Homophobia, transphobia, & Massey University

Massey University finds themselves in an interesting position: having a senior lecturer who's a fucking dimwit


I hope your weekend is going okay.

This Webworm’s going to be a bit of a vent. I got angry on Saturday, and writing this is a way for me to clear my mind, a little.

Hopefully we’ll learn something along the way.

It’s about Steve Elers, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s School of Communication. Some of New Zealand’s biggest news outlets print his columns.

Elers lectures in journalism.

And I truly feel sorry for his journalism students.

When a lecturer has yet to get past the “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” meme.

Back in July, Elers wrote an offensive and also utterly boring transphobic column called “The bewildering politics of gender pronouns” for outlet Stuff.

I’m not going to link to it because it doesn’t deserve the clicks, but it was an incredibly uninspired take on the “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” argument, which is dismantled eloquently by Rachel Anne Williams over on Medium:

“I identify as an attack helicopter.”

“I identify as a giraffe. But that doesn’t make me a giraffe. Just because you ‘feel’ like X doesn’t make you that X.”

Ever heard these arguments? Of course you have. They are some of the oldest transphobic tropes, trotted out again and again despite being rebutted over and over.

Why do transphobes keep returning to these arguments? Because they want to establish that trans identities are not valid, that trans people are not who we say we are.

I was annoyed that a journalism lecturer was so stupid in 2020, and said as much back in July:

At the end of the piece he wrote, a disclaimer:

His views are his own and do not represent Massey University.

I started talking to students and faculty at Massey about it — and found I wasn’t the only one annoyed.

I’ll return to that soon.

But last month, Elers returned — his bespeckled, vacant face staring out at me yet again.

This time, he was getting stuck into Youth MP Shaneel Lal, who’d dared to suggest that Gay Conversion Therapy was a form of torture.

If you disagree with that statement, I suggest you watch the excellent Boy, Erased to understand exactly why it is state-sanctioned torture.

It’s a harrowing watch with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe doing their thing, and Troye Sivan absolutely carving up his scenes.

Anyway: I don’t want to give the New Zealand Herald the clicks, but this was Elers’ main stance:

Just briefly — fuck him.

I don’t want to get into it here right now, but growing up and figuring out my own sexuality, whilst also being deeply imbedded in Christianity, really does a number on you.

Imagine if the whole world view you hold and treasure so deeply — suddenly tells you that you are wrong.

That your mere existence and “choice” (it always amazes me how it’s a choice — pretty weird fucking choice for a kid who just wants to fit in) makes you a top contender for Hell (a literal place in which you are tortured for all eternity).

And that’s not gay conversion therapy.

That’s just the mood you try and live with, as you wrap your head around what and who you are.

Gay conversion therapy is that, too — but it’s so much more. It’s targeted, ongoing, brutal and traumatising.

So at its most basic — Steve Elers is simply ignorant.

But it’s not that.

Take in his tone, his intent, his sarcasm for the other.

In that last line, he insinuates sexuality is a choice. It’s beyond ridiculous at this point, and I wonder if he’s just a terrible writer.

I guess my main point though, is this:

Try being a kid coming to terms with your sexuality and having the weight of your religion actively telling you you’re a piece of shit.

Kids commit suicide over this.

It was then I noticed the interesting disclaimer at the bottom of the piece:

I’ve blanked out his website — he doesn’t deserve the traffic — but I was fascinated that the University is still distancing themselves like last time.

But in addition to this, it appears they’re not even being named anymore. Massey has suddenly become an “unnamed university”.

What, we don’t get to know where this dude teaches anymore?

It doesn’t work like that.

What does “The Unnamed University” AKA Massey University think about this?

Back in June, when he wrote the transphobic piece, I heard from plenty of students and some staff about it:

“I was just as disappointed and shocked when I read the article, and honestly felt embarrassed to be attending a university where we have hired lecturers who would openly mock such issues. I am by no means an expert on the subject as a cis-gendered female, but I do believe people should be able to use whichever pronoun they want without being ridiculed.”

