Transphobia in the Academy: Feminist Edition

[Content note: transphobia and transphobic hate speech, rape, death, violence.)

Last week, Liss sent me a link to this story at the Transadvocate; it details a chilling letter sent to trans* activist Dallas Denny from a group of anonymous radical feminist academics. She asked if I would try to address the matter as an academic, since I am more familiar with that environment than she is. Academic or no, this is pretty terrible.

The threatening letter was in response to a year-old letter that Ms. Denny and Dr. Jamison Green had penned to Routledge Press. In it, they had expressed their concerns regarding the publication of an upcoming book by Dr. Sheila Jeffreys and Dr. Lorene Gottschalk, Gender Hurts, which included transphobic material.

That was a year ago. On July 26, Denny received a letter "signed" by an anonymous group calling themselves "Women for Academic Freedom," who are apparently Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). In it, WFAF claimed that trans* activists were trying to silence women and feminists. They promised, as of fall 2013, to launch a wave of new classes that would indoctrinate teach an entire new generation of feminists to view trans* advocacy as a patriarchal silencing tool, and to distrust and denigrate trans* folk.

My first thought? WFAF's letter is remarkably reminiscent of the comments left by asshats who show up at Shakesville in response to critiques of Penny Arcade or Fat Princess. Quite remarkably.

The classic hallmarks were all there: conflating critique with censorship (nope!), lots of projection, circular arguments, embarassingly inaccurate reference to Orwell and McCarthy, and threats made behind the mask of anonymity. It's also reminiscent of right-wing concern trolls: references to a vast conspiracy, the promise to indoctrinate a generation of students into "right" thinking, mistaking criticism for hate speech, and a name invoking quite the opposite of what the group actually does. "Women for Academic Freedom"? Sure.

I've seen some pretty bad behavior in academe before, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a group of feminists so perfectly mimic fanboy trolls and rightwing assholes. And lest anyone think that we get to hide behind the argument that they're not "real" feminists, let me direct you to the link Liss Tweeted last week about "real Christians." I hope you can see the parallel. I don't get to dismiss transphobic radical feminists as not "real feminists," but I sure as hell don't have to let them speak for me. Nor do I have to let their bullshit go by unchallenged.

So let's start with the claim of censorship:

Currently, we are in the planning stage of developing correctives that both counter and point up the dangers revealed in the letter to Rutledge Press. In order to highlight the numerous incidents designed to deny women and feminists the right to express critical theories we decided it best to focus on Ms. Jeffreys’ theories specifically.

First and foremost: the book is still being published. So, the claims of censorship seem exaggerated (to say the least). Academic presses, like any press, are under no obligation to publish anything. They send manuscripts to peer academics for review, and not-infrequently reject the manuscript at that stage.

They may also receive other feedback, like this letter, which they're free to consider or reject. And in this case, as Denny made abundantly clear in her post, Routledge wrote back explaining their plans to go forward with publication. A year ago. In Denny's words: "We thanked Dr. North for his letter, and that was the end of it."

So much for the all-powerful trans* activist "censors." And even if Routledge had decided not to publish... so what? That's their call. It doesn't mean Jeffreys and Gottschalk can't shop their manuscript to another publisher (again, happens ALL the time with academic rejections). It doesn't mean they are banned from speaking and teaching their theories. And while we're talking about silencing speech, is "Women for Academic Freedom" really proposing that no trans* activist should ever write letters about things which concern them? Okay, players.

WFAF also describe announce their plans to implement new courses for the fall:

In the classroom the first order of the day will confront the ever ubiquitous over used manipulative claim of “transphobia”—which sounds hollow when students see that the primary victims are natal women who happen to hold opinions and write things that you and others do not happen to like. Again we will address, why? The claim of transphobia, once undressed and parsed is revealed as a bullying and shaming tactic used specifically against natal women.

So identifying transphobia is mainly about silencing cis women? Yeah, that makes sense. To Bizarro, perhaps.

Me? I think that calling out transphobia is about things like trying to prevent violence against trans* women, who are disproportionately the victims of anti-LGBT*Q violence. About addressing a legal and social support system that makes it extraordinarily difficult for trans* women to escape domestic abuse. Can any decent person, when faced with the murders of Diamond Williams and Dwayne Jones, the attacks on trans* women in DC and all the other recent violence against trans* and non-gender-conforming folk, REALLY stand to make this claim? That discussing transphobia is all about silencing cis women? No. No decent person can.

And if I'm "bullying and shaming" by pointing out the moral disgust I feel at the re-centering of anti-transphobia activism around the criticism of cis academics, so be it. I support the academic freedom of professors to design courses as we wish, within the boundaries of our disciplinary methodologies, even when I find those courses repugnant. But that doesn't mean I can't express disgust at obscene bigotry.

I can't offer an opinion as to whether the methods of the courses proposed are acceptable under the professional ethics and methodology of the respective professors' disciplines, because of the anonymity of the letter. But the writers do seem pretty confused about many, many things. For example:

It will not go over students’ heads that certain forms of contemporary thought push toward Orwellian conformity and can be understood best as tools of the privileged, by which they manipulate the uninformed into imagining the victimizer is the victim.

