Home » Posts tagged 'University of Richmond'

Tag Archives: University of Richmond

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.

A Response To My University President’s Essay On Free Speech

Dear University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher,

The following serves as an open letter to you in response to your July 10 opinion piece on The Hetchinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” My hands shake from the building anxiety as I write this public statement of dissent while I should be continuing my pattern of 12-hour days to prepare my tenure dossier.

In your essay, you argue:

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned, and have an explicit responsibility, to model substantive disagreement and dialogue that foster change — to give students information they can take into the classroom, living room, workplace and voting booth.

The true test of your publicly espoused beliefs about protecting free speech will be whether I am denied tenure in the next few months because of this blog post. Or, when I recently sparked a heated discussion on UR’s faculty listserv about institutionalized racism in higher education (including UR) after innocently sharing our colleague Dr. Bedelia Richard’s blog post on Conditionally Accepted (IHE). Or, in 2016, when I publicly criticized the university for failing to serve UR alumni CC Carreras and Whitney Ralston, who were raped by fellow students, and then blamed by university administration for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. Or even my 2014 blog post criticizing UR trustee Paul Queally for sexist and homophobic remarks that became public news and the university’s failure to distance themselves from such bigotry; since then, Queally has now been elected Rector of the Board of Trustees, and two additional buildings have been named after him. I acknowledge that some will read this blog post — coming after the president and the head of the trustees — might as well be a death-wish.

But, as Black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde aptly penned, “your silence will not protect you.” I see your continued campaign for your vision of free speech to be a threat to my free speech, my safety, and my career. So, writing this essay (and all of the others before it) is a risk — but so, too, is keeping my mouth shut as a good little pre-tenure professor is expected to.

Power And Oppression Are Missing From Your Analysis

Dr. Crutcher, the way that you write and talk about “free speech” treats “both sides” (to quote our nation’s president) as peers, equal in power and status. To you, it seems the Right and the Left, conservatives and liberals have equally valid points and perspectives — and each should be heard. But, all too often, what one “side” (the one on the right) has to say is not simply in opposition to what the other “side” has to say; frequently, conservatives and bigots espouse beliefs that undermine the humanity and safety of marginalized groups. By protecting the “free speech” of people like Charles Murray, you have invited a person whose perspective literally argues that Black people are biologically inferior to whites. This is not productive dialogue, or even disagreement; this is racial violence. Son of Baldwin has a very fitting view here: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

You miss the important question of who even has the right and ability to speak in the first place. Your note about the practice of disinviting controversial or even offensive speakers fails to acknowledge that marginalized populations are woefully underrepresented among those who have access to a big enough platform to be invited by a college to speak.  Certain ways of speaking and types of scholarship are systematically privileged over others.  Even in the rare moments that our own university has invited marginalized speakers — like Alicia Garza of #BlackLivesMatter, actress and activist Laverne Cox,  and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas — these individuals have achieved an almost impossible level of visibility for others like them.

You fail to acknowledge the way in which you and UR have privileged the free speech of some over others. In the 2017-2018 speaker series on “Free Speech, Immigration, and Identity,” 4 white cisgender men and 1 Latino cisgender man were featured. This signals to the university that we only value what cis men (especially white cis men) have to say. Apparently what trans women and men, cis women, non-binary and agender folx, and people of color have to say is worthless. If the views of marginalized groups are equally valued, that is not currently reflected in the university’s practices.  I’ll go one step further to say that our views should be valued even more to challenge the systemic ways in which our scholarship, creative works, speeches, and communities are devalued, dismissed, or destroyed.

Speech Isn’t Free For People Like Me

In the wake of intensified right-wing assaults on public scholars (particularly women of color), I am shocked that you — as a Black man who wields great power — are currently campaigning to make more space for conservative view points.

As a university president, I expect that you are well-versed in the literature on attacks on scholars by conservatives. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) created an entire site devoted just to the issue of targeted harassment against scholars. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have featured multiple essays on the “outrage machine” — a network of conservative journalists who intentionally and systematically spark assaults against public scholars. Scholars (especially those from one or more marginalized communities) who do work on racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, climate change, gun control, abortion, etc. are vulnerable to this manufactured outrage, which then leads to harassment, hate-mail, calls for their termination, bomb-threats, rape-threats, and death-threats. Former Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) President Abby Ferber recently published an essay on the issue: “‘Are You Willing to Die for This Work?’ Public Targeted Online Harassment in Higher Education.”

