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In Dialogue: Trans Studies and Classics. A conversation with Vanessa Stovall and Mary Beard on Twitter dialogue and the trans community

Mary Beard in conversation with Vanessa Stovall and Ky Merkley

In Dialogue: Trans Studies and Classics works to bring some of the insights and lived experiences found in transgender studies into conversation with the Classics, in the hope that bringing these into dialogue with each other will enrich our pedagogy, deepen our understanding of what gender as an identity category even means, and help critique the various ways gender has been used as an instrument of power throughout history, while also creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for our students. If you’d like to contribute to this column or have ideas that could add to this conversation, email Ky Merkley.

When the latest ‘Twitter storm’ (to quote Mary Beard) broke out, my Twitter feed rapidly filled with heated denunciations of ‘cancel culture,’ cruel words directed at trans folx, and pontifications about the state of Classics. For many members of the trans community, this Twitter ‘dialogue’ was exhausting. Every day, a new blog post or article added more fuel to an ever-growing fire.

I leapt at the opportunity to host a conversation with Vanessa Stovall and Mary Beard, because I hoped that this would be an opportunity to introduce some of the bigger questions that lay behind these issues: What responsibility do we have as a field to protect and include marginalized voices? How do we foster inclusive and productive dialogue and avoid cruelty on online platforms? How can we lift up voices that are lost in the general hubbub? What personal responsibility do we individually have as we interact in a global online community?

This conversation can’t answer any of these questions definitively, but I hope it serves as an opportunity for reflection and as a way to foster future dialogue.

[The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation]

Ky Merkley: Today I’m so happy to have with me Mary Beard and Vanessa Stovall to have a discussion about digital epistemologies, how we use Twitter in the field of Classics, and how we can support and help the trans community as a field.

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Newnham College. She has written several books on ancient history and culture, is active in journalism, and has written and presented a number of television programs for the BBC, documentaries on art and ancient history and a long-running weekly series on contemporary culture.

Vanessa Stovall is an independent artist, an interdisciplinary scholar of Classical studies. On the art side of things, she’s a professional harpist and composes music, lyric, and drama for the stage. On the scholarly side, she studies ancient mythology with focuses in hair, music, and the aesthetics of reception. And she is also the editor of the alternate classics publication Corona Borealis. She received her BA at the Evergreen State College and her MA at Columbia University studying Greek tragedy.

And I’m so grateful that both you could be here today and have this conversation with me. So, thinking about what’s happened and why we’re having this conversation, it all started when a single account asked, "Does anyone notice that, you know, Mary Beard follows a lot of”--I’ll use the word TERFs here (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), or often now, they identify themselves as Gender Critical feminists. And, at this, Mary Beard just responded, well, yeah, quote tweeted, “Is there a problem here?” And a giant Twitter storm ensued. And after an exhausting week of lengthy blog posts, long Twitter threads, and a whole lot of abuse directed at the trans community, it’s time to, like, come here and unpack some of what happened, why it happened, and how we can do better as a field and learn from experiences like this.

So today… I really [was] so grateful when I saw that Vanessa had tweeted that she wanted to have a conversation with Mary about why these kinds of problems keep happening, why these Twitter storms ensue, and how we can better communicate both inter-generationally and in between different minority communities on Twitter, and really talk about how that affects our field as Classics.

So Vanessa, I’m just going to turn things over to you and let you get the conversation started.

Vanessa Stovall: Thank you, Ky. Thank you for that introduction and thank you also for stepping up and offering to host this discussion. Because otherwise this would just be two cis women talking about trans issues, which doesn’t always feel like the greatest.

So yes, I was very glad at the chance to have this discussion, and especially to have it publicly, because I feel like there’s not a whole lot of public discourse in the field of Classics — it has a tendency to go on behind closed doors more, so I’m really glad the SCS also was glad to host this as well.

And so, I wanted to have this talk. And so the way that I envision doing [this] was in the Understanding by Design model, which proposes essential questions to reach an enduring understanding.

The enduring understanding we want to put forth for this talk is to walk away from this conversation with some concrete ideas about how to move forward around this conflict — [a conflict that’s] everywhere, not just in this one instance — and to define the conflict and to discuss the different ways that folx can be an ally or accomplice in that. And to understand what it means if we can’t answer some of those questions between the two of us here today, particularly because we are two cis women discussing trans issues.

And so, we’re gonna go through, sort of holistically, the entire process and points in the more minor and the more macro with one instance. But then take things into the macro, into the larger, and see how this affects all of us, and especially how we’re dealing with this new age, in the digital era. And then we want to come back to our understanding and see what we’ve learned.

But I also wanted to take a moment to sort of reflect on the absurdity of what we’re doing. We are humans having a conversation over this strange digital medium, sharing it into this new sphere that people are still learning from, to further our understanding of it. And it’s pretty absurd, but this is how we have to be humans in this space and time, especially during the pandemic and the constraints that that gives us. But I think it’s also nice to just think about, huh? It’s amazing that this could happen in this way and in this space. So thank you both for being here with me.