I tweeted about it, and then got this in my inbox on July 8th:

It was an email from someone in Massey’s Public Affairs team, and at that time I did keep it in confidence, because I assumed everyone was acting in good faith.

That perhaps — perhaps — something was being done about this staff member in the journalism faculty spouting a bunch of Jordan Peterson twaddle.

But after this weekend’s column pretty much endorsing Gay Conversion Therapy — I am less inclined to worry about confidence.

This is what the University said to me:

“I’m getting in touch re your social media comments on the opinion piece by Dr Steve Elers on the weekend. 

Massey University welcomes all staff, students and visitors and we embrace diversity. There is no place for discrimination or intolerance at our university or in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

So far, a positive response. From a more cynical viewpoint, it’s nothing more than good optics.

“We have updated our website (here) with a statement affirming diversity and inclusion. We’re also creating further content so we can provide practical guidance to staff and students. It’s crucial that we get diverse perspectives to help us create this, so we welcome collaboration and feedback. Other steps towards supporting our communities will follow. 

Okay — so they updated their website. They also pointed out that another lecturer had written a rebuttal. And finally — this.

“In utmost confidence: if any complaints emerge about Massey and/or its staff, I would appreciate knowing as soon as possible.”

Which is fucking weird, because last time I checked it was not my job to give an institution like “Massey” a head’s up about what I’m contacted about.

Why would I? Why would I ever? Look — it’s very lofty sounding, but journalism is about keeping the powers that be accountable.

Not acting as a complaint tips hotline.

But, as I said earlier — I assumed good faith. I assumed something was being done. So I left it.

What ended up happening? Well, from sources I’ve spoken to — sweet F all.

The Vice Chancellor of Massey University received multiple complaints from students and other faculty members complaining about Elers’ piece, and all that happened was an update on their website.

An interview with someone smart, to counter all the dumb.

I wanted to finish this newsletter with something positive.

It’s a conversation I had with Charlie Myer, a trans 2020 graduate from Massey.

He lead a campaign to get an anti-trans event off campus last year, and created a group called Massey Students Against Transphobia.

I reached out to him after Elers’ rant a few months back.

Myer is Elers’ opposite. He’s smart, well spoken, and informed.

Okay — so about that column written by Steve Elers. My reaction was basically two things. Firstly: this must suck for trans people to read this drivel, and secondly “this is so boring, it’s just that ‘I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter’ meme again wtf”.  How did you react?

To be honest, I reacted to Elers’ article by rolling my eyes.

This is the same shit that every casual transphobic posts, and has posted, for the past 15 years. You are right that it’s just the “I identify as an Attack Helicopter” with a different wig on. 

As well as this, it’s really disappointing to see a Massey Head Lecturer saying such rude things given that Massey has a bad reputation with treating their trans students with respect.

Although his views don’t represent Massey, the fact that he has these discriminatory views and teaches (and potentially works with) Queer people is a concern.

I warned Massey that these kind of issues will continue to happen unless they clearly state where they sit on the issue with affirmative action.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about trans people. Or is it like a million little things?

There are so many misconceptions about trans people I could literally be here all day.

I guess one misconception that really bugs me is that trans people are going to force you to say things you don’t want to say and do things you don’t want to do.

People who think like this have never been friends with, or even met, a trans person.

To them, we are the mysterious ‘other’ who is dedicated to destroying all binary genders and making young children be pumped with hormones.

But, like many ‘others’, this is completely false. Even if we do prefer the idea of destroying the western concept of binary gender, we aren’t trying to change people’s individual understanding of their own gender.

Trans women wanting to be in their rightful space does not erase your understanding of you as a woman. 

You led a campaign last year to get an anti-trans event off campus last year. Tell me about that.

Thinking about the campaign from last year makes me want to sigh.

So, long story short. The biggest Anti-Trans group in New Zealand wanted to have an event at our campus to discuss ‘gender issues’ and ‘being cancelled’.

