Being Trans: An Open Letter to the Brooklyn College Community

November 3, 2020

To the Brooklyn College Community:

On September 21st, 2020, I was notified that a Brooklyn College (BC) student (who had disenrolled from a course I am teaching this semester) contacted Campus Reform (CR), a self-touted media outlet for so-called “college news.” The organization’s spokesperson had reached out to BC’s administration as a follow-up. The story they were running concerned the circumstances of this student’s disenrollment. I teach “Fundamentals of Sexuality and Gender Studies” and, with all of my classes, my syllabus contains a “Pronouns, Gender Identity, and Racial Insensitivity” policy. The student argued that the policy was unjust and chilling to their (the student remains anonymous so gender shouldn’t be assumed here) right to free speech. The policy, verbatim, follows:

Pronouns, Gender Identity, and Racial Insensitivity: My name is B. Call me B. I am nonbinary, transfeminine. For more information concerning the use of these terms please consult http://www.transstudent.org/. I use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them). I adhere to a strict policy of respect for the gender, sexual, and racial identities of my students. Intentional misgendering, as with any attempt to slur another student’s personal integrity on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion, will result in immediate dismissal from class for that session. Continued abuses will result in disciplinary action with the appropriate administrators. 

I had taken multiple calls that day. Most were coaching me about the expected call from College Dean, Kenneth Gould. The calls were reviewing my own meaning of the policy, its intended meaning, as well as its plain meaning. The calls were supportive and kind. In fact, I headed into the phone meeting with Dean Gould with quite a positive attitude. And the call proved to be stimulating and productive. The content turned on the perceived authority of any instructor to remove a student from class. On what grounds, to be more precise, could an instructor do so and did my policy include such grounds? I contended that it did. That the use of “intentional” converged both original (my own intention of the policy) and plain textual meaning (ordinary meaning of the policy). I had the definition of intentional in-hand (“any planned or intended action”) as well as synonyms (“deliberate” or “designed”) to make the point. I argued that the policy didn’t involve removing students for accidental (or unintentional) misgendering or other possibly insensitive utterances. The policy could have read “[Deliberate] misgendering…” or “[Planned and/or purposeful] misgendering…” and the textual distinctions wouldn’t amount to a meaningful difference. The Dean agreed, but wondered if removal was the right approach. 

The administration’s general contention was that there were more nuanced ways to approach the situation. (Readers should note that the term “situation” implies more than a physical place but affect, as well; of the sensation of being called into sudden conscious awareness of certain surrounding facts.) They argued that the pedagogical aim of the classroom was to learn and that removing a student didn’t reproduce learning. Or, more precisely, the student who engaged in the problematic speech-act wouldn’t learn and, thus, grow from that experience if they were removed from the dialogue. Indeed, it was the structure of dialogue that animated the administration’s perspective. My rebuttal was that intentional acts, speech or otherwise, that ground themselves on bias are violent. They disrupt the learning environment. They thwart the possibility of effective dialogue because some students who are hailed, or named, by the speech act disengage. They are, in recent vocabulary on the subject, triggered by such speech. The study of trauma and its effects, most notably for students living or diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have found that student dissociation from classroom engagement occurs at the textual level (Students who are veterans, in particular, have been the largest subject sample of these studies.). Wouldn’t living with PTSD have a similar if not more immediate reaction to aural and verbal stimuli if the written word, alone, is enough to trigger an emotional disturbance? The study I reference here suggests that the needs of all students as a micro-community of learners must be taken into account when discussing potentially triggering material. Wouldn’t this hold especially true for a class whose title and course material directly reflect the traumatic, political, and racially marginalized past of queer and trans people? Dialogue is based upon certain pre-figured premises of reason and thoughtfulness. Aren’t these premises violated by these forms of hate speech? I believe that these instances forge the basis for an instructor to remove students who deliberately violate the personal integrity and humanity of another student. 

The outcome was briefer than the conversation. I was to alter my policy to allow for more nuanced approaches in duration of the class. The administration would not allow student removal but instead promoted the referral of problem students to the Title IX Coordinator. And so I responded accordingly. And CR ran its piece.