So, to start with the points in the micro, Ky gave an overview of the incident. And what I wanted to break down was the dynamics that seem to be at play, because I realized very quickly in thinking about the situation that there seemed to be a generational divide, sort of, in questioning even some of the basic foundations around what had happened. And I realized that maybe this needed a closer look at sort of the formations in these digital platforms that we have.

And so, one of the first questions that we want to talk through was, how do trans folks operate in different circles in our field, digital and otherwise, and how might we improve them?

And I want us to reflect on this because one of the reasons that this incident happened was that someone had gone through your followers, Mary, which is something that can feel very raw and intense to a person [wondering] “Well, like, why would people do that?” And yet, that’s something that I recognize as sort of digital behavior that happens for any manner of reasons. I personally do it because that’s how I like finding more followers. But I also know, being from a marginalized community, that that’s also what people do when they wanted to signal or understand who people are following or understand if spaces are safe for them in different ways. And so, Ky, Mary, if you have more thoughts on how you both operate in these digital spheres for yourself, I want to open it up there.

Mary Beard: I mean, I think what you put your finger on, Vanessa, actually, is the way that Twitter looks as if it’s a single space being used by its participants in broadly the same way. And, I mean, I think that’s simply not… I have come to see… it’s taken me some time, but I have come to see that that is not the case. And that some of the ways that people use the space… actually, for large chunks of the time, they get along fine… you know, people using it slightly differently, but they’re not coming head-to-head in any kind of way. It’s, everybody’s chugging along in a degree of harmony. Then occasionally one of those, one of the clashes turns out… and I think you can never quite know what makes any individual problem really explosive. And some of it is, you know, good or bad luck, I guess. But it, it truly ignites.

And I think here what ignited were two different views of Twitter, one of which you’ve adumbrated really well, you know, the idea that Twitter is a place where you actually form a supportive community. One of the ways that you form a supportive community is by being careful about followers, about blocking. You know, you create a safe space within the means that Twitter offers you to do. And that’s not, that is a perfectly logical and reasonable and, in all kinds of ways, admirable way to use Twitter.

But there are also people, like me… and I think that there’s lots of “me”s out there who take a very, very different view by in large, who kind of wear it a badge of pride that we want to see the tweets of people we disagree with. We don’t want people kind of policing our followers. We kind of, we say, like me, I don’t block anybody. If people are being horrible to me, I just, I don’t block them. I don’t necessarily respond… Now, I think that those are both absolutely legitimate ways of doing it. And I think, you know, the response that I make against myself here is of course that the, the model of using Twitter that I’m outlining, which I think is a good one, I feel, I mean, I feel proud to espouse it. But it is a model of Twitter used by people who don’t feel threatened. And you can say I don’t block, I don’t do this, if you feel reasonably confident that you can manage your Twitter presence without doing that. And, and so, I see what the problem is, and, and I see where the clash comes. And I think what was obvious having had a tiny quick look back is that, my reaction — which was a very visceral reaction to somebody saying, you know, “I’ve gone through Mary Beard’s, people Mary Beard follows and it looks as if…” you know, I read it and I, I still don’t feel totally certain that I read it wrongly that, that somehow this was trying to, to police me. And quite a lot of people read it like that. I, I don’t think we necessarily read it right. I’m not saying that that was the right interpretation, at all, but that is a sort of, that is a reaction that a lot of people had.

And I think it’s not really — and I’ll shut up in half a tick — it’s not really a reaction to the actual moment, which was basically…it was under 20 words, wasn’t it? But it’s, it is one of those clashes where, where Twitter conventions absolutely collided. And that was, I think, the, the ultimate cause of this and it’s something which I think I certainly need to reflect on, I think everybody needs to reflect on that. That there are people in the Twitter community who are perfectly good, upstanding fellow-traveling people who are using this medium in a different way. And what do we do about that?

Ky Merkley: And I do think that’s a really good point because, like, from my perspective as, you know, a member of the trans community and being a part of trans Twitter spaces. Like, a lot of people who I follow purposely don’t want their tweets getting too big because they attract bad attention from gender-critical people, and they started getting people tweeting pretty terrible things at them. And it’s pretty normal for, I feel like, people in the trans community to be like, “Hey, is this person safe? Is this person someone I should be worried about?” Because there are other scholars out there who definitely aren’t necessarily safe or have views that feel risky to the trans community. And so, from my perspective, yeah, [that tweet] was just very much a “Hey, is Mary Beard safe? Is this someone I can, I can follow.” Asking not — it wasn’t directed at you, it just used your name. And so, like, once again, totally different ideas of how Twitter functions. And I think it’s really important to talk about those things. Back to you, Vanessa.

Vanessa Stovall: Yeah, I think you both raised also good points that I want to link together, too, of, Mary, you were saying you’re feeling surveilled, sort of like almost—and I think that’s a big issue that sort of also needs to be addressed—of how people operate online, especially, like, in groups that feel like they might be attacked, or things like that… There’s also, like, the government, the political, on top of everything else that weighs on this, which with the trans community in America especially is something that’s very pressing right now. Legislation is trying to get driven in. And I know a lot of trans folks are worried about surveillance of them online, but also just how much social media does broadcast about our identities, but also, like, our locations, and things of that nature as well. So, I think, yeah, that’s a good sort of thinking about the space of digital media is very critical for us here.

