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Defending My “Right to Exist” As A Black, Queer, Non-Binary 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 trans or non-binary 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 trans 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.

To Diversify Sociology, We Need To Embrace Scholar-Activism As Legitimate Sociological Work

Image: Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman at a March 24, 2012 protest in Bloomington, Indiana after George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. Sign reads: “Trayvon Martin. His crime – being born Black. The punishment — execution. This must stop.”

Last week, I served as a panelist on a townhall on diversity, inclusion, and equity in the discipline of sociology at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was kindly invited to participate in this important conversation by organizers Dr. Victor Ray (@victorerikray) and David G. Embrick (@dgembrick), and ASA president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Presided by Dr. Austin W. Ashe, the townhall also featured fellow panelists Drs. Antonia M. Randolph (@baldwinvidal), Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (@svidalortiz), Ted Thornhill (@profthornhill), and Natasha Kumar Warikoo (@nkwarikoo). As part of my commitment to breakdown the paywalls of academic journals, classrooms, and conferences, I share my remarks from the townhall below.

Image: Drs. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, Natasha Kumar Warikoo, Ted Thornhill, Antonia Randolph, and Eric Anthony Grollman, panelists on the 2018 ASA townhall entitled, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Sociology”

The failure of sociology to become a truly diverse and inclusive discipline is partly due to its aversion to scholar-activism. Thus, the disciplinary project to diversify sociology requires us to embrace activism. This is a simple point, but it remains a controversial one in sociology, especially within ASA.

Unfortunately, I know well the antipathy that many sociologists harbor toward scholar-activism. Early in my graduate training in sociology at Indiana University (IU), I was explicitly told that the goal of the program was to “beat the activist out” of me — some sort of bizarre twist on exorcism or conversion therapy. In my last year at IU, Professor Fabio Rojas wrote a blog post to me on OrgTheory.net, entitled “Why Activism and Academia Don’t Mix.” While his intentions were well-meaning, I found it unsettling to have a professor in my department publicly put me on blast just months before I finished my PhD and started a tenure-track job.

When I pitched a joint ASA session between the Sexualities and Social Psychology sections, my main advisor snidely responded, “OK, Mr. Activist.” Somehow even putting academic subfields into conversation with one another constituted activism; the bar for what was subjected to the slur of “activist” seemed to fall lower and lower. It took me years post-PhD to acknowledge how frequently my grad school professors used shame as part of their effort to train me. Perhaps its even fair to use the term gaslighting to describe this professional socialization. No matter the term used to describe this intellectual violence, or their intentions, the impact was severe: I continue to work through complex trauma even five years since I graduated.

Throughout my career, I have repeatedly been told that my research on LGBTQ communities and communities of color is nothing more than “me-search” – work that is suspect because it is on communities to which I belong. Once I was told my interests are “too narrow” by a white person who now has even narrower research interests than me. Apparently sociology only values work that is exclusively or at least partially related to privileged people.

Let me fast-forward a couple of years past my 2013 graduation from IU. At the 2016 annual ASA meeting in Seattle, WA, panelists Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac), Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture), and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (@sandylocks) delivered profound, soul-shaking remarks on the presidential plenary on Protesting Racism. (See a video recording of the panel here.)

Image: Charlene Carruthers, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Mariame Kaba, panelists on the 2016 ASA Presidential Plenary, Protesting Racism.

Presider Aldon Morris then opened the floor for Q&A, around 01:26:00. With just 10 minutes remaining in the plenary, Dr. Morris took four questions and then asked the panelists to respond to them collectively. The first question came from fellow IU alum Dr. Abigail A. Sewell (@aasewell). Dr. Sewell remarked that they were an activist long before becoming a sociologist, though they came to sociology under the assumption that it would be a transformative discipline. Their expectations were not met; but, it was through Black Lives Matter protests that Dr. Sewell remembered that the Black radical tradition persists – but, apparently this lesson was learned “on the streets” (through protests), not “in the books” (through their sociological training).

What stood out even more than Dr. Sewell’s comments were those of another audience member – a European scholar whose name I cannot remember nor make out from the videorecording. So, I’ll just call her “Positivist Paula.” Positivist Paula accused Carruthers, Kaba, and Crenshaw of blurring politics and academic research, and questioned whether the panelists’ remarks could even be considered scholarly. Positive Paula declared, “Sociology is not an activist activity; sociology is an academic discipline.”