The article, “Prof promises to kick students out of class for ‘misgendering’ other students,” contains content that, ironically, violates the very code of conduct I value in my classroom. I am referred to by my deadname (Brandon) only. I am misgendered in every instance a pronoun substitutes my name. And I am discussed as more than a troubling educator; I am also maligned as an antagonist to student learning overall. Perhaps more troubling, I think, is the fact that another BC professor is implicated in having submitted the syllabus to CR in the first place (which is fully uploaded onto the site). The professor (also anonymous) goes on record to state that “This is a particularly aggressive abuse of what is clearly a trend towards enforcing speech codes on students and faculty.” Particularly aggressive? I find that strange considering the veritable hermeneutic circle I ran with Dean Gould over plain and original meaning of the word “intentional.” I’m also uncertain as to why the professor wants to remain anonymous. I understand the student’s hesitance to be named. But if I were calling out one of my colleagues at the college in such a public way, I would take ownership of that call-out. I would especially do so if I were tenured and my colleague were, say, an adjunct at the institution. Open discussion implies accountability to our deeds and our position of power. I think my colleague can do better.

The student does not have to possess the same kind of accountability in this circumstance. The power dynamic between professor and student is of a different register. Anonymity is often necessary. I am, however, just dismayed by the reasoning behind their disenrollment. “It is unreasonable to expect everyone to be accepting of the new standards of proper or acceptable behavior that the twenty-first century has made way for with its fast-changing dynamic.” They further state that I, as professor, have “asked his students to address him [sic] by the letter ‘B’ in addition to using the pronouns ‘they/them’ when making mention of him [sic]. It is one thing to ask to be referred to as a member of the opposite sex, but another thing to ask to be referred to in the third person.” I can understand the student’s confusion. Contemporary culture has altered considerably from what it was even several decades ago. The point of the class, in fact, was to evaluate and learn about the conditions for these changes. The point, had the student stayed enrolled, was to engage with sexual, gendered, racial, and bodily non-normativities of all kinds. They would have learned that pronoun usage is not a request but a living ethical obligation. They would have learned that calling me “B” is calling me by name. That calling me “Brandon” harms and abuses me. I doubt said student would oblige that kind of abuse in everyday life. They would have learned that our classroom and the readings are meant to provoke critical thinking about inherited knowledge of ourselves and our cultural history. Change is a terrifying thing. But, as Octavia Butler begins her book Parable of the Sower, “The only lasting truth is change.” 

I am writing this letter as an invitation to the BC community to reflect upon the ethos that the college purports to cultivate: critical engagement. To be critical is not to silence or to call-out. It is to sustain thoughtful attention to the object of our fascination. An ethos of fascination has always underwritten my classroom. It has been the source of my own scholarly endeavors. It has allowed me to find myself in the larger communities of trans people who have made far more political advances, and social sacrifices, than I ever could. Communities of trans people who have often sacrificed their own lives so that words, names, and ways of being are accepted as intelligible and not deviant forms of criminal or psychiatric behavior. I am recalling a history, here, of people incarcerated, subjected to experimental lobotomies, electroshock, and other forms of physical torture to “rid them of their illness.” This history is among many taught in numerous courses outside of Women’s and Gender Studies. Histories of racism and ethnocentrism that are still silenced in the name of political consensus-making and the fiction of colorblindness. I am writing this letter to invite readers of all backgrounds to consider the violence that words inflict; that words indeed “do things”; that if readers are unsure of this then consider the plain fact that words are what caused this issue to arise in the first place. 

And so I want to end this letter with a meditation on how words do harm as well as a request. At 1:19 a.m., I received an email from someone whose occupation is listed as a private investigator living in San Francisco. Having read the CR piece, the author addressed me as “it” and proceeded to write violent invective upon transphobic insult. The author then recalled that history I just rehearsed by telling me I should be institutionalized. These are no longer words, dear reader. It takes action to write these words and intention to send them with the aim of doing harm. And it did harm. It harmed my sense of privacy but also my sense of safety. In the end, my former student was in no position of assault or jeopardy of being dehumanized, whether staying in or unenrolling from the course. But with a few simple words I am now precisely in that predicament. I am requesting that BC as a community, with its administration serving to represent that community, realize the power of words and the fragile membrane that separates bigoted speech-acts from materialized violence. I believe in the power of speech and words. I uphold its protections and fear censorship. But our expressive freedom should never be used to obscure the living forms of everyday violence that our words might preface and enact. That would be a mockery of freedom’s spirit at the expense of its practice.

B Lee Aultman, Ph.D.

Adjunct Assistant Professor

Brooklyn College, City University of New York