Trans Rights at Olin: A Call to Action

Please note: this article has been collaboratively written and has no primary author. The “we” statements contained each only apply to some of us, and some authors are unnamed due to fear of retaliation.

Over the course of the past year, many transgender students at Olin have been actively threatened and harassed. When this was brought to the attention of Olin’s administration, those students were ignored. As trans students, alumni, and allies, we can no longer trust that the Olin administration will stand by us and keep us safe, so we write to discuss what needs to change in order for trans people to exist in this community. We hope this article leads to productive, honest communication and meaningful action to protect those of us who are trans. We came here to learn, and we are deeply disappointed that Olin has failed to prevent multiple forms of violence against us that have obstructed our education, in some cases to the point of impasse. We truly love this institution, and we want to be safe here. We are ending our long silence because we urgently need action.

Over the past ten months, several trans students have been targets of harassment. This article is not about those actions, and we will not discuss anyone involved. For everyone’s safety and confidentiality, we are exclusively discussing our own experiences and feelings about Olin’s response to what happened, or lack thereof. We are carefully avoiding giving any information that could identify anyone involved, and we implore you not to identify or retaliate against anyone in any way. This article is about Olin’s mishandling of our case, not about any person involved or the details of any case.

Over six months ago, several of us reported harassment to Olin through R2s, professors, Student Affairs, and the former Title IX coordinator. After many mediated conversations failed to stop ongoing harassment, we attempted to find resolution through the Honor Board. Under the Honor Board policy, “Absent extraordinary circumstances, a Hearing shall be held within sixty business days of a Report being submitted.” Olin’s administration chose to halt our honor board process without holding a hearing or providing written explanation because the case escalated “above the Honor Board.” They then failed to provide us with any alternate process until months later. During that time, we continued to experience and report increasing harassment.

Transphobia takes many forms, but our experiences specifically involve targeted, persistent harassment from a TERF. For those who may not be familiar with that term, we want to outline the principles of this ideology and why it is so actively harmful to the Olin community. TERF is an acronym that stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical “Feminist,” who occasionally refer to themselves as “gender critical,” “radfems” or “radical feminists.” The core belief of this group is that transgender people (those of us whose genders do not match the sexes we were assigned at birth) are somehow going against feminist values by simply existing.

This is a radical and hateful ideology. It aims to blame institutionalized misogyny on groups like nonbinary people and trans women who in fact suffer from extreme forms of that same gender discrimination, in addition to other transphobic violence. The narrative that the trans community is somehow misogynistic simply by existing has been fabricated by far-right hate groups to attempt to pit marginalized people against each other, and hearing that lie repeated on this campus by students and administrators shocks us to our core. The history of the trans rights movement, like the feminist movement, has always been rooted in dismantling the same restrictive gender norms that hurt all people. Radicalized TERFs focus their anger towards trans people, often leading to widespread misinformation and violence. Through their common desire to prevent trans people from existing safely and comfortably, they have amassed a surprising amount of institutional power from far-right hate groups and transphobic philosophy researchers. Other marginalized groups like asexual and bisexual people have also been targeted by TERFs. Olin’s failure to stand up against TERF ideology exists in the context of a larger failure by the academic community to recognize and dismantle institutionalized transphobia.

Often radicalized ideology is not immediately recognizable. It can be packaged as activism; it can be subtly integrated into humor (like jokes comparing trans people to objects); it can be spoon-fed to unsuspecting people, starting with a single experience (“this is how I feel”) and then slowly built into an ideology (“this is how the world is”).  We have begun to hear people repeating elements of TERF ideology on this campus, and it is horrifying that the same arguments used to target us are spreading to others. Trans men are male, trans women are female, and nonbinary people are nonbinary. We refuse to be vilified on this campus or anywhere else.

After a series of continuing incidents, some of us were able to receive very limited protective measures. We were told that any violations of those measures could lead to disciplinary action. Those measures were violated repeatedly, which we reported. Olin repeatedly modified the protective measures we received to retroactively allow the forms of harassment we experienced, even when that harassment escalated. By making these changes, Olin actively gave permission for our harassment. This continued over the summer for some of us who were on campus.

Throughout our meetings with the Interim Title IX Coordinator, Rae-Anne Butera, we requested a clear process to submit a single Title IX report from multiple complainants, and still have not received an explanation of how that process would work (except that Olin would prefer we keep our reports separate, and that eventually, some process might exist). Months later, we know of no such process, and most of us would no longer be comfortable submitting a report after such an extended period of retaliation. Even in writing this letter, we fear that Olin may retaliate against us again. We regularly requested stronger protection measures as situations escalated dangerously close to physical violence against us, and were denied every single measure we requested. We frequently reported ongoing harassment, and the incidents we reported were trivialized. We were told that we “[did] not need to feel physically unsafe,” while we were actively being threatened and while Olin was doing nothing to prevent this. 