[brief crosstalk]

I was just going to transition, we sort of already started to talk about our next question, which is just, “How do classicists engage with digital platforms?” But also, I just want to broadly more touch on [the fact] that during this time period, especially this past year, digital platforms have been incredibly vital for classicists, especially in just keeping connected, in getting to know each other for the first time, as we can. I’ve had so many of my colleagues who are teaching right now, and, like, it’s the way they’ve engaged with their students and are trying to use digital mediums to get their students more engaged in the Classics. And Mary Beard, you’re someone who is very into the digital sphere with your classicisms.

Mary Beard: I am. You know, I’ve got to make it absolutely clear that—and I’ve had some, some occasionally rough times on Twitter. And in the last week. I’ve been to quite a rough time, but I, there is no way… it would be completely blind of me, willful actually, to say that I’m in a systematically excluded group on Twitter. That would be — the kind of rough times I have are nothing compared to what other people have. And I know that. I mean, I think the problem is, it is partly in Classics and elsewhere about particularly marginalized or excluded groups, I think that’s true. But I think you—we can’t lose sight of the fact that there is a rhetoric on Twitter, which is—in some cases, is not a collaborative one. In some, it is very often a declaratory one. It cannot be a nuanced one, because you don’t have enough characters for nuance. And that you’re absolutely right, Vanessa, to say that, look, during lockdown, it’s become hugely more important because that is how we communicated. But I think as we come out of lockdown and this is—maybe this little discussion is part of that. It seems to me Twitter is only really useful if it leads to discussions that aren’t on Twitter, that aren’t 280 characters and where you can, you know, actually look at somebody else, engage with them. And it’s a question of how to provide the interface between, you know, the, the tweet, the declaratory tweet, and the longer-term conversation, and I do sometimes feel that Twitter creates its own universe so that, you know, unlike Ky and you… we’ve happily got together. [But] usually, if I see something going bad on Twitter, I will usually try to say, “Let’s talk about this someplace else.” And very, very rarely is that taken up.

And that’s one of the reasons why I leapt at this opportunity because it’s what—it’s what seems to be the right thing. You know, I mean, I, in part, I don’t take full responsibility for this, and I’m not going to, but I can’t take no responsibility for it. But you can, you can turn something like that into something productive if you move from Twitter elsewhere and then back to Twitter, if you kind of widen the debate, I think.

Vanessa: Well, that actually leads to the next question. And I think that I saw sort of where a lot of the initial conflict was happening, which is, “Why is there such a generational divide with making statements of solidarity towards marginalized groups online?” And this was something that I realized as just sort of talking about the situation with various people that, yeah, there seemed to be a sort of like, literal, like sort of barrier point. [At] like 40 and below we’re just like, “Oh, of course, Why wouldn’t you [make a statement], like, that’s so clearly obvious.” But then going above that and even, like, talking to my parents and older relatives, they were a bit more confused, and I realized I had to sort of maybe explain some of my own experience and then, talking to more colleagues, I realized we all kind of had the same experience. And Ky, I would love to hear some of your perspective on this as well, which is just that, I think for 40 and below, which is sort of the older Millennials and younger, most of us grew up online and sort of, like, the early stages of being online. And I think time is something that we have to consider here. Because Mary, you’re absolutely right when you say that Twitter is not always the most conducive space to a debate. And it’s always kind of been one of the wilier social networking platforms. But especially in the most recent years, when a lot of people have actually sort of flooded onto Twitter, too, from different sites, as sort of different digital domains happen (the digital landscape is actually fascinating) but, in growing up online, a lot of us, especially since we were younger, since we were minors, for the most part, being online, [we] had a tendency to develop our own culture, just around stating plainly what we sort of believed, what we felt, just how we saw situations in order to just sort of further communication. That adds sort of the opening of a door to have further discussion. And I realized it was because many of us in different ways and different scenarios had all ended up in situations where we had felt just very unsafe online in different ways for different reasons.

And just [look at] what all being online sort of gives and affords you: like, the chances to be anonymous, the chances to just sort of lie about yourself, the chances to sort of like make anything up. Everyone sort of like realized, “Okay, well, like, if everything can be fabricated, like, you know, what do we want to, how do we want to communicate with each other when we just want to get to like, at the truth, like, we can at least, at the very least communicate because, you know, the Internet is strange and fabulous and sort of allows us to do sort of whatever and have freedom, but, you know, we can at least, like, communicate directly with each other.” And [this] is like a strange, unspoken thing, though, it’s like it came from years and years of experience and just, like, practice and just sort of being around different types of communities online and growing through that.

And it’s really interesting to, sort of like, see now on giant platforms like Twitter, when you get all of these sort of multi-generational interactions, all of this, just, sort of chaos happening at any given time. Because it’s just like—you can’t control sort of, like, what any one reaction will be to anything that you say. And so, it seems for a lot of us, the bottom line is just, like, well, if we can’t control that anyone’s going to say to anything, we can at least be clear about who we are and what we believe so that we can go back to that in the past and be like, “See, look, this is who I am and what I believe” — repetition.

