Lessons Learned

We have learned a lot over the past few weeks and we are still learning.

We angered and hurt many good people with our response to Grace Lavery. About that we are deeply sorry. We intended our missive, which concluded with a plea to ratchet down the rhetoric, to challenge the angry tenor of so much current academic discourse. In the process, however, we reproduced the problem, and this hurt and offended.

So let’s start here: we agree completely with everyone who says that purposeful misgendering or malicious misnaming is unacceptable and indefensible. We do not maliciously or purposefully misgender or misname specific people. Like many, we’ve made mistakes with gender, been embarrassed, attempted to correct. But we’re profoundly distressed that we gave the impression that we would purposefully misgender any trans or gender non-binary person. For that we apologize.

So the first crucial lesson we have learned is to be far more consistent and clear about the crucial distinction between respecting individuals’ needs concerning forms of address and proposing theoretical questions about gender, language, and authority.

We treasure the rich tradition of queer, feminist, and trans people who have experimented with and advocated for everyone’s freedom to forge and express sexual and gendered identities. In our own lives, we’ve struggled with gender norms, as well as other norms of embodiment around aging and disability. Feminism and queer theory helped us to escape the opprobrium associated with the category “effeminate boy” by imagining relations to maleness that remain open to alternatives and always in flux.

Over the years, in our pedagogy and our publications, we have worked to return attention to now-historical feminist and queer writers and artists, for we believed their work would prove equally useful to others. We’ve experimented with various modes of writing and speaking, dress and disposition. Our last experiment turned out very badly indeed.

The statement of principles that aroused so much anger erred in invoking what we love best in older forms of queer culture — subversive humor running from high camp to sly irony — to try to find a way around what we perceived as the angry impasse in current discussions about identity and social justice. Our strategy misjudged when and where humor is appropriate. We recognize that our tone only deepened the divide.

So another lesson learned is that our fundamental commitment to diversity is invisible unless we continually re-avow and demonstrate our commitment to mutual respect and support. Over the years, we have worked with many other dedicated professionals at Penn State to create an inclusive and welcoming environment here for sexual minorities, trans and gender nonbinary people (a statement we wholeheartedly endorse is here). We have worked to increase the visibility of trans people by re-titling and revising courses to include those issues and advocating for a more diverse faculty. We appreciate and admire our colleagues, and the many other students and administrators who create spaces at Penn State for discussions around issues of sexuality and identity. That our errors undercut that work and undermined the many ways that Penn State and the English Department are supportive and welcoming is an occasion for painful regret.

That we needed to learn these lessons through this public conversation disappoints us in ourselves. The exchange around our BLARB post makes us recognize that we were poor students of the inclusive pedagogies we promote and admire. We are now reflecting self-critically on the aspects of our thinking that prevented us from being the kind of allies our communities deserve. We are learning the hardest, but most important, lessons there, because this is where we let down the people closest to us. Over the years, we have worked with many wonderful Penn State students, graduate and undergraduate, with whom we have had wide-ranging conversations about sexuality and gender and from whom we have learned a great deal. That has been a privilege. Another privilege is our protected academic rank. With those privileges comes the responsibility consistently to model constructive forms of debate attentive to power differentials in institutional status. We strive on a daily basis to do this, but we failed egregiously in that responsibility when, responding in anger, we cast aspersions on our students and their concerns. We offer our deepest apology to our students here.

Another vital lesson to be learned here is the danger of expressing anger toward individuals and communities already threatened by political trends we should avoid replicating. As Deval Patrick has recently observed about the state of American politics more generally, “something is so wrong when we learn to shout our anger and whisper our kindness.” We recognize that we contributed to this wrong kind of learning in our BLARB post, and for that we apologize. We want to express our gratitude to the many people — old friends and complete strangers — who have reached out quietly to us to in kindness recently, and especially to those whose kindness included an element of criticism.

Our deepest wish is that everyone in the lgbtq community can learn from one another. We recognize that that learning needs to start with us.

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