Sep. 5th, 2011

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)

Prologue

I haven't been posting much in the past few months. My time has been occupied being angrier than I've ever been before in my life. Besides the minimal energy I've been able to spare to do my paying job, most if not all of my intellectual energy has gone into composing (in my head) what you're about to read. I haven't worked on my dissertation or read research papers, much less worked on any hobbies. I haven't worked on any open-source projects for the fun of it (besides the one I'm getting paid to work on). This has been it.

Part 1

"I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action."

-- Audre Lorde

Today is Labor Day in the US. I want to write about the emotional labor that I have to do just to do the usual things people do -- have a job, have friends, study -- and be a trans person. When I say I'm trans, it means -- for the purposes of this discussion -- that people don't, universally, recognize my sex and gender as valid. And the more power someone has, at least in the place and time where I live, the less they tend to recognize my sex and gender as valid. The number of fucks I would ordinarily give about this approaches zero asymptotically, but unfortunately, when people have power over you, you have to care what they think. Because what they think affects what they do, and what they do affects things like whether you can get a job, board a plane, or walk down the street without getting assaulted. Caring about they think is emotional labor, too, and it's unpaid labor.

So call today Emotional Labor Day, and let's talk about how, at work, some people can simply do the job they're supposedly being paid for and be accepted, validated and recognized for their achievements; others of us have to do just as well at the job (better, usually, in fact) -- and do a litany of emotional tasks. We don't get paid overtime. (I originally learned the concepts of "emotional labor" and "emotional work" from the writing of Barbara Ehrenreich and Laura Kipnis. Sometimes "labor" gets used to refer to the stuff that has economic value attached, like smiling and saying "have a nice day" when you're a cashier at Starbucks, and "work" gets used to refer to the stuff that doesn't, like pretending to be interested in "Star Wars" because your significant other loves it. As I hope I'm about to show, though, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.)

As a trans person, as a queer person, as a -- to use an umbrella term that's less offensive than some such terms, gender and sexual minority group (GSM) member -- part of the emotional work I get asked to do involves assuming good intent. It happens all the time. Someone does, or says something hurtful, and maybe one out of twenty times when it happens, I say something about it. Like "that was hurtful to people like me." Like "don't do it next time." (The other nineteen times out of twenty, I silently rage while convincing myself that saying something would cost energy I can't afford to spend. That's emotional work, too.) Almost all the time, the answer is "well, I didn't intend any harm." The person being critiqued seems unconcerned as to my intent, which is to educate them so they can learn. So really, when they say that it's the intention behind your actions, and not your actions, that matters, they actually mean to apply such a rule selectively. They really mean that privileged people -- people who are white, or who are affluent, or who are men, or who are cisgender, or who have cissexual bodies, or who are heterosexual, or who are able-bodied, or preferably all of the above, get a free pass to do or say anything oppressive, and get out of it because their intent was good. Having meant well is the excuse that becomes the reason not to take criticism, not to listen, not to apologize, not to do better next time.

The tyranny of good intentions really has very little to do with intentions (rarely are people consciously aware of their intentions), but it has a lot to do with power. Specifically, it has to do with the power to make other people do your emotional work for you. When someone tells you, "It invalidates me when you say that trans men were born female but became male" (example taken from an actual recent Twitter conversation; my take on the foundation behind this), and you say you were only trying to be helpful, you are dodging the emotional work of having to admit you made a mistake, having to admit that you don't know everything. You are shifting the work onto the other party -- the person who got hurt. You are asking them to suspend their disbelief and assume that you meant well, even though you didn't do the work of showing that you meant well. You are also shaming the other person for lashing out against a person who is -- the magical silencing word -- an ally.

And you are discouraging them from speaking out next time. If telling someone "You hurt me" gets met with "fuck you, I was trying to help but because you were so rude to me, I'm going to hurt you worse now", well, as a defense mechanism, next time you're probably just going to suffer in silence. This is the point that [personal profile] lightgetsin made recently about asking web site owners to make their sites accessible. It's a double bind: if you complain, you get shamed for complaining. If you say nothing, privileged people complain that they don't know how to respect people in minority groups because those people don't speak up enough about oppression.

