FIRST PERSON

Camille Paglia’s transphobia made students feel alienated. Here’s how we responded.

University of the Arts in Philadelphia student Joseph McAndrew leads a protest against prof Camille Paglia
University of the Arts in Philadelphia student Joseph McAndrew leads a protest against prof Camille Paglia. Photo by Kat Wheary

I’m a trans-masculine, non-binary Writing for Film and Television junior at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. UArts is a visual and performing arts based private university–the very university where well-known social critic Camille Paglia teaches humanities and media studies.

Throughout my otherwise rewarding years here, I have dodged the classes she teaches because Paglia refuses to use pronouns preferred by her students and others. This everyone at the school acknowledges and few defend.

As if this was not bad enough, I started doing more research and found over the years she falsely compares her Italian-American background to the culture of people of color, normalizes pedophilia, and has made multiple derogatory statements against trans folk as well as sexual assault victims.

Camille herself openly identifies as queer, which is awesome. I don’t question her sexuality and gender because her identity is valid, but it’s also exactly why she should not question and inveigh against the chosen identities of others.

Let me be clear: Camille explores liberal topics and ideas brilliantly, but her tendency to layer insensitive opinions onto them seemingly just to get attention makes her a poor teacher and mentor to young people. When anyone counters her views, her defenders bring up the fact that she’s also queer. Her experiences are truly her experiences, but she doesn’t respect the narratives of other’s identity, something that needs to be acknowledged in a campus based on a free exchange of ideas where people are not derided and attacked for who they are. Being lesbian is not a defense against hostility toward people who are not like her particular version of queerness.

Here are just a few of her statements that would make almost any student uncomfortable:

It’s absolutely ridiculous if for a second any university ever tolerated a complaint of a girl coming in six months to a year after an event [sexual assault] If a real rape was committed, go report it to the police.

She also calls trans people a “fashion statement,” and falsely claims you’re not authentically trans unless you have a “genetic issue.”

Watch here:

How dare you, you sniveling little maniac, tell us how to use pronouns…

Watch here:

As a trans person, and survivor of sexual assault, I’m troubled that my school not only tolerates these comments but highlights her regularly to the public at large. On March 21, I happened across college-produced posters in our main classroom building for “Ambiguous Images: Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art + Androgyny,” a lecture she would be giving on campus on April 9. This is the moment I knew I had to do something to make it clear her views on trans people were contested by her students.

I went directly to the higher-ups, asking that the event be moved off campus where it would not feel unsafe for LGBTQ students. While I felt that the faculty I spoke to heard what I had to say, no action was taken. I then twice proceeded to email David Yager, president of the university, to express my concerns, asking him to “move Camille Paglia’s lecture on next Tuesday to somewhere off campus… Moving her talk off campus will reassure students that the institution is actually listening to our concerns and triggers.”

Yager never replied.

I made it clear through many social media platforms that the event would poison the atmosphere for trans kids, among others. Through my posts, a following composed of students, student’s family members, alumni, faculty, and non-UArts voices, was born.

Through messages, posts and personal communication, many expressed similar feelings, some of which I quote here:

  • I stand with Joseph McAndrew and the UArts community as a sexual assault survivor and ally to trans students. I had Paglia last semester for a liberal arts course and there were multiple occasions in which she engaged in harmful rhetoric.
  • This is a problem that is much bigger than UArts. But if we’re going to narrow our scope to the manageable confines of South Broad Street, then yes. Camille Paglia’s mindset is completely antithetical to everything that the University of the Arts should be.
  • We will not rest on this until students can feel welcome and comfortable going to this school to receive their education.

I announced I’d be leading a sit-in to peacefully protest the event. By the time April 9th rolled around, we were tired of being brushed aside and dismissed: We were ready to be heard.

The university hired extra security on campus that evening, which created a jarring atmosphere surrounding the already uncomfortable event. This lecture was open to the public, which brought Paglia’s fans onto our campus. As a transgender person, that scared me. I didn’t feel safe knowing that there could be someone in the crowd who despised trans folk since those are the ones she encourages. That fear didn’t stop the 100 plus people who arrived to protest Paglia with signs, buttons, and t-shirts, from sitting calmly in protest on the lobby floor for an hour before the lecture started.