Her question isn’t an exaggeration. It is literally a question scholars must ask themselves before engaging with the public.  The harassment I have endured for a year now recently intensified to the level of threats of violence. I’ve been trolled and mocked by white supremacists and fellow sociologists alike. Our colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, received hostility after penning her blog post on institutionalized racism.  (She’s fortunate that the “outrage machine” didn’t come for her; it seems the major conservative outlets like Fox News and Washington Times didn’t catch wind of what the conservative student journalists had to say.) Assuming we continue our public writing, this will not be the last time that our “free” speech comes at a cost.

I pray we are never faced with Dr. Ferber’s question.  But, at the moment, it seems all that Dr. Richards and I have is prayer because the university is ill-equipped to protect us.  You see, as you are demanding free speech for all, you are ignoring that there is a systemic effort to silence us or worse. In order to do more than say you value free speech, you must act to protect free speech.  And, increasingly, that means protecting marginalized scholars and students from the hostility we endure when we dare to speak.  What will you do to ensure that we live long enough to fully enjoy the right to free speech?

What will you do to prevent students from filming our classes without our knowledge or consent, creating fodder for right-wing attacks?  (There is literally a website devoted to shaming and ultimately targeting professors deemed too liberal.)  What will you do to end the university’s reliance on student evaluations for tenure and promotion decisions and merit reviews in light of the mounting evidence that these forms really only measure students’ racist, sexist, transphobic, homo- and biphobic, and fatphobic biases?  From personal experience, I estimate that the accusations that I am promoting a political agenda, or even a “gay agenda,” in my classes are greatest when I am the least reticent to teach material on which I am an expert. This is an example of university policy that actually emboldens bias and hate speech and silences marginalized individuals.  I lose out, and then my marginalized students lose out even more because I still end up centering my classes around what privileged students will object to the least.

As a Black queer non-binary tenure-track professor, I have repeatedly had to choose between my tenureability and my survival.  Your campaign for free speech has no bearing on my life when I may lose my job, or even my life, in daring to speak in an institution and a society that demands my silence, invisibility, and conformity.  Once again, you cannot continue to peddle these color-, gender-, sexuality-, and class-blind calls for free speech.

Privileged Speech Isn’t Under Threat, But Higher Education Is

What I see from your free speech campaign is a Black, presumably politically liberal university president who is playing into the Right’s efforts to demolish higher education in the US.  The very thing you call for — “free speech” — has been turned into a weapon.  Dr. Victor Ray (now editor of Conditionally Accepted after I stepped down) wrote an excellent blog post on the topic., “Weaponizing Free Speech”:

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors.

Dr. Ray concludes:

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Beyond higher education, the Right is becoming more and more successful in using the First Amendment to legalize discrimination and fuel efforts to demolish unions.

It seems you are playing right into the hands of the Right.  But why?  Whose right to speech has been denied on UR’s campus?  Well, as I noted above, it seems to be Black public scholars like Dr. Richards and me. It seems to be students like CC who point out the persistence of rape culture at UR.  It’s others who are not wealthy white cishet men without disabilities — whether student or faculty.  I’m sure, given the constraints of being a Black president of a historically white university, it’s you, too.

As the US political climate grows increasingly xenophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, bi- and homophobic, I charge you to prioritize the speech of those of us whose lives are literally at stake for daring to speak our truths.  Please stop making a case for conservatives to be heard on campus; they are not a minority simply because their closed-minded views are debunked by rigorous empirical research.  As you allude in your title, it is not whites, men, cis people, the wealthy, people without disabilities, and heterosexuals who don’t have a “right to be here” on campus.  It is those treated as the Other who are regularly reminded that we are lucky to even be allowed to step foot on campus or, as you alluded in your USA Today opinion piece, that we are simply invited because it’s good for the business. As a condition of the generous gift of no longer being legally barred or slipping through systematic exclusion, we must keep quiet about the microaggressions, discrimination, sexual violence, and harassment we experience at UR.

