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Speech delivered March 11, 2009 for BAMN’s first public hearing on campus climate.

We’ve all come together in this place in good faith, as people with progressive ideas.  We want to see our campus reflect an ideal society where the individual has the right to be who we are without risk of harassment or violence.  We’ve got a long way to go, but I want to take a step back and examine some of our assumptions.  Before we begin to work out what we need from the people who aren’t in this room, I want to ask what we need from each other.

While I can’t and won’t assume what others need from me, I can take a stab at what we need as a group, considering some experiences I’ve had over the past four years in progressive action and education here at U-M and elsewhere.  I believe that our progressivism has fallen prey to collusion and internalized prejudice.  We have given into the dominant narratives that describe our identity groups as monolithic.  We have forgotten what it means to form real working alliances.  These are ideas that make me uncomfortable, but it’s high time we started being a little less comfortable with each other.

I hear a lot of prejudiced ideas get thrown around in our progressive communities.  Whether or not they’re glib doesn’t matter.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being taken aback by a gay rights activist who accuses another of “not being gay enough,” or a feminist who accuses transsexual women of “not being real women.”  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being hurt by white allies telling me I’m not a real person of color because I’m multiracial, or by trans rights activists who tell me my gender non-conforming friends who choose not to physically transition are “breaking up the movement.”  I find the idea of accusing someone of not fulfilling the stereotypes attached to their identities incredible, as if it were a bad thing that we’re all our own unique people.

This is ridiculous and it’s something that I’ve seen happen consistently here at U-M.  This is not something that has to do with the administration of this university.  It has nothing to do with liberals versus conservatives.  It has nothing to do with people who are content to ignore inequality in our society.  It has to do with me.  It has to do with everyone in this room.  What are we expecting from each other?  What assumptions do we approach each other with?

We need to change the way we think about identity communities if we are going to make a change on this campus and in the world.  By accusing of someone of not living up to the expectations of them due to their personal identity, we are colluding with the dominant narrative of a society that seeks to systematically marginalize us because we are people of color, gender minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities, or refuse categorization.  But this is a symptom of a deeper problem.  The dominant social narrative says that minority groups are monolithic – because I am transgender, I have the same interests and wishes as all other transpeople, even though there is vast diversity in experience and expression in the trans community.  By constructing minorities as faceless “others,” the dominant narrative is effective in denying us access to power, freedom, and equal opportunities.  And sometimes, we internalize this oppression by placing unreasonable expectations on ourselves.

So, the fruits of collusion are alienation.  I know plenty of other people on this campus who have been driven away from activism by the actions – not the beliefs – of the activists.  Though we’re supposedly a liberal campus, what does that liberalism represent if only certain identities and kinds of expressions are allowed by the campus liberal establishment?  I was a latecomer to trans activism, even though I’ve been out of the closet since my senior year of high school.  I rejected my role as a gay rights activist after coming to U-M, which is incredible considering that, under my tenure as president of my high school’s gay-straight alliance, we established an unprecedented inter-high school GSA council.

There is nothing wrong with our ideals.  There is nothing unjust about our struggle.  What is wrong, though, is our willingness to submit to dominant narratives.  I believe this is the case because submitting to the dominant narrative is the path of least resistance.  It is easier for me to blame others than myself.  I find it easier to accept that I may not receive tenure in the future as a professor due to my race and gender identity, and fault a biased institution, than it is for me to challenge my colleagues and myself: what would I do when faced with a similar decision about someone very different from myself?

Just because we are liberals, we are not absolved.  Just because we are progressives, we are not absolved.  Just because I am a socialist does not mean I am absolved.  Just because I am a member of one of the most marginalized groups in our society does not mean I am absolved.  I’m a transsexual postgender queer atheist person of color, and I still get it wrong.  I step on people’s toes.  I make assumptions about others based on their social identities.  Occasionally I say things that are racist, sexist, or ableist.  And I don’t always have the courage to say so.  Making the mistakes is alright.  We’re human.  But failing to examine them isn’t.

I realize I’m calling us out.  I’m calling myself out.  There’s something wrong with the way the progressive movement has handled the politics of personal identity in this country, and we need to re-evaluate.  Hybrid identities are the reality – in fact, I would argue the norm – in this modern world.  We are complicated creatures.  I am not defined by my transsexual identity.  I know that nobody is defined by any one identity.  We all know that.  It’s time to stop acting like we think otherwise.  We can’t forget that our own prejudices are part of the campus climate.  We must to start considering that, as people who stand for the equality of all people, those prejudices need to be examined and dismantled.