Power can impose double binds. And the kind of power I'm talking about -- the kind that involves using language to control reality rather than using outright physical violence -- is very effective. When you've been taught to defer to people whose identities are more socially valued than yours is, you tend to internalize that education. You accord the benefit of the doubt. You learn to suppress your pain in favor of considering how painful it must be to be criticized for using a slur.

If I'm to be charitable (see, there I am again, being a good little marginalized person and doing the privileged people's work for them!), I could assume that this phenomenon doesn't just occur because privileged folks are lazy motherfuckers. I could think about how difficult it can be to be told that something you were doing without really thinking it was hurting somebody.

But I don't really know why it would be in my interests to be charitable towards people who already have more privilege than me. I doubt anyone always likes being told they're wrong, but in a situation where I'm on the low end of the power scale (and power and privilege are always relative), what seems to happen more often than not -- even after years of raising my own consciousness -- is that I get recruited into doing the high-privilege person's work for them. I remain silent. I ignore opportunities to call someone out on using language that reinforces and reconstructs systems of oppression and hierarchies of value. Because what I've been taught my entire life is that whatever job I'm being paid to do, I'm always expected to do the work of helping the privileged people around me maintain their self-image. Usually, that self-image involves thinking of oneself as a nice progressive person who's an ally to all members of disenfranchised groups. One of the privileges a person has, then, if they occupy a coveted position in the network of social hierarchies, is low-cost narcissism. If you're poor, or a person of color, or disabled, or a GSM member, you're not going to get self-esteem for free. It's going to involve actually doing good things -- and not doing bad ones -- in order to get people around you to validate you. (And even then, they might not.) But privileged people can maintain narcissism for a low, low price -- all they have to do, instead of doing good deeds, is say those magic words "I meant well", and an entire class of people will sing "Yes, sir, you did" like a chorus. Because they've been taught to work for free, and because they know that the price of demanding reciprocity is social banishment. Or else the price is the deployment of the dreaded tone argument, which is how the privileged person gets to resist the odd bit of criticism that makes it past the "good intentions" filter: they say you're being rude and angry, which gives them a license to keep hurting you as much as they want.

In the words of Chungyen Chang: willful ignorance is just as bad as action with intent. (Add emphasis on "willful"; I understand the word to mean not just ignorance through intentional -- see what I did there? -- aversion to learning, but self-serving passive ignorance as well. In other words, if you're unaware of a truth that would be inconvenient to you, you might be willfully ignorant.)

(If you haven't read "Intent! It's Fucking Magic!" already, go read it now. I'll wait.)

Part 2 | Part 3

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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Part 1

Part 2

"There's a difference between blaming the community and not the attacker, and holding the community accountable for enabling the attacker to be there."

-- "I Wish I Could Safeword Rape Culture"

I'm not returning to grad school this fall. This would have been my fifth year in the Ph.D program in the Computer Science department at Portland State University. I've been employed by the university as a research assistant for all four years (which means getting paid for the work you would do as a grad student anyway). I passed my Research Proficiency Exam two years ago and was second author on a conference paper a year ago. If I were returning, I would probably be defending my dissertation proposal sometime before the end of 2011, and assuming that my committee didn't see any major flaws in my plan, then I would achieve all-but-dissertation (ABD) status. But now that's not going to happen. I've written to the Office of Graduate Studies to request a leave of absence, and I already have the approval of the chair of the Computer Science department. With that said, I don't know if I'll be returning when that leave of absence is over. For me to return, some serious problems will have to be addressed, and honestly, I don't see anyone who has both the power to address them and the desire to do so.

I don't feel like returning was a serious option for me. On August 12, my advisor told me that if I returned, I would have to fulfill a set of conditions that would make it impossible for me to do my job. I can't fulfill these conditions because to do so, I would have to spend so much of my time doing emotional labor to compensate for others' lazy, self-serving attitudes, I wouldn't have any time left to do research. He then closed the letter by saying he hoped I would be able to finish my Ph.D. So I have to assume that his intentions were good -- see, there's that word again! -- but that doesn't really help me. In fact, that makes it harder, because when I know someone hates me, I know where I stand. On the other hand, if I have to untangle a mixture of malice, fear and laziness, well, it's just yet more unpaid work for me.

But let me explain.

