Why shame never works

By Castin Stone

As a trans student, I have always been constantly aware of transphobia on Middlebury’s campus. As is the case everywhere else, it’s impossible to avoid. Here, almost everyone keeps their transphobia close to their chest if they know it’s there, and far from their minds if they don’t — but it always comes out.

Because of who I am, I don’t pretend that I will ever live a life free of hatred or misunderstanding. But what I do like to believe is that Middlebury is safe for me, and that my peers see me as a human being — despite potential misunderstandings.

Last Wednesday, the Newman Catholic Club hosted Dr. Peter Kreeft  over Zoom  to discuss belief in God. As is always the case, this question is innocuous and interesting, and I considered joining because I appreciate a good theological debate. That is, until I did my due diligence and researched Dr. Kreeft.

The first book of his that sent off alarm bells was the intriguingly titled “Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War.” Wanting to know more, I read up on his website and found an opinion piece regarding gay marriage titled: “Do squares have three sides because we say so?”

What dismayed me weren’t his opinions, or even that he was invited to speak to my peers. I’ve heard these LGBT-phobic lines before and I’ll hear them again. Even if I never encounter another transphobe or hear anything that disputes my identity, I will always hear those lines in my own head.

What is often missed in these conversations is that trans students don’t get upset because we’ve suddenly learned that people think this way about us. Rather, it’s that we think this way about ourselves; any transphobic line you’ve heard is a thought I’ve had myself. It’s that we’ve experienced a never-ending sermon of self doubt and fear, and have worked hard to overcome that shame and heal ourselves. By coming out, we’ve finally convinced ourselves to put down that cudgel of doubt, only for someone else to pick it right back up and start where we left off.

What worries me most about Dr. Kreeft’s presence on campus is that students may be falling for the false philosophy that there are deviants in our midst that we need to silence, that we know more about those lashing out against expectations than they themselves do, and that there is one way to live and any who question it are dangerous.

Like many on the religious right, Dr. Kreeft sees a threat and cries out. In the case of “Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War,” this threat is “godless secular humanism, materialism, and immorality”— meaning  the liberal arts education, sexual liberation, and the elimination of religious influences in government. He calls on people to unite to combat these threats.

But this “united” front is a lie, one with an asterisk familiar to many LGBTQ students. For trans students, this asterisk notes that you are with us only if you stay in the closet, you renounce what makes you happy, and you forever force yourself to conform to the space they want you to fill.

In an interview with the Catholic Sun, Kreeft states that “we must be sensitive and compassionate and listening to the ‘transgender’ people and give them what they most need, which is truth …  [that DNA] determine[s] the sexual identity of our bodies. If the soul does not feel at home in this body, it is the misfit by soulcraft, i.e. psychiatry, not bodycraft, i.e., mutilation — which [the results of such] abuse are horrific.”

This is exactly what I think about all the time. In my lowest moments I wonder if I’m making a mistake; if going through with my transition is too high a cost for my happiness. I have tried to use therapy to make my transness go away, and I can confirm that it doesn’t work. To see it suggested that I didn’t try hard enough, I didn’t work hard enough to be happy in my body disgusts me.

In the past this shame based approach made me question whether or not I should drag myself back into the closet. I’m not in danger of falling down that hole again, but many students are. When not supported by their communities, trans individuals are more likely to commit suicide. According to a 2020 study by the Trevor Project, over half of all trans and nonbinary youth seriously considered it. Our support for each other is critical, and we must do everything we can to support our trans community.

I didn’t want to look up those statistics. I didn’t want to look up those quotes. Once again it would have been so much less painful to be silent. Pay attention, please, because the drive to root out deviance never stops. It won’t stop at the trans community and it won’t spare you just because you cooperated.

There are no winners. Shame makes us all losers.

Castin Stone is a member of the class of 2022.