UA-Fort Smith silences student 

Transgendered woman told to stop class lectures.

click to enlarge Jennifer Braly image
  • BRALY: Forbidden by school administration to give faculty-sanctioned lectures in classrooms.

Over the 2011-2012 academic year, Jennifer Braly, a University of Arkansas at Fort Smith psychology major with a 3.58 GPA, has given roughly 20 guest lectures on gender identity disorder (GID) to psychology and sociology classes on campus. Her lectures are meticulously researched and accompanied by a power-point presentation, but Braly's true qualification — what sets her lectures apart from other undergraduate reports — is her personal experience with GID. Braly was born a male, but a year ago, at age 36, she began taking hormones, had her name and gender changed on legal documents and assumed her new identity as a female.

Braly says her lectures have been well received, and several students have gone out of their way to e-mail positive feedback. One professor, Dr. Nicha Otero, wrote a letter of recommendation, chronicling the merits of her presentation, and its success at "open[ing] the doors to a greater understanding and appreciation of this too often misunderstood disorder."

But on April 19, Braly received an e-mail of a different sort from Dr. Rita Barrett, the chair of the psychology department: "I have heard quite a bit about your interest and vigor in visiting with my faculty and students. All of my faculty are now diligently preparing for the closure of the semester ... and it is impossible to afford more class time to accommodate an additional speaker at one week before finals. Therefore, your scheduled speaking engagements in any course in my department have been canceled.  This includes the two scheduled for tomorrow Friday April 20th in Dr. Laura King's [general psychology] classes."

Braly contacted King, who had been copied on the e-mail. "I knew that I had planned the lecture for this point in the semester. It fit with the topic, so we planned to go ahead," King said. She and Braly decided they would risk the consequences and at 9 a.m. Friday, April 20, Braly showed up at King's first class. But earlier in the morning, Dr. Henry Rinne, dean of the College of Social Sciences, had intercepted King and told her that under no circumstances should Braly be allowed to speak in any classroom setting.

"I was told by Dr. Rinne that there had been complaints about Jennifer's talk, that she was not considered to be a qualified expert, apparently because she didn't have an advanced degree. But I think someone with personal experience, who has also done personal research and is going through treatment, is a valid guest speaker. It's all about diversity and learning about people from different backgrounds, facing different issues,' " King said.

King didn't agree with the administration's decision, so she asked Rinne to tell her class. "The students were surprised and very unhappy. They asked Dr. Rinne to justify the administration's decision," she said. Rather than support the administration's position, King dismissed the day's class.

Braly has some idea as to why her lectures were canceled. "When Dr. King told the class they were having a transgendered speaker, one student was outraged. He kept saying foul stuff and ultimately, he was asked to leave class. Apparently, he complained to administration," she said. She also suspects that the school was trying to silence criticism of their own policies towards GID-affected students.

In March, Braly sued the university for discriminatory restroom and housing policies. She and the university are working towards an out-of-court compromise, but until last week, she was only permitted to use gender neutral restrooms. "There are a handful of these on the entire campus," Braly said. Last Monday, the university notified Braly that she is now welcome to use women's restrooms. She was also allowed to enter the on-campus housing lottery, provided she discloses her transgendered status to any prospective roommates.

Undaunted, Braly managed to give her April 20 lectures anyway. After King dismissed class, Braly told the students she was heading over to the student center — a non-classroom setting — and if they wanted to learn about GID, to come along. The majority of the class followed her, seating themselves on the student center floor.

"There was one student who made a big fuss, yelling slurs and trying to disrupt my lecture, but I just ignored him and stayed focused with my audience," Braly said. Later she learned from other students that the name-caller was the same man who disrupted King's class a few days earlier, and that several people asked him to stop. Passersby joined the audience as well, and before long, Braly was speaking to a crowd of about 70. After her first lecture, Braly repeated the process with King's second class, but King skipped both lectures. "There seemed to be some feeling that if I were present, even though it were in a different location, it might be regarded as a formal class," she said.

The following Monday, April 23, Braly was called before Rebecca Timmons, a member of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and the campus provost, Ray Wallace. They told her that her lectures had been canceled because she'd sought IRB permission to give a response survey following future lectures, and that survey had not yet been approved.

"Jennifer never asked to give a survey in my class, nor do I think she intended to give a survey. I wouldn't have allowed her to give a survey because any on-campus research would need to get approval from the IRB," King said.

According to Braly, she'd dropped plans for a survey over a week ago, when she realized how extensive the approval process would be. But rather than notifying the IRB, she simply didn't respond to their last e-mail regarding the survey.

On Monday, she asked Timmons and Wallace, "What if we forget about the survey and I just go back to doing lectures?" But she was told that, in order to continue doing lectures on the campus, she would have to develop a survey and get it approved by the IRB — a requirement that singles Braly out from other guest lecturers.

In an e-mail, UAFS spokesperson Sondra LeMar stated that there is no uniform policy for guest lecturers, and Braly is not required to accompany future lectures with a survey. UAFS administration refuses to grant interviews about this situation, nor has the university addressed the male student's public display of hate-speech against Braly. "There is no confirmation that this occurred or the identity of such a student," LaMar's e-mail continued.

The university has now posted a statement on their website, which is slightly different from this earlier version, sent to the Arkansas Times: "While there were miscommunications among UAFS officials, the course instructor, the student who was scheduled to present on the gender identity disorder issue as well as students in the class, the cancellation of the class had absolutely nothing to do with the subject or the student's status. In fact, this student has been allowed to speak in several classes in the past on gender identity disorder and will be allowed to do so in the future. We are currently working with this student, who seeks to utilize survey instruments as part of her presentation to gauge the views and opinions of other students, to obtain the appropriate Institutional Review Board (IRB) review and approval—a requirement that must be met prior to the use of any such survey, which will allow her to continue speaking to other classes and groups and surveying the classroom participants."

To date Braly has no further lectures planned at UAFS and her last firm word from the administration was that she can no longer present in UAFS classrooms. She is planning a summer lecture in Dr. Kristin Higgins' diversity class at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

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