How Star Wars’ Biggest Fan Wiki Found Itself in a Fight Over Trans Identity

How Star Wars’ Biggest Fan Wiki Found Itself in a Fight Over Trans Identity

If you’re a Star Wars fan online, there stands a high chance that you’ve not only heard of Wookieepedia — the Fandom-owned community resource archiving eons of material from the franchise — but spent more time than you’d like to admit looking up everything from Ickabel G’ont to the history of the Grysk Hegemony. But an internal community debate catapulted the site into controversy this past weekend over editorial policies that put the venerable site in the spotlight for very different reasons.

Since being founded 16 years ago this month in 2005, Wookieepedia has grown to be one of the biggest unofficial Star Wars resources on the internet, with over 165,000 articles created and maintained by its community and administrative teams. As Star Wars canon has grown alongside the movies and beyond — and then split when Disney purchased the franchise and Lucasfilm in 2012, creating a new canon to override the previous Expanded Universe — Wookieepedia became a titan in the field of pop culture wikias, and is currently the sixth-largest Wikia community in the world. In spite of its status as an engine for fan archives rather than anything officially tied to Lucasfilm, its reputation as a reliable resource has led to it being turned to by likes of Rogue One’s Felicity Jones and Solo’s Alden Ehrenreich as a source to prepare for their own trips into Disney’s galaxy far, far away.

Wookieepedia doesn’t just archive relating to information that is part of the Star Wars universe, but media in our own as well. Authors, artists, creatives who worked on the films, and other people of our galaxy who helped build Star Wars sit alongside the likes of fictional heroes like Leia Organa and Rey Skywalker, with their pages held to the same validity and archival standards. It’s here that the site found itself at the centre of a furious controversy — and part of a progressive sea change in the growing acceptance and embracing of trans and non-binary identities in fan circles and beyond, at a time when trans and wider queer rights continue to be challenged on state and federal levels.

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Up until this week, Wookieepedia previously operated under an editorial policy that any creative with a page on the wiki would be cited by the name they were credited with in whatever piece of Star Wars media had earned them a page in the first place. However, as the rights of trans and non-binary people have become more publicly discussed on a societal level, what at first might have seemed like a benign, even understandable policy for a fan wiki, became a problem. Outside of certain exceptions, if a person had changed their name for any reason — including if the subject had transitioned — their Wookieepedia page would remain credited to their prior name.

For trans and non-binary people, in particular, the act of using their birthname over their real name (known as “deadnaming”), especially intentionally so, is erasing their identity. At “best” — in so much as there can possibly be a “best” when it comes to deadnaming — it’s unintentionally disrespectful, at worst it’s a decision that can actively cause stress and harm to trans and non-binary people, denying them their humanity. In either case, deadnaming perpetuates a hostile and unwelcoming environment for trans and queer people of all identities; an aggression on top of the discrimination they already face across the world on governmental stages.

The Star Wars community was already discussing trans issues recently in the wake of actress Gina Carano’s exit from The Mandalorian. In February of this year, we learned she would no longer be utilised by Lucasfilm after a year of controversial social media statements. These included an incident where the wrestler-turned-actress updated her Twitter bio to read “beep/bop/boop,” a Star Wars droid-themed play on people who choose to include their pronouns on social media. She faced criticism for that from those who took it as her mocking trans people.

These issues all came to the fore again recently with artist Robin Pronovost, a trans non-binary creative who has previously worked on pieces for Topps trading cards, Star Wars Insider, and Star Wars Kids, as well as, the former official Star Wars fan club site, and uses they/them/he pronouns. Pronovost appealed to Wookieepedia to have their article use their name after back-and-forth edit wars in accordance with the site’s policy reverted to deadnaming them. Gizmodo reached out to Pronovost for comment regarding their interactions with Wookieepedia over the naming policy but did not hear back by the time of publication.

