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isolated incidents

Since April 15th, reports have circulated about an attack against a transgender student in a bathroom on CSU Long Beach’s campus. The attacker appears to have known this student. The attacker said the student’s name and asked if he was that person. When the student said he was, the attacker grabbed the student’s T-shirt, pulled it over his chest, and carved the word “It” into his chest.

Reports began circulating by word of mouth, and Liz, Abbie, Toby and I were reluctant to forward the information without the student’s express consent. We were concerned about the student’s physical and emotional safety as such a story spread, whether or not the student’s name was attached to reports. However, because police reports and blog posts have made this information widely available, it seems necessary to address the assumptions on which reports are based since they impact all trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as those who might be perceived to be trans and gender non-conforming, and those who count themselves as allies.

Most stories about this attack coming from the news media include some version of the following statement: “University Police strongly believe this was an isolated incident and that there is no additional threat to the campus community.” Queers for Public Ed has already addressed the danger of asserting that any crime motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia and/or transphobia (and more) is an isolated event, detached from the power structures in which it exists. But this bears repeating in this case, especially since many such attacks continue to take place on and around California campuses.

To assert that this is an isolated incident is only possible if one divorces it from the racist and homophobic attacks that took place at CSU Chico, CSU Long Beach, and UC Davis within days, not to mention the string of incidents that have occurred over the last several months. But as we have argued before, these events must be read as inherently connected, and as responses to the challenges to white, straight power and privilege expressed in the protests against the deprioritization of education and other public services in California. Though our analysis need not and should not stop at California borders. This last week Arizona has reminded us just how much oppression in education connects to structural oppression pervasive in the US and beyond.

Calling this attack an “isolated incident” also implies that this was limited to an attack by one individual against another individual. It ignores an additional target of the attack, the very existence and agency of trans-identified and gender non-conforming people. The word “it” has a significant history in enforcing systems of oppression based on race, gender and ability. Using the word “it” to label people who do not conform to racialized, gendered and abelist norms dehumanizes the people whose bodies challenge, or appear to challenge, these structures. And dehumanization questions the very value of lives, which in turn exposes those lives to violence and possible eradication. In the specific case of the CSULB attack, this mark of dehumanization targets a trans man’s chest, a place on the body that is subject to intense amounts of scrutiny and surveillance that serve to enforce the gender binary. To call this highly symbolic act an isolated incident is to erase the ways that this violence targets all trans and gender non-conforming people. This act of violence references historically and culturally significant words and acts that are not isolated, but circulate constantly and dangerously.

The statement from the CSULB police department asserts that “there is no additional threat to the campus community.” However, such an assertion can only be accurate if one believes that the campus community is otherwise absent of trans and gender non-conforming people, and even allies to these communities, and the various forms of violence that impact the community on a daily basis.* In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks “What makes for a grievable life?” in order to ask ultimately “Who counts as human?” (20). Presumably the police statement was meant to assert that people on campus need not fear future physical attacks (a claim that is specious at best). However, separating this attack from the rest of the campus community, and those who might be affected either directly or by the lingering violence and threat that such an attack no doubt leaves, denies the possibility of trauma in the form of grief, rage, or fear. The repetition of this sentiment across multiple media reports expands the possibility of its meaning and reasserts that anyone who feels threatened by the possibility of attack or the emotional fallout of knowing a person attacked is not included in the “community” that is instructed – or even assumed – to feel unthreatened. In this way, the police statement actually reproduces the effects of the attack for a wider audience. It becomes, in effect, a different way of saying the word “it,” discursively granting humanity to some while denying it to others.

* It should hardly escape our notice that this attack took place in a bathroom, a gendered space in which the very architecture and structure of buildings implicates the University in oppressive and violent expressions of transphobia. (for more information about bathrooms, see the fabulous film by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project: Toilet Training.)

-Cynthia (with much thanks to Toby and Abbie)


Beyond Change on Paper

Following the recent attacks on the LGBT Resource Center, many at UC Davis have sought to demonstrate that they are allies to targeted communities. The Activities and Recreation Center (ARC), for example, has a “Hate Free Zone” campaign going on right now “in honor of Principles of Community Week.” The ARC has “Hate Free Zone” signs posted, and their website offers a downloadable version of the sign “for your dorm or office.”