Mariame Kaba responded to Positive Paula, “[s]ome in the discipline [sociology] want to enforce and discipline others into not being [organizers]. And, I think you lose a lot of people that you could have in the discipline by those kind of rigid differentiations that are really only true in a few people’s heads.” To junior scholars, Kaba advised, “Don’t let them make you into something you are not, if you are already somebody who organizes. You are allowed to be both.”

Image: A June 2, 2017 tweet by Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) that reads “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship” in response to ASA Presidential Candidate, Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement calling for scholar-activism.

The following year (2017), the discipline’s double standard for public sociology versus scholar-activism became more apparent to me. For example, last year, Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) tweeted, “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship.” The “this” to which he was referring was then-ASA presidential candidate Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement, which promised a commitment to scholar-activism. Surprisingly, McCabe engages in public sociology, prominently displayed on his personal website, including essays he has written for National Review. (I and several others shared his tweet, and many responded to him. A year later, he accused me of leading Twitter mob violence against him.) For years, ASA has furthered its commitment to public sociology, even calling upon sociology departments and universities to consider this work as part of considerations for tenure, promotion, and merit review. To my surprise, the words “activist” and “activism” never appear in this report.

Public sociology, but not scholar-activism? This is not a simple matter of semantics. As part of Contexts magazine’s August 2017 symposium on the Charlottesville white supremacist riots, Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang (@kimberlykhoang) wrote an essay entitled, “Are Public Sociology and Scholar-Activism Really At Odds?” Dr. Hoang argued that there is a long history of white men sociologists who worry that scholar-activists undermine the credibility of the discipline. She wrote, “[t]here is a contradiction in our discipline. Public sociology proponents are supporting a particular market-structure of scholar activism that separates the ‘resident expert’ from the ‘scholar activist.’ This form of public sociology favors research examining those struggling under and against the effects of power relations while marginalizing researchers scrutinizing how institutions of power operate to maintain relations of domination’.”

(Side note: Interesting, white men sociologists’ fear that scholar-activists [of color] will jeopardize their standing in society persists today; some have even talked of forming an Association of White Sociologists as they grow increasingly frustrated that more scholar-activists of color are shaping the trajectory of ASA and the discipline. You know, Make Sociology Great Again — #MSGA.)

Said another way, “public sociology is for white people” (to quote sociologist Rahsaan Mahadeo, a PhD student at University of Minnesota currently on the sociology job market — in a working paper entitled, “Marinating over the Anti-Ebony Tower.”) It assumes a detachment from “the public,” as though a scholar is shouting down from his ivory tower to the masses. But, one should never get their hands dirty with the messy affair of activism. Similarly, Dr. Hoang’s aforementioned essay asked, “who can legitimately do public sociology without diminishing the discipline’s ‘credibility as a science’?”

At the root of the activism-versus-academia debate in sociology is the discipline’s refusal to embrace the work of marginalized scholars as legitimate sociological work. Sociologists who are white, men, cis, heterosexual, wealthy, and currently without disabilities – and especially those who hold multiple or all of these identities – act as gatekeepers who wield power to determine what counts as legitimate sociology and what doesn’t, who is a legitimate sociologist and who isn’t. The dominant way of being a sociologist – seemingly detached, objective, apolitical – has long kept out critical scholars and scholar-activists, folks who are disproportionately of color, cis women, queer and trans people, first-gen, working-class, and people with disabilities.

This ideology was used to justify excluding Dr. W. E. B. DuBois from the discipline, and subsequently erasing his contributions as part of the “classics” in sociology. Dr. Aldon Morris notes in his book, The Scholar Denied, “Many contemporary scholars claimed that by educating the public in the Crisis [magazine], Du Bois was no longer acting as a scholar but had turned propagandist.” Former ASA President Joe Feagin’s (@JoeFeagin) 2000 presidential address turned 2001 ASR article, “Social Justice and Sociology in the 21st Century,” recounts the discipline’s move toward positivism, which was also a time when white men solidified their dominance in sociology departments. Excluding activism is antithetical to diversifying sociology.

Image: Top three reasons students go to graduate school for African American, Latinx, and non-Hispanic white students.