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Although Fandom has community guidelines and terms of services for each of the pop culture wiki sites the entertainment conglomerate owns — including of course Wookieepedia for Star Wars, Memory Alpha for Star Trek, the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, and more — for 16 years Wookieepedia’s administration has primarily been handled by teams of volunteer contributors. Site policies and editorial decisions have been made by the team of administrators but also discussed and voted upon by contributors to the site in Wookieepedia’s Consensus Track forums. On March 16, a thread in the Consensus Track was created, seeking to change the policy with a simple addendum: “If a real-world person is transgender and has changed their name since working on Star Wars, their article may be titled by their chosen name and the credited name turned into a redirect.” To many involved, the fact that Wookieepedia turned a simple request for respect into an editorial debate to be voted on was a step too far, but the process was what the site’s administration team knew, even if the optics would eventually blow up in their faces.

The vote started out just like any other on the Consensus Track would: users would have two weeks (the deadline here was March 30) to either vote for or against the amendment. In order to vote on debates that affect site policy in the first place, Wookieepedia enacts stringent vetting rules. Editors have to have already been proactively contributing to edits across the site’s 100,000-plus articles, 50 contributions in total. Site policy votes in particular have an additional rule — votes only pass if they succeed a 2:1 majority.

For the most part, even as controversial as the vote was, much of the two-week voting period went as any other would. Arguments in favour of the change noted how doing otherwise fostered a hostile environment for both queer visitors and contributors to Wookieepedia, while arguments against cited a desire not to disrespect trans people, but protect Wookieepedia’s SEO rankings online. It wasn’t until three days before the vote was set to conclude this past weekend that vote details left the orbit of Wookieepedia itself and drew the attention of wider Star Wars fan circles, largely through a tweet from the account of Star Wars journal Eleven-ThirtyEight:

“Having been a fixture of the original Wookieepedia community for a good while, I maintain several friendships with people who are active in these things, and knowing how I would likely react, one such acquaintance brought it to my attention when it appeared at risk of losing,” Mike Cooper, Eleven-ThirtyEight’s Editor-in-Chief, told Gizmodo over email. “I’m sympathetic to the idea that this matter should supersede voting but as I said, my expectations of them were sufficiently low that my primary reaction was pleasant surprise — to even potentially pass a policy change like that meant the community had come a long way from where they were.”

Cooper contributed to Wookieepedia in its early days under the username CooperTFN. “When Wookieepedia was first launched, I was writing for the major fansite TheForce.Net and was a huge supporter,” he said. “I was a regular editor myself for a while and wrote a couple big articles basically from scratch, but my writing tended to be a little florid compared to their desired encyclopedic (read: dry) standard. Over the next few years, my enthusiasm for that degree of activity waned, and in retrospect, I just think it wasn’t a great fit for me.” Part of that waning was Cooper’s belief that Wookieepedia’s administration began taking decisions down a different path to his own beliefs, which he has written about extensively in his own work at Eleven-ThirtyEight.

This is not the first time Wookieepedia has wrestled with discriminatory editorial policies in the site’s mission to catalogue every facet of the Star Wars galaxy. A similar controversy erupted in 2014, when, after an April Fool’s joke, a modified version of the site’s article page for Breasts was highlighted on Wookieepedia’s home page as the article of the day. Criticism of the gag as sexist also spurred further attempts by editors to have the page deleted from the site (other body parts, including genitalia, did not warrant Wookieepedia pages) after a first vote had failed to do so in 2007, with a 26-21 vote in favour of deletion failing to supersede Wookieepedia’s 2:1 majority requirement.

In 2014, the vote to delete overwhelmingly failed again (this time with 26 votes favouring to keep, and just two against), even as the site issued a formal apology regarding the joke. “I’ve been aware of their Consensus Track process all along but the first time I really found myself at odds with it was in 2014 when a similar controversy erupted over the article on Breasts — which eventually ended resoundingly in their favour,” Cooper told us of his move away from the Wookieepedia community. “[The administration team] soldiered onward, and I haven’t exactly hidden my opinion, but this weekend was the first time since then that anything really came to a head involving me personally. I knew their ‘active editor’ standard would keep me out of any further votes of significance so I largely just stopped thinking about it.”