Mary Beard: Yeah. I mean, I think that there — I mean, yeah, there is a big point. We have to hope that it’s—that we can come together; otherwise, the old will forever be kind of parceled off to one bit of Twitter. But I mean, I started on Twitter more than…more than a decade ago. But very much in the way that it was a different medium then. And my, I was pretty much forced onto Twitter through doing journalism, because what you were using Twitter for was an extension of journalism. It wasn’t about sharing. It wasn’t about providing you with the community. It was very much an outward-facing medium. And there are still bits of Twitter that are like that. But they’d, as we’ve been saying, they can—they can—they can clash with the bits that, that aren’t. I suppose, in—in many ways, most of my current Twitter interactions are—are very outward-facing. The vast majority are nothing to do with anything controversial. [They] deal with people tweeting me and saying, “What shall I visit? I’m in Pompeii now, where should I go?” Right, so they are very much an extension of either outreach or journalism.

And I think that, you know, I don’t have a solution to this except that, if we can recognize the different ways that we use the platform, and we give each other a bit of slack. And—and, you know, just take a moment to think, “Ah, maybe she’s using it, they’re using it in a different way.” We just put that, you know, it—that might help. And, I mean, the—the only rule that I’ve ever managed to kind of formulate for myself, which I hope will be part of that — it clearly wasn’t in this case, and we all break it — is that I think that I now try never to say anything on Twitter that I would not say to anybody’s face, even when I don’t know who they are. And I—I don’t think that’s a solution because people are… I mean, you know, we don’t want a world in which nobody gets angry and no one’s ever rude to anybody else ever, you know? But that’s different from a world in which people are cruel to each other. And so I think it’s very, you know…generationally, I think, trans-Atlantically — Twitter is a global movement, and there is, you know, the number of cultural differences that there are buried in here means that I think there is never going to be a straightforward answer for getting it right, but we can just be a bit — the antennae can be out a bit more.

Ky Merkley: Yeah, I really like some of those points, just really quickly to jump in. I do think that for Millennials and younger, like, if I was going to choose a virtue for how we, like, communicate online, I would say earnestness in some ways, right? There’s like this really clear desire to be like “No, no. Here’s exactly who I am.” [This is] so you can read me, because you can’t read anything else when you’re online, right? You have to define yourself in so few characters. And so, I think that’s a really big value, being able to say, “Hey, this is who I am, this is who I support.”

And I think in this conversation, it’s really important to remember that while, you know, we’re espousing this, like “Don’t Be Cruel, have good dialogue,” there are certainly people online who don’t feel that way. And I think that’s one of the big things that happened in this discussion, in this Twitter storm, is, you know, the tweets happened and it kind of opens a door, and suddenly there was a lot of cruelty happening on Twitter. And it’s really interesting to think, “How do we push back against some of that cruelty?”

Mary Beard: I totally agree. And in a sense, when you—when you talk about the virtue of earnestness, I see earnestness as a virtue. But it’s, it ain’t me really. And I see—I see the virtue in Twitter as a virtue in dialogue and debate. And I see it not actually — and I understand the privilege with which I say this, right? But it’s not actually about me, because I don’t fit into 280 characters, and if we want to know about me, then we have a discussion like this. And so I, yeah, I—I, you know, I get hurt, you know, and there was, you know — and as I say I can be reasonably resilient, and I’m not being systematically hurt. But there was some pretty foul things that were said about me, which I wish I hadn’t been, but —

Ky Merkley: Yeah, we all have those moments, right?

Mary Beard: Everybody has those, and they do scar you a bit. But—but actually that’s different from these different rubrics and rationales that we got, and systematic prejudice and systematic abuse that people have. And I, you know, I don’t call tweets telling me to get a new set of teeth systematic abuse, you know. That’s just offensive blokeishness.

Vanessa Stovall: Yeah. I think that that’s sort of a good segue to get broader into the macro, into the larger ways. But to sort of also briefly touch on what I was saying, sort of earlier, also about repetition and coming back to things. That’s actually one of my favorite ways of just, sort of, replying to things, especially when there are so short and few characters, is that at the same time, social media is also an archive. It’s an archive of all the things that we’ve said and done, and there’s nothing I love more than people being like, “Well, what is your stance on this?” to be like, “Well, look, this is what I have done before in the past, like, you know, you should watch and engage with it and let’s have a conversation. Absolutely.” And it’s a good way to elevate other voices as well, which in this instance, I think would also be helpful, especially thinking around marginalized groups.

And so, to sort of get into the macro and sort of like the larger, and thinking about more of the broader structures of this, and sort of what we can do going forward… Mary, we had talked about how [resistant] you had felt [about], like, you know, like, this idea that like, “[I] have to make a statement, you know, about what I believe.” I—I would actually disagree — or not disagree in a sense. I think, you know, statements are a way to signal to people, you know, what you believe in, you know, “Here it is definitively.”

