SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — University of Rhode Island students and staff members say news of a URI women’s studies professor espousing “anti-transgender perspectives” is just a glimpse of what they say are deeply rooted issues at the university and “a whole lot of hurt.”
URI Gender and Women’s Studies professor Donna Hughes, a scholar who helped found the academic study of human trafficking, published an essay in late February on 4W, an online platform that describes itself as a fourth-wave, radical feminist outlet “outside of the liberal mainstream.”
In the essay, Hughes decries “the trans-sex fantasy” and compares “the gender identity movement” to right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon. She describes hormonal and surgical interventions as “horrors that de-sex” young people, and asserts that “The biological category of sex, particularly women’s sex, is being smashed.”
“When I first became aware of this piece, I was shocked but not surprised,” said Annie Russell, the director of the university’s Gender and Sexuality Center, which offers education programs related to LGBTQA+ people and issues.
Russell told the Globe that she learned of the 4W piece on March 19, and immediately told her direct supervisors. She said she made it clear to the administration, including university president David Dooley, that she thought it critical that the university not be silent. She organized an online forum Monday, so members of the university’s LGBTQA+ community could discuss the essay and its impact. Approximately 120 people registered for the event, she said — far more than she anticipated.
On Tuesday, the university quietly published a statement on its website condemning Hughes’s anti-transgender statements while saying it “honors and respects” her right to freedom of speech.
On Wednesday, Hughes defended her essay in an email to a Globe reporter.
“I said that a person could not change their biological sex. I said that children are not ‘born in the wrong body’ and I said that children cannot have the brain of one sex and the body of another,” Hughes wrote. “I called claims that these things are true ‘fantasies.’ I made no anti-transgender statements. None-the-less, the university had decided to criticize me for speaking these truths.”
Hughes serves as the editor in chief of “Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence,” an open-access, nonprofit journal hosted by the university — a position noted in her bio on 4W.
“There’s a whole lot of hurt. I don’t think our community will soon heal itself from the deep wounds that this has caused,” Russell said. “I’m just heartbroken for the deep pain that I’m seeing our students are experiencing right now.”
“Trans people are people. Full stop,” she added. “They exist, they are beautiful, diverse, incredible, thoughtful people. ... And there is no world of academic study or world of women’s studies where this is even a debate — not in a scholarly fashion.”
Though Russell says she has called for implicit bias and micro-aggression awareness training since she was hired in 2012, no such training is required for faculty members at URI. Some department heads have opted to implement it, but the Gender and Women’s Studies department, where Hughes is the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson endowed chair, has not.
The Gender and Women’s Studies department was scheduled to undergo mandatory Safe Zone training for the first time in April. Russel said the deparment’s chair, Rosaria Pisa, approached Russell earlier this semester and said, “I think we need this. And I think it’s time for us to require it of our faculty.” Russell said it is unclear whether they will move forward with the program, which is aimed at increasing knowledge, awareness, and support for the LGBTQA+ community.
On Thursday, students and alumni took to social media and reached out to the Globe to discuss their experiences at URI.
A current student, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation from their professor, said they had introduced themselves with their pronouns during the first week of class and a professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies department told them, “We don’t do that here.”
Claire Drexler, a graduate student at URI, told the Globe: “I have friends that have sat in her class and told me about the times that she (Hughes) has deadnamed them despite being given a preferred name to use.”
A recent graduate of the Gender and Women’s Studies program who currently works at the Gender and Sexuality Center said LGBTQA+ students tend to “avoid her (Hughes’s) classes.”
On Thursday Hughes’s attorney, Samantha Harris, suggested that there is an organized campaign brewing against her client.
“The big question right now is how the university will respond to the online campaign by students and others to ‘take her down’ by submitting bias complaints to the university,” she told the Globe in an email. It was unclear whether there have been any formal complaints made against Hughes, and Harris acknowledged that URI has not asked Hughes to redact or retract any of her statements or essays.
Shannon Walthall, a senior studying communications and philosophy who also works at the Gender and Sexuality Center, said they were “very upset and confused about how this can be tolerated,” noting that Hughes is a director of graduate studies at URI.
“A director is a leader within the university,” said Walthall. “I don’t believe we should have leaders that do not reflect the values of the university.”
“I believe the university needs to do more to support our trans community,” Walthall added.
Alison Blattner, a graduate student in the political science department, said the university’s statement about Hughes’s essay was “insufficient.” She called for mandatory implicit bias training for all university employees, and would like to see not only a procedure for students to report harassment from professors, but transparency in the steps taken by the university to address such reports.
“Our students deserve to feel safe at URI, and there is a lack of faith among our students at this time that the upper administration will commit to taking bold action ensuring this,” she said.
While students and staff have expressed concern publicly and privately, on Thursday the message they shared was largely one of support for the LGBTQA+ community.
“As the Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center, I am unfortunately, more aware of how members of our family are sometimes treated poorly at best and horrifically at worst,” Russell wrote in a letter to the editor published in URI’s student newspaper, The Good Five Cent Cigar. “I want you to know that as we navigate this difficult and oppressive world together, I am here for you.”