On February 8, I witnessed Thomas Dubuisson, another grad student in my department, make a sexual advance towards a third student in our group, "Alice", in our grad student office. ("Alice" is a pseudonym. Yes, I'm withholding the victim's name but not the aggressor's name, which seems fair, since the victim got victimized whereas the aggressor didn't. What also needs to be said -- because it's relevant to the story -- is that Alice prefers gender-neutral pronouns now, so I'll use those pronouns to refer to them. However, at the time when the incident happened, they were identifying as a woman and had requested that feminine pronouns be used to refer to them. This was nine months after Alice came out to the department as trans and publicly announced their preference for a chosen name and for feminine pronouns.) The advance was unwelcome because both Thomas and Alice were and are married; while there is certainly space in this culture for dating a person who is married to someone else, it's best dealt with delicately and not in a workplace. By the "reasonable woman" standard used in sexual harassment law, Thomas's remarks qualify as something that a reasonable woman would find unacceptable. I think so, Alice thinks so, at least one independent expert thinks so. So let me be absolutely clear: Alice should not have been expected to say, pre-emptively, "I don't want you to make a sexual advance towards me at work." Thomas should have known that it would be wrong.

This incident followed a series of inappropriate remarks by Thomas -- mostly directed at Alice -- that began even before Alice came out as a trans woman, but escalated after that happened. While I also don't enjoy being told (during lunch at work) that I'm not normal because I'm not heterosexual, the incident of February 8 was the most blatantly inappropriate one that I witnessed. I'm going to be very clear here and say that I didn't even respond appropriately myself at first. But, after talking with Alice, and upon more reflection, I slowly realized what had really happened. In the only conversation that Thomas and I had about it, Thomas told me "I just thought it was funny." This is another example of disparate expectations for emotional work: in-group members are allowed to excuse any of their behavior under the umbrella of "humor", whereas if out-group members don't find jokes at their own expense to be funny, they need to "get a sense of humor". They need to do the work to improve their senses of humor (that is, to learn to treat themselves as worthless except as fodder for the meanest, most mocking sort of putative humor -- actually, that's one of the things marginalized people often least need to work at).

Now, I hope it should be obvious to you that an unwelcome sexual advance doesn't become acceptable in a workplace if you say it was just a joke. In general, you can't say something completely wrong and unacceptable and justify it with "I was only joking". Right?

Right???

Just in case it isn't, let's review some basic feminism. (People who have taken Feminism 101 or done equivalent independent study can probably skip the next paragraph or two.) Sexual harassment is frequently misunderstood because people think it's about sex, or about being offensive or crass, or about hormone-crazed men (trans men are always absent from the picture, of course) who can't control their behavior. In reality, sexual harassment is just a form of bullying for people who've gotten tired of sticking gum in the other kids' hair. Sex has very little to do with it -- it just so happens that using sexual references or behavior to reduce a woman to the status of a sexual object is a pretty effective way for a man to bully a woman. It's about putting an uppity woman in her place (reminding her that women are good for sex, and nothing more, and if you're good for sex, you can't be good at anything else); it's also a threat. I think anyone who's spent more than 5 minutes being perceived as a girl or woman over the age of 11 understands that "I want to fuck you" turns into "I'm going to fuck you" pretty quickly, and from there the jump to "whether you like it or not" can happen in no time. Many women are never raped, most women who are raped experience it only a handful of times, but in a sense it doesn't matter because the threats are constant, and women are trained to live in a state of hypervigilance of these threats. (Again, it doesn't really matter whether you were socialized "as a girl", or "as a boy", whatever that means; if you know you're female, you know these messages are addressed to you. And if you're a man or a genderqueer person who doesn't identify as male or female, but people regularly see you as a woman, you know these messages are addressed to you, too.) This is called "rape culture", and it's a labor-saving device for men who need to show that they have power over women. They can simultaneously avoid actually raping (usually), while accomplishing much of the work that rape does (keeping women in a state of fear), by stopping at "I want to fuck you" or at comments, looks or gestures that communicate that message.

