Photo courtesy of Stephanie Guthrie
If you follow politics or feminism in Toronto then you’ve probably heard of Stephanie Guthrie. She first came to light when she outed misogynist video game creator Bendilin Spurr on Twitter. The resulting kaleidoscope of media coverage escalated her voice on gender and digital divides, making her a go-to speaker on parallel topics, but also a target for trolls. It got so bad she kept a folder entitled “Death Threats” on her computer to document the tirades against her.
When people suggested that’s what she gets for speaking up against trolls – people who provoke online often in shocking or controversial ways for the sake of provocation itself – Guthrie refused to be silenced.
Even before the Spurr incident made her a target, she embraced active advocacy. She co-founded Women in Toronto Politics (WiTOpoli), an initiative that began with panel discussions surrounding women’s voice in political discourse and lead to workshops and action, including multiple deputations delivered at last week’s city council meeting, and this summer’s Take Back The Block parties. She’s spoken at workshops and events and was recently involved in the planning and execution of an experimental live audience taping on trolling hosted by TVO’s The Agenda.
Her public battle against trolls reared its ugly head again when she spoke up against and eventually went to police to report the ongoing harassment she was allegedly receiving from Toronto man Gregory Alan Elliott. Elliott had approached Guthrie via Twitter to design a poster for her, but when Guthrie refused she says he sent her and other women harassing tweets for months, despite being blocked. Last month, he was charged for criminal harassment and breach of peace bond. (The case is currently before the courts.)
Despite the vitriol, Guthrie continues to press on with her advocacy. (She was recognized for her work with a “Hero” nomination from Torontoist this morning.) In fact, she’s as driven as ever.
“I’m a total Lisa Simpson. I always have been, I always will be. I have an annoying voice. I am an agitator. I will point out what’s wrong with what you’re doing,” she says.
Like Lisa, Guthrie’s a proud feminist and a bit of an odd ball, and I mean this in the nicest way possible. In full disclosure, I’ve known her for a while. We worked together for more than a year promoting tech careers to high school students, though this simplified description of our experience in the non-profit sector doesn’t do it justice. In technology, the gender divide is glaring and the stereotypes prevent many women from pursuing careers in tech. The role has allowed Guthrie to advocate for women’s rights and education, her two “fires,” as she calls them.
“I found the light bulb really switched off for me about feminism when I took a class in university that was about women in the criminal justice system,” she says. A former sex worker taught the class at the University of Ottawa, where Guthrie studied psychology. The prof opened Guthrie’s eyes to a perspective she hadn’t considered before, though is now a predominant thought in feminist circles.
“Sex work is a job and we should be doing whatever we can to make it as safe for the workers and customers as we can. That was something that is so logical, but I had never looked at it through that lens and that class got me thinking in this direction.”
Guthrie went on to write her thesis on the extent social pressures influence academic motivation and how that varied across gender. Gender became a key factor in her graduate application to York University and Ryerson’s joint Communication and Culture program, where Guthrie focused on policy and education.
“I have never taken a women’s studies class,” she notes. “Let the record show you don’t need to take women’s studies classes to be a vocal feminist.”
Guthrie grew up in Peterborough, an Ontario city with a population of approximately 118,000. She attended Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational school. “It had an integrated arts program, ESL program, and one of the country’s only model UN programs,” she says. “We got to actually go to this worldwide UN conference in the Netherlands. Beyond that, the school was also very forward.
“It was the only high school located downtown and definitely the most LGBT friendly space in the city. We had multiple openly gay teachers and an openly gay principal. It was a really special place in the city. It probably played a really big role in my orientation to the world and my values.”
Unfortunately, the school was closed last year due to lack of enrollment.
In Ottawa, she lived in a space not unlike an artist commune; a revolving cast of characters came in and out of the place she shared with six others. It introduced her to how communities come together under unified goals, an understanding she brought with her when she moved to Toronto.
“I’ve really deepened the commitment to a number of my values since I moved here and I’ve learned a lot about myself. Toronto is the first city I’ve felt really invested in. It gets to me. I feel like Toronto is in my bones now and I’ve only lived here about five years.”
Steph’s apartment is small, but decorated. There are paintings on the wall hanging on clothes line, there are shelves upon shelves of movies in part I’m sure can be credited to her live-in boyfriend’s pursuit in academic film critique. She credits him relentless for being her rock through all this.
“In my experience, especially with the stuff I’ve been doing lately, you need to have people you can lean on heavily and they need to be interested in having you lean on them and now be exasperated by doing that. I have to do a lot of venting, a lot of crying and a lot of talking things out with respect to the difficult things I spend a lot of my spare time doing and if I didn’t have someone to do that with I would probably have had a nervous breakdown by now,” she says.
The reality of the threats against Guthrie takes its toll. She made the decision to reach out on Twitter to ask for help finding a counselor with experience dealing with activists and activist burnout. Twitter is the common thread in all this and again a follower was able to point her in the right direction. Despite this, she had to take a step back with an unpaid week off from work to handle the enormity of the stress involved in being so vocal on such rough and at times controversial terrain.
“In those moments, I tend to want the most distance from the things taking over my mind, so I retreat to things that exercise other parts of my brain,” she says.
I’m not sure she sleeps. When she’s not working fulltime or advocating feminism, she sings quite charmingly in a 60s-style female fronted act. She also goes rock climbing, sews and is the parent of a “totes cute” orange cat. As 2012 wraps up, arguably the most significant year of her life, Guthrie is already deep into preparations for 2013 on projects she’ll be announcing soon. One is major and though she can’t share details yet, it’s a good indication Guthrie is just getting started.
Sheena Lyonnais writes for Toronto Standard. You can follow her on Twitter at @SheenaLyonnais.