Triggering comment in class today

September 16, 2008

So, in the queer readings class I’d been thinking I was taking, a (cissexual, white, male) student said (I’m paraphrasing but this is the logic he used, and the offensive phrasing/grammar/pronouns are his): …if you take an autopsy of a man who’s had a sex change operation to become a woman, he’d still be biologically male, despite the absence of a penis and testicles they could tell…what would you call this person? Would you call him a man because he’s biologically male, or would you call her a woman because of her outward appearance?

(cont) Yeah, you don’t really know what this woman [who presented as a man until his wife’s mom had him prosecuted and killed (context) for that/sleeping with a woman] should be called, and there’s no way you can refer to her without picking a gender, she should be called a woman because that’s the best, least presumptuous option. [end]

(added on top of this, I’d already made the point that it was busted that the author was saying ‘oh, I don’t know what she’d prefer, so I guess I’ll just birth gender her’ and how that is based in an immense cissexualist bias…)

No one interrupted him, no one called him out, in fact the prof tried to pick the one legit part out of that by referencing Joan Jett Black who’s a drag queen who demanded to be referred to as male, made no attempt to pass, wore tight pants so you could tell he was a man…[end][not that he had a penis, that he was a man] But in no way contradicted the student. I had already outed myself and the student said this with his back to me.

So, I hadn’t been wedded to taking that class, so I’ll deal, but I can’t fucking take that class, and I asked for support from a different person (a 2nd yr grad student) who didn’t get the accountabiity thing… What should I do? Part of me wants to write the prof and be like “this is the subtext of that comment, and this is why I can’t fully participate in an environment where it’s ok to say those things, you need to call that out and own your shit. PS That other comment wasn’t cool either.” Part of me wants to email him and be like, I’m going to address the class for five minutes at the beginning of class next week–part of me wants to state that as a request and the other part wants to be like, this is a heads up, I’m doing this regardless. Part of me wants to do it as an unwarned direct action… all of me wants to do these with visible cis backup. Part of me wants to email Ann Russo about what to do, part of me wants other people to do it for me (with or without my presence).

Also part of me wants to name it as hate speech couched in polite, academic phrasing (reducing trans women to corpses to take their voices and humanity out of the equation to prove they’re “really male”) and part of me just wants to be like, it’s offensive and it says my voice isn’t relevant, and your silence says that respecting my identity and bothering to listen to me is optional at best.

Advice?

12 Responses to “Triggering comment in class today”

  1. My immediate reaction is to take it to the professor. Explaining exactly what was wrong with it and why, and tell him you want to spend five minutes explaining that to the class, and why no one should allow that kind of argument to go unchallenged in a queer studies class.

    But if you can’t take the class because he said that (and I wouldn’t blame you) I’d still take time to explain it to the professor.

    Because if I didn’t, I’d feel like I was bartering away my self-respect in exchange for peace of mind… and then not get the peace of mind.

  2. chaia said

    What Lisa said. And if you decide to take the class – a strategy I employ whenever possible is making allies within a given group, fast, so I don’t have to be the one speaking up for myself all the time. It’s exhausting, as I’m sure you know. Ugh. I don’t know what kind of practical support I can offer you from here, but I’m reading and listening.

  3. Cedar said

    Yeah, I mean, I’ve been told (before this happened) I ought to take a (specific) different class, and hopefully it will be with better students. Regardless, yeah, allies are my plan…….for my other classes. And telling these folks that they need to step up even though I don’t feel comfortable enough to there anymore.

  4. Roz Kaveney said

    Take it to the professor – he is supposed to be responsible and to teach, which includes teaching basic manners. In the process of talking to the professor, mention that this is the sort of thing which down the track becomes a harassment suit waiting to happen…

  5. sable_twilight said

    Wait, so did the student really essentially say that it is more important how a person appears in death than respecting how a person lived their life? And the teacher agreed?