But I would also say in this day and age—especially as I know me myself, almost in my thirties—I’m kind of cynical and tired of just sort of like the endless, like, statement culture we also seem to be in. Like, any tragedy happens and someone’s just like, “I must make a statement.” I’m like, “Why?”

Mary Beard: Like, I mean, look at any politician’s Twitter feed, if you want the banality of the statement, you know, “I am standing proud with the” — and then fill it in at random.

Vanessa Stovall: And so, I want to push us away from the statement rhetoric and actually just encourage us to get more creative. And, like, this is sort of like a, like, not a planned part, because I want us to almost just like brainstorm and think of other ways to communicate, just sort of, information about yourself without feeling the need to make a statement which can just feel sort of benign and taxing. Especially like, Ky, I hear you, we Millennials are quite earnest. I won’t lie. I don’t actually like how earnest we are; it kind of grates my teeth. Sometimes I’m just like, “Guys, can we stop…”

Mary Beard: When you people get to be over sixty, you’ll become ironic, cynical, and, well, a bit like me, I think.

Vanessa Stovall: Yeah, and I think there are ways to still stay ironic and cynical and still be like, “Well, you know, here is how I support” — but still not making a statement. And one of those ways I was thinking of was, like, repetition. Mary, you have, like, helped trans folks elevate their voices with the BBC. You could, that could potentially be a, just like, “Hey, here’s someone to listen to,” and then, just, yeah.

Mary Beard: I think I’ve done that. And, I mean, I suppose this is going the other side from a statement. And then, you know, there might be something about being a 60-something in this, that, I think…I want—I want to have a record that I can look people in the eye with, you know? I don’t want to—to kind of feel shifty. I want to—I want to think that I’ve lived up to the ideals. You know, and when you get to be 66, you think, “I haven’t got much more time, bloody hell, to do it.” You know, I’d like to think that I’ve lived up to the ideals that I broadly, broadly support and I—I feel so much more wedded to act, to discussion, to, to meeting, to flushing things out, to finding new ways of—of agreeing or disagreeing, more constructive ones. I feel very committed to the idea of a rhetoric of persuasion of other people, not…not outrage at them. Sometimes they deserve outrage, but sometimes persuasion will be better. But in the end, I want to be able to, you know, kind of…my profit — I want my profit and loss account, I want what I’ve done to look okay—partly to the outside world, but ultimately to my conscience. And that’s partly, I think, why statements don’t, they… I just think, well, anybody could say that.

You know, I want to—I want to act. I want to say in—in relation, for example, to the trans community, I want to say, “I will make sure that I find constructive places for that community and other marginalized communities to have a voice on mainstream British television.” You know, what I can do is a mini — you know, is a tiny, tiny amount compared with when you think about mainstream television. It’s a drop in the ocean, but it’s something that I think I can do. And—and in the end, I think, “Well, stuff Twitter, then.” That’s—that’s where I rest my case, and not on a Twitter statement.

[brief crosstalk]

Ky Merkley: Thinking about this, I would then say, “Well, you know, I look forward to future collaborations and providing you ideas of how you can maybe support the trans community, right, like—?”

Mary Beard: I’m listening. Yeah, I think one of the advantages about having a discussion, is a discussion is also listening to somebody else. Otherwise, you have a lousy discussion. And I think that, you know, I find it very helpful listening to you. I hope that you found it helpful listening to me. We probably still don’t agree on a whole load of stuff. But I—but I—I feel, you know—I feel that our different points of view have been reflected upon. And, you know, that’s, that’s the bottom line. And to some extent, we’ve kind of…we’ve not changed our minds, but you kind of just see where other people are coming from, different places. And you can be, you know…I think maybe I’ll be more generous in future. I hope so.

Vanessa Stovall: I think it’s also key that it’s happening for the public, though, too, which is why I didn’t want to just have a private Zoom discussion. Because I think it’s also critical that this discourse happens in the public sphere as well. So that people can understand, reply to it, engage in those conversations. I feel like, especially marginalized groups, usually what they ask for, for folx who, you know, are like, you know, like, “I was trying to be an ally? Like, did I like make a mistake.” Like, most of the time, all marginalized groups want are for folks to just process, go through the process of thinking through these things — which is exactly what you’re doing right now. And so like, you know, this is exactly what we asked for, and being able to do that publicly, I think also makes especially younger folks online feel better. Because I know, like, for myself, like, being able to, you know, go aside and have those conversations is important, and being able to have them privately. But at the same time, I also know that, you know, if I’m asking someone of like, “Oh, like, what do you feel about, like, you know, this subject?” and they’re like, “Well, let’s talk in private.” Sometimes I’m like, “Wait, why? Why can’t you just tell me what you feel about this? What’s so terrible that I need to talk to you in private?” Like…but I know I’m also cynical and can sometimes just be distrusting of folx as well. And so, you agreeing to have this publicly meant a lot to me, because I was like, “Oh, well, absolutely. Then more people can have this conversation.” And even the next time this happens, you can be like, “Hey, there’s a conversation I had. Like, if you want to talk, any of my opinions that I had there, anything I put forth, like, let’s discuss further. Like, I’ve already been having this conversation.”

