CW: Transmisogyny, Antifeminism
Before we begin, it is necessary to clarify what our intentions were at the beginning of this controversy, which has since been heavily misconstrued by the press. We will then give our reasons for objecting to Suzanne Venker’s visit to Williams College through the group Uncomfortable Learning.
Our intention was never to silence, censor, interrupt or intimidate Venker or the leaders of UL in any way. The supposed risks of violence, chaos and interruption were all conclusions that the leaders of UL arrived at without evidence or consultation with the protest organizers. Moreover, the expected audience for this event would have been composed largely of the protesters who disagreed with Venker’s views on feminism—protesters who had taken the time to locate, read and contemplate her previous work about how feminism (supposedly) fails. These protesters were not burying their heads in the sand, avoiding uncomfortable views or otherwise trying to cancel the event in any way; in fact, it was the intellectual value of Venker’s views, not her right to speak at our campus, that was being brought into question.
So what were our intentions? To put it quite simply, we wanted nothing more than a peaceful protest. The protest was scheduled to begin well before Venker’s talk, to create a space in which students would share their thoughts and opinions and create signs to visibly (but silently) voice our dissent among the audience. We planned to hold our criticism until the scheduled Q&A, as we were encouraged to do by Zach Wood, one of the leaders of Uncomfortable Learning. During that time, and only during that time, we would present Venker with evidentially supported criticisms of her argument. There was never a call to cancel Venker’s talk. As Emily O’Brien’s original description of the protest states, “You are definitely allowed to have your space and have your talk, but we will also be occupying space surrounding this topic.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter define a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” (In case anyone feels this reference is frivolous, we are simply responding to Zach Wood’s citation of a Mr. Shawn Carter in his article.) Behind this simple definition lies an extensive literature and the entirety of our Women’s, Gender and Sexuality department at Williams, along with many of our professors who teach well beyond the WGSS department. We challenge Venker to cite a single intellectually rigorous source to defend any of her claims instead of stating opinion as fact and an absence of evidence as evidence of absence. For example, in the published version of her planned talk, she refers to an article in the Journal of Economic Literature. However, because she fails to include the authors’ names, the article title or even the year of publication, it is impossible for us to fact-check or begin to intellectually engage her argument. She also makes several extraordinary claims—the idea that feminism induces fertility problems among them—without presenting a single shred of evidence. This is not the level of academic rigor expected at Williams College.
Similarly, there is an important difference between engaging in uncomfortable but productive discourse and questioning the humanity of already marginalized groups of people. We believe that it is justifiable for people to respond emotionally to speakers who question their humanity and gender identity, especially when that questioning aligns with a societal epidemic of hatred and violence. A great deal of criticism in the media has focused solely on a specific comment a Williams student made in response to Venker speaking:
“When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’ you are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological, and physical harm to students, but you are also—paying—for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters. You are giving those who spout violence the money that so desperately needs to be funneled to black and brown (trans) femme communities, to people who are leading the revolution, who are surviving in the streets, who are dying in the streets. Know, you are dipping your hands in their blood, Zach Wood.”
Looking past the language, which has already been dissected ad nauseum, it is necessary to explain the structural argument being made. The commenter notes that there is a disproportionate amount of violence taken against trans communities of color. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs noted in their “2014 Report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence” that, of homicides victims who were members of the LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities, “Over half (55%) of homicide victims were transgender women, and half (50%) of homicide victims were transgender women of color.” The 2015 Southern Poverty Law Center report In the Crosshairs states that, “Trans women of color… are almost certainly the group most victimized by hate violence in America.” This year alone, the National LGBTQ Task Force reports, “There have been at least 23 trans women and gender nonconforming people murdered… the majority of whom were black and/or Latina.”
On October 6th, Suzanne Venker shared an article on Facebook titled “Houston transgender bathroom bill debate centers on differing definitions of ‘men’,” and in her commentary refers to trans women as “biological men.” In another Facebook post on April 28th, Suzanne Venker deadnamed Caitlyn Jenner and shared comments from Matt Walsh that say, “I know the transgender superstition has, like every other progressive myth, become a Required Belief in our society.” Additionally, in her book How to Choose a Husband, Venker states that feminists support the LGBTQ community because it fits their hope for a world “where gender is murky or skewed.” Statements supporting the idea that a trans woman’s gender identity is irrelevant, mythological or somehow skewed directly contribute to the disproportionate number of trans women of color murdered in the United States. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted in 2011 by the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, “demonstrated the devastating effects on transgender people of color of anti-transgender bias combined with structural racism.” Therefore, by funding Ms. Venker and her ideology, Uncomfortable Learning is financially backing and ideologically contributing to the epidemic of violence against trans women of color in the United States.
