Conversion Therapy v. Re-education Camp: An Open Letter to Grace Lavery

The letter below is a response to Grace Lavery’s “Grad School As Conversion Therapy,” which appeared on October 29, 2018.


Although your essay, “Grad School as Conversion Therapy,” is aimed at just one of us, we write together, because we publish together on issues on queer culture and theory, because we’ve both taught Queer Theory seminars at our home institution, and, yes, because we take pleasure in the idea that any future references to this text will likely deploy the suddenly chic pronouns they/theirs, not because we demand it, but in the old-fashioned way this massive, intricate, sometimes beautiful shared endeavor called the English language works.

The reciprocity and collectivity of language seems like a good place to start in a debate about speech and censorship. For, although trans-theorizing and trans-activism have the potential to open onto many interesting and important issues, far too often on today’s campuses they are reduced to exercises in language-policing in which attitudes of outraged victimhood are used to coerce certain forms of speech and to justify aggressive forms of censorship.

We want to emphasize that we do not doubt or diminish the importance of activism in response to violence and discrimination against those who do not adhere to conventional gender binaries. As scholars, we admire the rigor, insight, and imagination in the best of trans-theory — for an exhilarating selection, we recommend The Transgender Studies Reader 2. As historians of queer culture, we are intrigued by the way considerations of trans-identity might change conceptions of the past — not, we hasten to add, by somehow proving that “gay” or “lesbian” historical figures were “really trans,” but by showing how gender and sexual identities have long been imbricated in complicated ways.

But what we too often face today in the academy is something that looks less like activism or scholarship and more like adolescent acting-out. Now that scientists have decided that adolescence — itself a recently invented identity closely linked to advanced capitalism — persists into the third decade of human life, perhaps we should not be surprised to find behaviors associated with adolescents proliferating, tolerated and sometimes even encouraged within educational institutions. To be specific, we identify as adolescent the furious response to the discovery that others do not perceive you exactly the way you’d like to imagine to yourself. Those who justify aggression as a response to the “violence” of being misrecognized fail to notice that everyone shares this experience on various registers of gender, race, age, class, professional status, nationality, religion, disability, attractiveness — the list goes on.

Rogers Brubaker’s insightful book, Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, takes up the conundrum of why race, which has far less biological grounding than sex, should be socially constructed in the current moment as much more fixed and immutable than gender. But the broader point is that we are all constantly perceived as someone other than who we think we are. Like (or as) language, social roles are systems bigger than any of us, and what we experience as misrecognitions are registers of other people’s perspectives. To try to shut down, rather than understand, those perspectives; to refuse to engage others as people who also have opinions (not to mention feelings) that might not be all about you; to arrogantly dismiss the past and the perspectives of those who have lived through more of it than you; to summon authorities to impose your will rather than trying to work out conflicts in a mutually respectful way — these are adolescent behaviors.

In contrast, activists actually trying to change social systems work to persuade and include. The brilliant performance artist Taylor Mac, asserting “it’s part of my job to make people think outside their norms a little bit,” takes the pronoun judy, as in Garland, because “I wanted a gender pronoun that immediately emasculates you — because you can’t roll your eyes and say ‘judy’ without being a little bit camp.” That’s genius. It’s engaging, historically informed, and playful, rather than doctrinaire. It’s worth noting that this artist dedicated to community building is also “fine with he. He’s just putting judy out there.”

We work to promote dialogue in that activist, inclusive spirit. So we turn with relief to an epistolary format, happy that it allows you to be “you,” and hopeful that it also models the invocation to conversation that animates the document to which you so vehemently object.

Before we go further, we invite readers to read Reed’s statement of principles for themselves rather than accepting Grace’s (or our) characterization of it. We hear that there is a school of thought among some young academics that creating controversy spells career success: pick a fight, no matter how nonsensical and in years to come people won’t remember the fight, but they’ll know they’ve heard of you, so the theory goes. If on-line notoriety transmutes quickly into fame, maybe we should thank you for boosting us all in the world’s attention. But the nonsense of your response to this document seems to test the outer limits of a theory that assumes content doesn’t matter. Nonsense is one word for it. Others are “unethical,” “libelous,” “grim,” “a temper tantrum that believes it passes for an argument or for activism,” and “so willfully stupid and unfair that I feel like it proves your point.” Those words come from emails sent by colleagues at Penn State. Perhaps the most considered analysis of your piece came from the graduate student who alerted us to it: “The post starts with a misunderstanding, devolves into a misreading, further collapses into bad scholarship, and ultimately makes a fool of itself.”