Today, the discipline’s aversion to activism runs counter to the reasons why most Black and Latinx folks pursue PhDs in sociology. As Dr. Denise A. Sagura found in a 2009 study of 700 PhD students (see Powerpoint presentation here), the top reason African Americans report for attending graduate school is to contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, and the second and third most important reasons cited by Latinx students is to contribute to their community and contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, respectively. The top three reasons cited by non-Hispanic whites were: 1) to grow intellectually, 2) to improve their personal occupational mobility, and 3) to make a contribution to the field – in other words, motivations not driven by a concern for making a difference in society.

To ignore what motivates people of color to become sociologists means that the discipline continues to center the interests of non-Hispanic whites. It means people of color – as well as other marginalized groups – find success in sociology by mainstream standards on the condition that they downplay their commitment to activism. Perhaps it means that those who refuse to conform drop out of grad school, leave faculty positions, leave the discipline, or leave academia.

To reverse this potential “brain-drain,” to cease forcing scholar-activists to conform or hide their activism, to end the practice of privileged scholars serving as gatekeepers who dismiss marginalized scholar-activists’ work as “me-search,” we are long overdue for embracing scholar-activism as a legitimate type of sociology. We are overdue for recognizing the contributions of DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Joyce Ladner, and other marginalized scholar-activists to the discipline.

In this increasingly post-truth, anti-science, anti-union, xenophobic, white supremacist, misogynistic, cis- and heterosexist climate – failing to embrace activism may be at our own peril.

On Struggling To Call Myself A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

[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 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.

I agreed, somewhat absentmindedly sharing that I had been groped by two white gay cis men at the 2008 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality conference in Puerto Rico.

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.

Sociologists, Stop Rewarding Rapists And Harassers

 

Three years ago, I struggled to say the words, “there are rumors that he’s [Dr. Martin S. Weinberg] a sexual predator.”

My anxiety was in full gear; it felt as though a bowling ball was sitting on my chest. My fear surprised me. I was in a committee meeting with fellow sexualities scholars, many strong in their advocacy against sexual violence and some even survivors themselves. And, I was saying something of which I felt others were already well-aware. But, I was new to the committee and not even past the midpoint of the tenure-track.

Another committee member rebutted: “well, we can’t just go on rumors.”

This response surprised me, for many reasons. All eyes returned back to me. Some of them demanded proof. Some knew those rumors well and secretly hoped that I could offer something more substantial. Indeed, it seemed the committee had tabled the discussion of whether to create an award in Weinberg’s honor in the previous year. Some members must have known something because they kept hinting at concerns. They tried the angle of questioning what it would mean to name yet another award in sexualities after a white cisgender man. In raising these doubts, I saw an opening, though it took great effort to move my lips.

I responded, “some of my friends were harassed by him.”

It was all I could say in that moment. I couldn’t find the words to say that I had witnessed and personally experienced sexual harassment by Weinberg. The many jokes he made about students’ sex lives in his undergraduate-graduate hybrid course, Sociology of Sexualities. I laughed off his joke that a fellow queer grad student and I were well-versed in fisting because we had done it to each other over the weekend. I politely declined his invitation to photograph me and another queer grad student together — nude.  I laughed uncomfortably when he greeted his own penis — “heyyyyy, bayyyyyy-beeee” — while visiting my first-year Professional Seminar class as part of a series of visits by faculty to learn about their research.

You see, as a budding sexualities scholar, I pushed myself to be more open-minded about his pedagogical approaches and style of interacting with students. When I visited IU sociology as a prospective graduate student, I was pleased with myself for not being uncomfortable when he joked with another professor about he and I having sex. She jokingly scolded him to be good (hinting at his reputation); he responded, “there will always be at least 3 legs on the floor at all times.” She laughed and said, “Oh, Marty…”; and, then, left me alone with him in my 22 years of naivete. Through his Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) activities in his sexualities course, I prided myself on being (mostly) unaffected as we watched videos of “real” lesbians having sex, older heterosexual adults having sex, and of “water sports” and “scat play.” (NSWF: Google the latter terms at your own risk.) But, I will say that I didn’t find his joke about going to get chocolate ice cream after the scat video funny.

The burden fell on me to decide how to navigate my interactions with “Uncle Marty” (as he liked to be called by students) because the department never held him accountable for his sexual violence. After one course with him, I ultimately decided to avoid him at all costs. Indeed, at a conference in my first semester of grad school, a trusted undergrad advisor strongly warned me against working with him. Even though I had chosen IU sociology for graduate training because Weinberg and another sexualities scholar were on faculty (though she left after my second year), I assured myself it was safe to avoid him because it seemed that he didn’t have a good track record of placing students in tenure-track jobs.

