up. But if it's just something you want to update, you should leave a note on the talk page of the article rather than edit it yourself or try to contact me directly.' That's the appropriate way to handle it."

In addition to writing, editing and keeping an eye out for instances of vandalism on Wikipedia pages, Gethen adds photographs they've personally taken. The "2023 Media Contributor of the Year" award that Gethen received specifically acknowledges their photo contributions to Wikipedia pages and Wikimedia Commons, a media repository.

Gethen's to thank for photos of the late Bay Area gay Black singer-songwriter and activist Blackberri, trans actor and LGBTQ advocate Laverne Cox and trans activist Gavin Grimm.

"Whenever possible, if I get a photo of a trans person who already has a biography, or I think should have a biography, then I can use my own photos to illustrate that biography. So that's what I really like to do, because it's difficult to get freely licensed photos of notable people from Wikipedia."

They're also responsible for adding photos of important LGBTQ historical moments and celebrations, like the Trans History Month flag raising at City Hall and Transgender Day of Visibility.

Gethen shared they've been a photographer for many years and have taken numerous photos, primarily in the Bay Area, while at social justice events, protests and rallies — especially after Trump's election in 2016.

Their own trans identity, coupled with the vast amount of work they've put into the Wikipedia pages of various trans and nonbinary individuals, have inevitably positioned Gethen in an educator role.

Notably, they've participated in conversations with other Wikipedia editors about the coverage of marginalized individuals, especially those who are trans.

"As I'm sure you're familiar with, there's a lot of controversy about us. So I've engaged in discussions with fellow Wikimedians on respectful and appropriate coverage of transgender subjects," they told the B.A.R.

At the TransTech Summit in April 2023, Gethen presented "Countering Transphobia on Wikipedia." Their talk honed in on trans biographies on the site.

"I've given several talks for Wikipedia editors on trans coverage. This was the opposite—giving a talk to trans folks who are not familiar with Wikipedia about how Wikipedia works," they said.

This month, Gethen celebrated the 10th anniversary of their gender transition and their name day — two significant and joy-filled life events for anyone in the trans community. Going forward, they'd like to see more queer, trans and nonbinary folks become Wikipedians and contribute to LGBTQ-centering conversations and pages.

As Gethen noted, "There's a well known gender gap on Wikipedia, where overwhelmingly men edit Wikipedia, but there's even more of a transgender gap. It's not just that very few trans people edit because there are very few trans people in society ... there's [also] a gap in knowledge. So whenever there is a discussion about something that impacts us, very few of us are available to participate in it."

Updated, 8/30/23: This article has been updated to clarify that Pax Ahimsa Gethen edited a portion of the Led Zeppelin Wikipedia page.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.

Featured Local Savings