Last Week at Wellesley

The photo above was taken by my Wellesley College Freedom Project host, Mustafa Akyol, just after we came out of my lecture last Tuesday night. I’m the person second from the right. Everyone else was apparently there to protest my speaking.

Seeing this remarkable scene, I asked Mustafa if he would take that photo for me, and if we could please stay and talk with these folks rather than just leaving, and he said of course. When I then asked these students what they wanted to talk about, the apparent leader said they all didn’t want to talk to me. I asked why they’d be there if they didn’t have something to say. The leader responded with something like, “We don’t owe you anything!”

I stayed anyway, and students started to talk, to question, to challenge. We ended up staying and talking with them for about 45 minutes.

Apparently, they had been led to believe I am a sworn enemy of transgender rights. So, it must have been confusing when I explained that I am against the state determining what our legal gender identities are, that I support all mature individuals determining their social and legal gender identities, and that I believe medical insurance (including public insurance) should pay for transgender interventions if an informed, consenting person believes she or he will be helped by them.

Earlier, in the Q&A after my talk, one of the protesters who had bothered to come in to it asked me whether it was true I believed in “gender conversion” therapy. I asked what this was supposed to mean. The questioner said it meant trying to convince a child that her gender is really that which matches her natal sex, not what she has declared.

My reply was that if a female child came to a “gender clinic” and said she was a boy, I think it is quite reasonable—indeed, clinically responsible—to ask her why she feels that way. If she says she thinks she is a boy because she wants to grow up to enter a traditional-male field—say construction work—and wants to marry a woman, it makes sense to explain to her that girls can grow up to be women construction workers who marry women. Was that conversion therapy? It seemed to me otherwise. (Good ole-fashioned feminism. And good clinical care.)

Where were these people getting their ideas, I wondered, about gender identity development, about the supposed gender binaries of the world, and about me?

Earlier in the day, in a class co-taught by the Freedom Project’s Director, Tom Cushman, a student had read aloud to me something I supposedly have said about transgender people. It was so comically bigoted, it was hard to take seriously. But apparently someone somewhere said I said this, and this “quote” from me was being transmitted in an email around campus, the one calling for the protest of me. I explained in that class and later in my talk that there are fake social media accounts in my name, including fake blogs, with my photo and my name. A student asked why I “let that happen.” I answered that I can’t spend my life chasing them down and trying to stop them.

(I tried that once, with Facebook. Did you know if someone sets up a fake Facebook account in your name, you have to prove you are you by sending a photo of your passport ID page to Facebook? The person stealing your identity doesn’t have to prove she’s you. To this day, Twitter won’t shut down a fake account using my name and photo, no matter how many times I and my followers ask.)

All in all, I think the engagement at the Wellesley protest went well, even if it was an ironic lesson in the social construction of identity. A number of students came up to me to say they had really had their minds opened by realizing what they’re told about someone might not at all be true. A few told me they were planning to push back against the problem of what amounts to falsehood-based activism.

So, I felt like I did a pretty good job for the students and faculty there. But it was impossible not to leave with a renewed sense of just how fucked up campuses are right now.

One young woman student who provided the first comment after my talk said this: She had come from Poland thinking that she was coming from a place of restricted freedoms to a place of greater freedom. But Wellesley had turned out to be a disappointment in that regard.

Another told me one-on-one that she felt exhausted being at this women’s college, having her gender identity, her biology, her feminism constantly questioned, constantly being told she was inadequately thoughtful and too full of cis-privilege to be allowed to speak freely.

Faculty members told me of colleagues being shut-down in their classes for trying to use words and ideas and readings that a small number of students found “offensive” and “oppressive.”

The disjuncture between this kind of thing and what was actually faced by the international scholars being safe-housed (temporarily) in the Freedom Project – it was too much.

Mustafa, a journalist and intellectual, left Turkey as the government there began actively moving against journalists who crossed it. He had also been arrested in Malaysia by the religious police for daring to talk about Islam and the oppression of rational dialogue. Freedom for him isn’t rhetorical.

