On March 22, developer Larry Garfield published a blog post announcing his ejection from Drupal, the open-source software project behind a popular content-management system used to build websites.
Confirming the ban of one of the project's technical and community leaders, Drupal creator Dries Buytaert attributed the decision to aspects of Garfield's private sex life. But the purposefully vague way Buytaert framed the decision has many developers and users outraged over what they see as an injustice compounded by a lack of transparency.
Like many other open-source projects, Drupal is guided by several committees that are supposed to be accountable to the community and its code of conduct, which enshrines values like "be considerate" and "be respectful." Also like many other open-source projects, Drupal attracts all sorts of people, some of whom are eclectic.
According to Garfield, several people orchestrated a gossip campaign that culminated in informing Drupal's authorities about his unconventional sexual and romantic proclivities, which are based on the "Chronicles of Gor" sci-fi series.
He explained, "The Gorean subculture is inspired by a science-fiction book series written from the 1960s onward to today, and predicated on a strong sense of personal honor, integrity, and community. It also practices consensual Master/slave relationships, and has a strong gender bias toward male-Dom/female-sub relationships, but that is not the cornerstone of Gorean culture."
Garfield's accusers dispute this characterization, insisting that Gor enthusiasts sincerely believe in the misogynistic philosophy of gender presented in the books. They point to Garfield's history of professing less-than-PC opinions about race and gender. One detractor had previously compiled an extensive dossier of Garfield's comments on Drupal.org, Twitter, and Reddit. A blogger adjacent to the community implied that Garfield is an abusive "master manipulator," although no one has made any specific allegations of abuse, and in fact many women have come forward to defend Garfield.
Buytaert responded the next day with his own blog post, in which he stated that it's not Garfield's private sex life that he's concerned with, but rather the worldview that underlies it. Buytaert, co-founder and CTO of the Drupal-based software company Acquia, asserted that Garfield really does believe that the natural order of things is for women to be subjugated by men. Buytaert wrote, "It's my opinion that any association with Larry's belief system is inconsistent with our project's goals."
Buytaert capped off his rebuttal by implying there's more to the story than Garfield indicated. "What makes this difficult to discuss, is that it is not for me to share any of the confidential information that I've received, so I won't point out the omissions in Larry's blog post," he wrote. Within the Drupal world, the air of mystery created by Buytaert's insinuation has only served to heighten the controversy.
Private beliefs, public consequences
Two contentious arguments are happening in parallel here: First, what does Garfield actually believe? And second: Is it acceptable to expel someone who hasn't violated the code of conduct, based on their beliefs?
Coming to a conclusion on either front is difficult. Garfield himself says that his participation in Gor is elaborate roleplay, and that the Gorean notion of female "slavery" depends on informed consent. Buytaert and others are suggesting that Garfield is misrepresenting his position--minimizing if not outright lying about it.
The deeper question about how much tolerance should be afforded to controversial views is one that has popped up multiple times in open-source communities. Brendan Eich was ousted from his job as CEO of Mozilla for being against gay marriage, and functional programming conference LambdaConf was excoriated for allowing Curtis Yarvin to present a technical talk despite his authorship of a pseudonymous blog widely regarded as racist.
John De Goes, LambdaConf's organizer, expressed his worry to Inc.: "In this new world order, it's not sufficient to conduct yourself with the highest standards of professionalism, as Larry Garfield has reportedly done. Instead, you must have the right private beliefs and values, and you must restrict your private consensual sexual behavior to the list of approved behaviors. Everything you say and do must be examined with a microscope to judge whether you are morally worthy of inclusion into the community."
De Goes added, "There will be more, and it will probably get a lot worse before it gets better."
TechCrunch columnist Jon Evans wrote in an op-ed, "It's hard not to get the impression, from the little that we do know, and the manner in which it has been miscommunicated, that what's actually deemed unacceptable here is that Garfield's kink has spilled outside of his personal life--i.e. that his real sin is that he was doxxed [or had personal details exposed online]. Which, as noted, is firmly in hell no territory."
From Buytaert's statement, it is clear that Garfield's expulsion was based on his ideology--or assumptions about his ideology--not his actions. This was confirmed by subsequent official statements made by Drupal's Community Working Group, which reiterated that Garfield had not violated the project's code of conduct, and by the executive director of the Drupal Association.
Garfield's publicly available writings include a profile and forum posts on a BDSM dating site (which Inc. has reviewed, but is refraining from linking since it has not been disseminated widely), a chat log from 2003 about how to incorporate parenthood into a Gorean lifestyle, and a slideshow that was previously hosted on Garfield's GitHub account, now mirrored by an unknown party, which appears to be an introduction to the philosophy in the books. In addition, people close to the matter have mentioned essays by Garfield, which Inc. has not been able to confirm or review.
