“We promise you discovery,” but at what cost?
Letter to the Editor | Monday, August 31, 2020
During my time at Saint Mary’s, the institution has made it abundantly clear that our campus is a safe place for me, a lesbian. Last fall, however, I learned that is not necessarily the case.
I realized this when I took a class called Psychology of Personality taught by a relatively new adjunct professor. During the professor’s self-introductory slideshow, he chose to include uncensored videos of him performing mental health intervention with a person with developmental disabilities. As the semester went on, the professor continually violated the privacy of his patients by sharing uncensored stories and photos about those who he had helped in the past. In one particular instance, he showed multiple photos of a 7-year-old boy and told his story of abuse and subsequent course of treatment with the professor as his psychologist. He exploited these individuals in order to show us how “good” of a psychologist he was.
The story that the professor shared which tipped my scale from uncomfortable to angry, though, was the story about “his friend Michael, who now wants to be called Isabella.” The professor told us the story of Isabella’s transition while solely referring to her as her dead name, Michael, and using the incorrect pronouns. He used language like “he just decided he wanted to be a woman” to describe the process of transitioning and touted great pride in it being his decision whether or not Isabella would be permitted to begin a medical transition.
As an out lesbian, sitting in a classroom so fraught with transphobic stories and hearing the professor refer to gay people as “the homosexuals,” it became increasingly clear to me that I was not safe to be myself. I spent every class hiding my laptop and water bottle with gay pride stickers and trying not to stand out in an effort not to out myself. I consistently received near-failing grades on auto-graded online assignments and that, in hindsight, could only be attributed to my inability to learn in an environment I perceived as unsafe. I reached out to the professor to attend his office hours in an effort to gain some understanding as to why I, a straight-A student, could not grasp the concepts being taught.
Leading up to the appointment, I told myself to pop the cover off of my laptop but in the stress of the lead up, I forgot to do so. In a panic, I decided to use my cell phone instead to bring up the questions I was having trouble with understanding. During this appointment, the professor took the cell phone from me and patronized me about quiz-taking strategy instead of helping me to understand the material. During his lengthy mansplaining, my phone went dark and later when he tried to open it, he saw my wallpaper with an artful drawing of two women sitting together, legs intertwined and kissing. The professor’s eyes went wide and then narrowed as he looked at me, looked at the screen and looked at me again. I quickly retrieved my phone from him and decided to pull out my laptop, trying desperately to steady my shaking hands after outing myself.
Immediately after, in class, he began using “his friend Michael” as an anecdote, so I raised my hand and asked him, “Do they go by Isabella now?” The professor looked at me for a long moment and responded, “Yes, he does.” More silences stretched as he paced the floor before looking back to me, saying, “Is that all?” Feeling emboldened, I answered, “Actually, I don’t understand why you keep referring to Isabella with her dead name and using the wrong pronouns.”
I could almost see the steam pouring out of the professor’s ears as he paced the floor and explained how therapy works without truly answering why he would be telling Isabella’s story using the wrong name and pronouns. He alternated between looking at me and the three guests from a council he sits on during his tirade. He eventually stopped himself, noting that we could talk about this later, and moved on to talking about Erikson’s psychological stage of intimacy and isolation. His eyes never left mine as he described how his sister “struggled with her sexuality” so she chose to “isolate herself as a nun” in order to atone for being attracted to women. He continued to explain why his sister would choose to do such a thing, still looking intently at me as my eyes filled with tears. When he was finished, he cocked his head to one side and said to me, “Times really have changed, haven’t they?”
I spent the rest of the class in a panic, unable to move from my seat until we were dismissed. Thankfully, after class I was able to speak with a professor who I had adopted as my mentor and ask for a meeting as soon as she had time available. She very gently and concernedly scheduled for me to come by the following afternoon to chat about what had transpired and how to get me out of that class. In the night between the incident and the meeting, I had a nightmare so vivid about the professor that as soon as academic advising opened at 9 a.m., I walked in and dropped the class. I still went to see my mentor and told her exactly what had transpired with the professor. She was horrified and apologetic, promising me that she would do everything in her power to get justice for the situation.
On the Saint Mary’s Title IX webpage, it is made abundantly clear that sexual orientation discrimination is included in their protections and in their policy — they promise protective measures and remedies for victims and the community. After filing a report with our bias reporting system, however, I was not contacted again. When I went back to academic advising to adjust some other credits, I was asked if I was okay and if I was comfortable sharing, but no administrator ever independently contacted me about the situation. If it weren’t for my mentor keeping me updated with the progress of the case, I would have never known that the professor had been removed from the staff. If it weren’t for my mentor, I would not have known that anyone on the Saint Mary’s campus cared about the blatant discrimination occurring in our classrooms — how many other people had this man affected before someone finally spoke up?
In reflection of the series of events that took place last fall, I do not feel as if I was protected. Instead, it feels as if this incident was tossed aside or swept under the rug to be dealt with quietly, completely disregarding the school’s responsibility to me as a student who no longer felt safe in their classrooms. If what they claim in their Title IX policy is true, why was there no follow up after I reported? Why did my mentor have to fight for me herself to get even the smallest amount of justice? Why hasn’t the college tried to assess the negative impact that the professor could have had on other students in the community?
As a community, we need to protect each other, now more than ever. If we can’t even trust our administration to protect us, how can we expect each other to do the same?
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.