On Feb. 24, the gender and women’s studies department hosted its ninth Joan S. Korenman Lecture in Albin O. Kuhn’s Library Gallery.
This year featured Alice Dreger, author, sex researcher and historian of medicine and science. Members of the student body have expressed disagreement with the gender and women’s studies department over the choice of speaker.
Sponsored by the gender and women’s studies department and several other UMBC affiliates such as the Dresher Center for the Humanities, the Korenman Lecture has featured speakers of a wide range of backgrounds and topics such as immigration, feminism and fracking.
Dreger’s lecture, “Why Have Intersex Rights Been So Hard to Secure in America?,” focused on the issues intersex individuals face both medically and societally.
However, the content of the lecture was not the focus of controversy. Dreger has a history of being identified as a TERF, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
“She wrote this article called ‘How to be an ally to cis-women’ which, just as a title, is really, really bad,” said Jamie Alexander, freshman gender and women’s studies major and trans student activist, “by making this list of grievances, it very clearly illustrates her feelings about trans activists and the fact that she values her opinion on trans lives more than actual trans people, which is something that trans people have a serious problem with.”
Each year, the gender and women’s studies department asks faculty to suggest speakers for the Korenman Lecture. This year Dreger was suggested by affiliate professor of gender and women’s studies and director of the Dresher Center for Humanities, Jessica Berman.
The gender and women’s studies department claims they had no knowledge of any controversy surrounding Dreger.
“We had no objections based on controversy prior to students contacting us,” said Carole McCann, chair of gender and women’s studies.
Prior to the lecture, this group of students who opposed the decision of hosting Dreger were invited by the gender and women’s studies department to a meeting on February 10 via email in order to discuss what could be done. Among the students invited was Daniel Willey, a junior gender and women’s studies major.
“When we talked to them, it was very clear that they were willing to work with us to come up with a plan. Unfortunately, it was also clear that there was a fundamental disconnect between the department, which has no out trans people, and the group of about eight transgender students,” Willey said.
“I thought that meeting went very well. Students expressed their concerns, raised their objections. We talked about it. We talked about how we might respond,” said McCann.
The department encouraged students to come and ask Dreger questions but made no official commitments. Talk of changing the format of the lecture was discussed but, due to contract issues, could not be followed through.
To address the concern of students that questions might not be answered, Dreger was made aware of the situation.“We confirmed for her the topic and we confirmed for her the expectation of scholarly conduct. She, of course, concurred readily,” McCann explained.
Dreger suggested that the University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression be in use as a standard for how the event should proceed. During the event, students followed the standard and asked Dreger questions regarding the controversy surrounding her work as well as her lecture on intersex rights in America.
“I think this went great. I think that we had a lot of productive conversations and I do think that being in places of discomfort is the place where we get a lot of good intellectual and political work done,” said Dreger of the questions regarding the controversy of her presence.
Dreger continued, “I think, you know, for somebody like me who’s in a position of authority, I think that questioning a person is absolutely right on. I think the questions were really good, so I’m really pleased.”
Although the lecture is over, students have expressed that they feel there is a deeper issue that highlights a rift between students and faculty. “Ultimately, though, I think this whole thing has opened up a dialogue between students and faculty and I hope we can work towards positive change,” said Willey of the positive side of the matter.
Willey continued, “it’s very easy for me to understand the positions faculty are in, and I certainly understand that nothing that happened was intentional or malicious. That said, it still hurt to know that our educators are so removed from issues of the trans and intersex communities that they had no idea the person they invited was a notorious and controversial figure.”
As a further course of action to work with concerned students, an additional speaker to be announced later in the semester is currently being explored by the department.