I am a transgender student at Vanderbilt University. To have professors at my school outwardly spew hate against identities that students on our campus hold is an uncomfortable thing. It is not okay for community members to turn on one another based on identity. Carol Swain’s recent comments about transgender individuals does bring me unease.
However, because someone makes you uncomfortable or hurts your feelings is not reason enough to suspend or fire them, as some people have recently suggested. I believe we have to move past the elementary arguments around emotion. In our unmercifully apathetic world, it does not matter if your feelings are hurt. And at a top research institution, it is not opinion that matters. It is fact. And we must think critically about the real implications of Dr. Swain’s statements.
For one, Carol Swain’s comments do violate Vanderbilt’s Acceptable Use Policy, which prohibits Vanderbilt employees from using social networking sites to post unprofessional communication that negatively impacts Vanderbilt’s reputation and core mission. As Vanderbilt has seemingly recently committed to a mission of justice and diversity, Swain’s transphobic and Islamophobic comments directly go against these initiatives. Spreading false information against groups that are already historically marginalized is not a proper use of social media.
Putting Carol Swain’s, and in turn, Vanderbilt’s, name on this information is not acceptable. Yes, we all have a right to academic freedom. But this is beyond academic freedom. This isn’t about opinion. It’s about presenting things as fact that are poorly grounded and backed by no real data or evidence. How can a cis person truly speak of a trans persons’ experience in bathrooms?
By allowing a powerful and tenured member of our community to continue to spread this misinformation, we are allowing a culture of hate. Academic freedom does not make room for bigotry and hate. We should not be using the concept of diversity of ideas to allow for misinformation and intergroup oppression on our campus. Do we want our school to be known for this hate? Tenured faculty reputation reflects onto our school’s name, and ultimately our values. What does it say about our community that someone feels so emboldened to so casually spread hate?
Vanderbilt is the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee. Do we want the environment that many of our city works in to be one of hate and discrimination? I would hope not. And what does it say for the Nashville workforce at large? We must think about the environment this creates for Nashville’s working people.
Fifty years ago, many white people refused to use the same bathroom as people of color. Looking back, we often judge them as bigoted and foolish. I strongly believe that in fifty years, looking back, we are going to be embarrassed about the policing of bathroom use based on anatomical sex. It is my hope that people will find such an idea ridiculous.
As a transgender person, I know that what makes me safest is being able to decide what bathroom to use based on my circumstances. It is not fair for anyone but myself to be able to dictate what bathroom I use. If I am most affirmed and comfortable in a women’s bathroom, so be it. But if I find that a men’s bathroom would be more safe for me as a transmasculine person, I should be allowed the right to use that facility. We need to check our anatomy at the bathroom door, affirm each person, and honor their wants and needs.
The fact of the matter is, Carol Swain’s comments are ridiculously founded, insensitive, and transphobic. These opinions, steeped in prejudice and faulty information, are problematic because they are presented as fact. They are problematic because they do not reflect a university that is attempting to claim progress on issues of diversity and equity. They are problematic because they foster an environment of hate. And they need to be tactfully and seriously addressed by the administration of Vanderbilt University for me to feel safe, affirmed, and welcomed on the campus that I call home.
Base graphic via Vanderbilt Hustler