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Examining the ‘Prejudices’ of Jane Austen

Cancel culture run amok or an honest assessment of author’s biases?

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Recently, I listened to “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen on Audible. Savoring every word, I was transported to 19th century, Regency-era England. Immersed in the world of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy and formal balls, I almost escaped from our troubled 21st century universe. As I sipped tea, racism, transphobia – past and present injustice – slipped from my mind.

Until a headline from The New York Times flashed on my screen: “A Jane Austen Museum Wants to Discuss Slavery. Will Her Fans Listen?”

This Jane Austen fan is listening. Nothing pricks up your ears more than seeing one of your favorite authors (a literary icon, no less) connected with slavery.

Last month, Jane Austen’s House, a museum on the life and work of Jane Austen, said that it would update its displays to include information on Austen’s and her family’s connection to slavery. (The museum in the English village of Chawton, has been only open virtually during the pandemic. It reopens for in-person visitors on May 19.) Austen, who lived from 1775 to 1817, resided in Chawton from 1809 until shortly before she died at age 41.

The exhibits reveal that George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, before he became a pastor, was a trustee of an Antigua sugar plantation. The displays note that Austen and her family, by drinking tea, eating foods with sugar and wearing clothing made of cotton, enjoyed products of the Atlantic slave trade.

Information is included on Austen’s views of abolitionists: Some scholars believe that Austen was against slavery. In 1807, the slave trade ended in the British Empire when King George signed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade into law.

Reaction to the new exhibits was fast and furious, The New York Times reported. “Woke madness,” thundered The Express. The Daily Mail said the museum had launched “a revisionist attack” and a “BLM-inspired interrogation” of Austen’s ritual of imbibing tea.

If you believe these rants, you’d think that Jane Austen’s House was trying to cancel Jane Austen: that we should stop appreciating her work because she drank tea and her family was connected to the slave trade.

Of course, this isn’t the intention of the museum that celebrates Austen’s work. Visitors increasingly ask about Austen and her family’s connection to the slave trade, Jane Austen’s House says in a statement. “It is therefore appropriate that we share the information and research that already exists on her connections to slavery and its mention in her novels,” the museum says.

It’s tempting to dismiss this dust-up as a tempest in a teapot. But that would be wrong.

This controversy calls our attention to one of the pressing issues of our time: How do we examine the prejudices of our icons, and should we cancel them and/or their work?

I’m thinking about two LGBTQ icons: Walt Whitman, born on May 31, 1819, and Adrienne Rich who died on March 27, 2012.

In his poetry, Whitman embraced democracy and inclusion. For his time, he wrote with remarkable openness about sexuality. If you’re queer, you feel represented in his poetry.

Yet, in his later life, Whitman believed racist pseudo scientific claims. He called Black people “baboons” and “wild brutes.”

Few poets are as beloved by the LGBTQ community as poet Adrienne Rich. Her poems have been a lifeline for queer women and gay men.

Yet, Rich advised Janice Raymond, who, in 1979 wrote the transphobic book “The Transsexual Empire.” Raymond wrote that transgender people “colonize feminist identification, culture, politics, and sexuality.”

In the face of racism and transphobia existing side by side with genius, Whitman’s dictum about the self containing multitudes and contradictions rings painfully true.

I’d be lying if I said I had a solution to this muddle.

But if we’ve learned anything since George Floyd’s death, it’s that we all have conscious and unconscious biases. If we cancelled artists who have prejudices from racism to transphobia, what art would be left?

Yet, if we don’t confront our cultural heroes’ prejudices, how will we live with ourselves or work toward justice? What type of art would be created?

I only know: we must live and struggle with these vitally important questions.

 

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Casa Ruby’s services must survive

But the organization’s name doesn’t matter

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A group of asylum seekers gather at Casa Ruby on March 5, 2019. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A judge approved putting Casa Ruby into the hands of a receiver and approved the D.C. Attorney General’s recommendation of the Wanda Alston Foundation, of which June Crenshaw is the executive director. She is an amazing person. Founded in 2008, according to its website “the Wanda Alston Foundation provides housing and support services for D.C. homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth ages 18 to 24 and advocates for expanded city services for LGBTQ youth.” 

Contrary to what Ruby Corado said at the hearing she apparently Zoomed into from El Salvador, it is only important to have someone who knows the work of Casa Ruby and if it is someone who worked for a successful organization in the area all the more reason for them to be named. 

It’s not important that the name Casa Ruby survives. What is important is the services it once provided to the transgender community survive, and even expand. That can be done under any name. 

Taking over as receiver will not be an easy task. Crenshaw will have to unravel the mess that is there now. The receiver will have to face the fact money may have been stolen and deal with employees who weren’t paid. They will have to deal with the fact, which now seems clear, that Casa Ruby was out of compliance with the District Non-Profit Corporations Act. 

