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.
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.
You have my partner to thank for the above title — the product of a compromise, softening what would have been “The American Sociological Association Doesn’t Care About Survivors Of Sexual Violence” (channeling my pre-MAGA Kanye West on former President George W. Bush’s racism). Though I desperately need to prioritize recovering from a busy, sleep-deprived five days of conferencing, while also finishing up my tenure dossier, annual report, and course prep all in a couple of weeks, I find myself writing another blog post about sexual violence in sociology.
For the first time, I’ve left an ASA annual meeting feeling angry, disappointed, and defeated. Rather than my usual practice of journaling about how great the conference was, and new heights I reached in my career and journey to self-definition as a scholar-activist, I ended up launching into a Twitterstorm about whites’ defensiveness in the face of being called out (or “called in”) for being offensive toward people of color. (I recommended, instead, that whites view this as a courageous act of patience and kindness to hold you accountable, even seeing it as a gift from a person of color who could otherwise dismiss you as hopefully racist. I don’t want to get into specifics here, but suffice it to say the ASA 2018 annual meeting’s theme of Feeling Race was ironically absent from many white conference attendees’ self-reflection during the conference.)
It is the first time I’ve left the conference seriously considering letting my ASA membership lapse and not attending next year’s conference. But, I don’t want to follow the pattern of radical, marginalized sociologists who swear off ASA because it is unwelcoming and conservative, instead attending Association of Black Sociologists, Sociologists for Women in Society, Society for the Study of Social Problems, Humanist Sociology, and/or National Women’s Studies Association conferences. While I fully understand that decision, I don’t want to give ASA the pleasure of my silence and invisibility. You can’t get rid of me that easily.
One ASA staff member asked me not to villainize the organization, which is actually staffed by “allies.” (The quotation marks here reference a direct quote, not me doubting those claims, per se.) My partner asked me to ensure that this blog post be productive — not merely another condemnation of ASA. So, to honor these requests, I want to present an investigation of the evidence — does ASA care about survivors of sexual violence, or not? — rather than jumping to any conclusions (i.e., that it doesn’t).
ASA Cares About Survivors Of Sexual Violence — The Evidence
To offer historical context, ASA meetings are notorious for instances of sexual violence. Two years ago, I found myself gifted with the trust of two survivors who disclosed to me that they had been harassed or raped during prior ASA meetings. The cis male privilege that is perpetually bestowed upon me, despite my queer sexual and gender identities, had long shielded me from recognizing that sexual violence could occur even in sociology contexts. (Just last week, I finally came to terms with the sexual harassment I endured and witnessed during graduate school.) Once I knew these women’s horrific stories, I felt an obligation to call ASA’s and the discipline’s attention to what may be an epidemic, or at least the problem of victims’ fear of reporting. (At the time, ASA’s policy was to notify sociologists accused of sexual violence of the identity of their accuser[s].) In doing so, a dozen other survivors disclosed their own experiences with sexual violence to me, ranging from being choked in the middle of a crowded conference room, to groping, to invitations to hotel rooms, etc.
In the two years since, ASA created an anti-harassment working group to improve the organization’s anti-harassment policy, host workshops on sexual violence at ASA, and provide further recommendations to ASA to better address the issue and support victims. Six scholars with expertise in sexual violence were tapped to generously volunteer their time to help ASA do this work more effectively. A few members of the anti-harassment working group released essays through the organizations Footnotes newsletter:
- Dr. C. Shawn McGuffey, “#MeToo and the ASA Working Group on Harassment“
- Dr. Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, “Can Anti-Harassment Programs Reduce Sexual Harassment?“
- Dr. Justine E. Tinkler, “Sexual Harassment Training: Promises, Pitfalls, and Future Directions“
Every conference attendee was asked to read the new anti-harassment policy and check a box that indicated they did so and agreed to follow these guidelines during the meeting. The working group created a 2-page document that explains the new policy and what to expect if one reports sexual violence, and offers resources to support survivors during the meeting in Philly and after when they return to their own campus. And, the working group hosted two workshops: 1) Bystander Intervention for Combating Sexual Misconduct in Sociology: Everyone Can Be Part of the Solution (which was cosponsored by Sociologists for Women in Society); and 2) Sexual Harassment in Professional Associations.