Though well-intentioned, the campaign is ultimately superficial: declaring a large public space free from “hate” does not make it so in practice. The posters may indicate a sincere desire for a campus free of oppression and discrimination, but the ease with which they imply we might become free from “hate” ignores the deep and pervasive ways that systems of oppression structure our lives and bodies, as well as our campus. More importantly, UC Davis already has a number of programs in place that actually educate students, staff, and faculty about the workings of systemic oppression and about concrete actions that can be taken to confront it. For example, for several years now the LGBT Resource Center has offered carefully constructed Safe Zone and Transgender Safe Zone programs. Unlike the “Hate Free Zone” campaign, these programs ensure that every participant receives the same basic information, and signs designating “safe zones” are linked only to individuals who have participated in the trainings, never to entire offices, dorms, or buildings. Safe Zone trainings used to be offered upon request, tailored to specific groups or classrooms, but the swiftly shrinking budget allotted to the LGBTRC means these programs can now be offered only a few predetermined times each quarter. Perhaps it is less expensive, and less trouble, to simply hang a few posters, but these signs should be understood neither as replacements for Safe Zones nor as guarantees that patrons will not experience oppression in these places. The “Hate Free Zone” campaign may be well-meaning, but its utter disconnection from broader education or structural change renders it ultimately ineffectual, and suggests a troubling failure to grasp the connections between visible acts of “hate,” larger systems of oppression, and the university’s de-funding of anti-oppression programs and departments.

This kind of superficial fix for questions of “diversity” and oppression is certainly not uncommon. Recently, UC President Mark Yudof gave an interview to representatives of various UC campuses. After Yudof cites the need to recruit more African-American students and faculty in the wake of racist incidents at UCSD, a UC Davis reporter asks if he would “look into” an affirmative action policy. Yudof’s reply: “I’m pro-affirmative action. Proposition 209 was a mistake. I’m in favor of giving financial aid to undocumented students. But we have a state law … the new admissions system pushes very hard for comprehensive review — that means your life is not summed up just by your SAT and your GPA. We’re hopeful that that will be helpful. We’re hopeful that more community college transfers [will apply]. … We have to obey the state law even if we don’t like it, and we could be called to task for not doing that, so I feel like I have one arm tied behind my back with these issues.”

Affirmative action policies are a key component in shifting campus climate and a crucial step toward confronting systemic inequality. Yet a retreat to affirmative action alone follows logic similar to that of the “Hate Free Zone” in that it focuses on individuals and superficial visibility rather than structural change. Recruiting students and faculty from historically underrepresented communities while simultaneously de-funding the resources that would support them on campus relies simply on numbers and bodies as representative of change. Certainly, increasing such numbers will create positive changes in the long run, but these changes will require significant energy and struggle from the students and faculty who make them — they will not emerge simply out of numbers on paper. Administrators and allies must strategize ways to take this burden off of marginalized students and faculty, and must think carefully about the logic of recruiting people into places where they are being directly and consistently targeted through racist and homophobic acts. Encouraging people to enter situations in which they are likely to experience violence does not undo that oppression, but recreates it. Individuals may make the decision to cope with racism and homophobia in order to access a UC education, but the university as a whole remains complicit with the barriers these individuals face if it does not take concrete and immediate action to remove those barriers.

Meanwhile, the actions Yudof hopes will get around a ban on affirmative action, such as expanding admissions requirements beyond standardized test scores, are actually more productive in undoing oppression than is promoting “diversity” through numbers alone. Whether or not affirmative action is legally restored, the university should continue to implement these practices and strategize ways to make comprehensive and structural change that moves beyond the limited efficacy of merely increasing numbers or hanging posters. To make these changes on the surface without attending to deeper inequalities in the very fabric of the university belittles the myriad ways that targeted populations experience oppression and obscures the complexity and pervasiveness of power and privilege.

— Cynthia & Toby


UC Davis – March 4th Video

In the middle of a long day of protesting at UC Davis, I stopped by the LGBT Resource Center to check in with folks there. One person said that there was a news report calling protesters “hooligans with rainbow flags” and that because of the rainbow flags it seemed that we were confused as to what the protest was about. I could not find the story to verify these statements, but hope that this video makes it clear to anyone who has any doubts: We are not confused. We know exactly what we’re fighting for.

Click here to see Aggie TV’s video coverage of the March 4th events.