Now, when someone who's socially recognized as a trans woman is involved, what happens is an intersectional cluster-you-know-what, because to the extent that a person is seen as a woman, that triggers rape culture; to the extent that they're also seen as trans, that triggers discomfort and desire to intimidate, especially on the part of heterosexual men who feel threatened by the presence of someone who they find attractive, but who they also believe is pre-equipped with a penis. For guys with a heteronormative, cisnormative worldview, what that often turns into is intense desire to get them out of the way -- sometimes through intimidation, sometimes through less pleasant tactics. Finally, popular culture -- when it represents trans women at all -- represents them as sex workers, porn stars, or in other roles where they are seen as purely sexual objects. Even more so than for a cis woman, bringing up a trans woman's presumed sexual receptivity is a way of telling her she doesn't belong here (whether "here" is at work, at school, in church, or so on).

(I am, by the way, not particularly interested in debating those last two paragraphs. If you're tempted to argue with those particular points, please familiarize yourself with the last half-century of thought within various schools of feminism, and then we'll talk. To quote Chungyen Chang again: "if you don't know... then you've chosen not to". If you chose not to because you found other things more interesting or because you think violence against women doesn't affect your life, then that's still a choice.)

Furthermore, faculty members later told me things like: "he's just clueless, he didn't know how to act around a trans person, he was confused and had never dealt with someone who was transitioning before." Well, let's think about some of the things that bullies do:

  • They wait to do their bullying until no authority figures are present; when authority figures are around, they can behave like perfect gentlemen. (They know how to behave appropriately, in other words -- they just choose not to do so when they're not being watched.)
  • They choose a target who's terrified of complaining to authority figures, and is unlikely to let anyone know what's being done to them.
  • They choose both the target, and any witnesses, from politically marginalized groups (like women and trans people), so that if the target and witnesses complain, their stories won't be believed.
  • They exploit people's triggers.
So no, I don't think Thomas's behavior was clueless: I think his behavior shows that he's a skilled bully, and possibly an experienced one. Explaining it away isn't acceptable.

You might also say that two grad students are equals, so it's not possible for one of them to sexually harass another. I think the ending of this story shows how false that is: two people might have equal occupational rank, but if one of them is a member of social groups that everyone in charge is inclined to identify with, and the other is in groups whose members are widely considered to be subhuman and undeserving of empathy, there's a power imbalance. There's also a power imbalance insofar as we're all -- even, especially those of us who grow up gender-variant -- taught to consider gender and sexual minority members to be undeserving of empathy. We learn to do it so well that we do it without even thinking about it. And that's another reason why intent doesn't matter. To paraphrase Samuel Delany, there's no need for anyone to make a transphobic decision; all the transphobic decisions have already been made, and all it takes to perpetuate them is to do nothing.

Accordingly, I would also think that if a grad student feels it's appropriate to bully another student in this way, he did not come up with this idea in a vacuum. If somebody thinks that it's appropriate to act this way in a workplace, and that they can get away with it and keep their job, that has to be a problem with the environment. Ph.D students are supposed to be intelligent, mature people. This isn't grade school. People only do things like what Thomas did if they think there will be no consequences for themselves.

And... it turns out he was right. There were no significant consequences.

Alice took an immediate leave of absence, beginning a couple days after the 8th of February. They were on leave for the Spring term and missed the once-a-year opportunity to take the RPE, which Ph.D students at PSU take in their second year. As a result, they will be a year behind other students who started at the same time. Thomas was not required to take time off. He took the RPE. He was able to make academic progress. He didn't even have to have his working relationship with his academic supervisor disrupted. As far as I'm aware, the only consequence to Thomas was that he was asked not to approach Alice again or talk to them at all, about anything, even work. (I've been told that for privacy reasons, I can't be told all of the details of what action was taken. I can only conclude from this that nothing was done, except for the one request that I know about. I wish I could have been excluded from the events of February 8 in order to protect myself and my privacy -- not to mention my emotional health -- but since that didn't happen, it doesn't seem fair to me to not know what kind of justice, if any, was done to the person who did the harm.) Thomas ignored this request, and as far as I know, no consequences arose from his violation of the request. The only thing that's different in the department now is that I won't be in it.

Part 3

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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Part 1 | Part 2

Part 3

"there is some shit I will not eat."

-- E.E. Cummings

So let me summarize: one student in my research group harassed another student in our group; the harasser was rewarded for his behavior, and the victim suffered. I think that's unfair.