In addition to receiving training in handling reports of sexual violence ahead of the conference, ASA staff also passed out copies of the aforementioned 2-page document, as well as copies of Sherry Marts’s (of S*Marts Consulting, LLC) “No Means No: How to Respond to Harassment” guide. (Also see this site and this training.) I also heard several times that “sexual harassment is all ASA has been working on lately,” or “most of ASA staff members’ time has been going to this issue.” And, two ASA staff members kindly attended the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting, held late at night on the Saturday of the conference.
ASA, I will give credit where credit is due. You have stepped up your game. But, it’s not enough, especially in light of other concerning actions and messages I received or witnessed.
ASA Could Care Less About Survivors Of Sexual Violence — The Evidence
I can only imagine the beast of an undertaking it is to plan and host a conference attended by 5,000+ people in a major city. I never saw a staff member sit or stand in one place for longer than an hour before running off somewhere else. To ASA’s credit, it must be incredibly difficult to also be forced to deal with the big flaming turd that was left on their doorstep just days before the meeting: several accusations of harassment were made against gender scholar Michael Kimmel in light of his selection to win the 2018 Jessie Bernard award for enlarging the horizons of the sociological study of women. And, to their credit, I fully recognize that they (as well as the anti-harassment working group and the Jessie Bernard award committee) were left to clean up a mess made by Kimmel’s own institution. With that in mind, I think it is still fair to call out ASA’s failures, at least in hopes to see a much better approach to addressing sexual violence in the future.
Weaknesses Of ASA’s New Policy And Other Documentation
I still have little hope that the anti-harassment policy will do anything to curb the epidemic of sexual violence. The new policy is a slight improvement from the previous protocol for reporting sexual violence, which seemed to automatically reveal the identity of accusers to the accused; the new policy vaguely promises that “Information will be kept confidential to the extent possible.” It seems anonymity is still not offered. Therefore, only a few brave (or naive?) victims will bother reporting. And, it is still too early to tell how many reported cases result in sanctions for the perpetrators and/or justice for the survivors. Many in the discipline are well-versed in the research that suggests that: 1) few victims report sexual violence, 2) even fewer reports are taken seriously, 3) even fewer result in sanctions for the perpetrators, 4) the reporting process serves as a secondary form of trauma, 5) retaliations against accusers are very common. ASA’s reporting system seems to mirror other systems that we already know don’t work.
ASA’s efforts to educate potential and actual victims of sexual violence about how to avoid sexual violence falls into the old trap of placing the burden on victims to end sexual violence. Though the new anti-harassment policy explicitly identifies “unacceptable behaviors,” I do not see an attendant effort to educate potential or actual perpetrators to not rape, assault, or harass. I am worried that ASA is a bit naive in thinking having to read (or, more realistically, skip over) the new policy and checking a box will actually stop sexual predators from harming others. Indeed, I’m sure every perpetrator is aware that sexual assault and rape are illegal and punishable crimes. I am worried the organization fails to acknowledge power dynamics that facilitate sexual violence. For example, the S*Marts Consulting “No Means No” guide seems woefully ignorant of the fact that telling a more senior colleague “don’t talk to me” or “move away from me” won’t be as simple in the face of potential professional consequences or the real threat of intensified harassment or even physical violence. This guide seems to assume embarrassment will be enough to stop a predator in their tracks, or that others will do their job as bystanders to intervene.
Repeated Instances Of Ignoring What Survivors And Allies Want
In mid-July, I invited two ASA staff members to attend Saturday’s Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting in large part to be present in case attendees wished to report sexual violence they witnessed or experienced and/or became upset during the conversation. They accepted the invite and offered to provide copies of the aforementioned anti-harassment 2-page document and the “No Means No” guide. The email read: “Just let me know and I’ll make copies according to your preferences.” I declined both, expressing concern that these documents placed all of the burden on potential or actual victims to stop sexual violence and, worse, could be used to blame victims for not taking these actions. So, I was surprised to see that stacks of both documents were held out to me at the beginning of our meeting. “Well, they were already printed,” one staff member said to me, continuing to stare expectantly at me in hopes that my desire to be polite would override my desire to forgo engaging in victim-blaming. I caved, noting that I would hand them out with the caveat that these documents are as problematic as they are helpful. I feared the already tense relationship with ASA would become even worse. Essentially, ASA ignored my “preferences” and put me in a position to be an asshole or to override my convictions.