The argument that college students need to be exposed to anti-feminist views through speakers like Suzanne Venker ignores the very real and unavoidable misogyny present in our lives, both on campus and off it. Women are not ignorant of anti-feminism, and in fact it is impossible for us to be; even if we try to ignore it, we cannot be free from its influence or oppression as long as it continues to operate on a structural level.
Suzanne Venker, on the other hand, ardently argues the exact opposite. In her planned talk, Venker states, “I could spend these two hours telling you how great you are, or telling you to reach for the stars and to shatter glass ceilings, but why beat a dead horse? You’ve been told that same thing since the day you were born.” We would love to live in this world where society constantly tells women that women are great and that they can break glass ceilings. Instead, we live in a society wherein women are routinely dismissed, disregarded and discouraged from raising their voices or pursuing their goals. In the book, The Glass Ceiling in the 21st Century: Understanding Barriers to Gender Equality, published by the American Psychological Association, Manuela Barreto, Michelle Ryan and Michael Schmitt write, “Although women no longer face a glass ceiling in the narrowest sense of complete lack of access to leadership positions, it is clear that they still face important barriers to entry into these positions.” Additionally, a 2012 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences titled “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students” found that when faculty members were asked to evaluate otherwise identical male and female applications for a laboratory manager position, “Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant.” Still, Venker denies that society silences women and argues that the media is controlled by a “feminist elite” that ensures male voices are “rarely heard” on issues that affect primarily women.
The idea that it was necessary to invite Venker to the College in order to educate us about anti-feminism, transmisogyny and homophobia operates under the assumption that the College is already a safe space in which feminism is the rule and not the exception—an assumption that is false. Antifeminism manifests in a multitude of ways in spaces that we have all been exposed to, on campus and outside of it. It manifests in microaggressions and blatant aggressions against our bodies, our ideas, our mobility and our access to space. To explain all of these manifestations would take longer than the extent of this article and would further emphasize the idea that it is necessary to provide continuous hard or empirical evidence to justify individuals’ emotional reactions, responses and experiences. In fact, the national reaction over the past week has been clear evidence that sexism reaches the Williams community. The conversation in the national media, along with a lot of dialogue on this campus following the cancellation of the Venker event, has been founded on the idea that our emotions and our reactions to this event have been invalid, overdramatic and the incorrect way of dealing with “academic” discourse. Legitimate dissent by women and femmes has been characterized as motivated ignorance, hypersensitivity and ideological close-mindedness.
Invalidating the experiences of marginalized people because of the manner in which their emotions are presented is a common derailing tactic used to further silence our voices; it demands that we speak of said marginalization solely in a detached and abstract way if we want to be believed or heard. But for us, there is nothing abstract about these struggles. Our pain is real and it demands to be noticed and asking us to pretend that pain does not exist in order to participate in discussions about the structures that cause it is inherently bad discourse. Our emotions and experiences are not only valid but necessary for understanding the ways privilege and marginalization function. The demand that we censor our emotions to gain access to our own narratives is inherently oppressive because it ensures that few of us are granted permission to influence conversations about our own lives.
This is one of the many ways that privilege is exerted to silence marginalized voices, as well as one of the ways it has been used by the media to paint our protest as small-minded and reactionary. In reality, our protesting created exactly the kind of uncomfortable dialogue that Uncomfortable Learning claims to support. By canceling the event and deleting an online record of our original efforts—two decisions that were wholly within their rights, as both platforms were created by them and theirs to remove—the leaders of Uncomfortable Learning erased our work and silenced our voices, eliminating all history of the uncomfortable learning in which we engaged and allowing the media to create a false narrative that portrayed Uncomfortable Learning and Suzanne Venker as victims of political correctness and leftist ignorance. This narrative ignores the factual reality of our protest, which necessitated our familiarity and engagement with ideology that is not only “uncomfortable,” but also debates our fundamental humanity and, in the case of our trans protesters, self-determined existence. It ignores the factual reality of our intentions, not to prevent Venker from speaking, but instead to respond to the decision to bring her and prepare to engage with her. We expended precious time and energy for an effort that was both exhausting and dehumanizing, all in the name of learning, and yet the press has continually portrayed us—and not the group that responded to criticism by shutting down a Facebook page and canceling an already-funded event—as being frightened by challenging perspectives. In addition to being insulting and invalidating, this line of attack is blatantly misrepresenting the reality of our work.
We are not afraid of challenging perspectives. We are tired. We crave safety. We need rest. So we create safe spaces and devote time to promoting love and healing for those of us who have never known safety because nowhere is safe—not by force or by calls for censorship, but by creating community. We understand, better than the Suzanne Venkers of the world, what our attackers say and how they use their voices to manipulate and harm us, and no amount of “motivated ignorance” can erase that understanding. We are not obligated to justify our right to humanity to anyone. And yet, every time controversy arises on this campus, we rally to defend ourselves, and fight for the right to determine our own narratives. Nothing about us is disengaged or insular and to say otherwise is to willfully misrepresent the nature of our struggles and labor.