Seven years later, the Breast page remains — now bifurcated with “Canon” and “Legends” tabs to detail sources from before and after Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars and its reboot of franchise continuity. The sparse “Canon” tab is headlined with an image of a bare-chested Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the “Legends” one a piece of art from the 2010 book Star Wars: Visions depicting Jedi Master Aayla Secura sleeping naked.

Even though voting on the matter was trending toward passing the name amendment, Cooper spoke out on social media to highlight the awareness of how major decisions in one of Star Wars’ largest online fan communities typically operated under layers of shadowed bureaucracy, not unlike something out of the franchise’s own Galactic Senate.

“Many people have quite validly raised eyebrows at the very idea that a human rights matter would be subject to a popular vote….even with several supporting votes struck the deadname ban was well on its way to passing,” Cooper said. “I do have to admit that the administration seems to have acted fully in accordance with their established rules; the problem is that 99% of Consensus Tracks are about extremely minor or esoteric matters, so those rules are able to creep in with no one outside the inner echelons ever noticing, and then when something actually important like this comes along, outsiders are understandably flummoxed at how lopsided the rules are, and how much weight the administration is able to throw around without technically breaking them.”

He continued, “I hate to equate something this inane to real-world voter suppression, but it’s as if the recent Georgia law [restricting certain voting rights] had been passed a year ago, and no one noticed until the day of the general election.”

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Reaction to Eleven-ThirtyEight’s tweet was immediate, at Wookieepedia and in wider Star Wars circles. Votes supporting the decision to change the policy, as well as discussion around the controversial nature of the vote in the first place, flooded the page. Even prominent figures from the world of official Star Wars works began commenting on the vote, including writers Daniel José Older (currently working on Lucasfilm’s The High Republic publishing initiative) and E.K. Johnston (the writer of multiple Star Wars novels, including Ahsoka and the Padmé Amidala trilogy).

The increased attention was only compounded when Wookieepedia’s administrators stepped in to enforce the site’s voting rules even further, banning Cooper’s editorial account, as well as the accounts of four other editors — DrHolocron, Cwedin, AV-6R7, and Immi Thrax — for interacting with the Eleven-ThirtyEight tweet. Citing rules against the act of “Sockpuppeting” (the solicitation of votes from outside parties or the creation of alternate accounts to boost voting in a certain favour), Wookieepedia admins didn’t just ban users, but began retroactively striking votes they believed to have come from Eleven-ThirtyEight’s tweet — votes which were all in favour of updating the naming policy, making what was already a tight vote even tighter.

“Not a single thing that’s happened since I first tweeted about the Consensus Track has surprised me, with the possible exception of Fandom’s intervention,” Cooper said of Wookieepedia’s response to the vote. “Star Wars has put trans fans and allies through a lot over the last six months or so and there was a lot of frustrated energy out there in search of a winnable fight, and this was it. On the other side of the equation, from my earlier research, I knew very well how Wookieepedia’s head administrator responds to even mild confrontation, let alone the prospect of a very public defeat like this, so I fully expected them to make it worse for themselves once the ball was rolling — and they did.”

Throughout the backlash, Wookieepedia’s social presence remained as it usually did — tweeting about Star Wars media highlights and fandom jokes, even as fans in their mentions decried the voting process, and other fandom hubs began to formally decry the site’s position. TheForce.Net’s forums temporarily banned links to Wookieepedia content while the vote was ongoing, and even fellow fan sites like the Transformers franchise wiki TFWiki (not operated by Fandom, Inc.) released statements pushing back against the vote and Wookieepedia’s response to the situation.

But silence from Wookieepedia couldn’t stop the controversy reaching the site’s owner, Fandom. The company’s response was swift, a direct intervention that closed the vote and overruled Wookieepedia’s naming policy to protect discrimination against trans and non-binary people, citing a 2020 addition to the company’s own Terms of Use to ban transphobic content. “With the creation of our Community Safety team, we have an opportunity to lead on an evolving topic in society at large. That’s why we’ve been actively monitoring this conversation over the last week, including working with members of Wookieepedia’s administration knowing that there are a lot of opinions involved here,” a statement now attached to the vote’s Consensus Talk page from Fandom Director of Community Safety Tim Quievryn reads in part. “Since this supersedes local policies, this vote should be closed and policies should be updated to reflect the Terms of Use. The policy proposal here fits with our Terms of Use. Returning to the previous status quo (deferring to credits despite someone stating what their chosen name is) does not.”