All I’m trying to say here is that we have the chance to reject identity politics.  As a group, we can reject the expectations imposed on us by dominant narratives of race, gender, age, ability, sex, sexuality, and religious identity.  We can improve campus climate by improving the climate of our progressive communities.  In order to do that we must form a new progressive alliance.  What does that mean?

A new progressive alliance recognizes individuals as the most valuable components of building the future.  In an alliance, it’s assumed that there will be disagreement.  Allies must recognize that they’ll have to clearly communicate their needs and priorities, and negotiate with others in order to realize their goals.  They must be as willing to give as they are to take, and they must be willing to walk a mile in their allies’ shoes in order to get anything done.  They must cease making assumptions about the others at the table.  They need to be courageous in challenging others, but more importantly, themselves.  They need to know what is most important in their mutual struggle.

We owe it to each other to create a progressive alliance that has the interests of all in mind, without passing judgment on the individual.  We owe it to each other to be more progressive than simple identity politics.  As long as we accept our status of other-ness, we will fail to improve this campus’s climate for minority students.  In order to do that, we must examine our movement.  We owe it to ourselves to realize a future where we don’t just call into question the things we’re taught, but call into question the things we’ve learned.


Many people who know me were surprised to learn that I am running for MSA. They were more surprised to find I am running with the Defend Affirmative Action Party. I think it’s worth knowing why, because my run is based mostly on the symbolic significance of my presence in the race and any contention for an MSA position.

I believe that MSA elections have historically been ignored due to a lack of candidates who distinguish themselves in the eyes of the student body as new, unique, and interested in actually doing something with their positions. It might come as a surprise to some, since I am a graduating senior, that I care very much about what MSA does. In fact, I hope to introduce very specific resolutions before the Assembly in the short period I am seated, with eyes on creating a more egalitarian campus. In some ways, I feel as though being elected will mean I have extra responsibility to my constituents to work on the projects they put me in office to work on.

My primary goal in MSA will be the passage of a resolution putting pressure on Rackham to allow graduate students filing Ph.D.s to license their works under a Creative Commons license instead of a traditional copyright license. Creative Commons was developed by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig to better serve the needs of a digital community of thinkers, writers, and artists. I believe that this is an important step that students themselves can take to address the rising costs of education.

Currently, Ph.D. candidates are required to file their dissertation with UMI Dissertation Services, which is a division of ProQuest. ProQuest automatically licenses the dissertations under a conservative copyright, which is all rights reserved. Ostensibly, this is so newly minted Ph.D.s can make money on their hard work. In reality, the only people who make money in this system are really ProQuest, while also increasing the costs of re-printing dissertations. If I wanted to include your copyrighted dissertation in my anthology, I would be paying an absurd amount of money, mostly to ProQuest, in order to do so.

Creative Commons, on the other hand, is a some rights reserved license. Creators get to pick how much redistribution and reuse others get when they choose their license. The version of the license that makes the most sense for academics is the noncommerical attribution license – essentially it says that you are free to take my work, adapt it or reprint it, so long as you aren’t going to be using it to make money and so long as you attribute what’s mine to me. In an academic world that relies increasingly on digital publishing, Creative Commons makes more sense. And, in the long term, it will help drive down the costs of textbooks and maintaining library subscription services to academic journals.

Ph.D. candidates at the University of California at Berkeley have already set this precedent. Two dissertations were filed this year under Creative Commons licenses, and we have a chance to put our institution and our intellectual production in the vanguard of a new legal precedent for intellectual property. It just makes sense. It’s easy, it’s free, it’s practical, and the more scholars who take part, the less expensive education will become.

Above and beyond the work that I intend to do in the few weeks I would work in MSA, I believe my very presence sends an important message to everyone at U-M. First, that people who care can and should take part in student government. Second, that minority students at U-M deserve to and can have their own voices heard across campus. And third, that we are in fact living in a new progressive era, when service and clear thinking are valued above partisanship and identity politics.

I am running with DAAP as a gesture against the identity politics of the past, in hopes of taking steps toward the alliance politics of the future. Briefly, I think that identity politics, by virtue of its creation of monolithic identity groups, drives people apart. It alienates people with hybrid identities, and erases the important, unique experiences of the individual. We cannot afford that kind of thinking: we need the strength and expertise of each person and their specific experience.

I want to show that there is another way forward for progressives who care about diversity and social justice. It is time for us to start thinking of our movement as an alliance. In an alliance, we already know that there will be differences, disagreements, and negotiation. A progressive alliance has shared overarching goals: peace, justice, diversity, community service, and democracy are foremost amongst others. Yet we’re all individuals, with our own unique identities and styles and perspectives and strategies for success. There is no reason for us to stay isolated because of that. There is no reason we should be unable to stand together, and I am committed to serving in that spirit.

