By Seth M. Marnin, Vice President for Civil Rights
Recent homophobic and anti-Semitic incidents at Brown University came on the heels of the announcement that Janet Mock, transgender author and founder of #GirlsLikeUs, a social media project that empowers trans women, had cancelled her scheduled speaking engagement there. Mock’s talk, Redefining Realness, was sponsored by Moral Voices, the Brown Center for Students of Color, Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, LGBTQ Center, Sexual Assault Peer Educators, Swearer Center for Public Service, Office of the Chaplains, the Rhode Island School of Design’s Office of Intercultural Student Engagement, and Brown/RISD Hillel.
Reacting to the fact that Hillel was one of the co-sponsors of program, the Brown University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) launched a change.org petition urging Ms. Mock to reject Hillel’s invitation to speak, saying that she should accept “Brown students’ sponsorship instead of Hillel’s.” Although they were only able to gain 159 supporters (of the nearly 9,000 students who attend Brown), SJP’s divisive efforts led to Ms. Mock cancelling her talk.
While some may be quick to criticize Ms. Mock’s decision, condemnation should instead be leveled against SJP and their efforts to splinter a community and use Ms. Mock as a pawn. In their effort to link Hillel’s Moral Voices’ campaign - a largely domestic initiative highlighting violence against LGBT+ individuals and communities - to violence in the Middle East, SJP forced a transgender woman of color to choose between silencing herself or allowing herself to be exploited for their unrelated crusade. She should never have been put in that position.
The homophobic and anti-Semitic graffiti that appeared on Brown’s campus just days later occurred in an environment that SJP helped create. Their claim to be surprised is unpersuasive. Moreover, the graffiti is only one visible sign of the consequences of SJP’s actions. While SJP’s efforts to alienate Jewish students are well documented, there are other implications too.
There are far too few visible transgender role models and leaders. Efforts that have the effect of quashing those scarce voices have far-reaching repercussions. For example, studies have shown that the suicide attempt rate among transgender men and women exceeds 41%, greatly surpassing the 4.6% of the overall U.S. population who report a suicide attempt at some point in their lives. The elevated rates of suicide attempts are connected with survivors’ experiences of family rejection and discrimination and violence at school and work. The absence of transgender voices in mainstream discourse also plays a role. There few role models for young transgender people, and families, co-workers, and friends of transgender people have limited opportunities to hear from transgender leaders. Such an experience would better equip them to be allies in the future. Unfortunately, SJP’s actions foreclosed that possibility for the Brown University campus.
The importance of providing platform for transgender voices is underscored by the fact that, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ most recent report, violence against transgender women and particularly transgender women of color remains at an alarmingly high rate. At present, only 17 states and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws that explicitly cover gender identity. Critical efforts to address violence against LGBTQ people, including advocacy for inclusive hate crime laws like the 50 States Against Hate campaign, are undermined by organizations that engage in activism that results in silencing transgender voices. That too is what SJP did.
SJP encouraged a speaker – wholly unrelated to Israel - to reject an invitation from a broad coalition of student organizations solely because one of those organizations is Jewish. Intended or not, SJP harmed the LGBTQ community at Brown and beyond. It’s well beyond time to reject these divisive tactics.