Worse, the Interim Title IX Coordinator repeated the same transphobic language our harasser used. In one finding, she seemed to deny that transgender women are female, which is inaccurate and offensive, and found it was a violation of Title IX and referred an investigation against a transgender woman to external investigators for stating otherwise. We have observed and reported a pattern of harassment that makes us feel unsafe—by the very administrators who should be protecting us. Our reports regarding these incidents have been ignored, and some of us have been treated as suspects for referring to our harasser’s behavior as “transphobic.”

The Title IX process forced us to relive our trauma repeatedly. Our harasser continued violating protective measures and we reported those violations. Each time we asked for an investigation into these violations, we were denied a clear response. We are curious what the point of a protective measure is without any enforcement, let alone any process to determine if such a measure has been violated. Each time we reported these violations, we were asked to describe each incident in extreme detail again, reliving every moment, and then denied any changes to make us safer.

Olin is currently ignoring reports of ongoing incidents, ignoring reports of retaliation by our harasser, and ignoring reports of retaliation by Olin administrators. Not only is that a complete abdication of Olin’s responsibility to protect students from existential threats, it is in direct violation of Title IX.

While all of this was happening, some of us sought support through Colony Care. We are incredibly grateful to have access to therapy, which is a crucial resource. Unfortunately, many of the therapists at Colony Care had no training or background in working with LGBTQ students. One therapist made some of us feel incredibly invalidated. She compared instances of hostile harassment to a minor disagreement among friends, and repeated the same TERF rhetoric we were harassed with at Olin. She eventually made clear that she was seeing people who were being harassed, in addition to someone who was harassing those people. Sharing information about other patients can violate medical ethics standards and patient privacy laws. We are deeply grateful for Director of Wellness Beth Gramptero’s response when we raised this issue. In particular, we appreciate Olin’s new partnership with a provider from The Meeting Point, which has extensive experience working with trans students. We hope that Olin continues to raise expectations with other providers and demands accountability for situations like this.

We were incorrectly told that, under Olin’s policies and student privacy laws, we were not allowed to discuss our experiences of this. Throughout this process, we were all repeatedly retraumatized and required to recount the precise details of our harassment countless times, while being pressured not to talk about any of it to anyone outside of the group of people being harassed. The process was needlessly exhausting, and became traumatic on its own. Over the past year, we have had to drop classes and clubs for this, and our grades and relationships have suffered. We have been denied a regular college experience. The crushing weight of dealing with this situation has prevented us from having access to an equal education at Olin.

The pain and burden of the Title IX process has been almost as bad as the original harassment, and it has hurt more because we trusted Olin as a community to do right by us. We still want to believe in Olin as an institution to take steps to correct this, but at this point, we will need drastic measures to right the wrongs and let us begin to heal. We desperately need to be safe so we can focus on the courses, clubs, robots, and people we love here.

We care deeply about Olin as an institution, and we think it’s important that trans students are able to exist here. We have been chased out of similar institutions before. We could just leave. Yet the opportunities afforded to us have been integral to our development, as engineers and as people. In order to pursue an education at a school that boasts such prestige, we are forced to bear our burdens alone. No person should have to feel like this. Olin has always been structured in a way where students should come first, and has succeeded at that goal in many ways. We appreciate the fact that we even have the freedom to say this, but we are demanding change. Olin has given us so much, but the fact that we have to constantly live in a state of anxiety about something that has nothing to do with why we came here is heartbreaking. We hope the community will support and stand with us, because that’s the only way we can keep going.

This article is a call to action. Olin’s administration needs to hold itself accountable and create policies and meaningful action to stop harming trans students. This letter is specifically about trans people, but there are many other marginalized groups being neglected as well.  Currently, our administration is not delivering on its promise to the student body to do their jobs fully, quickly, and compassionately, and to Do Something—a promise that we, as students, agree to in the honor code. Our school has no formal harassment policy to process hate speech, intimidation, or harassment that targets marginalized people. It has happened here, it still happens here, and it is currently happening here.