I said as much to the three faculty members in the group. The responses I got ranged from silence to hostility. In particular, Andrew Tolmach -- who is both my advisor and Thomas's advisor -- told me that he didn't know the details of what Thomas had done, and he didn't want to know. He also rejected an idea I had proposed -- of one of the faculty members in the group making a public statement that someone had done something really bad to our group, and explaining what would be done about it -- because he said that making it about Thomas in particular would be a "witch hunt". (I'm not sure whether he realized the irony of invoking a historical event consisting largely of the persecution of women -- some say largely queer women, at that -- to argue against holding a man accountable for persecuting someone for being queer and feminine.) Later, he told me that he didn't think sexual harassment was an academic issue, and therefore nothing that Thomas had done was any of his business. I explained that I disagreed, that I thought that when one student intimidates another student out of being able to do their job, that is an academic issue. He also said that he didn't think there was anything special about sexual harassment as opposed to harassment in general, and he didn't think that the genders of the people involved made any difference in its severity.

Legally, the precedent seems pretty clear to me: all workers in an organization who are in a supervisory position -- such as a professor who advises graduate students, supervising them more closely than, for example, many managers at a software company would supervise their employees -- are responsible for pro-actively preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, and for being aware of any ongoing issues that make the working environment a hostile one. Ethically, I don't see how it's possible for sexual harassment of a colleague to not be an academic integrity violation. In a lab science field, it would be an academic integrity violation to take out your competition by sabotaging their experiments. In any field, it should be an academic integrity violation to take out your competition by letting them know they don't belong and eroding their dignity. If I were a supervisor, and I had a student (or employee) who did this, to me that would feel like a betrayal and a violation on the same level as plagiarizing or falsifying experiments.

I guess, though, if you occupy a social stratum where sexual harassment doesn't -- and can't -- affect you, it's easy enough to pretend that it doesn't affect anybody, and that if it does, they're just being too sensitive. Sexual harassment, directed at a woman by somebody who has male, heterosexual, and cissexual privilege, is fundamentally different from a woman harassing a man, in the same way that hitting someone with a baseball bat is different from hitting them with a pillow. The reason is that in the first case, it's not just one person saying something that one other person finds gross or disgusting or crass -- it's somebody leveraging all of the power of a sexist, heterosexist and cissexist society, all of the tacit knowledge and shared assumptions that mean that with just a few words, if you've got male privilege, then you can put a person in your own socioeconomic stratum in their place with just a few simple words (as long as they don't have male privilege). Sometimes it's words like "bitch" and "cunt", but you can use more polite words to get the same effect. What's important, more than the specific words, is that you invoke the image as woman as being for sex, as not being good for anything but to provide sexual pleasure to a heterosexual man. Since part of all of our cultural inheritance is that the idea that anyone who is capable of providing such pleasure is just a whore, and only a whore, and incapable of being a competent worker or anything other than whoredom, men with cis- and hetero- privilege who want to use their power barely need to do more than just point at that cultural inheritance. A woman could say all the same words to a man, but it wouldn't have the same hurtful effect, because we simply don't have the infrastructure in our minds for such words to become a speech act. It would just seem laughable. (If you ever present yourself femininely, you can try this the next time some guy in a car asks you what you're doing tonight.)

I decided, though, that since Andrew had told me that it wasn't his job to ensure that his students didn't sexually harass their colleagues (or to express disapproval when they did), I had to make it my job to protect myself from being sexually harassed if I returned to the department. Let me remind you of how this affects me:

  • Knowing that it's tolerated in my department for a student to harass a GSM member, and that this will be met with neither personal consequences to the aggressor nor an institutional response, makes me feel like I'm not welcome, because it seems to show pretty clearly that my contributions aren't valued as much as those of privileged students.
  • Even if I'm never harassed myself, I'm not comfortable in a place where I will have to witness women or genderqueer people being harassed and where I'll be shamed or silenced if I try to talk about it with authority figures.
  • Seeing someone hurt my friend, and getting a response that basically says my friend isn't valued either, hurts.
This doesn't just hurt my feelings -- it makes it impossible for me to do my job. To do my job, I need to be able to trust that the people I work with will hear me if I have a complaint about how somebody else is treating me. I need to know that they won't automatically side with somebody because they can empathize with them better (being more socially similar) or because that person has higher status. Without being able to trust in those things, I can't feel safe. Every situation could be a new trauma just around the corner. I can't take risks. I'm less likely to go out and socialize with other students, because I don't want to be harassed, and I don't want to it escalate it into something that will also affect life in the office. That deprives me of the informal connections that are necessary to succeed in academia. It also makes me feel more lonely and isolated.

