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Transgender, and ostracized on campus: Kingsborough Community College is mistreating me

2019-06-13

Red Washburn (Elektra KB)

I am a transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary associate professor of English and the director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kingsborough Community College. The WGS concentration, the first of its kind in CUNY, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, together with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Six months after I came out as trans at work by requesting a name and pronoun change and sharing that I was getting top surgery, Kingsborough’s administration announced that it was defunding my concentration. Its rationale cited constrained resources, higher education regulations, financial aid and transfer issues. None of these rationales stand up to scrutiny.

I suspected that I would face transphobia after I came out, so I waited until after I got tenure to do so. It turned out that my suspicions were correct.

In July and August 2018, when I was on annual leave and on post-surgical bed rest, officials from the public safety office ordered me to come in for an investigation. They would not reveal the reason for the probe at first. When the CUNY’s union intervened on my behalf, public safety staff claimed it was an alleged complaint regarding flyering.

The administration wouldn’t update my name — I had had it legally changed to “Red” — in its system, directory and course offerings. It switched my teaching schedule one day before the fall semester. It repurposed the Women’s and Gender Studies office the first week of fall classes, changed the locks the week after my revision surgery and put WGS archives and my belongings in storage.

Then it put me in a temporary office, next to a “high voltage — danger keep out room," about the size of a closet.

It disallowed me from making curricular decisions, including about the WGS major I had created with faculty. It recently has removed my name from the strategic planning committee.

Harassment based on gender identity or disability, and retaliation for complaints of discrimination, run contrary to New York law and CUNY regulations, and these actions ignored my surgeon’s and therapist’s directives.

Earlier this year, New York State passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act after a nearly two-decade battle led by trans advocates. Last year, the New York City Council passed bills to create non-binary birth certificates and educate business owners on requirements for all-gender restrooms. Two years ago, CUNY issued a statement to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students.

Kingsborough has fallen out of step with these protections.

This sustained harassment caused me, my students and the Women’s and Gender Studies concentration much harm. I had to take sick leave in the fall and get a second revision surgery this winter.

Physical healing requires a reduction in psychological and physical stress. I didn’t have that, and it set me back in serious ways.

At this political juncture of #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter, and #SanctuaryCampus movements, the academic program I lead is more relevant than ever. Community college students deserve to learn about the subjects I teach. Shrinking academic opportunities connected to social justice for LGBTQ and women students, the majority of whom are working-class students of color, is unconscionable.

I am not alone here. My program has received overwhelming support from students and faculty across the CUNY schools, from the National Women’s Studies Association and from other prominent faculty across the nation.

Sadly, the institutional transphobia at my school, coupled with Kingsborough’s devaluing of this program, elucidates that the college is a hostile environment for LGBTQ individuals who are interested in these issues and trying to live their truths. It is, I believe, a safe place neither for gender non-conforming and trans faculty to work, nor for such students to learn.

Washburn is associate professor of English and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY).