Ivory Tower Activism

by Leanna Keyes, ‘14

This is a post about questions, not about answers. I am not arguing a point. I am looking for help.

I have this internal struggle at least once a month where I question the course of my life. Specifically, I wonder about being at Stanford University. This is a world of incredible privilege, and I don’t just mean the backgrounds of the people. I don’t have to worry about buying healthy food, my co-op provides it for me. I receive high quality medical care at the drop of a hat. While my housing can be psychologically dangerous (i.e. verbal transphobia) I am by and large physically safe. We have a well-stocked and well-staffed LGBT Community Resources Center. I have easy and ready access to a wide variety of activist organizations. If I experience hostility, there are well-defined procedures in place for me to seek recourse. I have access to jobs with excellent working conditions that fit flexibly into my course schedule.

Presumably, I have earned the rights to these privileges. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I earned the grades and performed on the standardized tests and wrote what the admissions counselors were looking for, and now here I am. Although, now that I’ve been educated about the interlocking systems of oppression and privileging that I suffered and benefited from, I really wish we used other metrics to determine college admissions. That is a topic for another day.

I’m not saying that Stanford is without its problems. This may be the best institution in the world for me right now (as a trans person), but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. That doesn’t even mean it is good. Every time I am called the wrong name by staff, every time I get misgendered (deliberately or accidentally, both of which happen on a fairly regular basis), every time I get a paycheck addressed to the wrong name, every time I have to fight to get housing with adequate provisions for my situation, that is a struggle. That is aggression by a cisnormative, cissexist, priviliged institution that I fight to reform so that the next generation of trans students doesn’t have to.

But at least once a month, I think: Really? You’re worried about whether the staff at Vaden Health Center call you by the right name? Your people are DYING every day because they are denied access to health care at all. Your people are beaten. Your people are being killed. And not just killed; murdered. A plurality of anti-LGBT violence happens to trans women, and ESPECIALLY trans women of color. This doesn’t even touch on the classist approach to trans-specific health care that the medical community embraces (briefly: Trans people, in general, are wildly discriminated against in the workforce, and have very few financial resources. The medical community requires exorbant and costly therapy before ‘allowing’ us access to medically neccessary procedures, such as hormone replacement therapy, which is not cheap. Remember, all of this is done ‘for your own good,’ to ‘protect’ us.)

I am in an INCREDIBLY privileged position relative to the rest of my people. What gives ME the right to Stanford University? Why not another of my trans siblings? There are activists who devote their entire lives to helping homeless trans youth on the streets of San Francisco. What the hell gives me the right to study drama at Stanford? Why am I pursuing a degree in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity rather than working for an anti-racist non-profit? What makes ME so goddamn special?

Our ivory tower was built upon the backs of the oppressed, is maintained by the oppressed, ignores the oppressed. What gives me the right to live in a lap of luxury when my people are being murdered?


Leanna Keyes is a radical queer transgender activist who will most likely be double majoring in Drama and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She can be reached at lkeyes@stanford.edu.

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2 thoughts on “Ivory Tower Activism

  1. Quirk says:

    I keep trying to make a good reply to this article, because it’s good, and it reminds me in some ways of a crisis I went through at the end of college (though I didn’t know half as much then about privilege as you evidently do, or as I do now.) I’d like to “help”, but all I have really is a few thoughts you may or may not have thought already, and (if you like) where I’m at.

    I think guilt about social privilege is not necessarily useful–it depends. Some people think privilege is a taint and wish to be rid of it. That mentality probably comes from white christianity, and it usually doesn’t make sense. Deciding to drop out of Stanford, e.g., wouldn’t help anyone else or challenge the structure of such institutions. We’re all too built into the system to refuse to accept most of the places given us. On the other hand guilt helps challenge one, who is willing to gain more status and visibility, to decide when to be ready to risk that power (security) and use that visibility well. And you’re already doing that more than you personally need to (I think).

    Devoting one’s life to a cause means building a life that one actually wants, that fits with working for a cause. Not jumping into activity one can’t sustain; that mostly works for young people it seems, though young energetic people are awesome. Lots of people get burned out that way, I’m still sort-of burned out myself.

    Where I’m at: I grew into lots of privilege and the idea of hard work being rewarded. I spent a year before grad school, doing a City Year program that had me working in a public school. I learned a hell of a lot about race and class privilege, and the real world, met many awesome people my age, a few wonderful staff members and teachers, and connected with many children. I also learned not to jump in to activities expecting my skills to be put to use, expecting to make a big difference, thinking of “helping” people before understanding them. And I learned that I can do something over time, but I run out of energy really fast without acting as part of an ongoing community. (Ironically didn’t apply this consciousness to queer feminism until the next year.) So, I’m not in the best place right now either: I enjoy being in the ivory tower again, but can’t entirely relate to the grad community here or entirely wish to. I want to balance work with life in SF but that means avoiding the trap of being “busy” and therefore unconscious and inactive. I’m mostly in that trap for now but taking baby steps.

  2. Javier Fresquez says:

    I experience similar self-doubt all the time. Sometimes it even turns into guilt. I can’t say that it is “right” for me to be at Stanford either, or that it’s for sure what i should be doing. I just know that I can do good there (in representing my people actively and doing what I can to funnel Stanford’s resources back to my community) and learn about how to better serve the oppressed communities I belong to.
    Ethnic studies has really helped me make sure that I am critical of my own beliefs and ideas, bringing home to me the importance and process of achieving humility when thinking, talking, and engaging in activism about issues of race and power. Maybe you could have just gone off and done some activism, but the way you would do it, the causes you would adopt, and the way you would be perceived by the people you challenge would be different. I don’t know about you, but my ethnic studies classes give me a sense of context that at once embolden me and help me talk convincingly to my friends that don’t get it.
    The core lesson I’ve gotten from critical writings and postmodern thought (which I know I would never have really learned much about outside of Stanford) is that we our subjective experiences matter and are in the end all we have, a realization that should be humbling and empowering at once.

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