I didn’t share 99% of what I knew, witnessed, and experienced with regard to Weinberg the sexual predator during that committee meeting. But, what I offered seemed to be enough to derail the conversation. If permanently honoring a white cisgender heterosexual man by naming an award after him was a concern, certainly doing so for a rapist and harasser was out of the question.

And, Now We Honor Michael S. Kimmel

Today, sociologists are wrestling with a similar question for a different perpetrator. Allegations have recently been made that renowned sociologist of gender and sexualities, Michael S. Kimmel, has perpetuated sexual violence against women graduate students. And, the anonymous Twitter account, @exposeprof, questioned why he was being honored with the American Sociological Association’s Jessie Bernard career award for contributions to the sociological study of women. In a Chronicle of Higher Education [paywall] article, Kimmel stated that he would defer receiving the award, setting a six-month deadline for his accusers to formally file a complaint with the ASA committee on professional ethics. And, ASA has honored this deadline, noting that they cannot and will not act on rumors alone. [See my Twitter rage from yesterday on this.]

The similarities I see here are that another white heterosexual cis man sociologist with a long history of perpetuating sexual violence has been protected long enough in his career to be considered for a huge honor. Since their respective departments and institutions have failed to hold Weinberg and Kimmel accountable to their victims, the burden falls to other individuals to navigate their reputations (and violence). For example, awards committees are left to wrestle with considering whether to overlook Weinberg’s and Kimmel’s sexual violence. Some want to just focus on their scholarship, as that is the major basis for these honors. And, under other circumstances, that’s how they should evaluate nominees. So, to the Jessie Bernard committee’s credit, they are forced to deal with an issue that Kimmel’s department and university and colleagues have failed to address. In protecting sexual predator academics, departments and universities are effectively “passing the buck” or, more aptly, “passing the trash.” Institutional failures breed burdens for individuals.

The failure of academic institutions to effectively address sexual violence also places the burden on victims and bystanders. For students, it means deciding whether to take a course with, collaborate with, and/or work for professors about whom they’ve been warned. If hearing the rumors after already establishing a professional relationship, it means deciding whether to continue on or end the relationship, with either decision greatly impacting one’s professional career. For junior scholars who are harassed or assaulted, it can mean much more, including weighing whether to even continue in the program/one’s academic career. Survivors must decide whether to report perpetrators or spread word through the “whisper network,” and whether to tell one’s story publicly (given the risks of legal action, retaliation, professional harm, and not being believed or even blamed).

What frustrates me most is that the question here is whether Kimmel should be denied a lifetime achievement award — nothing more. It was whether to name an award after Weinberg — nothing more. Fellow renowned sociology of sexualities scholar, the late John DeLamater, was protected by his department and the University of Wisconsin until the day he died. It’s too soon to tell whether fellow perpetrators Matthew Hughey and Robert Reece will lose out professionally; but, the former is still slotted to participate in the upcoming ASA conference as usual. (So, again, survivors and other potential victims are left to figure out how to navigate interactions with a sexual predator.)

Meanwhile, the scholars who have been victimized by these men have likely lost so much more: compromised mental, physical, sexual, and spiritual well-being; retaliation and backlash for speaking out; taking a “hit” professionally in severing ties with their perpetrators (e.g., ending collaborations); having to avoid conferences where their perpetrator may be; having to limit conference attendance to meetings at which they can stay away from the main conference hotel, possibly staying with family and friends as support; lost productivity due to the emotional and physical drain of planning to and actually running into their perpetrator in the department, on campus, and/or at conferences; loss of professional ties by colleagues who defend the perpetrators and/or victim-blame or doubt the victim’s story; etc, etc, etc. Their loss is a loss to the entire discipline because otherwise thriving professional careers are hindered by sexual violence.

I also think about the professional, social, emotional, intellectual, and financial loss to those who have to protect themselves against potential sexual violence. How many women, for example, avoid professional “happy hours” because the introduction of alcohol and casual interactions creates greater risk for sexual violence? How many avoid conferences because they are prime “hot spots” for sexual harassment in the discipline? How many skip out on attending ASA, instead finding Sociologists for Women in Society or National Women’s Studies Association conferences to be safer? How many avoid taking a position at a particular school because of one or more faculty members’ reputations as predators? How many forgo a career in sociology, either leaving academia all together or going into seemingly safer disciplines like gender studies? And, given these difficult decisions, what are the consequences for their careers and well-being?

