JMU students, faculty and staff received an email on April 13 from Ethical Reasoning in Action, an ethical reasoning group at JMU run by faculty, that posed a hypothetical ethical scenario in which recipients were asked to vote on whether a transgender woman should be allowed to compete with other female athletes. Some students have expressed frustration with the scenario.
Ethical Reasoning in Action aims to prepare students to be “enlightened citizens who apply ethical reasoning in their personal, professional, and civic lives,” according to its website. The group evaluates the ethical dimensions of a situation using JMU’s eight key questions. In the survey linked at the bottom of the email, respondents are asked to consider those eight key questions before casting their vote.
The email says that a state, hypothetically, is “considering a law that requires ‘trans athletes’ … at the high school and intercollegiate athletic levels [to] compete only with those with the same assigned sex at birth.”
The email continues:
“A transgender female swimmer competes at your university who, as a man in competition was not especially successful, but as a woman just two years later set school and conference records. While the university opposes the proposed law because it doesn’t align with their emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity on campus, they ask students, faculty and staff to vote on the issue.
"Should transwomen be allowed to compete with other athletes?” [sic]
Madison Equality, a student-run LGBTQ organization on campus, released a statement from its executive board on April 14 condemning the proposed ethical scenario. In the statement, Madison Equality said the scenario was “transphobic” and that “the rights and lives of transgender people shouldn’t be opened up for debate to the student body.”
The email defines trans athletes as “those persons who have undergone surgical or hormonal therapies so that their bodies align more closely with their gender identities.”
Madison Equality said in its statement that the definition given in the email is “false, because there are many transgender people and trans athletes who have not undergone any surgical or hormonal therapies. These people are still transgender."
Dylan Marti, a junior intelligence analysis major and a member of Madison Equality, said that when he opened the email, it was "a lot" to digest.
“They’re presenting a very one-sided narrative that seems to, I think, perpetuate negative stereotypes about trans women in particular," Marti said. "It just seemed messed up."
Marti said he believes it’s “insensitive, harmful and unnecessary” of Ethical Reasoning in Action to discuss the rights of a minority population.
“For the trans people, it’s at least disappointing and at the most, probably infuriating,” Marti said. “For those [students] who aren’t in the know [and for cisgender] people who haven’t had a lot of interaction with trans people, it sort of affirms this is a debate to be had, when it really shouldn’t be.”
Bill Hawk, director of Ethical Reasoning in Action, provided the following statement to The Breeze via email:
“At JMU the goal for Ethical Reasoning in Action is to creatively develop ways for open conversation and encourage deep thinking surrounding the most critical issues facing society. As we attempted to challenge the campus community with a scenario to use the Eight Key Questions, our intentions did not match the impact that was created. While this scenario caused hurt among our campus, we have certainly learned from the experience and appreciate and welcome the feedback and shared concerns we have received. We hope to continue to develop and foster partnerships across campus to always improve our approach and sensitivities surrounding ethical scenarios for the campus community to consider.”
Marti said JMU has options for trans students, such as preferred names on JMU Access Cards (JAC) and gender inclusive housing at Jennings Hall. At the same time, he said, the university could “definitely be better” with how it treats trans students.
“It’s not like I feel supported as a trans person here,” Marti said. “It would be nice if things like this email didn’t happen to make me question how welcome trans people are.”
Marti direct messaged (DM) Tim Miller, vice president for student affairs, via Instagram, voicing his concern over the scenario proposed by Ethical Reasoning in Action. Marti shared a screenshot of the message and Miller’s response with The Breeze. In response to Marti, Miller wrote that the university has reached out to Ethical Reasoning in Action and expressed its concerns about the scenario. Miller also said the university will continue to “represent students.”
“I am disappointed in their decision to utilize this scenario as it is not hypothetical, it is about trans people’s lives and they should be treated with care and respect, not as a hypothetical,” Miller wrote in his reply to Marti.
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