Mary Beard: And I think it does two things. I mean, one is that it enables you to, you know… These are complicated issues. On one level, they are very simple. But every simple issue, it’s got a complicated inside. And people are bringing different things to it. And sometimes actually having 45 minutes of conversation just is—just a more accurate reflection, is a really more accurate reflection. But the other thing it does, I think, is that it’s the—the—the fact that we are having a discussion which I hope you’re finding as useful, and as pleasant, and as friendly and collaborative as I am. We’re having that online and publicly, you know, if that could…could encourage… when, well, when people are going to want to comment about this, I really hope that kind of the spirit in which we’re having discussion will—will continue beyond it. And, you know, so, you know, if people were to comment very acerbically to our discussion, I think they would have got the spirit and the tone of it wrong, you know? And I—I hope, I—I would never want to say that there isn’t a—you know, there isn’t a place for acerbity and anger and rudeness, et cetera. I think there is. But actually, at this current juncture, I don’t think what we’re talking about now is, really. I think we get a bit further if we go on like this.

Ky Merkley: Well—and I think, Vanessa, you made a comment in a prior conversation about the place of anger, particularly in marginalized communities. And I think if we could come back to that for a second, that would, like, be a really good place to, like, start sitting on some of those things.

Vanessa Stovall: Yeah, I think anger is something to always mediate on, especially at — if we want to take a larger look, especially for, like, what’s at stake for marginalized communities right now, in the year 2021, even, like especially for the trans communities in the U.S. and U.K., like, there is a lot of anger that comes out of the communities and [is] directed at the communities, too, from different sources. You know, one is, like, dangerous because it is literally, you know, usually leads to things like legislation that can endanger trans folx’ lives. But the anger felt by the trans community in and of itself is also something that is important to note, because it is something that, especially on online platforms, can come out in different ways, and to understand where that anger comes from. Ky, did you have a more specific sort of place you want to talk about?

Ky Merkley: No, I think thinking about where the anger comes from, and thinking about how sometimes anger is the only way to get people to listen, right, and to be like “No, no, no, I’m upset because you aren’t listening. You aren’t giving me a place. I don’t have a seat at the table.” Anger is a powerful emotion, right, like—? And figuring out who can express anger and why, it’s a really interesting conversation.

Mary Beard: I—I think it is. And I think that the—the — people like me who, you know, have—who have a reasonably confident platform from which to speak, we tend to say and to feel (and I know, I know exactly why) that somehow the argument should be conducted in a spirit of courtesy, et cetera, et cetera, right? You know, that is what I, you know—that’s my instinct. I also, you know…I’m sensible enough to know that courtesy and politeness is a privilege that the privileged have, you know, that it is—that it’s—that it is—it — only the privileged find it easy to get up and say, “Please be polite.” You know, we can have — now, so I think I know exactly what you mean, that there is a way in which, if you feel excluded from, let’s say, one particular discussion or one particular set of social hierarchies or whatever or culture or whatever. But in a sense, what else should you feel but anger? That’s — I’m absolutely with that, I think that anger is—is—is better when it can sometimes at least be channeled into the brilliant, persuasive rhetoric that we classicists are very good at — that, you know, actually, if you want social change, we need both. We need everything. We need people to be angry. We need people like me to say it’s more complicated than that. We need people to persuade. And—and, so, you know, this — happily, it’s a communal, you know, most social change is a—is a communal act.

Ky Merkley: I think one of the things that’s really important to remember in this, too, is, if we want this anger channeled into persuasive rhetoric, trans folx need to have a platform for that, right? Because, like, if there’s not a platform, how do you present this persuasive, beautiful rhetoric without a platform to have that discussion?

Mary Beard: Well, that’s why—I mean, when I say — and that’s, when I talk about my drop in the ocean, when I talk about making television programs and say, right, let’s, you know, let’s include a trans voice here. You know, I’m not—you know, they’re not the only marginalized or excluded voices we’re dealing with. But, you know, in saying we want to have a discussion about this issue on television, we can’t just have it by a load of posh white boys, cis posh white boys, right? You know, because that isn’t any longer discussion. But—but I think it, you know, it brings its own responsibility. And, you know, as I’m sure you know this much better than me, that, you know, providing people, offering people a platform can also offer them a good chance to get abused. And, you know, there’s—you know, there’s—there’s an awkward responsibility in all this. You know, but I hope that in the medium term that will be—it’ll be absolutely normal, you know, absolutely normal.