When it started, we had a choice to go into the auditorium or to stay put. I personally felt the need to go in and play my part as the face of this protest, and many joined me. After introducing herself, Paglia went into her lecture and we sat listening to her misgender and use outdated terminology towards past queer folk, such as “pretty boys” and “transvestite.” Even though she was describing us in historical terms, this language is everyday use for her in describing the modern transgender movement for equality.

Photo by Deja Lynn Alvarez

We were restless in our seats; we whispered, we groaned, we scoffed, but most importantly, we kept it peaceful and allowed her to finish her lecture without interruption. Then, after thirty painful minutes, the fire alarm went off. As the fire alarm sounded, the collective built up frustration busted out. Some applauded, some stood and shouted, some even cursed (I don’t condone the cursing). The alarm was never part of our plan, and no one knows who did it. We were told to vacate the building.

Outside the entrance, around 200 people gathered and chanted, “Trans lives matter, we believe survivors.” As we continued our protest, we were applauded by some, and verbally attacked by others. One faculty member called us “A bunch of idiots who aren’t learning anything,” but another faculty member mixed their voice in with ours. Once safety was established, we were allowed back inside.

Following Paglia’s lecture was a scheduled “talk back” mediated by a non-UArts trans woman who helped keep the conversation going. From the beginning, days before the protest, Paglia refused our invitation to attend, presumably because she doesn’t have any interest in our side of this story. Students addressed their concerns to the only five faculty members who came. They assured us that we are heard, but they offered no solid solutions. We were told to put together a list of concerns and outcomes. We asked if we should demand Camille be fired even though we knew that wasn’t a possibility, then work our way back. We were encouraged to go for the gusto, that way our smaller demands would be easily met.

The next morning, April 10th, the president of our school sent out this email:

Dear students, faculty, and staff,

We are nearing the end of another semester at UArts that has brought with it a diverse range of exceptional courses, performances, exhibitions, events, lectures and conversations, representative of our equally diverse community. At this important time, I would like to take the opportunity to re-affirm the University’s core values and our commitment to rigorous critical inquiry in support of our mission of Advancing Human Creativity.

Our core value on integrity and diversity is clear: we are a supportive community committed to individual and artistic integrity and inclusion. We promote and respect self-expression, a wide range of ideas and diversity in all its forms.

Unfortunately, as a society we are living in a time of sharp divisions—of opinions, perspectives and beliefs—and that has led to decreased civility, increased anger and a “new normal” of offense given and taken. Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s—especially those that are controversial—can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech.

That simply cannot be allowed to happen. I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence. That open interchange of opinions and beliefs includes all members of the UArts community: faculty, students and staff, in and out of the classroom. We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures.

I believe this resolve holds even greater importance at an art school. Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts.

The University of the Arts is committed to the exercise of free speech and academic freedom, to addressing difficult or controversial issues and ideas through civil discussion, with respect for those who hold opinions different from our own. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ 1927 advice still holds true today: that the remedy for messages we disagree with or dislike is more speech and not enforced silence.

We must at the same time be aware that the freedom to express ourselves carries with it consequences, and we must be mindful of how exercising that right may impact others. While, in general, opinions with which we disagree, or even are offended by, are legally protected, we strongly affirm the importance of respect for others and the value of civil discourse. A university—and a society—is made greater by the variety of voices talking to, rather than at, one another.

This is a unique institution in which students and faculty regularly collaborate across disciplines. We must use that same model of collaboration with others to work on the difficult issues that would otherwise divide us, and in so doing bring us together.

David

Intellectual, yes. Made excellent points, yes. Yager stood by his beliefs, and I need to respect that, and it’s also true his sentiments could be read to include a pointed rebuke to Camille as well as us. Camille talks at, not to. She doesn’t show respect for differing opinions. She’s not open to the “interchange of opinions” or “civil discussion.” (If she were, she would’ve planned on coming to the talkback. She is not a member of this “community committed to individual and artistic integrity and inclusion.” She doesn’t partake in Title IX meetings that could help her understand her own student’s traumas.

