Now, I’m not saying I’m right… With all due respect… I mean this genuinely…

How often these days do you start social media posts in this way?

I find myself doing it more and more, hoping to enter a conversation or make a contribution without upsetting someone.

Maybe I need to harden up, but the reality is, unless you temper the entry into a potentially contentious online discussion with a precursor like that, it seems you are painting a target on your back from the outset.

By this, I mean opening yourself up to being attacked online, often aggressively, by people who don’t know you well—or at all, as happened to me recently. I started getting inundated with calls from the media and was left with little choice but to close down an online account. Here’s what happened…

Earlier this year, I did some work with CensusNZ, knocking on doors and encouraging people to fill in their forms. I like to get out and about and meet people, and combining that with about seven hours a day of walking sounded like an excellent addition to what I usually do. PR and local government, my “day jobs” can be fairly sedentary, and I am not a “sitting still” kind of person.
On my rounds, I was shouted at by five unfriendly people and was unfortunately attacked by an anti-Government, anti-vax individual who threatened to spit on me as they pushed me off their front deck and into a car parked on the street. Despite this, it was a satisfying experience, meeting nice people with smiling faces and pleasant demeanours.

Sitting with older people to help them complete their forms was particularly rewarding. Some were lonely, some just liked chatting, and most, if not all, were interesting and interested. The questions about gender and sex were a little challenging; however, I always let them know well ahead of a question that if they didn’t feel comfortable answering, they didn’t have to. I broached the gender, variations of sex characteristics, and sexual identity questions with one gentleman who was in his early 80s, explaining as we went what they related to. When it came time to record his answer, he looked at me and said, “Can I identify as a Giraffe?” He laughed. I politely chuckled too. I told him he could identify as whatever he wanted to, and he ultimately chose to identify as a heterosexual male.

This reminded me of an episode of Ricky Gervais’s TV series Afterlife, where as a reporter for a tiny English village paper, he visits locals who have a story to tell. I’m mentioning Afterlife because Gervais is a particularly polarising person. Some find him hilarious, others just plain offensive. The scene I’m thinking of in Afterlife 2, is where the reporters interview a man called Dennis, who identifies as an eight-year-old girl. His wife Tracey tells him to stop being ridiculous. “You’re a 50-year-old plumber from Sheffield, for f**ks sake!” she berates him.

Is it wrong to find that funny? Is it dismissive of the very real and important issue of gender identity, or is it something that adds to the discussion and, at the very least, harmlessly makes us laugh? Is laughing at this and other similar things—like the giraffe—wrong? It definitely opens a can of worms, as I found.

I posted the experience with the older man answering his census question on my Community Board Facebook page, making it clear that these issues can be challenging for many of us. A few people responded with laughing emojis or a thumbs up, but then two people posted comments suggesting my comment was insensitive and not “becoming of an elected member.”

One of those who commented then sent me a direct message asking for a response to the comment they’d made on my page. As it happened, I was just leaving the house for an appointment and unintentionally pressed something that blocked them. Honestly. I say “honestly” as it may seem a convenient excuse. I couldn’t unblock them quickly, so I headed off to my appointment and, when I arrived, was about to attempt the unblocking when my phone rang. It was a reporter from the local newspaper. They proceeded to ask me why I had blocked this person, did I accept that my comment was insensitive and so on. I told them I was about to go into a 3.15pm meeting, that I’d call them back and hung up. All through my appointment, I focused on pulling my Community Board Facebook profile down.

Meanwhile, a couple more comments had come in about the “giraffe” post, saying that it was not funny and that I was wrong to make a joke about gender. Then I got a text from someone who said my Facebook post was causing distress and asked me to take it down. This person has young, non-binary children, and good on them if that’s what they and their family are happy to do. They also mentioned in their text that they would be happy to sit down and talk with me about living in a gender-diverse family. At this point, I was furious. They don’t know me or my family. I happen to live in a gender and neurodiverse family, which is very much my business, not theirs.