Vanessa Stovall: I think in, yeah, especially wanting to give people a platform, but also being worried about the abuse they can see — I think that’s something important for us to think about, especially when just considering [that] Twitter in and of itself seems to be its own strange marketplace where people are always doing things in different ways. But also it’s—people have very different entourages with them, that they bring with them to the marketplace. And so I think that’s an interesting metaphor to realize, that even when you sometimes are just, like, addressing one thing or asking about it—like, Mary Beard, you have 300,000 followers that could all see it, anything at any given point. Not just this issue in and of itself, but even, you know, you commenting on the brand of jam you might buy at the store. It exposes everything to that many amount of people. And when thinking about the interesting magnifying glass that social media can be, that is something in and of itself that trans folks in the digital sphere have to be really cautious around. And so that’s where things, like—especially when it comes to more private accounts, people not wanting to be public, people blocking for different reasons as well. But, also, why I know a lot of younger folks had immediate opinions about this entire situation when it went down. Because even—without even sort of, like, thinking through who the folx were, they were just like, “Wait but, like, this is one Twitter account with 200 followers that made this one tweet and then someone with 300,000 followers retweeted it, and then asked a question about it. So like, of course, why wouldn’t all of this discourse happen? Like, because it was brought to this much larger pool.”

Mary Beard: I think that at one level, it is perfectly legitimate to say to me, “You ought to be—you’ve got so many followers—you ought to be more responsible, you ought to think responsibly, you have power in those number of followers. What are you going to do with it?” And I—I see the force of that, but, for whatever reason — and, you know, it’s a fault, but I think it’s a fault I’m not too worried about — I, when I go onto Twitter, I think of myself as having 300 followers. I don’t, I mean — and actually I’m quite pleased that I don’t think every time I go onto Twitter, “Right, I must remember, I’ve got 300,000 followers here.” Now maybe sometimes I bloody well should. But the fact is, I don’t. I suspect it’s gendered, you know, at some level. I think the idea of saying, “I am a powerful person in the, you know, world of Twitter.” Now why do I reject a blue tick? Because I think, “Oh my God, that just draws attention to this.” And so, I am still, in my head, just somebody with a small, you know, a small group of followers tweeting what she thinks. And, you know, I take the point—I mean, I’d have to be dumb not to take the point. But all I can—and I can say in response is that I’m not wholly sad that my self-image on Twitter is one of still being, you know, a little person in with the crowd and not someone who thinks I must use my 300,000 followers with great care. You know, I’m shrugging my shoulders. It’s…it’s, I know—I know it’s willfully irresponsible at some level. But it’s also refusing to kind of say that—that I’m going to manipulate that power, or want to. You know, it’s—that’s a hopeless answer, but it’s a true one.

Vanessa Stovall: I just think there’s a gray area always between the two. But I also know that we are closely running out of time. So I do want to wrap things back and tie them together [and] to just think more broadly about not only the role of senior faculty and just those who are just in higher places of education, can be — how they can understand trans issues, their students and colleagues, and create supportive environments, but also, where do we get our information from our communities? Who are we listening to?

I know that, like, five years ago, I would say like, “Oh, Millennial and like older Gen Z, like, trans and non-binary folx, that’s who I listen to when it comes to, like, listening about non-cisgender issues.” But now I’ve had to sort of expand that and, like, think more broadly about different demographics as well, that I might want to be including. So, I wanted to just open up the sort of endpoint, just to sort of reflect on ways in which we can be supportive going forward, but also how we are gathering our own information and ways we might even improve on that.

Mary Beard: Well, I think that changes very much as you go through your career, you know? And I’ve got only one more year left teaching. I have a—a totally fundamental and unbreakable principle that, in the teaching that I do, I — it—it is absolutely incumbent on me to make sure that everybody is starting off from a level playing field, of being part of the intellectual community of which I’m a senior member. I think that—I think, in all kinds of ways, my job is to make people feel intellectually challenged, maybe sometimes intellectually uncomfortable, intellectually uncertain in a positive way, to think that their head hurts. But it is no good doing that if some members of the group are—are not standing on the same terrain as other members of the group. And that—and that in certainly over the last 45 years, really, of my teaching experience, have been, there have been very many different marginalized groups for whom one has had to be watchful. And, you know, I’m sure there have been times when I haven’t, you know—because people are frail—but I would think that that was an absolute bottom line for what it is to engage in pedagogy.

I think it’s harder, your question about where you get your information from. It’s harder. Partly because, within a university setting or college setting, I’m — for better or worse, I’m much more remote from the students and what the students are talking about than I was thirty years ago. And in—in—in preparing this, I—I thought, you know, “I’m at a women’s college in Cambridge.” It’s a women’s college, which is cis women and trans women, where all the fellows are women, and all the students are women. Basta. My—my feeling about it when I thought, “That’s actually quite a workable community.” You know, I—I don’t—I don’t spot real tensions in that, in that women’s community. And then I thought that maybe it’s because they’re not coming to me, you know, maybe it’s because I’m not seeing them. And all I could do was ring—ring up one of my friends, who’s about my age, and is a trans—is a fellow of the college, teaches very different subjects. And said, to say, “Rachel, am I missing something, you know? Have you not been telling me something?” And she was basically supportive of, you know, of my sense that I—I was living and working within [such] a community. I’m very privileged. I’m very lucky to do that. But I mean, I think you’re right. Where do — if I wanted to say, “What else we need to find out, and where would I do it?” Well, I’ve got to listen. Well, who do I listen to, you know? So, I mean, I think that’s—that’s where we get our information from, I think is really important. And I—I don’t have the answer to that. Twitter, shall I say? I shall come to Ky in future.