While the administration is trying to rehire a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator, that is not enough. Olin needs to hire a Title IX Coordinator who is independent from the institution as a whole. Giving StAR control of the Title IX process is a severe conflict of interest. As students, we expect the Title IX process to be taken seriously. The goal should be to hold those responsible for any Title IX incident accountable, even to the possible detriment of Olin’s reputation, which, by definition, conflicts with a majority of the responsibilities that StAR takes on. We have watched this conflict of interests lead administrators to manipulate us, deny us relevant information, minimize our safety, and avoid taking any meaningful action. This necessitates two separate positions held by different people: a Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion who is a StAR employee, and a separate Title IX Coordinator. It’s also crucial that Olin hire a Deputy Title IX Coordinator, so Title IX can remain fully independent of Student Affairs regardless of job changes. We demand safety and accountability as a minimum baseline (as does the law).

We also need recurring sensitivity trainings for faculty and staff, including trainings on how to spot hate and “Do Something” to keep students safe. We need comprehensive, up-to-date education about gender diversity and inclusion, every semester, for both the student body and faculty/administration. Students who threaten physical or emotional violence towards trans or other marginalized students should be expelled. Olin is small and tight-knit. Our people are our culture. Every single individual here defines that culture, which means that any radically violent person can sour the culture that is so precious to us. Without accountability, we cannot preserve the special trust we enjoy as a community. Neglecting to remove these people, and turning a blind eye to the hatred they foster, will cause their violence to create new standards for day-to-day life at our school. Especially in the present political climate, it is of the utmost importance that Olin publicly condemns transphobes, including trans-exclusionary radical “feminists,” and other radicalized hate groups, and makes clear that hate has no home here.

 

For you, the students, we ask that you maintain alertness and look for ways to support the trans students around you. Challenge notions that seem transphobic and have deeper discussions with those around you. Educate yourself by reading online sources or watching videos from trans people—or talk to a PA; they’re a fantastic and deeply knowledgeable resource. Be aware that there is misinformation online, in books, and even on campus, so it’s crucial to compare multiple viewpoints and think critically. And if you can, please attend and share protests or direct calls to action from trans people. You can also follow up by asking your friends who are trans to share their experiences—just remember to check in beforehand, and try searching online first. Many of us are willing to help you learn more if you ask for consent and make your intentions clear.

We are incredibly grateful for the work certain key faculty and staff have done to try to improve our community for us, but it isn’t enough. Your voice matters here. Thank you for continuing the crucial, never-ending work of making Olin the place that it should be, even when it means challenging the way things are. We hope you will join us in calling on Olin to change. We expect the administration to follow up promptly and begin taking the following steps, which represent the minimum necessary for our safety:

  1. Create an accountable Title IX process that can withstand changes in administration.
  2. Initiate fully independent investigations into what has transpired so far, including into violence against trans students and the mishandling of our case.
  3. Begin providing comprehensive education that prevents future harassment.
  4. Make clear statements of values. Our College must take a stand on transphobic violence on campus.
  5. Take steps to make significant improvements to daily life for transgender students, so we can begin to heal.
  6. Respond promptly to these demands. We also expect complete cessation of retaliation against us for submitting reports or describing our experiences. We ask for a substantive response within two weeks.

Olin’s administration should deliver quick and thorough responses to student concerns about their safety, and student demands for a better Olin. To see our proposed methods for achieving the changes we demand or express support, please visit https://olin.repair/. Our list of demands is not comprehensive, but it is urgent.

If even a single student feels comfortable sharing a worldview where transgender people are inherently liars, predators, manipulators—people who should not exist—the entire student body suffers. Olin’s refusal to act has allowed just a single student harboring this line of thought, consistently disregarding all barriers erected by students and the school alike, to push this toxic ideology to Olin’s most vulnerable populations, making over 10% of a current class at Olin suffer emotionally, physically, and academically. For Olin’s administration to see a sizable portion of its student body targeted, receive reports from such a large group, and not treat it as a matter of urgency enables this hate to spread. The Olin administration’s unpreparedness to protect our community from hate is not just an oversight, it is neglect. If action is not taken soon, we reserve the right to bring this conversation outside the walls of our campus.

In this current political climate, believing transgender people to be anything other than normal people who deserve to exist and be treated with equal merit is literally life-threatening. Being dehumanized is an existential threat. At a societal level, transphobic ideology shuts us out from shelters, leaves us to die on the streets, and denies us access to bathrooms and healthcare. It makes us targets of physical and sexual violence for having the audacity to ask to be seen, loved and respected as our true selves. To treat transphobic ideology as a harmless opinion, in practice, is to believe that your transgender students do not deserve a safe and fulfilling future. And what is the point of our innovative, cutting-edge college if not to give us a future we can all look forward to?

Sincerely,

Case Zito, Lou Merzenich, Gail Romer, Bo Bowen, Austin Veseliza, Micah Reid, Maeve Stites, Sam Daitzman, Celina Bekins, Alex Hindelang, Mika Notermann, Louise Nielsen