Your call for free speech threatens to only welcome even more hate-speech and violence without recourse.  Oppression is counter to UR’s liberal arts mission and values; as such, the university must create platforms for marginalized students, staff, and faculty to speak without the threat of dismissal or violence. You have got a lot of work to do if you will make a genuine effort to ensure that everyone has a protected right to free speech.  I hope you will hear my disagreement with an open-mind, and that you will stand up for me (even if you disagree with my views) when the inevitable backlash comes my way.

Update, 7/29/2018 3:15pm EST:

Note that free speech should be distinguished from academic freedom, where the latter refers to the freedom to share one’s empirically-grounded perspective — freedom from professional consequences or attacks from the public. See Dr. Fulhana Sultana’s insightful 2018 essay on this distinction: “The False Equivalence of Academic Freedom and Free Speech,” in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(2): 228-257.  (Download the essay for free here.)

On Being A (Sorta Closeted) Non-Binary Professor

Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.

“On Being Trans And Non-Binary At UR: One (Sort Of Closeted) Professor’s Perspective”

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to write a love letter to transgender and non-binary identified students at UR, as I recently did for students of color.

DeniseDon’t get me wrong – I would much rather write that op-ed than this one. The difference here is not that I don’t care about the success, well-being, visibility, and future of trans and non-binary students – because I certainly do. Rather, I cannot speak with the same kind of experience and wisdom about being trans/non-binary as I can about race and racism. I can’t effectively love the beauty, creativity, brilliance, kindness, and bravery of you – my fellow trans and non-binary folk – because I’m still wrestling with loving myself.

I am in the closet as a non-binary identified person. A glass closet. With the door wide open. On paper and especially online, I am unapologetically genderqueer. I left my college years (2003-2007) beginning to tell others I identified as such, and first noted it in a blog post in 2009. I participated in two national surveys for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US. I’ve even begun toying with the idea of exclusively using the pronouns they/them/theirs, for he/him/his reflect my identity and experiences as little as do she/her/hers.

But, in person, particularly at work here at Richmond, I hide behind suits. I note my pronouns at the beginning of the year (though it still has been “he or they”), but would never gently remind others to use “they,” especially given my masculine presentation. In fact, I was so fearful of upsetting potentially transphobic cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) students in asking them which pronouns they use as a standard introduction for my classes. I’m already so far “out there” as a Black queer tenure-track professor, who does research on and teaches about controversial subjects (e.g., intersectionality, feminisms, queer theory, discrimination), and who is public in being an intellectual activist. So, I fear my little unicorn self cannot handle the backlash of yet another marginalized status – in this case, being non-binary.

To be fair to Richmond, the fear I carry is compounded by the fear of discrimination, violence, and exclusion in society generally. I hesitate to more intentionally play with my gender expression because we still live in a time where Black and Latina trans women are murdered at alarming rates. I know from my own research that the more visible one is as a trans or gender non-conforming person, the more discrimination one faces – and, in turn, the more likely one is to develop the health consequences of discriminatory treatment. Ironically, trans people experience discrimination and cultural incompetence in health care, as well. We are victimized at high rates, but are disproportionately incarcerated – not to mention frequently ignored or even harassed by law enforcement. Somehow, I’ve gotten comfortable with being out “in theory,” but, I tend to hide my non-binaryness in everyday interactions.

Beyond the fear of transphobic discrimination and violence, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, I simply don’t know who I am in terms of gender. I announced at the age of 5 to my mother that I should have been born a girl. At 30, I’m still wrestling with a sense of being born in the wrong body. So, I’ve seriously questioned whether I am transgender. The problem is, the issues I have with my body do not pertain to the sex I was assigned at birth (i.e., male). In fact, my body isn’t the problem; rather, it is with those stubborn gendered meanings that are associated with my sex. I typically feel as though I have little in common with other men; in masculine spaces, I feel like an outsider. But, I also don’t feel at home in spaces for women, either. Still yet, I feel like an outsider in the few spaces carved out for transgender people. Despite the growing visibility of trans people, I still see few people like myself in the world. (Miley Cyrus might be the only non-binary celebrity I can think of… for better or for worse.)