Ky Merkley: And I’m happy, you know, to be a source of reference. But I also like, would love to point a whole lot of other people towards you who are absolutely fantastic and can represent other points of view. Because, right, I’m a singular —

Mary Beard: I’m afraid I’m, I’m going to make a beeline for you. You’ve—you walked into this. Sorry.

Ky Merkley: I’ll have to start asking other people for help, I think. But I think if we’re going to talk really quickly about, like, who do we sit down with, that’s why this kind of dialogue is so important. I mean, when else would I have had an opportunity to sit down with, you know, Mary Beard, [and] Vanessa, I love your work. I love, you know, your Twitter presence, the activism you do—like, this is amazing. I loved the opportunity to have this conversation, and it happened because of Twitter. And it’s sad that it happened in many ways, because of a lot of really sad reasons and hard reasons. But the only way to move forward is to keep having dialogue and keep saying, “Okay, we’re never done working on this.” We’re always going to have to have that repetition. We’re always going to have to keep sitting down and talking and finding the new voices that don’t feel like they have a seat at the table. And I do think that Classics as a field — I can’t really speak for the U.K. as much as the U.S. — hasn’t done a great job of providing trans voices a place in the field of the discourse about how we talk about gender and sexuality. And so, I think it’s important to start bringing that up and trying to find ways that we can be more inclusive.

Mary Beard: Yeah. And also to, I think — and I hope this is along the same lines — I think that we can be kind of—be sort of understanding where other people are coming from. And not always think that, kind of—that people of my age who do things a bit differently, are necessarily — because of that difference—are necessarily malevolent, you know? I mean, we might be. I mean, you know, that, that could be the case, but not— you know, we contribute things in different ways, you know? We should be in different ways to the debate. We use different words, different rhetoric. We feel comfortable and uncomfortable about saying different things. But, you know, actually, we are — we are probably — we have the potential for being an inclusive community.

Vanessa Stovall: Yeah, and that’s why I wanted to bring up the generational issue initially in the first place to be like, “Oh, well, I don’t think a lot of older folks are aware of these internet cultures that have been forming.” And so, like, I also appreciate this platform to just be able to talk about it, and just share that these exist, and these are the reasons why folx do them. And so, it’s like, it’s not the youth all coming together trying to imaginary threaten you to make a statement. It’s actually just a part of the cultural landscape that we need to understand is also there as well, you know? And I think that, yeah, actually, Twitter is like—as much as it is — like I—I can’t leave this conversation without affirming that Twitter is a trash fire, like, it is one of the most, like, heinous social media platforms I have ever been on, and I have been on quite a few. But I—I like it and will probably not delete mine for a very long time, because there is this potential. To me, it’s so many fascinating people, and I’ve met so many trans scholars—like in the past year alone because of the pandemic—because of it. And so, I—I do actually think Twitter is a good place to hear more of these voices and discussions. And that takes time. That takes, you know, learning some of the weird algorithm landscapes that Twitter will put you through, dodging a lot of ads. But I do think that is a good place to go forward for the future. And you’re absolutely right, Ky, like classicists do need to include trans folx into the gender discussions more. Oh, especially like—I do theater, that’s, like, the number one place I’m like, “Yes, come on, gender as costume, let’s discuss, but also, like, differences in identity, differences in being different characters, let’s understand.” So I am very glad that we were able to come together to discuss this and to start this conversation. You know, I think—I don’t think that we’ve — we’ve brainstormed. We’ve shared perspectives. You know, I don’t think we’ve come away with like a Magna Carta-esque treaty of just like, “This is exactly how we must go, going forward.” But no, this is our beginning. This is our start. And so I—I’m very looking forward to how folx, after they watch this, want to continue this conversation and want to go on having it and discussing these issues, because they are very important and very critical going forward in the field. And especially, not just in the digital era, but, like, as we’re becoming more in-person with each other.

Like, what types of care are we taking towards each other and ourselves? Like, what are we encouraging? What cultures do we want to build? What values are we grounding ourselves in? These are all important things to reflect upon as we’re now going to finally be seeing everybody in person for the first time after over a year. And so thank you both for coming to the digital table.

Mary Beard: Thank you, thank you both.

Ky Merkley: And I really think that that point is such a beautiful point to end on, Vanessa, that idea that this is the beginning. Like, this isn’t an end. This is a way to hopefully get more people at the table and start discussing the different ways we can move forward: the different ways we can be more inclusive, we can be more understanding, we can have better dialogue. And it just requires a little bit of time from all of us and continued effort to keep moving forward and keep being better. So thank you both for being here today.

Mary Beard: Thank you, and I think we can make it a better place.

kgm3's picture

Ky Merkley (they/them) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Their work sits at the intersection of trans studies and Classics and critiques the various ways conceptions of selfhood, gender identities, and embodied experiences interact within Roman literature. After founding Trans in Classics in 2020, Ky is working on finding further ways to highlight both modern trans perspectives on Classical literature and the gender diversity that existed in Greco-Roman antiquity.

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