In Solidarity with Wesleyan’s “Pissed Off Trans People” Activist Student Group

Bluestockings Magazine stands in solidarity with the Wesleyan students who were singled out by the administration after attempting to desegregate or degender bathrooms, which structurally suppressed the trans and gender nonconforming students of Wesleyan.

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Wesleyan University is frequently praised for being a diverse, intellectual haven of the liberal arts, but the recent decision to punish a group of student activists shows that the faculty still has a long way to go to make the campus a safe space for LGBTQQIA+ individuals.

Last October, several campus restrooms received a gender-neutral makeover by a group of anonymous students, operating under the name Pissed Off Trans People. Fuelled by remarks from the administration that adequate all-gender facilities were already being provided on campus, the group distributed alternative signage to students and encouraged them to hang them up as a form of protest. Their manifesto spread through the student body, culminating in numerous signs being torn down or replaced.

As a result, the school singled out three students with connections to the movement, and after a four-hour hearing discussing the alleged breach of conduct, insisted they pay a collective fine of $5,245, or $157 per sign, “plus additional unexplained fees.” The fine was eventually lowered to $451 and the students received three disciplinary points (10 points results in suspension or dismissal.) Administration claimed the discipline was standard procedure per their Code of Non-Academic Conduct, but the students felt they were being unfairly targeted for the actions of many.

Among gender nonconforming individuals, a simple trip to the public restroom can be a persistent source of anxiety. In a Washington, D.C.-based survey, a whopping 70 percent of trans* respondents reported experiencing harassment, assault, and being denied access to public facilities. 58 percent said they would refrain from venturing out in public due to a lack of safe restroom facilities, and over half mentioned suffering physically as a result of avoiding restrooms. Urinary tract infections, kidney infections, and dehydration were listed among common ailments.

Although the school boasts a proud history of political activism among students, the university has had its fair share of controversy, including the removal of its need-blind admission policy in 2012.

Bluestockings had the incredible opportunity to publish a statement by a Wesleyan, one of the students fined for the activism.

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When I first met with Dean Culliton, he clearly stated that physically removing the sign is the only way one would be considered a guilty participant. He also stated that for this case I would only be considered “guilty of property damage” if I removed signs on the dates of October 15th or 16th. I really support this movement but I did not take signs down on either of those days.

On October 15th Usdan’s bathrooms were de-gendered. I did not remove any of those signs. I had gotten stitches in my arm that afternoon, an hour before the plaques were taken down. The signs in Usdan were adhered to the wall with bolts. While, I had intended to help remove the bathroom signs in Usdan, I quickly realized I was not going to help get the signs down, one reason being that my arm’s condition would have made this very difficult. As Dorothy and Joanne stated, I was holding a screwdriver. However, I didn’t use it to take down signs. Intent to break the Code of Non-Academic Conduct is not the same as breaking it, and no one can be charged for just intent.

As we were leaving Usdan, Joanne Rafferty, my former boss, saw us. She picked me out of the group and I stopped walking. Everyone else in the group kept going. The first thing she said to me was that I was fired. I talked to her for a while trying to explain why I support all-gender bathrooms/and stand behind the sign removal in Usdan.

Eventually the other students in the group returned. All 5 of us had a lengthy discussion with Joanne trying to convey our perspective to her. The conversation ended by her shaking each student’s hand and looking us each in the eye. I seriously question her claims of an inability to identify all of the students at Usdan.

The next morning I received a call from Public Safety. They asked me to go to the station so they could talk to me. I was pretty freaked out. The officer talked to me for about an hour, and parts of the conversation were unprofessional. For example he asked my opinion about other cases he had relating to students at Wesleyan. At one point in the conversation when I pointed out his power and the significance of having power. He said: I don’t like that word (power) don’t say that. During the meeting he also told me I was the only student who had been identified in Usdan (which we now know is false) and that all of the signs that were missing would be charged to me.

So a month later when I got an e-mail about being SJBed, I was very surprised to find out that 2 other students were also part of the hearing. I was also surprised that the conversation I had had with the officer A MONTH PRIOR had been documented, but in his own words… The conversation should have been recorded with my consent so we could know exactly what was said. Many parts of the officer’s “summary” of our conversation are inaccurate. For example, he states, (quote) “**** felt that as being part of the campus the right to remove signs should come along with it.”(unquote) … I did not say that. I never claimed to have the right.

Why did the officer incorrectly tell me I was the only student getting SJBed? Why was I the only student called down to the station? Why are only 3 of us who were in Usdan in trouble? Why does each of the 5 Public Safety reports single me out when they say: (quote) “Student **** has been identified as one of a group of students removing the restroom signs and replacing them with the all gender signs.” (unquote)? There is no evidence that indicates that I had any part in the missing signs at these other buildings. These are questions I have asked Dean Culliton, Dean Backer, and Dean Whaley on multiple occasions. However despite my persistence I have yet to receive an answer. I am entitled to a transparent trial.

