The other day, I mentioned that a few people were protesting the cancellation of a panel session at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association and the Canadian Anthropology Society. The first clue that the session was intended to be something unpleasant is that the cancellation outraged Kathleen Stock, the anti-trans advocate who lost her professorship because she was such a big fan of conversion therapy, opposed the idea of gender self-identification, and was a trustee of the LGB Alliance, that group that openly repudiated the idea of trans rights. I’d be wary of support from such a person.
Then I learned further that the panel was a collection of gender critical feminists (the new term for TERFs) who were going to use the panel for their ideological propaganda from Elizabeth Weiss! I’m doubly wary now. Weiss was an anthropologist at San Jose State University who hated the idea of repatriating the bones in their collection, and stirred up a major row after being photographed making light of the remains.
She had claimed she was the target of cancel culture after being blasted for tweeting a photo of herself returning to campus following COVID lockdowns in the fall of 2021, holding a skull with her bare hands and writing: “So happy to be back with some old friends.”
She had already been the subject of criticism over her recently published book — “Repatriation and Erasing the Past” — that opposed laws returning skeletal remains to Native American tribes when 870 academics from Stanford to Oxford denounced it as “explicitly racist ideology.”
In the midst of the backlash, San Jose State University Provost Vincent Del Casino Jr., posted a letter to faculty saying the image of Weiss holding the skull “evoked shock and disgust” and asked, “in what context is it ever ethically appropriate for an academic to handle remains while smiling with ungloved hands while calling these remains ‘friends?’”
In an emailed response to the provost, Weiss wrote that her tweet was showing her admiration for the collection: “We should be celebrating the lives of these first occupants of Silicon Valley — not allowing their voices to be silenced by a vociferous campaign orchestrated by woke activists whose strategy is to try to shut down debate, and promote superstition over science.”
If you’re “celebrating the lives,” why is it that the native peoples whose ancestors you’re treating so cavalierly are complaining? I would think that sensitivity and respect are important parts of your training and work. I guess Ms. Weiss was absent that decade in class. Furthermore, Weiss was the third wife of J. Philippe Rushton, the infamous racist and face of the Pioneer Fund. I can tell whose side she would be on — marrying a prominent racist is a loud commitment to a repugnant point of view.
Are you beginning to see a theme here? You don’t have to scratch a gender critical very deeply to find a fascist.
But wait, there’s more! The organizer of the conference panel was Kathleen Lowry, a proud gender critical feminist whose anti-trans views have been protested.
“The university has said it’s perfectly OK to fire people for doubting that men can get pregnant, for doubting lesbians can have penises,” she said. “The implications are very dangerous because this is a live issue in our contemporary Canadian democracy.”
She was not fired, by the way. She was removed from a university committee, nothing more, which is something many of us would consider a reward.
I think you can see why the panel was dissolved, though. The conference organizers could clearly see that they were going to be platforming a crew of notorious bigots who would be assembling a bomb on stage, that they would be facilitating an ugly exercise in one-sided anti-trans prejudice that would definitely do harm to other attendees at the event.
I don’t feel like being fair to Weiss and her cronies, but I will note that she has expressed her perspective on the cancellation online, at a page titled “Discussing sex is no longer allowed at anthropology conferences”. I will note that even the title is dishonest, since sex is a legitimate topic in anthropology — what isn’t is inflammatory bias and the rhetoric of hate.
The one good thing to emerge from this repugnant episode is that the anthropological society has published a beautiful statement explaining their decision titled “No Place For Transphobia in Anthropology”.
The AAA and CASCA boards reached a decision to remove the session “Let’s Talk about Sex Baby: Why biological sex remains a necessary analytic category in anthropology” from the AAA/CASCA 2023 conference program. This decision was based on extensive consultation and was reached in the spirit of respect for our values, in order to ensure the safety and dignity of all of our members, as well as the scientific integrity of the program.
The first ethical principle in AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility is to “Do no harm.” The session was rejected because it relied on assumptions that run contrary to the settled science in our discipline, framed in ways that do harm to vulnerable members of our community. It commits one of the cardinal sins of scholarship—it assumes the truth of the proposition that it sets out to prove, namely, that sex and gender are simplistically binary, and that this is a fact with meaningful implications for the discipline.
Such efforts contradict scientific evidence, including the wealth of anthropological scholarship on gender and sex. Forensic anthropologists talk about using bones for “sex estimation,” not “sex identification,” a process that is probabilistic rather than clearly determinative, and that is easily influenced by cognitive bias on the part of the researcher. Around the world and throughout human history, there have always been people whose gender roles do not align neatly with their reproductive anatomy. There is no single biological standard by which all humans can be reliably sorted into a binary male/female sex classification. On the contrary, anthropologists and others have long shown sex and gender to be historically and geographically contextual, deeply entangled, and dynamically mutable categories.
The function of the “gender critical” scholarship advocated in this session, like the function of the “race science” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is to advance a “scientific” reason to question the humanity of already marginalized groups of people, in this case, those who exist outside a strict and narrow sex / gender binary.
Transgender and gender diverse identities have long existed, and we are committed to upholding the value and dignity of transgender people. We believe that a more just future is possible—one where gender diversity is welcomed and supported rather than marginalized and policed.
I’m already seeing people trying to argue against that statement that “There is no single biological standard by which all humans can be reliably sorted into a binary male/female sex classification,” largely by insisting that their standard, whatever it may be, is definitive, by definition. I’ve seen this strategy used for decades: first it was morphology, they can tell who is a woman by looking at them; then it was X/Y chromosomes; then it was hormone titers; now many of the bigots have congealed around a definition based on gametes. They never seem to appreciate that the variety of arbitrary ‘standards’ are often in conflict with each other, or that many of them are outright invisible or dependent on invasive and offensive examinations. Do you determine the ‘biological sex’ of people you meet by asking for a sperm sample? I would hope not.
I like the comparison of “gender criticals” to “race scientists”. It’s particularly apt given that at least one of the people behind this panel is a closet race scientist herself.