Delaram Farzaneh is also housed at the Freedom Project for now, continuing her work on women’s rights in Iran, knowing that if she gets sent back to Iran….well. It’s pretty scary to think about.

I was thinking about Mustafa and Delaram as I faced the crowd outside the lecture room, and, as a result, it was impossible not to think about the privilege of that group, including me. What was at stake? Maybe some angry posts about me on social media. More dis-invitation attempts. Whatever. I wasn’t going to be arrested for this, or have my family’s safety threatened. And in all likelihood, neither were these protesters. America still had that intact. The police there interacted really well with me, my hosts, and the protesters. I felt like they were there for all of us.

But I don’t know. This past week—the murder of high school students and staff in Parkland, Florida; the news of Facebook being used to by Putin’s trolls to sway the American electoral process; the insane decision by Kentucky State University to update its Student Code of Conduct to forbid students from embarrassing each other (no kidding): it’s hard not to want to take these smart, privileged students of Wellesley and shake them awake to The Bigger Things. Freedom.

(But they think I am the enemy, because I talk about autogynephilia.)

I had breakfast while I was at Wellesley with my friend and colleague Susan Reverby, the great historian of medicine known best for her exceptional historical work on Tuskegee and Guatemala. A few years back, Susan had worked with Tom Cushman to try to push for academic freedom internationally via the Wellesley campus. As a college student, Susan was an anti-war protester, and now she is working on a book about an age-mate of hers who went all in on the anti-war movement.

We talked over bacon and eggs about whether students today even know what that protest looked like (Kent State), whether they know of McCarthyism, whether they know what the Soviets did?

I am loath to play “kids these days.” Every generation of college protesters has had their elders dismiss their concerns as misguided, self-centered, a product of foolish privilege. It seems like it is better to be awake and sensitive and reactive to something than nothing. I admire that in them.

But where, I wonder, is the scholarship happening that ought to undergird meaningful protest? Where is the intellectual humility, the attempt at analysis and synthesis? The teaching of more than one side? Are these college campuses, or are they sit-ins in search of a war?

A student asked me in class, and I answered in the lecture: How can we do better activism? This is roughly what I said:

  1. Think about the outcome you are trying to achieve. If it is vague, you’re not really trying to do anything important. It needs to be specific, something you can measure progress toward. (I did not say, but I believe, that if the outcome desired is some vague thing, you are engaged not in activism but a kind of psychosocial masturbation. Just leave me out of it.)
  2. Spend time in nonpartisan activities. Do work that is just plain descriptive and not normative. Doing such work allows you to see more clearly, and it allows you to see what your supposed opponent probably thinks and believes, moving you away from creating caricatures of them, towards understanding them and being able to talk with them. Nonpartisan work makes you think anew about what counts as a fact.
  3. Pay attention to relationships by sitting down and breaking bread with the people you are trying to change. Change doesn’t happen via protests and slogans and blogs. It happens over coffee and beer with “the enemy.”
  4. Think about the tools you are using to do your work. If the tools can be misused by others, be aware you are building tools that very well might be misused by others. Don’t promote an arms race.

At Wellesley, some of the faculty asked me if I want to go back to an academic job. (They were, as faculty always are, startled by events surrounding my resignation from Northwestern.) I never know how to answer that question. I miss teaching. I miss the opportunity to work to improve the activism of students. I miss having the regular company of people as fine as Susan, Tom, Mustafa, and Delaram. I especially miss the chance to get lost in descriptive scholarship.

But I don’t miss the idea that maybe I should watch every word I say. I don’t miss having colleagues who earnestly mistake ideology for scholarship.

Providing nonpartisan investigative reporting for a city that would otherwise lack it feels extremely purposeful right now. Working on thinking about how to seed “citizen news militias,” like the one I founded, around the nation feels even better. Working on various projects about academic freedom feels great. Writing, on the side, a murder mystery with an extremely sympathetic autogynephilic character feels mischievous and liberating.

And what, in my identity-based activism, did I ever manage to change anyway? Only my own identity, from reality to pure fiction. What a silly, stupid outcome.