As the two ASA staff members left the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting, I shouted to their backs that the doors to the Pennsylvania Convention Center were locked keeping some late-arriving attendees out. “Well, they shouldn’t be locked until 11,” was their response. And, they continued walking off to their next engagement. What am I supposed to do with what should be when it wasn’t the case in reality? The next night, during the Sociologists for Trans Justice meeting, the same thing happened. Apparently this was not ASA’s problem — that conference attendees were locked out of the building during officially scheduled meetings.
The next day, a friend texted me about a concerning thread on the notoriously misogynistic, white supremacist, cis- and heterosexist Sociology Job Market Rumors wiki (that has since been deleted):
Mind you, these anonymous, cowardly bigots-as-colleagues have been trashing me and other scholar-activists for years (though the “Grollbaby” reference to me is new). So, this is nothing new nor is it even upsetting anymore. But, what concerns me is that someone from this cesspool of a site attended the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting with the sole purpose of mocking us on the wiki. It violates our sense of trust and privacy, and went against our explicit instruction that nothing of the meeting be discussed online.
I emailed the ASA staff members who attended the meeting. I received the following response:
I am truly sorry to hear this. It saddens me to learn of this violation of trust. Unfortunately, thought, there really isn’t anything ASA can do. This is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of social media. These days we always have to be prepared for the possibility of something like this everywhere we go.
Maybe they were tired or overwhelmed or truly are pessimistic about their role in fighting sexual violence in sociology. However, I find this defeatist attitude irresponsible on their part. These two staff members sat in the meeting, faced directly with an ASA member who, through tears, said they expected much more from ASA after years of paying dues, giving up time and labor, mentoring students, etc. – what does the organization owe it its members? While I do not expect an immediate solution, I expect ASA to at least take some time to search for potential means to prevent this from occurring in the future, to signal that this behavior is abhorrent. Perhaps attending a meeting of survivors and their allies with the purpose of intimidating them online could constitute a form of harassment and, as such, should be added to the new anti-harassment policy. I cannot help but wonder whether ASA would do more if a white supremacist sociologist did something similar against race scholars of color.
I cannot help but read this is “why I’m not a fan of social media” as a feeble attempt to deflect responsibility. And, the last sentence — telling me to simply be prepared for this everywhere we go — at best reads as resignation and, at worst, reads as alluding that I should have known to expect this given the work I do.
Allusions That There Is A Right Way To Fight Sexual Violence
In light of accusations that Michael Kimmel perpetrated sexual harassment, ASA has attempted to police how survivors and witnesses come forward. Nancy Kidd, executive director of ASA, is quoted saying:
Should a complaint be filed and investigated, through us or other investigative bodies, that leads to a finding of misconduct, ASA will take appropriate action.
What we can take from this is that the anonymous @exposeprof does not warrant ASA concern. Dr. Bee Coston’s brave essay on Medium, accusing Kimmel of harassment, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, sexist discrimination, and stealing students’ work, is not of concern to ASA. Instead, ASA will take seriously reports from those who are brave/naive enough to subject themselves to a confidential-to-a-point reporting system — and, it seems, only those reports ASA deems worthy of investigation.
Through several brief interactions with ASA staff and some members of the anti-harassment working group, it became clear to me that my approach to speaking up about sexual violence in the discipline was deemed radical, perhaps radical enough to prove disruptive. Ahead of the meeting, I received a very suspicious-sounding email about the the call for conference attendees to wear white to raise awareness about sexual violence — was this to target specific members accused of sexual violence? When I responded that we were not interested in devoting attention to any one person accused of sexual violence (when there are so many besides Michael S. Kimmel — Robert Reece, Matthew Hughey, Martin S. Weinberg, John DeLameter, Stephen M. Cohen), and asked whether they’d be willing to take part, I was told “we’ll have to see…” That was the last time we’d communicate about it.