All of these materials, excepting the essays, can and have been interpreted in different ways depending on the context. Much of the discussion took place in the Drupal and PHP subreddits. Garfield published a follow-up blog post on Monday responding to people's specific concerns.
Buytaert and executive director Megan Sanicki both mentioned needing to protect the privacy of a third party. Garfield stated on Twitter, "If the [Drupal Association would] say what things not mentioned are... I don't even know what they're talking about. I'm not out to screw anyone." He added, "There is no 3rd party, to my knowledge. Only stuff I've written on non-Drupal sites."
It is possible that the elusive third party is a submissive partner Garfield once brought to a Drupal conference. Insiders have speculated to Inc. that Buytaert et al. may consider this woman a victim. Garfield described the incident in a Reddit comment:
The individual you mention is an autistic woman I've known for almost a decade. She is mute by choice and extremely shy and introverted. Her autistic focus (autistics often fixate on some topic) is, in essence, being in a D/s relationship. She and I discussed that at length with both of the autism therapists I took her to over a 3 year period, both of whom were fully aware of her situation and not bothered by it. Several years ago she needed a new place to live and, as I knew her already and understood her peculiar needs, I took her in for several years. What little ASL I know she and I learned together to make it easier to communicate. She no longer lives with me.
Despite her extreme introversion she is quite intelligent and curious and was interested in programming. She did help me with a few small patches, but couldn't submit stuff on her own out of fear of posting in public. I did bring her with me to a few conferences in and around the Chicago area, as she wanted to learn more about Drupal and programming. I saw no reason to not let someone who was interested in learning about Drupal and PHP come to conferences with me. I still don't.
In a lengthy comment on /r/Drupal, Drupal community member Jeff Eaton said he played a role in raising the alarm around Garfield's behavior, but didn't intend for him to be cast out over it:
The "excerpted conversations" that Larry refers to consisted of some screenshots from a registration-only forum for a fairly wide variety of folks in different kink communities, but also public posts from sources including his regular GitHub account. A number of conversations about gender roles and issues were captured, and made the rounds in assorted Drupal community backchannels.
Someone forwarded the docs to me, and I brought it to the attention of the Drupal Community Working Group, with the caveat that I did not believe he had violated the code of conduct. I said it would almost certainly become an issue (in one form or another) in the future, given that they were already circulating, and that they should consider their response carefully given the complexity of the topic. Over the following months I was privately contacted by several people in the community who had organically heard parts of what he had posted, wanted to know if I knew, and wanted to talk through their fairly complicated and conflicted thoughts on the matter.
Contrary to what Larry seems to think, none of those people were troubled by his consenting sexual relationships. Some were members of kink communities themselves, with experience in consent-based power-exchange dynamics. Rather, it was his extensive discussions about what he believed were the correct and proper roles for women in relation to men, and his insistence (repeated in his blog post) that these were not simply idle musings but deeply held convictions that influenced all aspects of his life--things he "really believes." His views were not, however, a violation of the Code of Conduct, which the Drupal Community Working Group is charged with enforcing.
I don't know what went down after that; it definitely appears that that CWG had to deal with other people's reaction to it when they found out. From the description of the events in his blog post, it sounds like it wasn't the CWG that asked for him to step down. But I will say that I'm troubled by his dramatic mischaracterization of the issues that people had with what they saw when they read his posts.
If there's one thing that I do agree with, it's the idea that executive fiat is a poor way to decide what positions and principles are acceptable or unacceptable for leadership in the Drupal community. It's a frustrating and fairly perilous conversation to have, given the size of the Drupal world, but it is clearly not a conversation that will wait for us.
This situation is still unfolding. Notably, Dries Buytaert removed these two paragraphs from his original response:
Second, I believe someone's belief system inherently influences their actions, in both explicit and subtle ways, and I'm unwilling to take this risk going forward.
Third, Larry's continued representation of the Drupal project could harm the reputation of the project and cause harm to the Drupal ecosystem. Any further participation in a leadership role implies our community is complicit with and/or endorses these views, which we do not.
A member of the Drupal Core leadership team who wishes to remain anonymous provided this statement:
The Drupal community has been dealt a huge blow. It has always been one of the most inclusive and welcoming open source communities. Unfortunately, the latest communications from our project lead cast doubt on that. Now, we are at a crossroads as we get to reflect on this difficult issue and have a unique opportunity to come out stronger from this. I call on all contributors who, like me, are morally conflicted about whether to remain in the Drupal community, to fight to ensure we don't continue down the terrifying path we are now on.