Then, a day after that, April 11th, Paglia told her students that she is going to get to the bottom of where this all started, and that, during the protest, she saw signs of “mental illness” in her critics–us.

Not only is Paglia now attempting to shut us down, but she’s also attempting to dilute our voices and victim-blaming yet again by pinning a stigma of mental illness upon us. I want to state: Having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and using it as a tool to put anyone down is ignorant and insensitive.

To no surprise, since going public, her fan base has jumped in to add to our anxieties.

  • Shut the fuck up you authoritarian psychopath… Your attempt to silence a real erudite intellectual has filed you Stalinist nitwit.
  • You should’ve thought about your infantile temper tantrum before you decided to render yourself terminally unemployed.
  • Transgender people belong in mental institutions, not in society and certainly not in a university.

These are quotes from the individuals who endorse Camille Paglia. If she doesn’t think she encourages hate, she should take a second look. The school is now concerned about our safety.

Students around the country are being called fascist simply because they have to fight to be heard. People tell students to debate their professors, but students have little to no room to flex their opinions because classrooms are built on power dynamics. For true debate in a classroom, professors should act as the mediator since they hold the power. When a student does challenge a professor, the professor is the active while the student is the passive. Students then are faced with either being walked over or taking a stand. We don’t want to protest to get our side across, but sometimes we have no choice because the higher-ups feel no responsibility to listen.

Since the protest, I’ve been purposefully misquoted, misgendered, and misunderstood by many in the school community and outside. They question my intelligence, question my family life, and denounce my gender identity and deny my sexual assault. None of this erases who I am or will shut down my voice.

Photo by Kat Wheary

My experience at UArts has been mostly positive. I love my professors, my classmates, and the scripts and films I’ve created, but I cannot sit by as someone preaches hate within these walls.

First, as an activist, I must fight for myself, my people, and the things I believe in. My gender identity isn’t up for debate, and the trauma from my sexual assault has no expiration date no matter what Paglia or anyone else says. My goal isn’t to shut people down and take away their voices, I’m just countering what they say with my experience and my truth.

Second, I pay way too much tuition (around &34k after aid and that’s not including room and board) to attend this university to just sit idly by and allow injustices such as this go unnoticed. I’m balancing classes, projects, work, rehearsals, and activism all at once, and I’m getting tired of being ignored, and I’m not the only one. Queer and POC students fight every day to be heard and respected because if we don’t make ourselves heard no one will listen.

I’m writing this essay for Queerty in hopes to better this school and the community of Philadelphia as a whole. We must work on the micro if we want to make any difference in the macro, so that is what I am doing. I have the privilege and the power to speak up and out for others, and I must use it to its full extent. I grew up in a rural farming community with many people who don’t share my views. I’m the youngest in a very religious household, and I’m the only openly queer person in my entire family. My family and I don’t agree on many aspects of politics, religion, and social issues, but with that said, we still get along and love each other.

I understand and respect the fact that everyone has their own beliefs and views on everything, in and outside of academia. I think these differences make us unique and create mind-opening discussions, but when these opposing ideas are turned inside out and utilized to spread hate, that’s where I draw the line. People keep commenting on how we should debate Paglia, but she leaves no room for it. If we’re going to be a school for all opinions and debates, that means communication must be practiced by all, not just by the student body. Please, no more of these double standards.

People have the right to say what they want, but targeting someone’s gender identities, race, experiences, and traumas, is an attack on the person as a whole, and this isn’t debatable. When this is performed within academic institutions with no opportunity to debate, it stifles student’s growth and creativity and pushes them into a corner through authoritarian intimidation. This mentality leaves students feeling defeated and voiceless, and only one-sided opinions are expressed.

I’ve now had meetings with the president and others, and more are lined up. I do want to see a positive outcome to this situation.

I graduate in a year, and I want to leave this school knowing I did everything I could to make it as accepting as it claims to be for all students who come after me.