Earlier this month, the secret SABLE Society painted a message of solidarity with black transgender women on Beta Bridge as part of a wider campaign across Grounds to raise awareness about the disproportionate rate of violence black transgender women face. Since the start of 2019, black transgender women represent 91 percent of known victims of anti-transgender fatalities, and at least 24 individuals have been killed or have gone missing so far, including a Charlottesville native.
A few weeks after the original message was painted, it was defaced with scrawls of pro-gun rhetoric in an act of violent hate speech against the transgender community. Unsurprisingly, the University responded to the incident with a carefully worded, strategically neutral statement acknowledging the occasional “controversy or disagreement about the messages expressed or the intentions of individuals,” and encouraged respect for “every member of the community and the viewpoints they bring to Grounds.” And while the statement later recognizes black trans women may feel demeaned or threatened by the defacement, it notably stops short of condemning it. Simply recognizing the implications of the incident is insufficient. Words are meaningless in the absence of actions.
The University’s marked absence of a meaningful, actionable response is yet another example of its failure to minority communities. Being transgender and having your existential safety protected is not a viewpoint — it’s a right. Defacing a mural in support of transgender people is not a viewpoint — it’s violent hate speech. The University’s equation of the two, its failure to condemn the defacement and its failure to meaningfully support transgender community members culminate as a failure to fufill its mission of being good and great. By refusing to publicly condemn the defacement or take steps to remedy its impacts, the University has granted hateful vitriol the privileges of free speech, and it’s reprehensible.
Just months ago, the Univeristy flaunted its status as the Campus Pride Index’s 7th most welcoming school in the nation for queer students and most welcoming school in Virginia. Yet now, when transgender members of our community are in most need of institutional support and protection, the University abandons them and abidcates its position out of cowardace. Afraid of the potential consequences for taking any meaningful stance, the University pretends neutrality is a moral imperative, that it is not responsible for the actions of individuals, and that it is somehow released from the obligation to protect its students, faculty and staff.
It is clear that the University has learned nothing from previous criticisms of past failures to take strong positions or engage in meaningful discourse — and it is clear that the top priority remains attempting to please everyone, no matter the personal cost. It is nothing short of an abhorrent disregard for the lives and well-being of our transgender peers. It is repulsive to witness queer identities being co-opted and exploited when they provide good publicity and then left behind when it matters most.
Choosing neutrality in times of injustice means choosing the side of the oppressor. And in this case, the University has chosen to equate the value of transgender lives with the value of hate speech. There is a distinction between painting over Beta Bridge to advertise or express a new point of view and defacing a current message with spray paint to alter its meaning. The problem here is not that someone expressed a pro-gun viewpoint — the problem is that someone in our community saw an opportunity to publically threaten transgender people and took it, and that the University refuses to do anything meaningful in response.
The University must take a stronger stance on violent, anti-queer hate speech. Neutrality in light of injustice is never acceptable, and it’s our job to ensure the upper levels of our administration are held accountable for their abandonment of transgender students. We cannot allow the administration a free pass. The University must come out and condemn the defacement in the strongest words possible if it wishes to truly be an ally of the queer community. It must take notable steps to reduce ignorance of gender and sexual identities in our community and must work to prevent future acts of violent hate speech from taking place.
Station an ambassador on Beta Bridge to deter malicious “viewpoints” from manifesting. Provide the LGBTQ Center and Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center with increased resources so that they can strengthen their educational work and can continue to raise awareness for violence against queer communities. Implement a mandatory module for all students which reviews different sexualities and gender identities and their varied expressions. In short — do something. The University must understand that its attempts at remaining neutral allows for violent hate speech to continue and encourages malicious individuals to act with impunity — knowing they face nothing more than a weak and meaningless statement from the University.
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.