Home » Academia » Defending My “Right to Exist” As A Black, Queer, Transgender Professor At The University of Richmond

Defending My “Right to Exist” As A Black, Queer, Transgender Professor At The University of Richmond

You may consider this rather long essay a follow-up to my earlier blog post, “A Response to My University President’s Essay on Free Speech.” In that essay, I responded to my university president’s essay in the Hechinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” In his essay, Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher expressed the following concern regarding limitations on free speech on college campuses:

[I]n a Gallup poll released and supported by the Knight Foundation, 92 percent of students said they believed that political liberals could “freely and openly” express their views on campus while only 69 percent of students said that conservatives enjoyed such freedoms…Overall, 61 percent of students, a sizable majority, said that their campus climate prevented some people from speaking freely. In the current climate, it appears that those most likely to be silenced are those who hold politically conservative viewpoints.

Following the bloody white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, VA just before Fall 2017 classes started at the University of Richmond (UR), President Crutcher sent a campus-wide email expressing a commitment to promoting diversity and protecting free speech. Nearly a year later, he is still citing free speech and diversity in the same breath. Historically, these values have been championed to undermine the censorship and exclusion of oppressed minority groups. Ironically, today, those who wish to roll-back protections for equal treatment (on campus and across the nation) pervert these values by calling for protections for conservative free speech and the promotion of political, intellectual, or viewpoint diversity.

In a way, I see Dr. Crutcher’s free speech campaign as opening the door for Tuesday’s talk by Ryan T. Anderson, invited by the UR law student group the Federalist Society. In the spirit of free speech, the university will be rolling out the metaphorical red carpet to a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. (The Foundation promotes conservative public policy and “traditional American values. It’s essentially a hate group, in my opinion.)

Anderson’s talk is based on his book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, which has been described as “junk science,” garbage peddled to demonize transgender people as mentally ill, delusional, and a threat to the nation. GLAAD (a national organization promoting positive inclusion of LGBTQ people in the media) has delineated Anderson’s campaign to undermine LGBTQ rights, including calling for the exclusion of trans people from the military on the basis of the aforementioned junk science, opposing same-sex marriage, and promoting conversion therapy for LGBTQ people (which is proven to be ineffective and dangerous).

Inviting “Both Sides” To Campus

When I raised alarm about the talk on an UR faculty listserv, I was surprised to hear one colleague suggest that transgender and non-binary students should attend the talk to learn from “the other side” — after all, they had better get used to facing disagreement from others. (Such indifference to transphobic rhetoric is a reflection of cisgender privilege, as my colleague is ignorant to the ways in which our trans students already endured 18+ years of transphobia before stepping foot on our campus. And, the added pain they feel in experiencing it on campus, too.) Dr. Crutcher’s essay also echoed this notion of disagreeing “sides”:

Anyone with a voice and an opinion can shout down a speaker. But listening requires patience, empathy and intellect — the building blocks of civility. If we hope to compromise, we need both sides of each argument to find common ground, and to respect the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that color these opinions.

Following the Charlottesville white nationalist riots that resulted in one person’s death and multiple injuries, the US president blamed “both sides” (i.e., white nationalists and other bigots versus the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist activists).

What is troubling here is that these sides are being treated as equal, potentially respectful parties. There are at least two major flaws in this mindset. First, there is the false equivalence of what is at stake for each “side.” On one side, you have privileged individuals (middle- or upper-class heterosexual cisgender men) promoting biblical passages, fake science, and other political rhetoric that not only questions the existence of queer and trans people, but also promotes violent methods of eliminating us. They characterize treating trans people with dignity and respect as an infringement on their civil liberties and religious values, ranging from recognizing one’s gender identity and referring to them by their pronouns to allowing trans people to use public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity and expression. On the other, you have oppressed individuals (i.e., LGBTQ people) who are crying out against discrimination, exclusion, violence, erasure, and censorship. What sort of compromise would appease the oppressor, whom is invested in the dehumanization of the oppressed?

Dr. Crutcher would have us patiently, empathically, and intellectually listen to those who are literally calling for our extermination. We know how they feel; they do not need to be invited onto our campus to let us know their views. And, it’s clear that the talk is for cisgender individuals who want “scientific evidence” to justify cissexist oppression. Meanwhile, it naively assumes that the “other side” simply hasn’t had the opportunity to listen to trans and non-binary people with “patience, empathy and intellect”; our stories are the very reason why they have set out to eliminate us or at least rob us of equal treatment under the law.