So, I told Andrew that I would be willing to return in the fall if three conditions were met: (1) that I would do all my work off-campus, except for attending meetings where faculty members were present; (2) that I wouldn't have to speak to Thomas, including interacting with him about project work; and (3) that it would be acceptable for me to do one internship per year (this was unrelated to the first two conditions, but relates to the skyrocketing cost of PSU student health insurance. For fear of making this really tl;dr, I'll omit the reason why I had to stipulate that). He rejected all three conditions, stating that regarding item (2), he expected all group members to be "collaborative and respectful" towards one another.

I asked whether he thought that making an unwelcome sexual advance towards a colleague was "collaborative and respectful" behavior in his opinion, and he refused to answer.

If I take these comments at face value, that means he's asking me to work under conditions that make it impossible for me to work. I can't smile at an abuser and pretend that everything is okay. That would take all the energy I have. I can't write a dissertation while hating myself and feeling like a hypocrite every day. And I can't get up every day to do hard intellectual work while knowing that going to work could make me a target for a bully, and if I became one, all that the faculty members would be concerned about was ensuring that the bully got an education. Doing my best not to appear angry would be a betrayal to myself and to the people I care about.

But I really can't take these comments at face value. I can't see how he can tell me with a straight face that it would be disrespectful to not be polite to a sexual harasser in the corridors, when nothing more than a (privately administered) slap on the wrist was ever done to let everyone in the department know that this is not a place where bullying people in minority groups is okay. How is that respectful to me or to Alice? It seems that there is a double standard.

Andrew can refuse to answer the question of whether hitting on somebody at work is "collaborative and respectful" because he doesn't know the details of what happened and can't judge whether it was respectful or not. But he chose not to find out the details, in order to spare himself from having to take a stand one way or the other. There's something unpleasantly circular about that. I thought Andrew was a good advisor because he always stressed the importance of intellectual honesty -- how, in research, you always have to be brutally honest and admit when you don't know something or when you've made a mistake. For me, those principles extend beyond the pages of a conference paper and into professional and personal relationships. I guess for him, they don't. And I'm disappointed.

If I go back to PSU, I'll have to look for a new advisor, and I'm not sure who that would be, so I don't know whether I'll ever go back. I also don't yet know what my future plans are, as my internship at Mozilla ends on September 9, this coming Friday. I've filed a complaint with the Diversity office at PSU, and I'm in touch with some folks at the civil rights group Basic Rights Oregon to find out about recourse. I have to say, though, that even if I "won" a case -- whatever that would mean -- it's hard to imagine voluntarily returning to a toxic environment, and it's hard to imagine how that environment could be cleaned up when there isn't a single person with any power to clean it up who wants to. That is, not a single person who has done anything to do so, as opposed to saying they want to.

My goals in writing this and making it public don't include effecting any concrete change. When understanding a situation would compel a person to action, and it's easier not to act, then it's in their interest to not understand. So, I don't really have a rational reason to have written any of this, except that I think if I don't put it in writing, I will lose what remaining ability I have to get out of bed in the morning, concentrate on my job, not channel my rage into snarky comments on Reddit, and otherwise be a functional member of society. When people try to silence me, it's an excellent way to get me to tell everybody everything.

Finally, I want there to be a public record of why I left grad school. It's well-documented that faculty members usually take credit for their successful students' accomplishments while blaming non-completing students for their own difficulties. I left because I didn't have the energy to fight bullying from students and poisonous apathy from faculty members. I wanted to go to a place where I can do my job and be productive, and if where someone decides to intimidate me because I'm fat or because I love men or because I was coercively assigned female at birth, I can have confidence that my supervisors will be completely behind me.

