Guest Blogger

An Open Letter to Kelly James, PhD

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 21, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: It Gets Better, kelly james, South Carolina, Winthrop University

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Peter C. Frank is a 30-something, disabled GOP LGBT political & community activist, advocate, & single gay technology-loving male night-owl living in the northern suburbs of New York City. He is a partner of The Symposium, a social media/IT consulting firm and can usually be found on DSC03278.JPGTwitter or Facebook.

The gay community is up in arms over a soundbite provided by Kelly James, Ph.D., who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Winthrop University and who serves as faculty advisor for GLoBAL, Winthrop University's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Ally League. Apparently, so much so that she's receiving hate mail. It's more unfortunate that people are riled to such levels as they are unable to conduct a civil discourse.

If one takes the time to read articles instead of just headlines, one would find out that Professor James is the bloody faculty advisor for the gay group on campus. So, while her concerns are real and her heart is in the right place, unfortunately, her mind hasn't followed suit. Quoth she, in whole:

But, my first thought was that, "I've got to let my students know" so that when they are out and about in Rock hill that they, you know, act straight, And that's a sad lesson in 2011 to be teaching young people. I mean, it's been off the books as a mental illness since 1973.

I'm sorry, Professor James, but you couldn't be more wrong.

Your first thought should not have been advising your students to have to "act straight," even if meant to be sarcastic. (On an entirely different matter, there is the whole debate over just what "'acting straight" entails but I am loathe to examine such things at this time.) Such a suggestion, even if made sarcastically, is not the answer and inappropriate.

While I am thankful of your support and know your heart is in the right place, backing up your statement by stating that you were misquoted or that your remarks were taken out of context, and that you were being blatantly obviously sarcastic, is still an inappropriate response to such situations of violence.

Yes, you should be concerned for your students' safety and yes, absolutely you should let your students know about the attack so they can be vigilant.

But hiding who truly are and repressing how they act is not the answer to the problem that exists, which only has been highlighted by this most unfortunate incident.

I am an atheist. But when I see someone celebrating their faith in their home or at their church or even on the street, I scream out at them, "Go on!" because they are being who they are and are free to express themselves as they are. They are not having to repress something, which can lead to grave psychological trauma.

I have personal experience with such grave psychological trauma. I repressed who I was and nearly didn't survive as a result. It was only when I started expressing myself and not hiding behind the "normalcy" of what society expected of me that I was able to flourish. You can read about it in my blog post, It Gets Better.

And no, I'm not advocating that people run out naked in the streets. But there should be a degree of freedom to act, behave, and express one's self in an appropriate manner without having to fear for their safety.

To this end, instead of advising your students to "act straight" in Rock Hill, if I were you, my first thought would be to let my students know of this travesty and devise an appropriate plan to respond, as loudly and vocally as permitted by law, to such an incident. To stand up and say, "We're not going to take this from anyone." To instil courage and confidence in my students, and say "When would you like me to be marching the streets of Rock Hill in support of your right to be who you are?"

That, Professor James, should have been the response from you.

I hope that my response to your involvement in this incident is more reasoned and resonates better with you than the emotional outcries of some of my brothers and sisters.

We are all human beings and creatures of the universe and as such we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. That you have not been treated as such is most unfortunate and a travesty that serves only to worsen this situation.

It is my hope that what I have written here will heal some of the wounds that have stung you in recent days.

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There is also the fact that only homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973. Transsexuality and transgenderism are still very much a part of the DSM.

Peter, I think you would be relieved if you saw her whole interview. Compared to how she come across in that quote (which was sorely out of context given that she is saying it is sad that she would have to even think about offering that advice), she has a much better understanding of hate crimes, hate crimes legislation and balancing safety with self-expression.

Matt, I read/saw the updated editor's note on the original article, which includes Prof. James's full interview, as well as her e-mail to the news station.

My point above is in addressing the particular quote, taken *IN* context, and my disagreement therein.