When I looked at the file, I requested that we get an estimate of the cost of the sign damage so that we could know the maximum amount we could be charged for. On this Physical Plant email, Fisk, the Science Center, and 41 Wyllys were ADDED to the list of buildings we could be charged for. These additional buildings were added after the case was initially written. That’s an extra $2100 that was not originally part of this case! To be clear, $5,245 is more than I pay to go here! Bathroom signs could cost me more money than my Wesleyan education. As a low-income student, that is a huge expense I cannot afford. When a student gets in trouble for spray painting in the tunnels, they do not get charged for all the graffiti that is down there. Just because they were caught spray painting in one area, does not mean that they are responsible for all the other graffiti on campus. To charge us for every single missing sign on campus is erasing the widespread depth of this action. And to put the pricing into perspective, an all-gender bathroom sign company has contacted us to offer to give Wesleyan all-gender signs for free. These free signs offer a solution to the proposed high cost of bathroom signs and show solidarity with trans* struggles on campus.

The lack of transparency throughout this process is unethical. Setting a trial up like this puts the defendants in an unjust position. I feel like, regardless of what I say, I will be marked guilty. The process of “restitution” feels unjust and humiliating.

Making bathrooms accessible to all-genders is an action that I confidently stand behind. Barnard, San Diego State, Columbia, Oberlin, and Hampshire have all-gender bathrooms or are moving in that direction. Trans* people who come onto this campus are entitled to have access to bathrooms that are not in another building, not on another floor, and not down the hall from the cis-normative bathrooms. We resist the shame that is systematically placed onto us when we are put into the position of choosing between facing harassment or using the bathroom for the “other.”

This action seems intimately tied to materials I have read and topics I have discussed in my Wesleyan courses. In Feeling Backward, part of which I read for my Queer Anthropology class, Heather Love emphasizes the importance of direct actions. She recognizes the way in which shame is still present, despite the events at Stonewall and yearly pride parades. She explains that the closet has continued to have a powerful role in society post-Stonewall. The closet is a space linked with secrecy, fear, and shame for people who are not out about their queer identity. Love’s discussion of the persistence and power of the closet is supported by my experience of this process. The administration has criminalized and shamed alleged bathroom sign removers. The secrecy of who is indicted further closets the three of us as not only gender-variant queers, but also criminals. This secrecy obscures the injustices throughout this process and operates as a source of power for the administration. I am fearful of the consequences of being too vocal.

Love later writes, (quote) “Bad feelings such as rage, self-hatred, shame, despair, and apathy are produced by … the routine ‘pain of subordination.’ Tarrying with this negativity is crucial; at the same time the aim is to turn grief into grievance—to address the large social structures, the regimes of domination that are at the root of such pain” (151) (unquote). The removal of bathroom signs is symbolic of the “pain of subordination;” it has simply brought to the surface something that has been an ongoing problem for many of us. Removing bathroom signs confronts the large, hegemonic social structures that are at the root of this pain and shame.

When I chose to attend a liberal arts school, I had not expected that this is what I was getting myself into. We brand ourselves as Diversity University! Sarah Ahmed, an ethnic studies theorist, offers biting insight on diversity university rhetoric: (quote)“Diversity might be promoted because it allows the university to promote itself, creating a surface or illusion of happiness… Diversity provides a positive, shiny image of the organization that allows inequalities to be concealed and thus reproduced” (72) (unquote). The decision to punish the students with grievances silences the voices pointing out institutionalized white, hetero-patriarchal, classist, ableist hegemony. Tearing down a bathroom plaque challenges the image we are sold, of a university that is ALREADY diverse, ALREADY accepting, and ALREADY equal.

This hearing isolates the act of removing a gender plaque from its very relevant and emotionally charged political context. The shame, harassment, and institutionalized oppression gender-variant folks face in restrooms is not represented in the documents of our SJB file. Indicting students that advocate for themselves in a non-transparent and emotionally destructive process silences us on multiple levels. Through this trial the injustices that have accumulated throughout this process are erased. While I did not remove any bathroom signs on October 15th or 16th, I stand in solidarity with the student removal of bathroom signs.

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Update

During the hearing they narrowed down that the case was just about Usdan. They found all three of us guilty and we all have 3 points. They can charge up to 2 times the cost indicated in the physical plant email (which was $315 for Usdan). They decided on 1.5 times the cost. The cost is split up evenly among the 3 of us. Two other students are being SJBd now for the same Usdan confrontation, and the charge will probably be the same for all 5 of us… The really interesting part about this is:
“The restitution amount will be billed to your student account at the end of the Spring 2014 semester. You may also choose to work with the University to assist in the installation of the all gender restroom signs in lieu of paying the restitution amount. Please contact Dean Culliton to make those arrangements.”
The decision doesn’t erase how the threat of paying $5,000 has punished us for over a month. This hearing serves as a way to make examples of us to maintain “order.”
I dont think any of us have made a decision about what we will choose to do… I think it’s also worth mentioning that Dean Backer was in the hearing the entire time and had a role in the decision. Additionally, Dean Whaley reported the verdict to the Argus, without informing us, even though it says that it is confidential information. Also, one of the 3 of us was “caught” chalking the day of the hearing and is now potentially being SJBed for that (LOL).

Statement by Anonymous Contributor & Introduction by Amanda Duncil.

Special thanks to Kristy Choi and Ragna Rök Jóns

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