Ah, yes, I remember that part in 1984 where Winston suddenly realizes that he's being tortured by O'Brien because he's so very privileged. Likewise, I'm sure trans* folk feel extremely privileged when they die due to being denied hospital care, or denied justice when sexually assaulted, specifically because of their gender identity. Because trans* folk are exactly as privileged and powerful as Big Brother's Party, re-defining words so that those things seem like evidence that trans* folk face deadly systemic discrimination.

I don't think.

Then there's this:

In researching this situation we have found a deeply disturbing pattern of lies and manipulations coupled with threats and other unsavory tactics, all of which are documented, some even on video. As academics, as researchers and as writers we assert that this tyranny carries us right back to McCarthyism... We will continue to coordinate our efforts so that our classrooms will be at the forefront of questioning transgender as a valid political movement—or perhaps that is just a veil for a misogynist hate group. We will take a holistic approach and posit the distinct possibility of a fatuous diagnosis designed to camouflage less sympathetic and socially accepted issues. Students after they sift through the death and rape threats sent by Transgender “activist” to women and feminists will understand why the syllabi are not posted on-line or on the blackboard, and our decision to procure texts from other than usual sources will make clear sense to them.

In 1950, Senator McCarthy alleged a vast conspiracy by members of the Communist party to infiltrate American institutions and turn them over to Communism. He supported this claim by saying he had a list of 205---or was it 57? known Communists in the State Department, actively shaping policy. McCarthy's vague and fluctuating "list" helped fuel the years of investigations and persecutions that followed.

I explain this, because as I look at this letter, I do see some McCarthy-esque tactics. But they are not coming from Denny and Green. Vague allegations of "a disturbing pattern of lies and manipulations" ? Alleged, but not produced, documentary "proof" backing up these claims? A trans* activist-terrorist conspiracy so vast and powerful that even sending in textbook orders isn't safe? Sure.

Let me be clear: I do not doubt that female academics, including the letter writers, receive death and rape threats. Sadly that's a phenomenon female bloggers know all too well. Daring to be a woman in public is a dangerous thing. Further, I've no problem accepting that some of those nastygrams come from trans* folk. I've yet to meet an oppressed group that didn't include some individuals who would do that, or even groups of assholes who band together for the sole purpose of harassment.

But, based on the letter's tenuous relationship with logic and evidence, I have a wee problem accepting the allegation that activists like Denny and Green are part of an organized vast trans* conspiracy dedicated to silencing academics via death threats. I have a small issue with accepting that trans* activism is just a front for violence. If it were, why bother with the charade of writing a polite letter to Routledge? Surely some brass knuckles or whatever would be more effective. If this evidence is so persuasive, why keep it bottled up in the classroom? Surely the entire world needs to see the evidence for this "disturbing pattern," right? All 205 names and such?

Don't get me wrong: I sympathize with anyone receiving threats. And it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to question why anyone would remain anonymous or pseudonymous. But I don't sympathize with using that anonymity to issue threats against oppressed people:

Simply put, we’re “stealth”. We’re confident that you realize this piece of correspondence is not meant in anyway to be interpreted as part of dialogue. It is meant to let you know that you just secured Sheila Jeffreys another generation and your attempts to censor her are a case study in: the reach exceeds the grasp. By the time we are done the transgender movement and those names attached will be more accurately seen as like carnival hucksters and boss man thugs and Sheila Jeffreys will drop a note on personal stationary thanking you for the spike in sales.

Well, that's productive, isn't it? I find it curious that a group dedicated the open discussion, critique and criticism is making it clear they have no interest in dialogue. And that a group inspired by the "silencing" of feminist academics is so happy to promise that they will smear trans* activists far and wide. This reads more like something out of The Sopranos than any academic writing with which I'm familiar.

I could critique the disgusting trans* hate and shitty reasoning in this letter for hours, but let me skip ahead. (Feel free to continue in comments, of course.)

I don't question the academic rights of these professors. I do, however, dispute the moral rightness of teaching this hateful shit.

Simply put, ignoring the lived experiences of trans* folk, sweeping aside the violence they live with, the employment discrimination, the fear that can accompany something as simple as going to the bathroom or shopping for clothes, or all the million other ways that trans* folk are treated as less than? That's wrong. Trying to teach students that they should hate and fear fellow students, teachers, loved ones, colleagues, who happen to be trans* men and women, is wrong. Re-centering discussions about trans* issues to focus on a relatively privileged group, cis women, is wrong. I know readers of this space know this, but it cannot be said enough.

But academic freedom (although it is far from perfectly applied) is supposed to work both ways. It protects the right to cover trans* issues accurately in class. It protects the right for professors to be trans* activists and allies off-campus and on. For trans* academics, to make their voices heard, and for cis academics to support them. That's what academic freedom is supposed to do, and by Maude, I will be using mine as much as I can.

It may be a teaspoon. But my teaspoon and I? We are all in.

ETA: typos

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