Community Civility and a Response to the Controversy Over The Vagina Monologues at Mount Holyoke

I'd like to follow up on my previous blog post on the Mount Holyoke College controversy surrounding The Vagina Monologues because of the responses I've received. They've run the gamut from praise to condemnation, from thanks for informing the community of an important event in trans history to constructive criticism as well as vicious name calling. Aside from the cliché that if the responses are all over the map, I must be doing something right, the criticisms highlighted some very important points, some of which I had space to make in the first blog post, and some of which I didn't.

The consensus from my fellow actors was that I got it right, so I'm pleased that my memory jives with that of my friends. I also believe I promoted Eve Ensler's position correctly, as she quickly published her own response, to which I was able to link (thanks to editing delays due to the King holiday). I will reiterate that my purpose in publishing that post was to inform the public that Eve Ensler is not transphobic, nor has she been transphobic, and I could document that because I was part of the ensemble cast performance of the first all-trans cast. I've done that, and now to the rest.

Within hours of publication, I was subjected to a Twitterbombing, being described as racist, ageist, elitist and arrogant, and connecting me to a host of questionable LGBT characters. These ad hominem and association-fallacy attacks, what I have called "manufactured strategic outrage," are too often the reflexive response of some activists. A famous African-American activist, Flo Kennedy, classified these attacks as "horizontal hostility," describing members of a community attacking their colleagues, actions which often prove to be self-destructive.

The first rule of politics is "Take nothing personally." Admittedly that is very hard to do, particularly when running for office, because that is a quintessential personal endeavor in our political system. But it is absolutely essential if you're going to maintain your sanity and be able to move forward and create change. The foremost tool of incumbents is psychological warfare, and while electoral campaigning is known to generate personal attacks, general political activism is rife with them as well.

I was accused of being ageist because I was critical of college students. I see constructively criticizing college students as a sign of respect and a refusal to be patronizing, and I hope, for their sakes, that their professors do the same. In my world ageism is visible in the discrimination suffered by middle-aged workers who were laid off after the economic crash and have yet to find new work, because younger workers are willing (understandably) to work for much less. Discrimination is most serious when directed at those with less power; college students, particularly those at elite schools such as Mount Holyoke, have a great deal of privilege and should have the tools and support to be able to handle criticism. I don't believe most want to be coddled.

I was accused of being insensitive to persons of color because I challenged a description of Eve Ensler as racist for using the death of Trayvon Martin as an opportunity to raise money for the feminist cause. I agree that efforts such as that, like the efforts of all non-profits that use tragedy and crisis as fundraising opportunities, including those in the national and local LGBT communities, are crass and disrespectful, which is why I don't do that in my political work. There are moments when one should just put her causes aside and show her solidarity. But it isn't racist and shouldn't be used to burn bridges. This calling me a "racist" was truly stood on its head when I was later accused of being disrespectful to college students because "they decided against performing a rich white lady's play." Reducing Eve Ensler (this is a real example of reductionism, unlike the use of "vagina" in the play) to a "rich white lady" is an ad hominem attack and can itself be considered racist. Just imagine how you might feel if someone called Selma a "rich black lady's film" because Oprah was a producer.

Then there was my reference to Calpernia Addams, who was a co-director of the performance and the reason it was performed. Calpernia is a friend, and while she and I vigorously disagree on the role of drag queens in the transgender community (she spends her professional career in the entertainment industry), we do so respectfully and don't let it impact our friendship. There was once a time when Democrats and Republicans could disagree and remain friends socially, and when professionalism was common, but these activist attacks today reflect a much less civil culture. I don't think that reduces me to a "Mr. Wilson" character yelling at kids to get off the lawn. For those who don't get the Mr. Wilson reference, they probably also didn't get the pop culture reference in the title, which was honorifically referring to the students by referring to Art Linkletter's TV program back in the '50s.

I was also criticized for mentioning Calpernia, in spite of her being the historical linchpin of my thesis about the history of The Vagina Monologues, because of comments that she and others made in reference to my blog post. I believe most columnists and bloggers understand that they are not responsible for the comments of others, and attacking me because of others' comments is nothing more than guilt by association.

This piece wasn't about "respecting your elders." Had the students done their homework, there would be no issue. Had they said the play is too essentialist for their tastes, they could have generated an interesting debate about second- and third-wave feminism, which is important particularly because, as I mentioned, there are second wavers still active in claiming they'd like to exterminate all trans persons. For all I know, students on other campuses have navigated this issue quite successfully, and we don't know it because they handled it without controversy.

There is the important issue of recognizing the consequences of one's actions, which came up in my comments about trans men and Planned Parenthood. I don't care if one wants to talk about "pregnant persons" rather than "pregnant women," or "reproductive rights" rather than "women's rights." Planned Parenthood and NARAL aren't, in the most literal sense, "women's organizations," primarily because there are many men who support the work as well. Do trans men have the right to criticize their language as exclusionary? Of course. Do the organizations have the right to reject the claim? Yes. The point was made to me that no one would be harmed by using more inclusive language. That's the crux of the matter about consequences. Women's bodily autonomy is still an explosive and divisive issue in this country. Millions of women are at risk as a result of the actions of those who not only oppose abortion rights but also the use of contraception. Millions of women, yet only dozens of trans men. Demanding a change to the language may be seen as selfish and a distraction to the mission, and those who oppose women's autonomy may grab hold of it to tar the entire progressive movement, and feminism in particular. We don't need more of that in this climate. The more rights women have in our society, the more rights pregnant trans men will have. They needn't be explicitly recognized for that to happen. The same holds for anti-discrimination language. All trans subtypes needn't be publicly recognized for all to be covered under the category of "gender identity and expression."

Finally, though I listed a number of specific issues here, I want to repeat that I sense that the underlying problem is the reflexive lashing out due to a sense of personalization, which leads to feelings of victimization. Many, if not most, trans persons have been victimized over the course of their lives. I certainly have, and many times. But I've learned to think of myself not as a victim but as a survivor and use that as a source of empowerment. When I feel like responding in the moment, I step back and let my thoughts sit and cool off. Playing the victim card, in whatever manifestation -- race card, ethnic card, gay card, etc. -- simply doesn't work in the larger battle of changing hearts and minds. Our successes are evidence of that. Let's learn to channel what Orlando Figes called, in reference to one of the revolutionary parties in 1917 Russia, the "formless revolutionary spirit of students" and continue to build on the good, and do so in the spirit of what my good friend and trans leader Diego Sanchez recently said with respect to engaging and educating allies, patiently, constructively and respectfully:

"It takes time and trust to enact and honor a Treaty of the Heart among allies."

I thank my interlocutors for engaging with me offline, educating me and listening, and allowing me to speak critically.