As sociologists, we have the tools to effectively hold sexual perpetrators accountable and support survivors of such violence. We know that universities and departments facilitate sexual violence, in large part because these racialized and gendered organizations are designed to make some vulnerable and some powerful. We know that bureaucratic reporting systems systemically fail survivors, breeding distrust in the system that scares most away from bothering to report. We know that the privileged have more cultural capital necessary to effectively navigate bureaucratic institutions and are more likely to have their reports taken seriously. We know that these institutions were created by and for white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities, and yet are stubborn in our believe that these institutions give a damn about queer people, cis and trans women, and others who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. We know that those in power designed policies and systems to protect the institution first and foremost, and possibly perpetrators second.

Despite the existing and potential sociological insights about sexual violence, we are embarrassingly unreflective about the epidemic in our discipline. In the midst of the #MeToo era and the attendant #MeTooPhD project, we’re merely debating whether to award one scholar with a long history of violence against women for enlarging “the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.” And, if no survivor is brave and savvy enough (or naive enough?) to bother reporting Kimmel to ASA, he receives his prize at the end of the six months’ deadline he imposed and that ASA followed.

This must stop.

#MeTooSociology

Update (08/06/18): Current IU sociology PhD student, Katie Beardall, tweeted that she, too, has been sexually harassed by Weinberg.

Sociologists, #CiteBlackWomen: Wear Your T-Shirt On Saturday, August 11, 2018!

Wear your Cite Black Women t-shirt on Saturday, August 11th!

Sociologists attending one or more of the upcoming conferences in Philadelphia, PA in August — Association for Black Sociologists, American Sociological Association, Society for the Study of Social Problems, Sociologists for Women in Society, Association for the Sociology of Religion, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction — please take part in the #CiteBlackWomen t-shirt campaign.  Purchase your “Cite Black Women” t-shirt immediately so that you can take part.  We will wear our cool t-shirts on Saturday, August 11th.  Besides taking part in this important cause, doing so is a great excuse to dress a bit more casual for the day. And, the proceeds go to the Winnie Mandela School in Salvador, Bahia.

(And, while you’re at it, please plan to wear any piece of white clothing on Sunday, August 12th in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence in our discipline. And, keep an eye out for #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual Violence buttons. See more info here.)

Growing evidence points to yet another way in which Black women’s contributions are devalued and ignored: academic citation rates. Unfortunately, even for those Black women academics who are able to thrive despite subtle and overt efforts to push them out of academia, their work is undercited relative to their white and male counterparts. To put it bluntly, the extent to which one’s publications are cited is a form of professional capital. So, this means that Black women are at yet another disadvantage when it comes to merit reviews, tenure, promotion, awards, grants, invitations, etc. — all of which also translates into yet another mechanism producing racial and gender disparities in income, power, and influence. It is yet another way in which Black women are not recognized for their intellectual and creative works, not compensated for their labor, and not considered worthy of learning from.

To quote the campaign’s founder, Dr. Christen A. Smith (@profsassy) of the Transformation Silence Collective:

It’s simple: Cite Black Women. We have been producing knowledge since we blessed this earth. We theorize, we produce, we revolutionize the world. We do not need mediators. We do not need interpreters. It’s time to disrupt the canon. It’s time to upturn the erasures of history. It’s time to give credit where credit is due. 

To be clear, these racial and gender disparities in citation rates undermine the advancement of new knowledge. So, why call for political action to address this matter?  Because “[c]itation is political.” This t-shirt campaign is, of course, just a start. But, every movement starts by bringing light to the issue.

The campaign’s broader goals are to encourage academics to make the following commitments:

  1. Read black women’s work.
  2. Integrate black women into the core of your syllabus.
  3. Acknowledge black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for black women to speak.
  5. Give black women “the space and time to breathe.”

Beyond buying and wearing the t-shirt, I call upon my fellow sociologists to intentionally and actively counter the systemic erasure of Black women academics’ work. Cite them. Assign their work. Hire them as consultants. Pay them for their labor. Nominate them for awards and elected positions. Include them on conference panels. Invite them to speak on campus. Become familiar with their work, and use whatever your privilege to amplify that work.

Further Reading About The #CiteBlackWomen Campaign: