Opposing “Women for Academic Freedom”

Opposing “Women for Academic Freedom” July 31, 2013

A friend brought to my attention this letter by an anonymous group, calling itself Women for Academic Freedom, claiming that a critique of a soon-to-be-published book’s transphobic aspects is actually part of a well-orchestrated attempt by transgendered folks to oppress women. More than they’re already oppressed. Or something.

If that’s what academic freedom looks like, I don’t want any part in it.

Academic freedom does not mean that you get to invent agendas or twist facts to your liking. It should not mean that you get to target a minority group and then blame them for your own problems. It should also not mean that you twist feminism to be a rallying cry in the oppression of others.

According to the CDC, transgender people are among the highest risk groups for HIV infection. This round-up of transgender murder statistics suggests that transgender people are far more likely to be murdered than cis-gendered people (though by how much is difficult to determine, as this is a population often forced to work underground, so statistics can be hard to come by). More stats on physical and sexual violence can be found here.

Somehow the “Women for Academic Freedom” seem to have not noticed any of these truths about how much violence and hardship transgendered people face on a daily basis. It makes me suspect that they’re not, in the end, very good at research. It also looks as though they’ve bought into a zero sum game, similar to what we folklorists like to call a limited-good worldview: the idea that there’s only so much “good” (whether wealth or good luck or general prosperity) to go around in a given community, and thus anyone who’s able to get a piece of the pie is automatically depriving someone else of theirs. Paying attention to the struggles of transgender people need not detract from feminist concerns about the oppression of women.

If anything, this is a rehashing of the old “can a feminist really choose to be a stay-at-home mom?” debate. The important thing, from my rather third-wave vantage point, is that feminism encourages women to choose their own life paths, regardless of whether they’re engaging in a traditionally feminine pursuit or not. What matters is that they’re able to choose it, in a more-or-less unconstrained manner (and I know, we could sit and debate all day about whether any choice in a patriarchal context is unconstrained, but hopefully, eventually, all people, both men and women, will be able to make choices outside unduly coercive situations). And really, I thought we’d gotten over this question – but here it is again, rehashed in a new setting. These “Women for Academic Freedom” seem to be saying, “But those terrible transpeople are adhering to rigid gender roles, which are exactly what we radical feminists are trying to destroy, so that they can no longer oppress women!” Um, people, let’s try this again: it doesn’t matter whether you’re choosing to do something masculine or feminine, whether it’s a woman choosing to stay at home with kids or go out working or try both, or whether it’s a person choosing their gender identity to conform to given gender roles or not… it’s the same debate.

Prescriptive gender roles suck for many people, so let’s simply accept it when people choose to embrace any and all aspects of a gender role, whether or not it’s the one they were assigned at birth. Let’s encourage people to figure out what works for them as individuals, in this weird world of conflicting messages and multiple waves of feminism and lots of backlash against both feminists and non-gendered-conforming individuals. Why can’t we see that this is the same struggle, to police identities?

This excellent Shakesville post already refuted most of the point that the “Women for Academic Freedom” tried to make in their letter. It’s a stellar post, so you should go read it. In case you don’t, however, here are two of my favorite paragraphs:

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.

Academic freedom is not about teaching hate. It should be about teaching rigorous research skills, and spreading knowledge, and showing students how to sift through facts in order to reach a bigger picture, even knowing that there are often multiple interpretations of a given situation, and no single one may be the only right one.

I’m learning how to become a trans ally, which in no way conflicts with my feminism, or my academic freedom. That’s part of why I write about this stuff, to hopefully promote tolerance, and encourage people to think about the ideas they’ve been indoctrinated with (and I include myself in that category, as I don’t doubt that my cis-gendered privilege sometimes gets in the way of me seeing the actual risks and realities of trans issues).

I engage with trans issues with little risk to myself, which is an indication of the privilege I as a cis-gendered person hold. For an intelligent, compelling rumination on what it is to engage with risk and teach (trans)gender from a sociology perspective, check out this guest post at Conditionally Accepted. I highly, highly recommend it.

And in the meantime, let’s all keep fighting for an academic freedom that doesn’t invent enemies and further the oppression of already-struggling groups, eh?


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