Among the other statements of support we’ve received from beyond our home campus is an anonymous postcard (Boston postmark) scrawled with a note that begins, “Thank you for your statement of principles” — appropriately enough, the image on the card is the cover of George Orwell’s 1984. More sadly typical of the responses we have had from colleagues outside Penn State is this, from a respected lesbian scholar and teacher: “I have decided not to teach my queer theory class next year because I just don’t want to enter the trans fray. So suffering a bit of queer/g/l melancholia.”

Apparently it has come to this: furtive acts of solidarity and melancholy retreats from teaching by gay, lesbian, and feminist faculty in the face of a vocal constituency that, enthralled by the spectacle of its own outrage, has substituted a “call-out culture” of buzzwords around sex and gender for any semblance of dialogue. Announcing itself as coalitional, this cohort seems eager to alienate those of us informed by years of feminist and queer scholarship and activism. Claiming to speak for diversity, this cohort rushes to intimidate and silence anyone who does not toe its ideological line. Imagining itself as standing up to authority, this cohort falls eagerly into quasi-medical discourses of diagnosis and cure and rushes to invoke juridical structures of rules and punishment. Calling itself progressive, this cohort presents an uncanny mirror image of rightwing politics with its exaggerated outrage, divisive us-and-them rhetorics, and attacks staged as self-defense.

This is the broad context for the local situation that occasioned the statement of principles to which you object, Grace. Our story began on the first day of Reed’s Spring 2018 seminar in Queer Theory when some graduate students with a history of disrupting seminars taught by older gay and feminist faculty announced that they could not go on until he corrected the syllabus that “deadnamed” Jack Halberstam by listing books published by Judith Halberstam under that name. This despite the logistics of bibliographic practice in relation to authors whose names change for any number of reasons following the publication of a text. This despite the fact that Halberstam is on record declining, with elegance and wit, to choose between one name or one gender and another. This despite the foundational theoretical idea, famously articulated by both Roland Barthes (“The Death of the Author”) and Michel Foucault (“What is an Author”), that reading texts generates an on-going “author-function” distinct from the person who at a one point in time penned them. Appropriately for a class on Queer Theory, this final point led that first day in the graduate seminar to a rudimentary deconstructive analysis taking as its example the way the language of supposedly liberating identity politics becomes coercive. In this case, identity-based claims to protect Halberstam from “deadnaming” end up imposing a much more rigid version of trans identity than Jack/Judith espouses — and at the expense of rendering “dead” a significant part of Halberstam’s life and career.

None of this was convincing — or even tolerable — for the small cadre of students who had enrolled in the course not to be taught, or even to learn together, but to monitor and suppress any deviation from their righteous litany. One student dropped in outrage, and sought out the Affirmative Action office. At that point Reed posted a two-sentence statement on his webpage, invoking the principles of academic freedom to alert students enrolled in his courses on sexuality and gender to expect reasoned debate over issues of identity and pronoun use. We’d like to match your appreciative remarks about your colleagues at Berkeley, Grace, with our own statement of gratitude to the competent, caring, deeply sensible professionals in the Title 9 and Affirmative Action offices at Penn State, who at every stage in this drama worked to educate rather than litigate. But that’s not what the complainants wanted. Declining Reed’s repeated offers to discuss the issues, they responded with a campaign to punish him for declining to be schooled into their protocols of identity politics. So they urged other graduate students to boycott his seminars. When that failed, they demanded that he be removed from the English graduate faculty based on a roster of accusations filed with the department administration (these were investigated with findings of no substantiation whatsoever). This roster of inflammatory accusations and complaints bearing dubious relation to fact was circulated first by unauthorized use of a department list-serve to all current and recent graduate students in English, and then in a garbled article based on anonymous sources in the student newspaper.