I’ve considered saying “fuck it,” and letting my spirit and heart, rather than society and my fears of being denied tenure, dictate how I present myself to the world. As a good sociologist, I know that man, woman, transgender, and cisgender are all socially constructed categories; but that kind of gender-agnosticism (or atheism, if you prefer) doesn’t help me to navigate the real consequences of presenting myself in the world in certain gendered ways. I’d love to occasionally present myself as what some call “genderfuck,” wherein you intentionally defy rigid gendered norms, almost as parody – something along the lines of Jacob Tobia’s look. But, that critical, perhaps internalized-transphobic voice in my head says don’t do it because it may be seen as a “distraction” from my classes and my research. I fear showing up in my sassy red wig, sleek red dress, and masculine combat boots might be considered making a mockery of the classroom – or, worse, distracting from the “real” experiences of trans students (and staff and faculty). I want to be seen as a serious academic, so I’ve decided that now isn’t a good time to “play dress up.”

Oops… I did it again. Once again, I am talking openly about being non-binary – hiding in plain sight, really. Why take the time to ponder about these matters – and so publicly? I’m doing so because I know that I am not alone. I am a close friend of two staff members who are trans/non-binary. (Sadly, I don’t know of any other out trans or non-binary faculty). I know of a handful of students who are trans or non-binary. And, there are likely others who are struggling to navigate the rigid gender binary, the sex-assigned-at-birth-as-gender-destiny force, and the assumptions others make and the values they hold about specific gender categories. I know that realizing that one is not alone – particularly when oppressed students see themselves reflected at the front of the classroom – can be incredibly affirming. So, I’m sharing myself, with all of my hang-ups and confusions, with you in hopes of being a little trans island on a cisgender-dominant campus.

It’s not easy for any of us – students, staff, faculty, or administrators – to be authentic and visible in categories that are not reflected in the majority or in the institution’s policies, practices, and mission. We are increasingly recognizing that trans and non-binary students exist at UR, but treat them as special cases, while we leave in place the sex-segregation of the coordinate college system. We defend that system because of the benefits for women students (e.g., resources and support for leadership among women), but offer no parallel program that would benefit trans and non-binary students. Only in LGBTQ spaces have I heard introductions request to know one’s pronouns; otherwise, we typically make assumptions based on one’s perceived sex assigned at birth. The university prides itself on racial and ethnic diversity, but LGBTQ inclusion rarely comes up in conversations about diversifying the faculty and student body. Gender-inclusive bathrooms remain few and far between (literally). I could go on… I’ve seen real progress on this campus toward LGBTQ inclusion, so I’m aware some of these very issues are discussed and real change is coming.

To clarify, I raise the above points not to label the university transphobic (though, by design, almost every social institution is), but rather to highlight the structural and cultural barriers to being out and authentic as a non-binary or transgender person on this campus. It is hard to love yourself when you don’t see yourself, when you aren’t encouraged to be your true self, and, at times, when you experience actual hostility because of who you are. I dream of a future in which I, and other trans and non-binary folk on this campus, am braver in being visible, being vocal, and being authentic. I see you, fellow unicorns; I hope you see me, too, even when I hide in plain sight.

A Love Letter To Students Of Color

Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.

Me - Ford“Dr. Grollman, this is the worst chapter of my life,” a Black woman student revealed to me in my office two years ago. Her comment was heartbreaking, especially coming from an individual who has lived but two decades and was on her way to finishing her degree at this world-class university. I refrained from trivializing her comments, avoiding some flippant response like college supposedly being a time of fun and self-exploration as though she had chosen, instead, to be miserable. Rather, I told her that I believed her, as I would when anyone has revealed that they have suffered from violence (in her case, the intersections among racism, sexism and classism). I pointed out resources that were available to her to help her survive and, ideally, thrive on campus. And, I asked that she consider finding ways to leave the campus in better shape than when she arrived, for I do not want to hear cohort after cohort of Black University of Richmond students reveal their misery to me.

That student’s misery was not unique to her experiences at UR. Although other students have not quite gone as far as to declare that their four to five years at Richmond are the worst chapter of their lives, they have expressed their misery in similar terms. I have lost count of the number of students of color who have revealed their intentions to transfer, or that transferring is not possible given the generous scholarship and/or financial aid they are receiving. Better yet, I do not know how many are not miserable, looking to leave or counting the days until their graduation – it does not seem like many.