As I noted in my opening here, one ASA staff member privately asked me not to forget that ASA is taking sexual violence seriously, and that I should recognize them as allies rather than enemies. At the time, I saw the genuine pleading behind this exchange. But, subsequently, I began revisiting the conversation as a potential threat — were they saying “don’t make an enemy out of us”? Or, were they alluding that I am a villain here, giving ASA too little credit for what it has done so far?
A couple of members of the working group praised me for my radical approach. But, I had to ask — what about my approach is so radical? As I did the math — #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual Violence buttons + a panel on addressing sexual violence + a meeting with survivors and their allies + wearing white to stand with survivors — I wasn’t able to compute what constituted radical activism. I trust that these individuals were being kind, even appreciative, but their compliments add to the sea of others’ opinions about my activism that I have been wading through for a couple of weeks. Many fellow conference-goers stopped me to thank me and commend my bravery. Yet, some leveled veiled criticisms that I was ignoring how Kimmel’s graduate students would be affected (what about the children! what happens if we prevent an accused rapist-thief-bigot-fraud from working with the children!), or not-so-veiled accusations that I was leading mob violence. (Wait — buttons, white clothes, and meetings that were a part of the official ASA program are “mob rule”? Isn’t the mob all of the colleagues and students who protect people like Kimmel despite decades of harassing people?) I am once again frustrated by the extremely low bar for what constitutes activism in sociology.
At the opening of the second of two ASA’s anti-harassment group’s workshops on sexual violence, their previous workshop was described as a success while my #MeTooPhD panel was described as “interesting.” Sure, that could be a genuine read, but it was was much more successful than their workshop, with about 20 people having to sit on the floor or stand because it was so well-attended, and the panel featured not just one perspective on sexual violence but seven. Humbly, I take issue with the mere, potentially passive aggressive description of “interesting.”
Throwing Survivors Under The Bus That ASA Allowed Kimmel To Drive
Perhaps the most insulting to survivors of sexual violence is the handling of the Michael S. Kimmel debacle. Again, I give ASA a pass to the extent that accusations against Kimmel that were finally taken seriously emerged just days before the conference started. (Although I have heard ASA knew much earlier, and there are 2-3 Title IX investigations against Kimmel at SUNY already.) However, what the organization did in light of those accusations was far worse than simply carrying on with the conference as planned.
Ten days before the conference, a Chronicle of Higher Education article was published about new allegations of sexual harassment against Kimmel. In that article, a public statement issued by Kimmel, in which he deferred receiving the Jessie Bernard award by six months, was quoted. The article also notes that ASA agreed to the six-month deadline that Kimmel set for his accusers to formally report the sexual violence he committed to ASA. Interestingly, as Dr. Wendy Simonds noted on Twitter, ASA’s Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE) sets an 18-month time limit for reporting sexual violence; Dr. Simonds also aptly points out a failure of the committee’s guidelines to consider the risks inherent in coming forward against one’s perpetrator (especially without the protection of anonymity) and the power dynamics that prevent victims from doing so.
So, news broke that Kimmel would not attend the conference. And, instead of receiving the Jessie Bernard career award, his public statement would be read during the ASA award ceremony. What occurred, however, was a huge slap in the face to survivors at the ASA meeting. First, as Dr. Simonds tweeted, the program for the formal awards ceremony still announced Kimmel as the award winner.
Sure, so, 10 days wasn’t a lot of time to right this wrong. But, I firmly believe that the labor and costs required to fix this were well worth the effort to not still symbolically give Kimmel the damn award. As with other program corrections, small slips correcting the honor could have been printed and included. Or, better yet, a black marker or stickers could have been used to cross out his name and image. (A non-binary individual can dream… just write “RAPIST” across his image.) I can’t imagine how triggering this could have been for his victims.
Oh — but, maybe someone verbally noted the allegations made against him, and that it remains up in the air whether he should be honored for his scholarly efforts to support women? Thanks again to Dr. Simonds for tweeting video of the announcement:
Michael Kimmel has been selected as this year’s recipient Jessie Bernard award. He is unable to join us today. He asked us to read the following statement on his behalf. ‘I thank the committee and I have decided to defer accepting the award’.
