The Controversy surrounding Rebecca Tuvel’s article in the pages of Hypatia brings to my mind the activity involving the publication of the Man Who Would Be Queen (MWWBQ) by J Michael Bailey. I’ve discussed this book with others in a podcast available here, and is also discussed in Alice Dreger’s Book Galileo’s’ Middle Finger so I won’t be discussing it further except to highlight an issue that both brings to mind. What role do community members and community members who are themselves academics) have in in the production and discussion of academic work.
Those supporting Dr. Tuvel’s and Bailey’s works view the critiques as being unwarranted and unwanted with some equating their actions with that of a Witch Hunt and the Catholic Church during the dark ages. As if people of color and trans people have the kind of institutional power as either Puritan leaders of Salem or the Catholic Church. Both these reactions are dismissive and do little to minimize the tension between groups. Rather than these examples I would point people to another example, that of AIDS activists and biomedical researchers.
ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) arose to confront the discrimination and stigma people with HIV/AIDS were experiencing. Their actions put them against politicians (especially the Reagan Administrations and Senator Jesse Helms), but also pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and researchers. They spent much energy protesting and advocating for community representation and involvement in how new drugs are tested and made available to those in need. The results of their actions led to the inclusion of those affected by HIV/AIDS in having a say in how HIV/AIDS work is done. This is not to say that the actions of ACT-UP were always constructive. I don’t think placing a giant condom over Senator Helm’s house helped change some people’s mind. What did help was that there were officials and researchers who did listen and helped ACT-UP bring about changes to support both HIV/AIDS activists and the conduct of research to the betterment of both communities.
This is where my perspective begins. My work in trans health research was greatly influenced by this and career involved working with community members in the conduct of health research and programs. So I wonder why other fields are so hesitant in hearing critiques from others. Yes, some critiques are harsh and there are poor responses from people on multiple sides, but that doesn’t negate the need to respond to the criticism. I’ve had my share of harsh criticisms that upset me. I had moments that I was so angry at people’s reactions and wanted to respond in kind. This is why people stress the need for cultural humility when doing work that involves other communities. To focus on the needs of others rather than my own needs, which is easier said than done, is still important to strive for.
I empathize with Rebecca Tuvel’s plight as an assistant professor who is just beginning her career. I wish to advise her to take this experience and rather than build a wall between herself and her critics, to reach out, listen, and to work with them. To develop the humility that one’s perspective isn’t always correct. To take the example of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, an HIV researcher and NIH official who many activists at the time called a murderer. Rather than be defensive and ignore them he chose to work with many of the people who called him names.
And for the editors of Hypatia and others, if you were concerned for the plight of junior academics I would focus your actions more broadly and include those academics of color, trans academics, and other academics from marginalized communities and to improve your competency when it comes to issues and works involving those communities. If Dr. Tuvel received better guidance from editors and reviewers she wouldn’t have had to go through these experiences in the first place.