There was no reason they needed to have their event at our campus as so I formed a group that opposed this event. It’s called Massey Students Against Transphobia.

I led the group as we made a petition that got over 5000 signatures and gave this to the Acting Vice Chancellor at a sit-in protest.

After this I had multiple meetings with the Senior Leadership Group about how we can improve the treatment and inclusion of trans students. In the end not a lot came from that, but we did get the Anti-Trans group’s event cancelled. 

I made an event that was to support trans students in the aftermath of this and Massey funded some of it but they were extremely difficult to work with. They changed their Guest Speakers Policy days before our event so we couldn’t have trans academics come talk.

We ended up having speakers anyway; it went well, we suffered no repercussions. 

Is this a problem at Massey, or is this a problem in New Zealand and the whole fucking world? I am thinking of JK Rowling constantly having a go on trans people and I just feel like I am in this weird alternate dimension.

This is an issue with the entire world.

Even if transphobic stuff isn’t out in the open, it’s often simmering below the surface.

However, particularly in the UK and Aotearoa, the issue of Anti-Trans groups is a big one. That’s why JK Rowling’s recent views are not a surprise.

She has inched closer and closer towards being Anti-Trans for a while now and is only now being fully open about it. She has found solace and a meaning of feminism that equates with her history of men being harmful to her but in a way that doesn’t mean she has to call herself a misandrist.

Rowling sees a threat within the ‘other’ that is completely false and has very little (or no) research supporting it.

Thanks to a recent survey “Counting Ourselves” by Dr. Jaimie Veale, we know that 71% of trans people aged 15 and older have "high or very high psychological distress, compared with 8% of the general population in Aotearoa New Zealand”. 

Another study at the Human Rights Campaign suggests that “around half of transgender people… will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.” 

I have not found any studies that detail trans people as committing sexual violence or murdering people. Trans people are the ones that are being affected poorly, we’re not the perpetrators.

This may be too personal, but what is it like being you, constantly brushing up against opinions and angst and hate and god knows what. Is the issue here a bunch of micro aggressions all adding up, or what? 

It is frustrating to see this kind of garbage rhetoric, but I am a trans man.

I have the position where I can defend my trans whanāu and not be the main person affected since (although Anti-Trans people think we’re long-lost-lesbians) the real people they’re targeting are trans women.

It is annoying to see trans peoples’ identities questioned time and time again, but there is also widespread support for trans people which is nice to see.

The best way to handle this backlash and targeted discrimination is to protect trans women (especially BIPOC) and make sure they don’t let things pass in government that halt or negate our rights.

Last year, the Anti-Trans group in Aotearoa halted a bill that would help trans people be able to change their sex marker on their birth certificate because it’s a really long and expensive process, and it still hasn’t been resolved.

If people do support trans people they should prove it by speaking to MPs and letting them know that trans people should have the right to change their sex marker. It literally changes nothing for anyone else.

It’s just affirming for trans people and means we won’t be stated as the incorrect sex on our death certificate. 

The thing that is most frustrating is the real world affects of Rowling’s actions.

Her platform is huge and she has just passed on this garbage rhetoric to millions of people. It doesn’t take a genius to know this sort of thing results in violence.

It’s increasing the hatred of an already affected minority.

Over 300 trans people were murdered in 2019.

There were 22 murdered trans women in the US in all of 2019.

There have been over 20 already in the US in 2020.

This is a very simple question but it is something I struggle to grasp: Why is there so much angst towards trans people? Is it a basic lack of understanding, or is something else going on? 

I believe this ideology is cult-like, and I’m not the first to say that.

It starts with a vulnerable person being fearful of something, then this movement places itself as the answer.

It identifies the true threat as trans women regardless of if the original fear was to do with trans-ness.