Wait… wait! “He was unable to join us today”? Did he call ASA and say, “sorry, can’t make it — turns out I’m a serial predator, bigot, and a fraud. Hit me up in February with the JB award”? There was zero reference to the allegations. As framed, it seemed he chose to defer receiving the award. Once again, he set the terms and ASA went along with them. There was zero acknowledgement of the survivors who have come forward. Do they get to say “sorry, can’t make it — sociology feels too unsafe, so I’m no longer attending ASA”? Nope. Kimmel’s celebrity remains intact. This was ASA’s biggest “Fuck You” to survivors of sexual violence.
To make up for this, an email was sent from ASA council the day after the conference ended:
Harassment, exploitation, and discrimination are violations of the ASA Code of Ethics and can be fundamentally damaging to the wellbeing of our community. The ASA Council is aware of allegations that have been raised about Professor Michael Kimmel and has voted unanimously to defer delivery of the Jessie Bernard Award until more is known about those allegations. In the coming months, members of Council will be working with the ASA Working Group on Harassment (formed in 2017) to conduct a thorough review of awards policies, nomination and appointment processes, and the process for reporting and responding to ethical violations.
What Would Caring Look Like?
My partner challenged me to do one more thing: articulate suggestions for what could have been done better. He’s right and throwing a tantrum “but I don’t wannaaaaa!” would be irresponsible. So, let me at least try. But, please note I am no expert. For example, I still only have the vaguest idea of what restorative justice and transformative justice are. And, I still roll my eyes when I begrudgingly add “alleged” or “accused” before calling out perpetrators of sexual violence — you know, to avoid being sued and what not.
One thing that has been on my mind is for ASA to take stock of what damage sexual violence has done to the discipline. How many people begrudgingly attend ASA despite feeling unsafe — fearing seeing one’s perpetrator, being victimized (again), investing money, time, and emotional energy in to avoiding sexual violence? How many are extremely selective about when they will attend ASA conferences, and for how long? How many stopped attending ASA because it is simply too unsafe or triggering? And/or attend SWS, NWSA, or other conferences that are more hospitable to survivors? How many will not be attending the ASA 2019 annual meeting after this year’s shit-show? How many have left academia, or at least sociology? How many survivors have left tenure-track positions, contingent positions, or graduate programs? What have been the professional, interpersonal, and personal costs to survivors and their allies? How many sexual predators have gotten away with their crimes without being held accountable?
I’d like to see ASA take seriously survivors’ disclosure that they DO NOT feel safe at ASA meetings. I witnessed one survivor do so — they cannot feign ignorance. Meetings should be restructured accordingly. ASA could create a hospitality suite for survivors for upcoming meetings, hiring rape crisis counselors who are easily identifiable with a button or hat or badge ribbon during ASA annual meetings. ASA could provide a block of hotel rooms at a nearby hotel that won’t be home to conference events and/or a small fund for travel should survivors wish to stay even further away.
Perhaps those accused of sexual violence should be asked to skip the next meeting, especially if the accusers will attend. Or, at a minimum, bar them from staying at the conference hotel. Sure, innocent until proven guilty and all that jazz, but we have to recognize how few survivors are brave enough to come forward and how exceedingly rare it is for such reports to be false. It means those “convicted” should be barred from the meetings indefinitely or at least for some productive length of time, at which point they should be forced to undergo some sort of training for sexual predators. ASA should be sure that the institutions of those accused are aware, perhaps even partnering with them to go beyond addressing sexual violence that occurs during the four days of ASA’s annual conferences.
Frankly, bystander intervention training should be mandatory. Block out one session for all attendees at the 2019 meeting, the 2020 meeting, the 2021 meeting, and so on. Once is not enough for this to sink in. And, bystander intervention methods change and improve over time. Department chairs, administrators, and anyone who serves as a mentor and instructor should be required to attend such training.