    I would say your feelings should be brought up to the teacher. However, I would not expect you to have to stand before the class and explain it. It really should be something the teacher *gets* and explains. Just my opinion.

  6. Actually, Roz is right that the professor should explain what went wrong there.

  7. Grrr. That’s horribly frustrating. The least presumptuous option? Someone lives completely as one gender and is stealth about their trans status and the least presumptuous option is to assume that they would rather be referred to by the gender they weren’t presenting as? That sounds terribly presumptuous to me.

    It reminds me of someone who ‘he’d me when we first met, he later tried to explain his thought process as that he saw that I had breasts, but because he knew about guys with gynecomastia, he didn’t want to assume anything and just call me he. I tried to explain that calling the person in a boob shirt ‘he’ is making an assumption, but he didn’t want to hear it.

    Or the nurse who tried to broach the subject of my hormones by saying, “You’re not trying to… you’re not… you’re not… no, no, you wouldn’t be.”

    Somehow, cis people only consider how embarrassing it is for them to be read as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth. So they would rather extend the “benefit of the doubt” that someone is cis until proved otherwise as a courtesy. Because it’s so much worse for a cis person to be read as not their birth sex than it is for a trans person to be read as their birth sex, right?

    I hope your professor responds intelligently when you call them out.

  8. Marina said

    I definitely agree you should bring it up with the teacher, ESPECIALLY given that it’s supposed to be a queer studies class. Whether or not you stay in the class is completely up to you and your comfort level, of course. I strongly believe that this issue should be brought to the attention of the class, regardless of how that happens. Ideally, it would be the professor who brings it up.

    Something similar (though not anywhere near the level of what happened to you) happened in one of my classes at Carleton. The offended student brought her concerns to the professor, and the professor brought the situation to the attention of the class. She did not name names, but stated what had happened and how it made the offended student feel. The student also spoke, explaining her point of view and why she was upset. I, of course, immediately recognized myself as the unwitting culprit and offender. It was a situation in which I had been loosely quoting an offensive passage from a book we were reading because I didn’t have time to find the actual passage to read, but didn’t make it clear that was what I was doing. I chose to make a public apology then and there to the entire class as well as the offended classmate, followed by a more private apology to her later, and everything went smoothly from there. Ever since then, I have been very conscious of what I say and how I say it, as I don’t wish to offend or upset people by accident. So on the whole, it was a learning experience for me, and I feel that I have improved as a person because the student talked to the professor and the professor was willing to address this issue to the class. I don’t think your situation is based on a misunderstanding of whose “voice” the student was speaking with, as happened in my class, but that makes it even more important that awareness be raised.

    As I said, whether or not you continue the class doesn’t really have any bearing on the fact that the professor needs to know in order to prevent further occurrences of similar situations, and should ideally bring the issue before the class.

    Sorry for the novel, I kind of got carried away there. I guess what it all boils down to is that this is an issue that is all too easily brushed under the rug and I hate that. And I care about you and wish you didn’t have to deal with this sort of thing all the time.

  9. Rebecca said

    I agree with the general sentiment above that it’s worth pursuing with the professor.

    I’m a gender studies major, and I’ve had seriously transphobic content taught in at least six courses throughout that degree; the department’s lecturers are horribly ignorant. As an out trans student (at least in that context), both by challenging people in class and challenging the lecturers afterwards I’ve been able to effect a bit of change in that regard that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

  10. Cedar said

    Hey, um, I should be clear that 1)staying in the class is off the table, and 2)not addressing it is off the table.

  11. coming in late, just noting: the thing that really jumps out at me is how the student immediately goes to -autopsy of a dead person.- Why? I mean unless it’s a biology class where the context was that you were literally dissecting dead people and thus already talking about it–yeah, that’s one creepy fucking Freudian slip.

  12. Cedar said

    yeah, we were talking about history and accounts of queer people in the 1800’s, but otherwise no connection, was just totally out of blue air.

    yeah, it was super yucky/creepy/scary/triggering. See analysis in last paragraph.

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