I've wondered whether the faculty think they are being "neutral". And if so, I wonder whether they understand that in the presence of a bully, neutrality means siding with bullies; not taking sides means that someone who is abusing their power will continue to do so unchecked. Perhaps they imagine it's their job to side with a student who may have been "falsely accused" of some wrong. But there's a conflict here between giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who's been accused of something, and believing people who are systematically disbelieved. When you choose to do the former, you're identifying yourself as part of a social pattern that disbelieves women, trans people, queer people, and other people in minority groups (because after all, women are emotional, trans people are deceptive, queer people are abnormal, and God help you if you're all of the above). That's not exactly fair.

If you're still thinking that harassment between supposed equals isn't harassment, consider how with a conversation that took less than five minutes, Thomas managed to derail two people's lives for six months or more. What should have been a small action got a lot bigger due to the complicity of those who had the power to condemn it, and chose instead to deny or make excuses. In the past six months I've learned that when people say they want to help and be supportive, there's generally an unsaid postscript of "but only when it's easy for me and when I don't have to take a stand".

Of course, some of the work was done for him already by the life experiences that Alice and I have both had as queer trans people living in a profoundly repressive, cisnormative, heteronormative society. But that's exactly what power is -- having that entire society behind you. If I could have reclaimed the time I've spent thinking about this situation, and talking with others about it, I might have a completed dissertation proposal by now. Just today, I spent about 4 to 5 hours -- while on vacation -- drafting this post. I could have gotten some solid work done on the research paper I'm working on. But that's how it is, eh? When you have the privilege of not having to care, it frees up a lot of time to have fun thinking about interesting problems and being successful.

And that's why analyzing power dynamics isn't useless theory. For some people, it might seem that way, because you don't need to think about power when you have it. But this is my life. I need to document what's happened because I can't think clearly about anything unless I write about it, and I need to think clearly about it so I don't blame myself. If I blame myself for not being able to graduate, I'll have lost my sense of defiance. Sometimes I think that's all I've got.

"Even if you're a woman who wasn't abused, you're fucking angry because people treat you like shit all of the time, even if it's those tiny little things that don't matter immediately. Those little acts of violence just build and build and you have to choose to either internalize it and hate yourself or get MAD and do something about it. So you do get mad -- you get more angry than you've ever felt before, because you've never had the chance to even say how you feel and have those feelings acknowledged as worthy and awesome. You get angry because anything else, any compromise or giving up or hiding or pushing things deep down and ignoring them -- it's total self annihilation. You have to get angry, or else the thought of living in such a world becomes unbearable."

-- Chungyen Chang

Epilogue

Knowing that I'm leaving and Alice has chosen to stay and fight shouldn't diminish the seriousness of either of our struggles. I decided that for me, the reward of getting a Ph.D wasn't worth the pain of having to do other people's emotional work and to fight every day to be seen as a person too. I was willing to endure almost anything to gain entry into the privileged fellowship of those who can show they deserve autonomy and freedom on the job, not to mention working in a field I love -- but the price, for me, was too high. Alice loves their work enough that it was worth it for them to stay, to endure, to exercise more strength and deal with more awfulness than most people in our profession can probably imagine. And for them, that's the right thing. Alice's colleagues might say, right now, that Alice "seems fine". If they do say that, it's because of the incredible amount of extra work Alice has done, is doing, and will do, to "seem fine" after having to deal with what no one should have to deal with.

The thing is, though, that both of us had to choose: choose between staying and dealing with conditions that have a disparate impact on minority group members like us -- conditions that mean we have to work that much harder to get the same (or lesser) reward -- or leaving and losing out on one more opportunity. Privileged people don't have to make choices like these. Choice isn't always good: not when either choice you make will be criticized. Stay, and you're criticized for participating in an oppressive system. Leave, and you're criticized for letting the bullies win. You can't win. I hope that no one reading this will conclude that I gave in by leaving or that Alice gave in by staying. That wouldn't be fair, because we're both in a no-win situation.

Postscript: Alice read a draft of this post before I posted it, and gave me their permission to post it publicly. I have not sought permission from any of the other people named in this account, as I believe their actions constitute implicit consent to such naming.

Comments on this post are screened by default. I will unscreen comments that I find to be constructive, unless you tell me "Please don't unscreen my comment". Edited to add: Please feel free to link to this post anywhere you feel fit. There's no need to ask permission. I don't mind having to deal with a few trollish comments as a result; screening means I'm the only one who has to see them.

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Tim Chevalier

July 2014

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