Okay, I want to swing in with my theory of why people are freaking out. I think there is this thing that people react really viscerally to, that is basically “THINK OF THE CHILDREN”. There is this sort of fear that kids are being indoctrinated to be something they are not and then injected with hormones and so on.  Do you know what I mean? Can you speak to this?

Some people are afraid of being violated, some are scared of erasure of their own identity (not a thing) and some are the ones that preach “think of the children!”

They think that trans people are pushing our identities down confused youth’s throats, ignoring the fact that the violence and dysphoria that trans people go through is something that no one would willingly choose. 

So people think this because of fear and confusion, I’d say.

They just don’t see us as people and that’s hard to wrestle with because nothing we say or do will help them realise that. 

The hormones thing is so misinformed and ridiculous. Anti-Trans people think we’re pumping kids up with hormones when in Aotearoa it has famously been a difficult process.

Just personally, I spent a year just waiting to get on hormones. It was the worst year of my life.

The way it works in Aotearoa is once you’re over 18 you have to talk to your GP about it, then they refer you to a clinical psychologist who analyses if you are ‘trans enough’ basically.

Then, if you’ve said enough, you can get an appointment with an endocrinologist. If they think you’re safe to move ahead then you can start hormones. It takes a while even then for permanent changes to happen.

They’re working on changing the system so it’s faster but that’s so much better than the process for surgery so I count my blessings. 

I noticed Massey updated their website. Is this a good move, or superficial posturing? 

Massey updating their website is a good thing. I mentioned this to them last year and they didn’t do anything then.

I told him last year that they need to follow University of Auckland’s lead and actually provide serious trans support lead by trans people.

They told me they’d think about it. They never got back to me; until this article and backlash has come out.

Now they want to collaborate with me. Interesting timing, wouldn’t you say? 

Ultimately, the reason I even care about this at all is because I don’t want things to be shit. I want trans people to not feel like their identities are reason to be met with violence and/or discrimination.

This starts with providing space for trans people and making things easier for their transitions. We know it can be done and has great results.

University is the space where so many people realise their gender identity, it’s a unique time where their school can help them feel safe as themselves. The question is: are Massey doing this for the betterment of their students, or simply because their reputation is at risk? 

I hope they care enough to put their money where their mouth is but only time will tell. Until then, I’ll keep working towards fighting for what I think is right for trans students. 

Many thanks, Charlie.

Where do we go from here?

What do we take from the fact Elers’ works at Massey University and holds these views?

I’m not sure — other than to be angry, or just let out a giant, loud sigh.

Especially considering New Zealand’s largest outlets insist on giving him a platform to make a lot of at-risk people feel shit. And to talk down to young people like Shaneel Lal.

A student I talked to for this story commented that there are a few interesting issues at play with Elers.

“The responsibility that a university has to protecting the safety of its students (Elers doesn’t seem like the type to handle issues of his students’ gender identity in the classroom appropriately), and the way that “academic freedom” gets used to defend very traditional and conservative views and absolve universities from any responsibility for the opinion and comment of their staff members, or activities on their campuses.”

… to the point where the Massey University is now an “Unnamed” University.

As this was all whirling around in my mind, I just got this comment from said University:

Our academics routinely make public commentary, as part of academic freedom under the Education Act. When an academic expresses an opinion, they do not necessarily reflect the position of our university.

Dr Elers writes strictly in a personal capacity.

At Massey we are Rainbow Tick certified and committed to providing a safe, respectful and inclusive environment.

Students need to feel comfortable being their whole self, and to study without fear of harassment or discrimination.

We have rainbow and ally groups on each of our campuses to represent our students as independent bodies, and they liaise with us on diversity and inclusion.

Recently we have updated our affirmation of commitment to diversity and inclusion and we always welcome feedback from our people.

We’ve consulted on the use of pronouns and we are in the process of developing more content to foster a culture of understanding, tolerance and respect.

Everything they said is exactly what I’d expect: an institution desperately trying to hold onto their “rainbow tick” of approval while a senior lecturer actively rallies against all that tick stands for.

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