Moving forward, I’d like to see ASA amplify the voice and power of survivors not perpetrators. What we saw this year is that the organization gave more space and recognition to Kimmel after a series of allegations were made against him. We saw a refusal for the organization to delete a tweet celebrating an Vox essay by Robert Reece, who called for attending to “gray areas” in obtaining consent for sexual activity and was later outed as a serial rapist and abuser. Meanwhile, ASA never engaged with his accusers on Twitter. And, I’ve yet to see any action or statements released from ASA about Matthew Hughey, John DeLameter, Martin S. Weinberg, or Stephen M. Cohen — either from/about them or from/about those who accused these men of sexual violence.
There are so many experts on sexual violence, gender and violence, sexualities, policy, and organizations within the discipline — ASA could tap more than six people to do this work. (Compare that to the number of people on the ASA Task Force on public sociology.) Maybe it’s worth creating an ASA staff position exclusively for addressing sexual violence. And, surely, it is ASA’s job to look to other models of organizational responses to sexual violence.
That’s it for now. I’m tired, y’all. But, I refuse to give up.
[CW: sexual violence]
Now settling down to write this after abandoning my plan to “take a break” from sexual violence, that queasy feeling is back. It’s the queasiness I first felt in publicly wrestling with the question — am I a survivor of sexual violence? It’s the queasiness that threatened to lead to actually vomiting as I read Dr. J. E. Sumerau’s essay, “I See Monsters: The Role of Rape in My Personal, Professional, and Political Life.” It’s the queasiness I felt after publishing an essay about the sexual harassment I and fellow graduate students experienced at the hands of Martin Weinberg, esteemed (and, consequently protected) professor of sociology at Indiana University. That same queasiness that slowly grew as I went into a Twitter rage about story after story of sexual violence in sociology programs on The Professor Is In’s #MeTooPhD crowdsourced survey of sexual violence in academia.
This morning’s queasiness is, perhaps, part of the ongoing queasiness I’ve felt for two days now. In response to the #MeTooSociology social media thread to which I have contributed, Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel tweeted:
“I’m sorry, but
#MeToo is coming not just for Sociologists, but sex and gender academics from all fields. We need to talk about the elephant that is sexual misconduct within sex science. #metoosociology #metoophd #metooSexScience.
I attended the 2007 SSSS meeting in Indianapolis, just two months into my first-year of graduate school in sociology at the nearby Indiana University (in Bloomington, IN). I was fortunate to attend the next year’s meeting in PR, paid in full by the National Sexuality Resource Center (now the Center for Research & Education on Gender and Sexuality) at San Francisco State University. I was one of four graduate students selected to found and chair regional chapters of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy program.
Early in my first full day at the SSSS meeting, I ran into one of my major advisors from my undergraduate training. Our mini reunion was interrupted when the two aforementioned white gay cis men approached: Christopher Fisher (then a PhD student in Health Behavior at IU) and a professor. In the decade that has passed, I cannot remember whether that professor was [Prof 1] or [Prof 2], both of whom were present during this encounter. I did not know them very well, but knew Fisher from IU’s LGBTQ grad student group (Crossroads), which I co-facilitated during my second year of grad school (2008-2009). I knew Prof 1 better than Prof 2, but Prof 2 apparently has a long-standing reputation as a sexual predator within SSSS. Since this public disclosure may spark discussion within the field of sex research, I prefer not to name either professor without clearer memory of who it was.
Fisher and the professor complemented me on my appearance, dressing nicely for the conference. Looking apparently was not enough. They began physically examining my clothing. That then became fondling me underneath my suit jacket. Neither my undergrad advisor or the other professor said anything as they watched. And, as quickly as the intrusion began, it ended. I felt embarrassed, primarily because it had happened in front of my former advisor.
And… that’s it? Now that I have written the words down, I question whether it was really that bad. Does such a “minor” instance of nonconsexual physical contact really warrant a public statement such as this one? It must, since the president of SSSS (Dr. Eric Walsh-Buhi) affirmed my experiences and noted that he wanted to move ahead with addressing the problem of sexual violence in the organization.