Lacking any better forum in which to respond to these public campaigns of invective, Reed posted on his faculty webpage the statement of principles you object to. This prompted more complaints, now claiming that Reed’s webpage violates university policies (it doesn’t). And when these strategies failed to effect censorship by local authorities, two faculty from other universities were enlisted to write a condescending letter to our department head in which they threatened “that your decision to include statements like some of those listed on Professor Christopher Reed’s faculty profile render[s] your department a place we would hesitate to encourage our students to consider for graduate school.” So we offer a shout-out, too, to our department head, who simply forwarded the message to us. We appreciate that he has remained calm in the face of these histrionics (the two faculty who sent the letter declined our invitation to engage in dialogue about the underlying issues).

And now we all have your online performance of outrage, Grace, which at least has the decency to commit itself to a public forum. We thank you for this opportunity to explore how, more and more these days, claims made in the name of trans-identity are pitched to supplant and even censor gay, lesbian, and queer forms of activism and culture.

Your first priority is to shift the tone of the discussion to outrage. Wit — as the rich history of lesbian, gay, and queer cultures demonstrates — is the solvent of the seriousness that is the hallmark of juridical and medical authority. To deny our humor — our Camp, our irony, our relish of the sanity-saving pleasures in the ridiculous — is to deny the validity of our cultures (on the role of humor in queer culture, see Reed’s essay, titled in ridiculous homage to Djuna Barnes and Susan Sontag, Ladies Almanack showing their Satire and Irony; Sorrow and Sentimentality; Ridiculousness in relation to Sexual Identity; as well as reflections on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home — or, Notes not on ‘Camp.’” But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? To deny the validity of lesbian, gay, and queer people and practices in favor of the seriousness and self-righteousness of the angry adolescent. Your characterization as “joyless” of a document leavened with wit and calling for a return to pleasure in genderplay might evidence nothing but a deficient sense of humor were it not that this move is necessary to justify your assertion that Reed’s statement of principles “solicited” your “angry and outraged attention.”

Tellingly, your refusal of our humor is phrased to lock us into stable gender categories of your own devising: “You sound nothing like Oscar Wilde, my dude,” you assert. To the extent that we, who have been playing with gender for a long time, are “dudes,” we are indeed your dudes: your fantasy antagonists whose imagined dude-iness is necessary for your claim to be “in fact, a woman” to authorize the anger you are so eager to perform. As for our relation to Wilde, we re-reassert our allegiance to the subversive wit who challenged the authoritarian tendencies of the left with remarks like “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live” (The Soul of Man under Socialism) even as we point out that the voice of the statement of principles is an amalgam of Wilde with others we claim across the barriers of gender essentialism as queer progenitors: Susan Sontag (the numbered paragraphs in “Notes on Camp”) and Eve Sedgwick (the common-sense Axioms that open The Epistemology of the Closet).

Once authorized, your anger allows any number of hypocrisies and misreadings. Thus you transmute Reed’s frank avowal of the privilege of job security into your fantasy of him “polishing his medals,” even as your staging of your victim status repeatedly invokes your own prestigious faculty appointment (hardly a paragraph goes by without reference to Berkeley), your own articles, and the book you plan to publish on a topic you acknowledge is quite close to that of his prize-winning monograph.

If your essay could be classed simply as an outburst of academic rivalry, there would be little point in commenting. The substance and tenor of your remarks, however, are unhappily indicative of the trends in academia that have been characterized with phrases like “toxic call-out culture” and “grievance studies.” Indeed, we would cite “Grad School as Conversion Therapy” as a textbook example of the problems we face — with the textbook being Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation For Failure. They observe that the academy has been overtaken by three self-destructive myths: (1) the reification of students’ vulnerability as the only legitimate position from or about which to speak; (2) a vision of the world irreconcilably divided between binaries of “us” and “them,” right and wrong, good and bad; (3) the belief that emotions are the ultimate test of truth. While certain academics deploying strategies of what Lukianoff and Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness” deploy these myths for short-term gains in academic prestige and reward, their argument is that habits generated around these rhetorics ultimately undercut the values and purpose of education by producing the vulnerable and anxious subjects they purport to protect even as they shut down the free exchange of ideas that make the university one of the last places for civil disagreement and debate.

