“Hermaphrodite” – a charcoal drawing of a nude figure with both male and female features – was meant to inspire controversy. The artwork was on display for two years outside the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center on the University’s Flint campus. Then a member of the staff complained that he felt sexually harassed by the presence of the drawing, and University administrators responded by banishing it to the back room of a local coffee shop.
It was not long, of course, before cries of censorship ensued, and in the face of this scrutiny, the University agreed to return “Hermaphrodite” to its original home outside the center. Those who pressured the University to secure the center’s right to display “Hermaphrodite” were right to do so – there is no doubt that the moment called for an impassioned and loud defense of the First Amendment. But the central theme of “Hermaphrodite,” its placement outside the LGBT Center and the way it was initially censored by the administration all cannot be ignored.
The decision to remove the work of art was, in effect, a slap in the face to the gender identity and expression movement. The controversy over “Hermaphrodite” has done more than renew a commitment to the First Amendment; it has exposed the incredible amount of ignorance and prejudice surrounding the LGBT community, specifically around issues of gender identity and expression.
The University’s Ann Arbor campus last is by no means absolved of any wrongdoing when it comes to these issues. Last year, members of the Wolverine Coalition for Human Rights, the Stonewall Democrats and other groups regularly attended University Board of Regents meetings to demand that the University include gender identity and expression in the nondiscrimination clause of its bylaws. The administrators claim the bylaws already protect transgender students, faculty and staff. They cite the 2004 Smith v. City of Salem decision, in which the 6th U.S. Circuit Court ruled that gender discrimination clauses do include protection for gender identity as well. Activist groups have countered that including an explicit clause in the bylaws would be an important symbolic gesture, and they are correct. Even if gender identity does not need legally need specific mention, the clause would demonstrate the University’s support for the rights of transgender individuals.
The University prides itself on its efforts to defend diversity and take on difficult social and political issues, making the administration’s behavior in this case disappointing. If the University is correct that the bylaws protect gender identity and expression as they currently stand, it has nothing to lose by offering more explicit wording in a sign of much-needed solidarity with a movement that is still stigmatized and remains largely underground.
The return of “Hermaphrodite” to its original place outside the LGBT Center in Flint is a positive sign, but that this artwork generated such controversy suggests that far more must be done to ensure the University is a place where all feel safe and welcome.