One of the comments I received on this via FB puts it best:

"I think I commented on this before, but here goes again, damned acting straight or hetro or whatever that is, I grew up with 7 brothers, NONE OF THEM walked like John Wayne, they were all different.. Who is going to set the standard that, THIS IS HOW YOU "ACT STRAIGHT" and this is how you "ACT GLBT" ? I have an uncle so nelly he puts me to shame, but he is STRAIGHT, life is NOT so black and white ...... Its all shades of beautiful gray...... Like a big ole pot of GUMBO , just the way I like it....... Be who you were born to be ......... just my opinion of course.......... Daphiny Cook"

I'm not chastising or castigating Prof James; I simply disagree with her advice, taken in full context. The suggestion that we should have to hide who we are -- even if made sarcastically (which is what Prof. James claims -- is simply bad advice and cannot stand scrutiny. Further, such situations really aren't something to be sarcastic about. It was (in my opinion) simply a bad decision and bad advice from a person whose heart was in the right place.

I am shamed that Prof. James has been the recipient of such vitriol from our community and I hoped my open letter to her would open a respectful dialogue wherein the views and feelings of those who have responded in emotional ways might better be expressed. I don't question her motives, or her commitment to keeping her students safe but rather the way in which she went about doing so *in this particular instance*.


I'm thinking the center of the dispute here between Peter C. Frank and Kelly James is that Mr. Frank doesn't know what the word "sarcastic" means. When someone is being sarcastic, they're effectively saying the opposite of what the words seem to mean.

Which is why this construction doesn't work:

Your first thought should not have been advising your students to have to "act straight," even if meant to be sarcastic.

That sentence would work if "sarcastic" meant "to a lesser degree" instead of "the opposite of what I just said." If it's wrong for her to advise students to act straight, then saying that she'll do it, sarcastically, means that she will not be doing it.

But hiding who truly are and repressing how they act is not the answer to the problem that exists, which only has been highlighted by this most unfortunate incident.

Again, this sentence shows Mr. Frank doesn't understand the word "sarcastic." By "sarcastically" advocating acting straight, Prof. James was saying that that is not the answer to the problem that exists.

To this end, instead of advising your students to "act straight" in Rock Hill, if I were you...

What she was doing was not advising her students to act straight. So there is nothing she can do "instead" of that since she is not doing it, because, as stated above, "sarcastic" means that she's advocates the opposite of what she says.

Matt makes a similar in his previous comment. Mr. Frank responds with a Facebook comment of someone else who doesn't understand the meaning of the word "sarcastic" and then writes:

I'm not chastising or castigating Prof James; I simply disagree with her advice, taken in full context.

Taken in the full context, Prof. James also disagrees with her "advice." That's the nature of sarcasm.

One can disagree with her she when says that she was being sarcastic, one can disagree with her and say that it's actually a good thing to "act straight" sometimes, one can disagree with her that being sarcastic is appropriate in a moment like this, but one cannot disagree with her by saying acting straight is bad. Because that's what she was saying.

I can understand the confusion. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary's entry for the word "sarcasm" isn't descriptive enough and directs people to the word irony. That entry provides decent reading material for people who would like to understand the concepts of irony and sarcasm more.

I think your comment is unnecessarily mean, Alex, and I agree with Peter. You can try to insult his intelligence all you want, but that doesn't change the fact that what Ms James said is incredibly crass and stupid.

Irony only works if it's done well. With nothing about her facial expressions or tone of voice to indicate she was being sarcastic, it's no wonder what she said was quoted "out of context." Even "in context" it's stupid and dangerous.

Maybe it's a lack of media knowledge, but her mistake was trying to be flippant about a horrific crime. It wasn't appropriate. She could have simply expressed concern for the victim & other students, but she tried to be dramatic & failed. Hopefully she's learned her lesson about how ridiculous she sounded.

"Acting straight" wasn't an appropriate argument for an important discussion and made her look callous just as your insults to Peter's post don't make him look dumber, it just makes you appear overbearing.

Sarah Riggle | April 22, 2011 10:50 AM

As someone who graduated from Winthrop University, some years ago and lived in Rock Hill for 2 year, I am not sure that acting more gay would keep you safe in a town that has such strong homophobic young people. It's better to be on the side of discretion and be safe than be out and proud and become the target of specific violence