Readers of the BLARB will recognize these patterns amid the contradictions in the substance and rhetoric of your text, in which, for example, you propose a reasonable analogy between your decision to change names and gendered pronouns and some married women’s decision to stop using a “maiden name,” but quickly abandon the implications of this comparison, presumably because folks who change their names in these circumstances do not insist that their past identities are “dead,” and generally go through their whole lives having others remember them, often fondly, under their old names without framing this as injury and demanding legalistic redress.

More troubling, readers of your text can watch as claims to advocate — and even teach about — free speech dissolve into assertions that “misgendering” and “deadnaming” are “designed to humiliate and hurt” and therefore must be prohibited. And then you call yourself a “tranny.” With such arbitrary standards, it’s clear that your point is simply to control the discourse: who gets to speak, who will be silenced.

And that’s where our privilege comes in. Far from polishing our medals, we are willing to stand our ground in this unpleasantly contentious field because we have protections others do not enjoy. Faculty seeking tenure and promotion are susceptible to hostile student evaluations, other students are shamed into silence by cadres of classmates eager to denounce. Frankly, we wonder how undergraduates who do not adhere to your positions fare in your classes. The tenor of your essay, which throws around appellations of “garbage” “bullshit,” not to mention “fascist,” is indicative of the virulence of a call-out culture that stifles the free exchange of ideas.

So despite your presumptions to the lay down the law, we resist. We begin by challenging your misunderstanding of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors’ most recent statement on academic freedom specifically refutes the misuse of charges concerning a “hostile learning environment,” stating that such charges erroneously assume:

“that students have a right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged. This assumption contradicts the central purpose of higher education, which is to challenge students to think hard about their own perspectives, whatever those might be. It is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint the student has posited or advanced. Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education”

It is distressing that someone entering the ranks of the professoriate — particularly someone who claims the credentials to teach about issues of free speech — should be unfamiliar with, or indifferent to, these foundational principles.

Distressing, but perhaps not surprising, given how the pose of youthful outrage requires certain kinds of strategic ignorance concerning the accomplishments of earlier generations of activists. This is as true for those who would renounce commitments to academic freedom and free speech as for those who set themselves up self-righteously to “correct” — and when that doesn’t work, to censor — gay, lesbian, and queer scholars who dare to question the litanies of your brand of trans-correctness. Is this demand to suppress voices that questions perhaps because you have no answers to our queries, starting with this one: what does it mean to claim to be “in fact” a woman?

That question is grounded in a rich and complex body of feminist and queer scholarship — from Simone de Beauvoir, through Monique Wittig and Judith Butler, to the broad project of deconstructive linguistic theory that is central to queer theory in — that argues that no one is “in fact” this social and linguistic category of “woman.” The revolutionary intellectual and political potentials inherent in that challenge to conventional conceptions of gender fueled social change in the name of feminism, of gay and lesbian liberation, of queer politics and activism. In contrast, the claim to have solved the problem of being an “effeminate boy” by discovering the “fact” of being a woman seems to slide back into nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific essentialisms about men’s and women’s souls trapped in the wrong bodies. How different are today’s medical regimes of “gender confirmation” from those diagnoses, or other forms of doctoring aimed at altering individuals to conform to — and thus reinforce — holistic norms of gender?

Although — or because — gay and lesbian activists worked hard to overthrow these older impositions of medical forms of gender manipulation, these are the kinds of questions that get shouted down rather than answered. Since the 1990s, a generation of young people has rejected the term feminism and with it the feminists who created the opportunities these “post-feminists” inherited. That’s discouraging enough. But how much more egregious is it that a vocal subgroup of self-described transpeople demands the insertion of their T into LGBQ, not as a form of alliance, but to repudiate what the rest of those letters stand for. Far from progressive, this anti-coalitional politics divides the left and plays into the hands of the right-wingers you claim to oppose by personifying exactly their stereotypes of academics eager to impose the latest forms of “political correctness” through bureaucratic fiat.