I am a long-shot candidate with big ideas. I am an idealist. I am a true progressive. I am also ready to give back to the university that has made me into who I am today, and I am ready to test the waters of public service. At the very least, I stand for change, and change deserves a chance.

It really breaks my heart when people who are full of good intentions as well as great passions and well-placed hopes for the future are simply not logistically gifted. In many of the progressive circles I’ve run in, this is just a fact of life. It doesn’t seem odd, as a result, that there are many perfectly reasonable people who pick on far-left progressives indiscriminately. I suppose I don’t blame them.

A common sentiment in IGR is: it’s social justice work. Shrug.

One place where this came up in agonizing clarity was during my work with the Farmington Hills School District on their youth dialogue program. While everyone I worked with was good-intentioned and passionate, I felt like we ran into stumbling blocks at every step. These included logistical problems (When are the high school students supposed to have dialogues? Which groups will be paired with which? What time are we supposed to leave Ann Arbor?) as well as somewhat more esoteric issues (Why haven’t we talked about gender, gender identity, and gender expression? How come we aren’t talking about White Flight and the role of race in the formation of metropolitan Detroit?). Sure, it was a pilot program, but it was also reaffirming of the view that progressives have poor planning skills.

I’m guilty of it too, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a trend that needs to be examined.

If we want to affect change, I think we need to make a change. Seriously.

I’m going to be speaking at BAMN‘s public hearing on campus climate on Wednesday, March 11.  The event will start at 6:00 pm and take place in Auditorium D in Angell Hall.

In general, I like to keep progressive political organizations at arm’s length because I think the change we need can be made through education and outreach, without having to ascribe a political message to our actions, but I’m starting to question that.  While focusing on education means focusing on broad-based systemic change, we need to alleviate conditions now, for our generation, as well as serve future generations.  I’m also experiencing a change of heart toward activism in general, especially activist outlets where I can actually present a thesis that’s more complex than “I want equality now.”

Moreover, I think this is going to be a great opportunity to sound a call to arms to end the limiting, alienating identity politics that plagues so many progressive movements.  In the final chapter of her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano calls for reform in the queer/trans rights movement.  Her vision of equality doesn’t rest on our specific identities — in other words, how “queer” we are — but rather on the idea that we need to form an alliance to work toward the common goal of eliminating second-class citizenship in this country.  This is an important idea, because, as she writes, alliances require the understanding that there will be disagreements within the movement and that those disagreements are simply to be worked with and dealt with as they arise.  There isn’t the assumption that any identity group is a monolith.

In fact, I think visioning movements as alliances are, in general, more beneficial, because it also prevents individuals from scapegoating their oppressed identities while ignoring their privileged identities.  One of my biggest pet peeves in the world of social justice activism are people who don’t check their privilege, and presenting a view of inequality and resistance that rests exclusively on our formulations of our identities allows people to ignore those parts of them that do give them privilege in society.  It’s people like this who are often the targets of conservative ridicule because they ignore the fact they’ve got privileges because they’re white or upper class or straight.  It’s important that we don’t forget that we’re complex individuals and those identities influence our interactions with others.

I’m actually pretty excited about an alliance with BAMN.  As part of my alliance with BAMN, I’ve been invited to run for Michigan Student Assembly on the Defend Affirmative Action Party ticket.  I’m still debating it, but the application for candidacy is due tomorrow, and it seems like a good move.  They need more LSA candidates and I have some star power.  Even though I doubt I’ll win and even though I’m leaving the U next year, I think it will send the right message.  And why not capitalize on the press I’ve gotten?

I also am ready to throw my previous caution to the wind regarding being a public figure on campus.  Maybe I waited too long, but also maybe I wasn’t ready yet.  I have long had an uncomfortable relationship with activism at U-M and in general.  Recently I’ve been coming to terms with the idea of activism, both in terms of practice and theory of the past, and developing practices and theory for the future.  I’ve been reading work by other gender, sexual and race radicals who are more complex than a slogan on a banner, and whose conceptions of activism resist the stereotypes and attitudes that dominate mainstream thinking about who activists are and what they stand for.  And this has all brought me to realizations about myself and my responsibilities to the causes I care about as someone who refuses to be put into a box as a true progressive, and someone who wants a sea change in identity politics in general.

This is important work and I’d like anybody who’s at U-M to join us on March 11 for the public hearing.  Anyone can walk in and testify, and we hope to be able to pass some resolutions and build some momentum that we will bring to MSA.  I’m kind of reluctant to run for MSA, but I do think that I can and should make a commitment to making a call for action.  I want to encourage you to make a similar commitment, even if you don’t want to speak at the hearing, your presence will be valuable.  See you on the 11th.


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