The second major flaw is that those who hold this “both sides” mindset are ignorant of the fact that there is a systematic disparity between these sides. Cisgender heterosexuals hold a great deal more power on college campuses and beyond than do LGBTQ people. These communities are the dominant focus of research and curricula taught in college classrooms. Meanwhile, LGBTQ studies research and classes remain marginal – in number, in resources, and in prestige. To my knowledge, I am the only out transgender-identified professor at UR, and one of just a few who do research on trans and non-binary individuals and even fewer who cover these communities in my classes.

The university is complicit in reinforcing the dominance of cisgender heterosexual viewpoints on campus, including those speakers who oppose LGBTQ rights (or even our existence). In my second month as faculty at UR, the PPEL program invited Princeton University philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman to pontificate on whether it is best if parents abort gay, Black, and/or deaf fetuses to spare them a lifetime of homophobia, racism, and/or disability and ableism. (Note that the PPEL program is partly supported financially by the Koch Foundation, which has funneled millions into colleges to promote socially and fiscally conservative ideology.) A year-and-a-half later, UR’s law school invited Ohio State University Professor of Law Joshua Dressler to advocate for the use of the “gay panic defense” to justify violence by straight men against gay and bisexual men whom they erroneously assume to be hitting on them. And, now, the university welcomes Anderson to peddle scientific transphobia, continuing a long tradition of using science to advance oppressive causes like eugenics and other forms of scientific racism.

And, the pattern extends beyond the practice of inviting bigoted cis heterosexual speakers to talk about LGBTQ rights but relatively few, if any, queer and trans experts on the subject. President Crutcher’s essay includes a brief self-congratulatory reference to inviting Karl Rove – a conservative US-born white man with a history of racially offensive commentary – to speak about immigration. That talk was one of last year’s Sharp Viewpoint Speaker Series that featured 5 highly visible/wealthy/powerful cisgender men, all but one of whom were non-Hispanic whites, who came to speak about free speech, immigration, and identity. The 2018-2019 line-up also includes one (token) person of color, as well as a conservative white man who will speak on fostering “viewpoint diversity” and a college president who pushed campus policy to ban the use of trigger warnings for material that may be upsetting for student survivors of sexual violence and oppressed students.

The privilege afforded to US-born wealthy heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities allows their views to be placed front and center in almost every context. The university doesn’t need to give them anymore of a platform than they already have. Rather, a genuine commitment to free speech would look like countering the systemic privileging of these men’s views by systematically centering the views of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, the poor and working-class, first-gen students and faculty, and people with disabilities.

In addition, our supposed commitment to diversity should drive us away from inviting speakers who peddle oppressive ideas. Calling to abort gay, Black, and/or deaf fetuses, legitimizing homophobic straight men’s weak attempts to justify homo- and biphobic violence, and promoting junk science to undermine trans rights and existence is not simply a matter difference of opinion. Such a mindset would have allowed for eugenicists to speak on campus about the biological inferiority of Black and Jewish people – ideology used to justify slavery, segregation, genocide, and forced sterilizations. How is today’s line-up of speakers any different?

The Constraints Of “Civility”

A third concern I have is that the seemingly competing values of diversity and free speech have tied our hands in how to respond to such speaking invitations. According to Dr. Crutcher’s essay, to “shout down” Anderson’s talk on Tuesday would lead the university to label student protestors uncivil. I imagine staff or faculty protests would be labeled as unprofessional, and could likely result in punishment, perhaps termination. Yet, civility and professionalism are social norms that force people of color, LGBTQ people, women, people with disabilities, and poor and working-class people to mimic the style of dress, interaction, and work ethic of wealthy white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities as a condition of their inclusion in institutions dominated by these privileged men. We are demanded to respect a speaker who stubbornly refuses to respect our existence and actually calls for our elimination.

If the university were to cancel the talk, then it would naively step into the right-wing’s assault on higher education. We would be labeled yet another liberal campus that threatens the free speech of conservative students. Dr. Crutcher’s essay would be cited as evidence that this was clearly an ongoing problem at UR. Though we’re a private institution, there might be calls for government sanction for censoring conservatives. I can only imagine that this was the Federalist Society’s intention by announcing the talk just five days before it is scheduled – a talk featuring someone with no legal experience and a reputation for controversy.

While Dr. Crutcher seems to conceive of diversity and free speech as twin goals, the very Knight Foundation survey of over 3,000 US college students he cites demonstrates that students are aware that these values, as currently understood, sometimes clash. Though the majority value an “open environment” for expressing one’s ideas on campus, most students favor policies to ban hate speech and wearing offensive costumes. And, if forced to choose between inclusion and free speech, just over half think that it is okay to promote the former at the expense of the latter. I find it unsurprising that women and Black students are even more likely to choose inclusion over free speech because they are overwhelmingly targeted by offensive rhetoric and slurs, which, in turn, create a climate that normalizes violence against them, as well.

