Community Wedges

If you’ve participated in volunteer-run community groups long enough, then you’ve seen stable, long-running groups fall apart. Some issue arises that divides the membership, and infighting develops. The infighting drives off some, while the rest form factions. Groups get reputations as havens for drama, or being pet groups of some all-powerful leader.

It’s a complex thing, and difficult to talk about all of it. But there is one little piece that’s been on my mind lately: the community wedge.

The wedge is a person, and often the start of problems. What’s a wedge look like?

While the form of the wedging can vary, the lead-up seems common. The wedge gets involved in the group. They bring skills and service, and in time indoctrinate themselves into group leadership, or at least operations. This is not necessarily malicious; in fact, I’d say it’s most often the case that the wedge really is committed to ensuring the future and betterment of the group. That’s not to say there aren’t drama queens that work their way into leadership solely for the purpose of gaining a position of manipulation, but in general I think most wedges genuinely start of with the best of intentions.

The drama queen case is easy: having used charisma to build a set of trusted relationships, and gained access to the levers of power, the drama queen begins to using their position to set people at each other’s throats. They claim other leaders are running conspiracies. If they’re called on it, they cry persecution—and those who have not been bit yet, believe. Soon, the group is at each others' throats. No surprise there.

It’s when people have helped build communities that it’s surprising.

The actual trigger can take different forms. Disagreement on group rules or policy, or about a punishment being doled out. Some I’ve seen:

The wedge is already intertwined with the group, because of their charisma and devotion. And now, the wedge complains to their friends (which are many, because they’re charismatic, social types) about how they’re being maligned or ignored, or the group is off the rails. If the wedge got in trouble, they frame it as persecution. They start lining up others on their side, and those others, respecting the wedge’s past contributions, will often speak up—because, after all, the wedge has shown themselves to be a good, helpful person.

Sometimes, I think wedges' use of incumbency this way gets what they want—but winning means leadership has to back down, and fairly or not, “eat crow.” It’s hard on the fabric that holds a group together, and these sorts of fights burn out leaders.

And if the wedge doesn’t get what they want, it’s not over. The wedge is, after all, “full of themselves.” If they’re not going to get their way, they’re going to take their toys and go home. (If they got kicked out, they’ll play sour grapes and claim they didn’t want to be part of a dying group anyway.)

And this can snowball, as the wedge convinces friends to use their own influence to further deepen the split.

Why is this important?

Our community is small. Our groups mostly exist on shoestring budgets. Together we can afford to rent and fix up a space, but having large factions of groups split off can be financial ruin—we all lose the community space and the hard work that went into making it.

And frankly, going through a split is killer on community spirit. There is community locally, but after the last split 6 or 8 years ago, as much as I’d love a good beating and I know there are some people there I’d love to see, I can’t motivate myself to get involved. I don’t want to risk the chance of being caught up in bullshit and infighting.

So why am I thinking about this?

At an event this year we had a young man who didn’t really deal well with Trans folk, and though he created waves he wasn’t a wedge: he was new to community, there was no history, so when he continued to fuck up his ejection was welcomed.

I wonder if it’s going to be so easy or clear-cut when it’s somebody who may literally have built the equipment you play on, the stage you perform on, the room you meet in.

Fifteen years ago, there would have been no doubt that transphobes were entitled to express their opinion. Ten years ago, comments might have been ill-considered, but transitioning was my decision and it was on me to put up with others' thoughts. But these days, at least in the BDSM world, anti-queer bullshit isn’t tolerated anymore.

Yet there’s a community elder of several decades who never got the memo. They’re either too stupid, too malicious or too stubborn to knock it off with the anti-queer shit. They’ll half-heartedly tone down a bit when an event has an official “no politics” rule… but as willingness to tolerate this kind of hatred is declining, they seem to get more recalcitrant about expressing their bullshit.

I see it happening, and it’s like a train wreck in slow motion, but I’m not sure what to do about it. And, in this case, it’s still a question of what the outcome will be.

This person really has put a lot into community. They’ve lead workshops, put in elbow grease, are charismatic, and tell a good story. Tons of friends in the scene. But they are also self-centered, think they can do no wrong, it’s their way or the highway—and they won’t shut up about it. On the one hand, this might resolve itself; they’ve burned several relationships with anti-queer conservative propaganda already. But there’s decades of history and relationships that still stand.

And while they can think whatever they want, sooner or later, this dipshit is going to say something that should get them banned. And whatever group they’re attending at the time will be faced with having to ban them, and face whatever backlash comes. I dearly hope most of this idiot’s remaining friends know what an insufferable idiot they are—I know some do. Because I have no doubt this idiot will vindictively create all the backlash possible, try to convince all their friends to also leave, and use their history do everything they can to wreck the group after they are gone.

And if one group dies, or struggles, will the next group be so willing to stand up to this asshat?

People Change

Occasionally people stagnate, and doing so usually doesn’t serve them well. Actually, that describes this moron pretty well.

But most of us change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I strive to change for the better, and over time, I do improve, though I fuck up along the way. When I’ve seen others change, or trying to change, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. That young man that got kicked out of the event earlier this year—if in the next year or two he met some trans folk, got over his inhibitions, and wanted to return—if someone vouched for him, or he wrote the right apology showing growth, I’d be in favor of giving him a second chance.

But I’ve also seen people change for the worse. It’s awkward, and sometimes painful having to be hurtful and push someone out of my life. Sometimes, though, for my own well-being it’s necessary to cut a problem person out of my life. It’s not done easily or lightly.

It’s like that when situations change so a wedge no longer fits in a group. They brought much. There’s good memories. Nobody wishes for them to be thrown out. It just, eventually, becomes essential, even when it’s painful.

I fear that day is coming for this wedge. If you’re one of the wedge’s friends, try not to get caught up in the wedge’s spinning stories to their own benefit—because they will do that, and they are good at it. I beg you to step back and reflect on whether the wedge really is being shafted, or if maybe the wedge just won’t abide something that should be perfectly reasonable. Don’t let this one person ruin it for you, me, and everyone else, just because they’re friendly and good with a story.


This essay congealed out of that one incident, but the underlying idea isn’t confined to that problem, those groups, these people. Major divisions are not brought on in volunteer-run community groups by outsiders, newbies or introverts, because although they can make waves, these people don’t have enough influence to destroy the fabric and set people at each other’s throats. Only long-term active members and volunteers who feel injured, spurned or aggrieved have the deep connections necessary to destroy an organization.