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In a statement provided to Gizmodo, Brandon Rhea, Fandom’s VP of Community said, “The vote on Wookieepedia was to update an outdated policy that de facto meant authors and artists were being deadnamed. Fandom has determined that, while it may not have been the intention, knowingly using a deadname in an article title is a violation of our Terms of Use. This is a global determination, meaning it applies to all wikis — including Wookieepedia. That means that the proposed policy change was in line with our Terms of Use, whereas if the vote failed then the wiki’s policies would not have been in compliance with the Terms of Use.”

In addition to the unprecedented intervention by Fandom, Quievryn also reinstated the editor accounts of Cooper and the others who had responded to his March 27 tweet. “These bans, which were issued by the Wookieepedia administration, are the result of a tweet that CooperTFN sent out (from @Eleven-ThirtyEight) and that the other four then interacted with,” Quievryn’s statement says. “It seems clear from the context of CooperTFN’s initial tweet and follow-ups that he believed he was making a good faith effort to encourage people to vote only if they were eligible to do so, not to recruit single-issue voters. We can assume that the others felt the same, especially since they were all editors in good standing — one of whom was even nominated to be April’s Wookieepedian of the Month. This is a hyper-charged situation, so we believe that those acting in good faith should be able to get a clean slate given that the vote is moot.”

For now then, it seems that the matter is settled. Pronovost’s Wookieepedia entry now identifies them with their real name, utilises their pronouns, and their deadname no longer appears on the website. Although Cooper’s Wookieepedia account has been unblocked, he said he’s unlikely to regularly contribute to the site, but is relieved that the vote was settled — albeit by Fandom’s intervention.

“It would have been satisfying to see the policy change pass in the normal way despite all the nonsense,” he said. “But Fandom’s TOU exist for a good reason and it’s probably much more important for all of us to see them take a stand like this and force the change rather than hope it went away on its own.”

As for Wookieepedia itself, the site has remained publicly silent. The site’s social media pages have not updated since March 28 on Twitter and March 4 on Facebook, respectively. When contacted by Gizmodo multiple times for comment, the site’s administration team did not respond. However, in the wake of Fandom’s statement, leaked images purporting to be from Wookieepedia’s Discord channel featured several comments from administrators riled by Fandom’s intervention.

“The social media backlash against us is disgusting,” one comment seemingly from Wookieepedia adminstrator Supreme Emperor, whose name repeatedly appears in the Consensus Talk’s page as the user who struck various votes in favour of altering the policy citing voting eligibility rules, read in part. “You’d think we’d slapped them in the face and said fuck you.” Master Fredcerique, another presumed admin on the Discord added, “Fuck Fandom and Fuck Twitter. That’s my official admin position.”

Fandom itself says its intervention, while unprecedented, came with the acknowledgment that its wikis are used to enforcing their own rules and policies. “We also understand that the community is going to take notice when there’s platform-level intervention,” Rhea’s statement to Gizmodo continued. “We remain committed to working with the Wookieepedia community and appreciate that we will be able to have this discussion with the wider Fandom community now and in the future.”

But Cooper, in particular, believes more will need to change at Wookieepedia for real lessons about the existing culture there to be learned. “I honestly hate to say it but no one with real power at Wookieepedia will learn anything from this. Not everyone in the administration is a problem — even some on the other side of the vote I think are reasonable people who just need to get out of the bubble more,” Cooper concluded. “But as long as the head admin and a couple others aren’t either removed by Fandom, or driven to quit, I think the best-case scenario is an editing community that simply continues to reflect them less and less as time goes on.”

Fandom’s involvement then represents a step in the right direction for giving these communities official policies that are clear and respectful on how trans and non-binary people are credited for their work. But the internal reaction to the company’s blunt involvement in a community of fans, for better or worse, paints a far more troubling picture than the seemingly amicable outcome — and just how far all kinds of communities still have to come in how they treat the lives of fans from all backgrounds.