Dr. Walsh-Buhi privately messaged me to ask whether I felt comfortable sharing more than a few vague details about my experiences. In talking with Dr. Walsh-Buhi, that queasiness returned. Suddenly, I felt my body revolting at the recognition that I had, indeed, been sexually harassed. Nearly a decade after harassment by Weinberg, and 10 years since being fondled by Fisher and the professor, I am finally forced to claim the identity of survivor. I want to resist – but why?
Not another victim label. I have already been traumatized by grad school advisors in racialized, gendered, and sexualized ways. I dealt with family members’ intolerance about my queer sexual orientation which, in at least one instance, bordered on sexual violence. I resist survivor because at its root, this label also comes along with victim.
It was a long time ago. Like Dr. Manya Whitaker, it took me a decade to recognize something that, at the time, seemed inconvenient as violence. Do I have a right to speak up now? Will Fisher even remember me since we no longer had contact after 2009? Is it fair to “make trouble” now? And, I never attended another SSSS conference afterward, so it’s not as though I’m even active in the field.
I thought I was just closed-minded about sex. As I noted in my recent blog post about Weinberg, I convinced myself that my discomfort about questionable sexual behaviors was simply a sign that I had not yet adapted to the sex-positive culture of the sex research field. I pushed myself to be “cool” about watching porn in Weinberg’s sexualities course, about him joking that I fisted another grad student, about him asking me to pose nude with another grad student for him. At SSSS, I tried to embrace the lively, sexually-open culture of this new subfield. I limited myself to rolling my eyes on the Bacardi Rum factory tour as the tour guide praised Christopher Columbus for “discovering” America. I politely declined another conference-goer’s invitation to attend sex dungeon party he was hosting after hours. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself at the pool party with free-flowing alcohol. I thought maybe groping colleagues was equivalent to a hug, or that I should be flattered that these men found me attractive enough to fondle me.
It wasn’t that bad. I don’t want to be a bother. Fisher is in a high-ranking leadership position in SSSS. If that comes into jeopardy with the publication of this blog post, I worry I’m making too much of something relatively minor. It’s not as though he raped me. It’s not as though he (professionally) held more power over me. It’s not as though it ever happened again, though he later asked me out at an LGBTQ grad student event. And, from what others have said — besides being a bit creepy, others have not come forward to report other instances of sexual violence. I have long wrestled with naming my experiences — particularly as someone who is perceived as a cisgender man — as sexual violence as though they are on par with those of rape survivors. Isn’t it self-indulgent to even write an essay like this — about me — rather than doing something to support other survivors (especially of more serious forms of sexual violence, and those who have been repeatedly victimized).
I’m aware from my research on discrimination that most victims of sexual harassment do not call their experiences that. Feminist activists have had to raise our consciousness about what constitutes unwanted sexual behaviors in order for more victims to recognize such experiences as sexual violence. They had to demand that laws be changed so that men’s sexual violence against their wives would be recognized and ultimately punished as rape. I have a little bit of knowledge about the ways in which (cis?) men struggle to admit to themselves (and others) that they have experienced sexual violence — and, there are unique challenges for queer men survivors.
So, I’m know that I’m not unique here. And, I know that I should not beat myself up for falling into these same traps. I know that what’s most important right now is prioritizing self-care as I go forward with naming a second (and third, really) person who has perpetrated sexual violence against me.
In some ways, identifying as survivor-or-not is not all that important. Shitty things happened to me. I feel queasiness when exposed to long and/or intense exposure to sexual violence, perhaps experiencing a mild form of triggering. (The first time I watched The Hunting Ground, I had to take repeated breaks to keep from throwing up.) But, in some ways, it does matter. My visibility as a survivor seems to have inspired others to share their own stories. It helps to inform my advocacy against sexual violence, particularly in supporting fellow survivors. It helps me to move past am-I-or-not to focusing on my work to end sexual violence.
To close, I’ll finally state clearly: I am a survivor of sexual violence. I owe it to my 22/23 year old self to no longer carry the silence and doubt around what others did to me against my will. I owe it to others who interact with these men to publicly name their shitty behaviors, hopefully sparing them from sexual violence. I owe it to our collective #MeToo, #MeTooPhD, #MeTooSociology, and #MeTooSexScience movements to shout “it happened to me, too.”
Thank you for reading.