When she spoke up about sexism in the video game industry, Brianna Wu suffered so much harassment that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Then she decided to run for Congress.
It might seem like a strange choice for someone who says she’s never wanted to be a public figure. But the harassment Wu endured forced her to think about her public persona, and what works and doesn’t work for other women running for office, like Hillary Clinton.
In 2014, a loosely knit group of gamers, ostensibly angry about the state of gaming journalism, began harassing female developers and critics; both the group and their campaign of threats and abuse were known as Gamergate. When Wu made fun of the harassers on Twitter, she had her personal information published and was forced to flee her home.
The experience was deeply traumatic, and Wu had to seek extensive therapy. But now she’s returned to public life as one of the many women running for office for the first time in 2018. She’s challenging incumbent Rep. Stephen Lynch and airline pilot Christopher Voehl in the Democratic primary to represent Massachusetts’s Eighth District.
Wu has already gotten some of the same abuse as a candidate that she received as a video game developer — and that other female candidates are receiving this election cycle. And she’s spoken out against what she sees as unfair treatment by the media; when the Boston Globe used an old photograph of her in a T-shirt to illustrate its voting guide, while her opponents appeared in suits, she called out the newspaper on Twitter.
This year’s race may be difficult for Wu to win — Lynch has been in Congress for 17 years and has declined to even debate his challengers. But that doesn’t bother her; she says she’ll be back in 2020. And she has a message for the many other female candidates challenging incumbents this election cycle: Changing the status quo is hard, and sometimes, it takes more than one try. The last thing Wu wants, she told Vox in an interview in New York on Thursday, is for this year’s wave of women running for office to dissipate as quickly as it arrived.
Our conversation is below, edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Tell me a little about your path to running for Congress.
In 2010, I ended up starting my third startup, Giant Spacekat. This was a game studio with a really interesting idea: to make games by women, for women. I didn’t get into the field to be an activist; I just loved video games.
We all know the story of Gamergate and the hell that went on from that. It really threw a wrench in my career. After Gamergate, I tried to move back to gaming. We could get games media to cover threats on my life, but when it came to covering my professional life, that just that wasn’t as interesting a story. So I was really at a crossroads, thinking about what I was going to do, and in the middle of all this, Hillary Clinton lost. I was there at [the Clinton rally at] the Javits Center on election night, and I decided to run for Congress.
Can you tell me a little more about that decision? How much did it have to do with Trump?
After Gamergate, I’d really had my fill of being a public figure. This has never been something I’ve enjoyed.
One of my strongest memories of being a child growing up in Mississippi was summer camp. I want to preface this by saying this is a child’s memory of the past; this is honestly how I remember it. One of the camp counselors got five boys at our camp and molested them, and I remember the hush-hush effort to just sweep it under the rug, and I remember looking around and going, why won’t the adults do anything?
At my school growing up, a Presbyterian Christian school, we had one black girl, and she just disappeared one day. I found out — again, memory of a child — she had been stabbed in the eye with a pencil by a girl that had lived on my block. And I remember thinking, why won’t adults do anything?
I remember in third grade when a really good friend made the life-ending mistake of coming out to his family as gay. This is in the 1980s. They sent him to Christian reprogramming camp. One of my most vivid memories as a child is seeing him come back the next year — he’s wearing this Colonel Sanders white seersucker suit, a fourth-grader, coming in with flowers for a girl in our class, and chocolates, asking her to be his girlfriend. I remember being so horrified that that would happen to someone. I used to think this was just Mississippians that do that, but you wake up and you find out it’s everyone. It’s the game industry; it is every institution you can think about.
So the truth is, just like the reason I stood up in Gamergate, because I saw people going after my women colleagues and the men in our field doing nothing about it, that’s why I ran for Congress.
Speaking of Gamergate, how do you think that experience prepared you to run for Congress?
I think it made me numb to harassment in general. It made me a more polished person, speaking to media and doing all of this. This is a hard thing to say, but I’m going to be really honest with you: There was a quality of Hillary Clinton all through the race — she dealt with Gamergate-times-Gamergate throughout her career, and you could see how it darkened her, and it made her defensive to the world, in a way that I understood on such an intimate level, but in a way that I could see was really not helpful for her.
And I would say one of the biggest challenges from Gamergate and running for office is taking down that armor. It’s hard to be vulnerable to the public.
Have you been receiving harassment as a candidate?
