When I was a sophomore in college, the student government put me on trial for satirizing transphobia. It was the culmination of a year and a half of controversy that began with the start of my freshman year and my outing myself as transgender in the student newspaper.
I first came out as transgender when I was living with my father and step-mother in Decatur while attending Druid Hills High School in Atlanta. I briefly considered coming out in school but was advised against it. There was too much potential for harassment; I was already a target for my sexual orientation. In the last year and a half of high school, my world, or at least the world in which I was allowed to express myself, shrank to the confines of the home. The state of Georgia, with its far-right politics and lack of protections against discrimination, seemed an inhospitable place to be a young transgender woman. It was only natural for me to jump at the opportunity of attending college out-of-state.
I became involved in journalism in high school, primarily in response to the state legislature’s consideration, and subsequent passage, of a “religious freedom restoration act” that threatened LGBTQ rights throughout Georgia. I only wrote two articles before leaving for college, but the experience shaped the pieces I wrote in the future. The first, and more important, I wrote for a “Gonzo Journalism” class taught at the Governor’s Honors Program by David Ragsdale. The article was a satire of state-sponsored homophobia and the first instance in which I would out myself to my peers through writing. When I arrived in college, the first article I would write for the student newspaper, in which I would out myself again, would be an indirect sequel. It too would satirize homophobic and transphobic sentiments.
There is a trend in transgender writing that I have always hoped to avoid, which is to write with the goal of proving the authenticity of one’s gender to a cisgender audience, particularly by emphasizing the way in which one fits into cisnormative gender stereotypes. This style of writing, which appears frequently in transgender autobiographical works, falls into the trap of assuming that the validity of a person’s gender is determined by its proximity to cisgender expression. In doing so, it reduces all transgender expression to an imitation of cisgender identity that in no way liberates any transgender person who might happen to read it. I have tried to find an alternative to this style of argument by questioning, and even ridiculing, cissexist assumptions about the nature of gender whenever possible, especially in satire. It was through this effort that I would find the limits of social tolerance in college when I satirized the transphobic attitudes of my peers.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I wrote a sequel to the article in which I outed myself. The second time around I took a series of transphobic arguments and reversed them, transforming the absurd claim that being transgender is a phase into the equally absurd claim that being cisgender is a phase, and so on. This produced a furious response from a number of students at my college and resulted in the student government deciding to penalize the student newspaper by depriving it of funding through an act of legislation. Prior to the act’s passage, the student government held a hearing, in which a number of grievances with the paper were presented publicly and used to justify the student government’s actions. The hearing was so heated that I watched friends of mine break down in tears. Fortunately, the administration of the college had none of it and refused the student government the authority to defund the paper. Since then, I have continued to write about the issues transgender students face, which was the path that lead me to the Georgia Voice this summer. It was also, as it turned out my junior year, the path towards greater tolerance at the college. Writing that confronts transphobia is no longer taboo on campus to the extent it once was, and transgender students no longer face significant backlash for publishing their stories.
It is common to hear of a free speech crisis on college campuses. When this narrative is evoked in the news it is almost always as a way of arguing that students who attempt to speak out against prejudice on campus have gone too far in protesting against the addresses of homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, or racist speakers. I have seen no equivalent effort to defend the rights of students to speak out against prejudice on campus even as many of them face considerable backlash. This lopsided and inconsistent support for free speech not only has the effect of providing cover for bigoted arguments without being explicitly in their favor, but it also undermines the ability of those who are not white, heterosexual, cisgender men to speak freely and equally.