Reed College last month hosted a lecture by director Kimberly Peirce and screened her 1999 Oscar-winning film Boys Don’t Cry, about violence against transgender people. But the event turned ugly, as students interrupted Peirce, calling her “b*tch” and accusing her of transphobia.
A handful of Reed students were upset that Peirce, a self-described “gender-fluid” lesbian, failed to use transgender actors in the film, instead casting Hillary Swank in the lead role.
Though it happened on Nov. 11, news of the incident didn’t surface until late last week, when a University of Southern California professor, who is also a transgender activist, blogged about it. For the past several weeks, Reed has been talking about possible fallout from the confrontation.
“There was a group of students that believed that because of the depictions of violence and rape, the film was profiting from transphobia, essentially,” Reed College spokesman Kevin Myers said.
Before Peirce’s speech, students hung posters that said, “F*ck Your Transphobia,” “Trans Lives Do Not Equal $$,” and “F*ck this cis white b*tch.” Around 15 student protestors did not attend the film screening, instead coming only to the lecture itself, shouting insults, and making it impossible for Peirce to speak.
“It was very disruptive for about 10 or 15 minutes, and then the normal procedure took place, where Ms. Peirce commented directly to the protestors’ comments,” Myers said.
“She was, by everybody else’s account, incredibly kind and incredibly generous,” Myers added. “She really did kind of convince the students that she was in it with them, like they didn’t need to be opposing her, that they had an ally in her and she was willing to talk about every one of their issues.”
Even so, one or two students remained unpersuaded, reportedly continuing to heckle Peirce.
Student protestors also deterred at least one student from attending the event. Writing anonymously in the student newspaper, one queer student “unsure about their gender identity and presentation” described an enjoyable one-on-one meeting with Peirce before the event. But “when I found out that the screening and Q&A were going to be protested, I was scared into not going,” the student wrote. “The last thing I needed last week was another hostile environment.”
Over the past month, Reed faculty and administrators have frequently discussed what happened at the Peirce lecture, including possible consequences.
“We don’t want to back away from having people on campus who are deemed controversial,” said Myers. “We deem that this would harm the academic program and the reason that these small liberal arts colleges exist.”
In an op-ed in the student newspaper, Dean of Faculty Nigel Nicholson described how the event “felt like a courtroom, not a college,” bemoaning how students “were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict a speaker.”
Failure to treat speakers respectfully “will undoubtedly reduce intellectual traffic and exchange on this campus,” Nicholson wrote.
Reed has an established dissent policy, which states that “the right of free speech, and therefore that of dissent, [is] fundamental to its life as an academic community.”
But it also establishes some boundaries for dissent, explicitly denouncing force, threats, and physical obstruction. “The boundaries of dissent stop at the point where the exercising of it disallows someone else from being able to express themselves,” Myers said.
Because of privacy laws, Myers was unable to say whether the students who had interrupted Peirce’s lecture may face any disciplinary repercussions.
But the university does have an adjudication process on the dissent policy, he said. Speaking generally, students found in violation can face consequences, which range from letters of apology to more serious disciplinary action.
This isn’t the first time Reed students have gained national attention for cringe-worthy behavior. Earlier this semester, the student body president had to issue an apology after he sent an email to 1,400 students titled, “Hasidic Jews are like the Jewish version of ISIS.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.