Here are some related questions: is the success of those venerable movements — of feminism in the 1970s-’80s, of queer activism from the 1990s into the 21st century — the reason they come under attack? Feminists and queer activists fundamentally altered the culture in ways few thought possible. Does this proof of the potential for collective social change so threaten the dominant order that all the blandishments of advanced capitalism — therapy, cosmetic surgery, makeovers, Kardashians — are rolled out to convince the young that their elders were wrong to seek and find solutions to their problems outside neo-liberal structures of competitive individualism? Must we elders now, unless we meekly defer to the claw-back of medical and juridical authority against which our movements were formed, be diagnosed/accused as “transphobic” and cured/punished through “sensitivity training” with the threat of further institutionalized sanctions as these advocates of trans-correctness demand?

Well, some of us won’t be silenced. We believe the university is a place for the exchange among many perspectives. And we know that among those perspectives the most compelling for us are those arising from generations of lesbian, gay, and queer cultures that challenged medico-juridical authority with, among other things, forms of wit and genderplay that kept identities in flux in ways that seem far more productive than the essentialisms promoted by the kinds of trans-politics you so furiously advocate.

Our perspective leads us to challenge the deployment of pronouns as a marker of any kind of stable gender identity. We are particularly skeptical of the specialist-approved “they/them” as a marker — a euphemism really — for gender fluidity. Pausing to note the oxymoron of a stable category of fluidity, we observe that this one does more to unsettle distinctions between singular and plural than between masculine and feminine. But maybe that’s the point. Gay argots that strategically slipped between gendered pronouns profoundly troubled the arbiters of respectability. Euphemisms are less challenging. This one, which insists on imposing a grammatical solecism on a generation and profession invested in the structures of language, moreover, seems paradigmatic of the dynamics of the politics enacted by a younger generation as eager to dictate speech as it is contemptuous of any claims for aesthetics, or history, or the mores of gay, lesbian, and queer cultures that played with gender in subversive and pleasureful ways.

Further, we reject the rituals of social interaction that require a confession of stable gender identity as a precondition of speech (my name is such-and-such and my pronouns are blah, blah, and blah).

And we question the way the angry protection of carefully curated trans self-fashioning on college campuses is justified by invoking, through institutionalized rituals of “remembrance,” the violence against trans people in less privileged settings — a dynamic of appropriation that ducks analysis of how performances of anger in the former setting do anything to alleviate suffering in the latter.

Which brings us to a more objectionable dynamic of appropriation: your invocation of the physical violence and profound and often protracted abuse suffered by the over 700,000 gays and lesbians subjected to conversion therapy as a garbled metaphor for your feelings about Reed’s statement of principles. Were we to respond in the same register, we might claim that some graduate students (and, apparently, young faculty) see an advantage in turning universities into Maoist re-education camps where strategies of social humiliation and institutional punishment are deployed in the name of progress to discipline older intellectuals by requiring rituals of address and behavior that make us foreswear our histories, our expertise, our beliefs, and our pleasures.

Instead, we recommend ratcheting down the rhetoric. If we’re going to have a conversation, the accusations and demands need to stop. If you want respect, you should extend it by acknowledging your legacy from the feminist, gay, and lesbian activists who allowed you the institutional and intellectual authority you now enjoy, and take care to use that authority wisely. We address you here, Grace, in the specific context of the attack you posted. But of course this is an open letter, because our disagreements are not, in the final analysis, with you personally, but with strategies and ideas of which your essay is just one example. In the current polarized political climate, we all should be careful not to replicate the strategies of the right: the headline-grabbing vilification through social media, the rhetoric of rage provoked to justify acts of aggression, the purely situational invocation of laws, rules, and threats of punishment. Let’s all try to bring reason and empathy to our conversations — and, more importantly, not to demand conformity to any outcome. Ultimately, if we truly value diversity, we have to be allowed our differences.