uni.clubs.sf - emails, awakening, betrayal
In my first week of university I went along to the freshers fair. This was an event designed to introduce the sporting and social opportunities on offer to bright-eyed new students. My main goal of the fair was to find and join the film club, which I did. On my way out, however, I spotted a stall for the science fiction and fantasy club. I was delighted. It hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing might exist. I joined immediately.
This was in 1999.
Joining university was also when I got my first personal email address. My college had a small computer room which I could use to check my email and browse the internet. We were the first year group to move away from accessing email via putty and shift to a web client instead. So I logged into my email via Netscape Navigator. My web browsing activities were initially focussed on using Lycos and Alta Vista search engines to look up cinema showing times and film reviews.
I soon discovered that the science fiction club had a website, a newsgroup - uni.clubs.sf - and a wiki. I had never seen a newsgroup or a wiki before.
I lurked. In real life (IRL) and online. I was quiet and slow to make friends. Gradually, I made a few hesitant posts on the newsgroup and started exchanging emails with one of the existing members of the club. Even though I was seeing the person I was emailing IRL at the weekly club meetings, we didn’t speak much. I was awkward IRL. As was ki. Our digital conversations flowed much more easily.
This was in the days when emails were plain text and the convention was to reply inline. The text from the previous message was indented with a >, the text from the message before that indented with », and so on. Our emails gradually got longer and longer and the broken indentations more and more sloping, until they started to resemble a mountain range on its side:
>>>>>> >>>>> >>>> >>> >> >
>>>>>> >>>>> >>>> >>> >> >
>>>>>> >>>>> >>>> >>> >> >
We must have started out talking about science fiction: books, movies, comics. My correspondent discovered that I was very poorly read when it came to comics and graphic novels, so lent me what ki considered the basics: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Grant Morrison’s Invisibles and Doom Patrol, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and more. We discovered a shared love of Ursula K. Le Guin and ki lent me kir entire back-catalogue of all the Le Guin titles I had yet to read.
We stayed on the topic of books, movies, and comics, but the conversation turned towards gender and sexuality. Through those conversations I got introduced to Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For, and the Wachowski’s Bound, as well as the writing of Susie Bright, who consulted on that film.
We talked about sexual identity labels, past relationships, attractions, fantasies. Those were the first conversations I ever had about polyamorous and kinky relationships. My correspondent talked about multi-partnered relationship models from science fiction ki found inspirational, such as those in the works of Heinlein and Haldeman, as well as kir own past and present relationships. Discussions about The Left Hand of Darkness led to conversations about the nature of gender. It was the first time I ever heard anyone express that they didn’t identify with either of the binary genders (man or woman). I’d come across gender neutral neo-pronouns such as per/per/pers (in place of he/him/his or she/her/hers) in books such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but this was the first time I ever heard someone talking about actually wanting to use neo-pronouns like ki/kir/kirs or neo-titles like Myr (instead of Mr or Ms) outside of fictional worlds.
I was spending longer and longer in the college computer room reading and composing these intense missives. Even though the computer room was small, it was often not well-trafficked, as not many other students were interested in spending much time online. I lived on the same staircase as the computer room and would often nip in and out of my room to check how busy it was in there. If it was quiet I would take the opportunity to reply to my correspondent’s latest email in relative privacy.
IRL, I had started hanging out with my correspondent one-on-one. I certainly felt a sense of intimacy with kir, given the subjects of our virtual discussions. But things in person remained awkward. The furthest we ever took things IRL was a hug.
With hindsight, I can see now what was missing. The virtual conversations we were having were blowing my mind, but, for me, they were taking place on a purely intellectual level, introducing me to a whole load of ideas about gender and sexuality that I was not ready to grapple with. I wasn’t at a stage where I could engage with them on an emotional or embodied level, which was why things were so awkward and disconnected IRL.
Our digital correspondence started to cool off after my correspondent went through a period of poor mental health during which ki forwarded a copy of one of our email threads full of personal musings about sexuality to a small group of fellow members from the science fiction club. One of them respectfully took me aside during a social gathering to let me know that he had been the recipient of this forwarded email. He told me who else had also received a copy of the message and explained that he thought that this was my correspondent’s way, in kir psychologically vulnerable state, of pushing me away.
I felt hurt and betrayed. I could understand that ki might feel shame about kir mental illness, given the stigma it carries, and that this might lead to kir wanting to push me away, so that I wasn’t exposed to that side of kir. But I didn’t understand why ki felt ki had to do this by betraying my trust in kir and exposing my intimate secrets to our mutual friends.
I was confused and out of my depth. I went to visit kir a couple of times, but I knew ki didn’t really want me to see kir in the state ki was in. I didn’t have the emotional skills to either address the breach of trust or to provide the support that ki needed from an intimate friend or partner at that time.
I felt embarrassed and exposed due to kir having forwarded the email, but everyone very politely pretended it had never happened and never mentioned it again. The incident made me aware that emails were never really private. Up until that point, I’d been very trusting and open in my correspondence with this person. I don’t think I was ever quite so trusting and open on the internet again.
We did continue emailing after that incident, once kir mental health improved. But it wasn’t the same as it had been before. I held back a lot more. Our subsequent emails felt superficial and never became as intimate or as personal as they had once been.
Now, more than twenty years later, I’ve gone through gender transition and am in a kinky, polyamorous, same-gender relationship with someone else I met on the internet many years later. I’m eternally grateful for those long intense email exchanges I originally had with this person back at university, which introduced me to a slew of ideas that are now simple experiential facts about my day-to-day life. I’m grateful to the person I had those email exchanges with for opening my eyes and laying the foundations for me to become who I am now. I just wish things between us could have ended differently and that ki could have watched me develop into the person I am today.
 Not the actual name of the newsgroup, though follows the same naming conventions: [abbreviation of name of university].clubs.[club acronym]
 I’m using the pronouns this person expressed a preference for in kir emails to me, even though these weren’t the pronouns ki was referred to in kir daily life at the time we were in contact. However, I don’t know what pronouns this person uses now.