Oh, my god, yes. My staff, me, everyone. It’s been really dreadful. I feel often like I should feel something about this, and I just don’t anymore. It’s like fear is a muscle and that muscle just can’t do any more work. The other day I got a long email — somebody was going to rape and murder me and they put my address in there. And I’m looking at it and I’m like, I know I should feel something. And I just felt nothing, and I put it down, and I went and made dinner. I don’t know if that’s healthy, but that’s where I am.
You tweeted recently that no one has ever asked you how you came back from Gamergate, how you healed. How did you heal?
I went to a trauma specialist. At the time I went to her, I was so traumatized with PTSD from Gamergate that I couldn’t function. There were times when I was so upset after therapy that I had to get my husband to drive me home, because I wasn’t in a state where I could drive. We got to a point where she was like, talk therapy is not going get us that much further, and I need to recommend you to someone that can do medicinal intervention.
I’ve done antidepressants before; they made me balloon up in weight, and I had no interest in taking anything addictive, and Massachusetts had legalized marijuana.
I don’t drink alcohol. I had tried marijuana, like, three times as a teenager. I didn’t like it. I’m not someone who seeks out those experiences, but I was interested in getting better. I used CBD oil. It was a life-changing drug for me. I don’t think I’m the only politician that uses marijuana or the only public person that has benefited from this medicinal treatment, and I think it’s really important that we destigmatize that.
Something that really concerns me in Massachusetts: it was so expensive for me to get my medicinal marijuana license. It’s going to doctors and jumping through hoops. It really is marijuana for the 1 percent. It’s time for us to take a really hard look at treating it just like the medicine that it is.
As someone with an extensive experience of harassment, how have you been thinking about the #MeToo movement?
I will be honest: I always expected it to get to a point where Louis C.K. would be coming back after nine months off. I saw what happened during Gamergate, which is our whole industry talking about how important it was to hire more women, and change not really happening.
That said, I think female anger is a huge part of why we’re at this moment. I think women are interconnected and talking to each other like never before. White women are talking with women of color, cis women are talking with transgender women, disabled women are talking to able-bodied women. But the other side of that coin is harassers are also organized like never before, people that hate women are organized like never before, and these forces that don’t want to hear from us are organized like never before. It makes the stakes higher on both sides, because we get more done and they do more damage.
What do you want to change in Massachusetts?
I have been homeless, and I have been able to found a game studio and have a good living. Having been on both sides of that coin, I really fundamentally see how very little of America is working for the rest of us. When I look at health care, it’s got to be addressed. When I look at child care, it costs more in Massachusetts to send your child to day care than it does to send a child to college.
The core of it is, the House of Representatives is designed to be the voice of the people, and I really don’t think it’s going to be that complicated to go to Washington and, when a bill for universal health care comes up, say yes, I’ll vote for that. I don’t think it’s going to be hard to vote for gun safety laws. I don’t think it’s going to be hard to vote the right way on these issues.
Losing an election is not the worst thing that can happen; losing yourself is the worst thing that can happen, and I am leaving Washington, one way or another, without letting it change who I am.
Your opponent, Stephen Lynch, doesn’t have the most pro-choice voting record. What’s your position on reproductive rights?
I will never vote for any bill that compromises a woman’s reproductive health care. I just will not negotiate on that.
My opponent did not support women’s abortion rights until he ran for Senate, and he ran a poll that showed he could not win if he had that position, and then he just flip-flopped. He originally got into politics because he was angry that gay people were participating in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Stephen Lynch has a reputation as the most conservative member of Congress in Massachusetts for a very good reason. In my opinion, he’s just a Republican in a cheaper suit.
Did you feel like the Boston Globe’s choice of a photo for you was emblematic of broader ways that the media covers you, or covers women?
I do think we have a lot of soul-searching to do about the way we cover women candidates. I really think they would not have picked a weird picture of me if I were a man running for office.
There’s been a lot of discussion of a wave of women running for office in 2018, inspired by Trump’s win. Do you feel like part of a wave?
I was very much on the forefront of this, and I do think I was one of the people that started that wave.
That said, I want to be really clear about something: A lot of women running for office are going to lose this time around. It has nothing to do with gender. If someone is running against an incumbent, the odds are overwhelming that you are going to lose.
Before I did this, I looked at what the chances are of me winning, and I looked at what the chances were of me winning if I ran a second time, and your odds skyrocket. Now that I’ve run for office, I know why your odds skyrocket, because you know stuff about the [Federal Election Commission], you know who to hire, you know how to raise money, you know how to deal with the press, you know how to give a speech.
We run to win, but we run being realistic, that the chances are you are going to have to run again. My big fear is that this is just a moment of the media covering women running. I want us to be committed to running in 2020, 2022, 2024. I am in this field for the long run.