Students of color, I see you come into my class with a dark cloud over your head. I know you use your hoodie, blaring music on your headphones and a facial expression that says, “Don’t f*** with me!” as a shield to your racist and classist surroundings. Maybe you have checked out of the campus social scene all together, or you begrudgingly go to lodge parties because there is nothing else to do. Or, you go to events by groups of color though they always seem to have a heavier police presence. Some of you desperately try to find community, only to be disappointed that social class, or gender, or sexuality, or religion, or ethnicity, or nationality, or even racial politics create divisions that make community for people of color nearly impossible. Many of you want to change things, to make Richmond more diverse and inclusive, but are so disenchanted by the lack of a political culture on campus – why even bother if only 20 people show up, or if white students will dismiss your efforts because we live in a supposedly post-racial society now?

You are all young, gifted and Black. But, I know that more often than not, you feel nothing more than Black on this campus. I believe you. And, I believe that if I were a student here today, I, too, would be miserable. I cannot imagine being able to breathe in what appears to be a suffocating environment for many students of color.

But, as a professor, I am able to breathe. And, with more and more support from my department colleagues, Dean Kathleen Skerrett, Provost Jacquelyn Fetrow, Associate Provost Lázaro Lima and President Ronald Crutcher, I have been able to breathe more deeply. I know that with that privilege, I am also charged with the responsibility of helping others who cannot breathe as deeply – and, that largely means you, students of color. Despite the lack of exposure to critical race, feminist and queer perspectives in my academic training, I am pushing myself to bring these perspectives to my classes in sociology, even those cross-listed with WGSS and Healthcare Studies. Despite the pervasive myth of objectivity in academia, I push myself to not only “show up” as a professor of color, but also to be authentic, for having brown and black faces is meaningless if they do not bring diverse perspectives and experiences. Despite fearing for my job security and physical safety, I push myself to be brave on campus to model for you that you can be a critical, academic and Black.

Students of color, you are not alone, despite the small numbers of Black, Latino/a, Asian and American Indian students (when you calculate by each specific race and ethnicity). You are not alone in feeling miserable, in wanting to leave, in wanting to demand change. You are not alone in experiencing racial discrimination, racial battle fatigue, racist microaggressions and being subject to racist stereotypes. You are not alone in wanting to just get that degree, cross that stage so you can make your mother proud, and get a good job afterward – but wondering if it is all worth it considering the obstacles that lie ahead and those you have already overcome. You are young, gifted and Black – and you are many.

Let’s be real for a moment. Richmond, like most universities, was neither created for nor by people of color. We had to push our way in through court cases and protests. Still today, “diversity” rhetoric in academia rings hallow in the face of segregation and strained race relations on campuses, while racist white conservatives are still challenging Affirmative Action. Meritocracy in society, including higher education, is a myth. It is dangerous to assume that this university will be here for us, will look out for us, will treat us equally, will affirm our existence. We are, by and large, on our own.

So, I ask, then, that you find others around you to build community. Get out of your dorm rooms, and stop hanging exclusively with your roommates and floormates. If existing groups are exclusive, demand that they become more inclusive, or start your own group. I want you to think creatively about how to make your voice heard. Alumna Dana MacLaughlin, WC ’14, conducted a wonderful historical analysis of LGBTQ life at Richmond over time, which you can see online at the Office of Common Ground’s website – I recommend a similar project, or at least using The Collegian to document your life, your existence, your amazing work. Every event that you plan related to race and ethnicity, be sure that a Collegian reporter is there with a camera; if they do not show up, write your own op-ed about why you planned it or what happened. Think about what you need to survive and thrive while you are a student here, and also think ahead to how you can improve the campus for future classes of students of color. Reach out to faculty and staff of color to ask how they might support you, too; sometimes we simply do not know what is going on, and get consumed with our own survival. But, we likely had support to get here, too.

If you are miserable right now, that is fine. Please do not pretend otherwise. But, you deserve better. The reality is, “better” has never been handed to us, and probably never will be. With President Crutcher at the helm, now is definitely the time to make your voices heard, to demand that the university genuinely live up to its promises of diversity and inclusion, and to leave your mark on this fine university of ours. Trust me, you will sleep better at night in 10 years knowing that you might have been miserable, but were active in working to improve the campus.