There Is No Threat To Free Speech At UR

We must recognize that the “what about free speech?” debate has been thrust upon college campuses as a means of derailing intensified efforts to eliminate white supremacy, rape culture, and anti-LGBTQ oppression in higher education. The supposed war on conservative free speech was manufactured by the right-wing just like the “war on Christmas.”

Look around UR’s campus – whites, men, cisgender and heterosexual individuals, the wealthy, and conservatives are not under threat at UR. Look at the line-up of speakers. Look at the dominance of the (overwhelmingly white, cis male) business school (home to a few white men colleagues who cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” to accuse me of being racist… for referring to them as white men), while Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies remains a program without full-time faculty and the campus lacks a Black or Racial and Ethnic Studies program or department. While the majority of UR students are US-born non-Hispanic whites, approximately 240 are Latina/o/x, 240 are Asian American or Asian, 180 are Black, and fewer than 4 are First Nation. If left to chance, a given student would encounter an Asian/Asian American or Latina/o/x peer once in every 12 students, a Black peer once in every 13 students, and a First Nation peer once per every 1,000 students. However, we know that the student body is highly racially segregated, which is reflected across the social life, student organizations, party scene, classes, public spaces like the dining hall, and possibly in residential halls if students choose to live with their friends (who are most likely of the same race).

Unfortunately, the faculty are even less diverse, with just 15% who are non-white. And, off of the top of my head, I can think of no more than one dozen professors who are LGBTQ. Again, this “diversity” varies across schools and departments, with relatively little in business and the STEM fields. Faculty from oppressed backgrounds are disproportionately represented among tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, which only further disempowers us relative to our heterosexual white cisgender colleagues (who are overrepresented among tenured associate and full professors, department chairs, and administrators).

Look at whom the university has immortalized. Most or maybe even all of the campus buildings are named after wealthy white cisgender heterosexuals, particularly men. Ryland Hall is named after Robert Ryland – a slave owner who saw enslavement as the best way to convert Africans to Christianity. There is a statue of UR benefactor E. Claiborne Robins who headed a pharmaceutical group responsible for selling an intrauterine device that sterilized 13,000 women and killed nearly two dozen after using the device. At the time when UR Trustee Paul Queally became national news for his disparaging comments about women and gay men, there was already one building named for him with the Queally Center for Admissions and Career Services in the works. Since 2014, he was selected to lead the Board of Trustees (as Rector), and the university will soon build a third building with his name on it.

Conclusion Resignation

It doesn’t matter how we respond to Tuesday’s talk. The pattern of treating bigoted ideology as a valid, equal “side” to which we should listen with patience, empathy, and intellect has already been set. Anderson is not the first, nor will he be the last, speaker invited to campus to cite religious scripture, or science, or the law, or tradition to justify inequality and violence. I will be the lone transgender or non-binary tenure-track faculty member for years to come – and, that’s if I even get tenure. The views of the privileged will continue to dominate while those of the rest of us will be treated as an afterthought, but noted as an equal “other side.”

I wish I could be more optimistic at the conclusion of this very long essay. But, I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of being told that academic freedom, free speech, and “viewpoint diversity” are values that justify the debating of my very existence as a Black queer non-binary person. I am tired of the internal struggle between doing what will ensure my job security (i.e., tenure) and doing what will ensure my survival. I am tired of having to weigh between prioritizing my own well-being and speaking up for/with those who have even less power and protection than I do. I am tired of hiding in the closet of masculine suits, of toning down how much I challenge oppression in my classes, of fearing that my politics (a commitment to my survival) will cost me my job.

I’m tired of hearing my presence as a Black person, as a queer person, as a non-binary person on campus cited when it is convenient for the university, or even good for the business. (But, what about my safety, well-being, and inclusion?) I am tired of wondering when President Crutcher will deliver on the promises of being a fierce advocate for diversity he made early in his tenure as president. What happened to the Dr. Crutcher of 2015 who felt saddened “that students of color are still dealing with some of the same issues of alienation that I experienced 50 years ago.” What happened to the president who said, “once you recruit [students from diverse backgrounds], you’ve got to have an environment for them to thrive”? Why, beginning last year, did civility and free speech become equally as important to him as diversity?

These issues are highly complex, and are probably above my paygrade. But, because they have impact on my daily life, they exhaust me nonetheless.

Please UR – just do better.

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