D.C. was an amazing place for me to come out and I did so after moving here in 1978.  As a political person I got involved with what was then the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which had just played a major role in electing Marion Barry as mayor. Over the years I got more and more involved in the LGBTQ community. I, along with Rick Rosendall, founded and incorporated the Foundation for all DC Families, the organization we set up to fight for marriage equality in D.C. We worked hard, raised funds and had Celinda Lake do the first major poll on the issue in D.C. We found the white community in D.C. was heavily in favor of marriage equality and the Black community was partially supportive based on age and religion. We recognized many of us who began the organization had white privilege, which made life easier for us. We never earned that privilege it was something society just awarded us. We worked hard to recruit a diverse board for the organization and involved the faith community in the fight as well. Then along with Sheila Alexander-Reid and Cornelius Baker we incorporated the Campaign for All DC Families as the 501(c)(4) to do the political work to secure marriage equality. We continued to raise some money for the organization and worked with HRC, which lent us staff and meeting space. We recruited new people. We won the fight working with Council member David Catania and the rest of the Council. Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the D.C. marriage equality bill and I still have one of the pens presented to me at the signing. 

White privilege made it easier for me to be out. Because of this over the years I supported groups like the Wanda Alston Foundation, and Casa Ruby, because there are so many members of the LGBTQ community who still struggle in the District, no matter how LGBTQ-friendly our laws are. We must all work to ensure no one falls behind due to homophobia, transphobia, racism, or sexism. Again, I will continue to support the services for the transgender community, which Casa Ruby provided, but don’t care what the organization providing them is called. 

The problem I have with Ruby Corado was compounded when I read in the Blade what she said at the virtual hearing disputing “the allegations, saying among other things, that claims that she was not in communication with the Casa Ruby board was a misconception.”

If Corado cares about the people Casa Ruby served, why is she in El Salvador? Who has she been in touch with — which board members, and will they confirm this? If she cared about the organization and people it served, and has done nothing wrong, why is she not here in the District fighting for the employees, calling a board meeting (if there is a board)? Non-profit boards hire executive directors and oversee their work. I don’t think Casa Ruby ever had a real ‘working’ board overseeing Corado’s work. We need to question and get affidavits from former ‘board’ members as to what they did and what they know about what Corado did.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Supporting LGBTQ rights is good for business and the right thing to do

Equity and inclusion must be a corporate imperative

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Brad Baumoel is the Global Head of LGBT+ Affairs at JPMorgan Chase.

In communities across the United States, LGBTQ+ people and their families are facing a growing number of significant barriers to equal rights and protections. In 2022 alone, at least 30 states have introduced anti-LGBTQ+ bills, with a majority targeting transgender and non-binary youth, on top of continued anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and bias in various states across the country. Despite progress toward equity and inclusion, the LGBTQ+ community is increasingly struggling for equality and basic human rights.

I’m truly concerned for members of my community, given the impact these actions are having on our mental health and wellbeing. Several of my LGBTQ+ colleagues and colleagues with LGBTQ+ family members have expressed fear for themselves and their children. Some are scared their transgender child will be taken from them and placed in foster care. Others feel they might be personally prosecuted for seeking gender affirming care for their child. Many are worried they’ll need to move to a different state just so they can continue accessing essential forms of health care.

I feel lucky to work for a company that opposes discriminatory actions that could harm our employees, customers, and the communities where we do business, and has equally advanced policies, practices, and benefits to support our LGBTQ+ workforce. It comforts me to know my employer supports a society that serves all Americans, including the LGBTQ+ community. But not everyone has the same assurance when they go to work.  

Now more than ever, LGBTQ+ equity and inclusion must be a business imperative. Business leaders must use their voice to condemn the hate, bias, transphobia and homophobia that sadly exist in our communities. We also need businesses to take meaningful and measurable action in promoting and advancing inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community year-round, not just during Pride month. While it starts with inclusive benefits, policies and networks of support, this commitment requires businesses to lead with the values of acceptance and belonging in every decision they make. It’s only then that your LGBTQ+ employees, customers and communities will truly feel included and equal. 

Since the first LGBTQ+ Business Resource Group at JPMorgan Chase was created in the 1990s, many, like me, have worked hard to make our company a place where LGBTQ+ employees feel they can be their authentic selves when they come to work. Last year, we strengthened this commitment by creating the Office of LGBT+ Affairs, a full-time, dedicated team focused on advancing equity and inclusion for LGBTQ+ employees, customers, clients, and communities. It’s my sincere hope that we don’t see our efforts slowed down by attempts to threaten the rights of people for who they are, whom they love or how they identify.

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Queer kids are not brainwashed

Trans children are real transgender people, not trend chasers

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In some conversations with progressive friends, my peers, despite their proclaimed liberal attitudes, voice concern over the fact that children can experiment with gender and sexuality. They say things like “kids are too young to question their gender…that seems dangerous” or “a lot of children are just following gender trends and are not actually trans.” Other friends state that they don’t believe that transgender children should have access to hormone blockers. 

All of these statements are bogus and harmful. Many people who question gender fluidity in children don’t realize that they themselves have been brainwashed into thinking, from a young age, that being cisgender and straight is the norm. It should not be the norm. In fact, queerness is ever more common now among Gen Z’ers, and this is because the youth of today are feeling more and more comfortable opening up about their different sexuality and gender from an early age. 

Being able to safely come out as trans or gay in high school is an extremely healthy process and greatly improves the mental health of kids who would otherwise struggle. In red states, and conservative high school districts, this kind of coming out is still difficult, and might even be banned in the future, if Republicans continue with their cruel agenda. But there is hope in progressive cities like Portland and New York, where students feel free to question cishet and straight standards. 

Much research points to the fact that trans children are who they say they are: real transgender people, and not trend chasers. Kristina Olson, a psychologist at the University of Washington, started running a long-term study on trans youth in 2013. Olson eventually amassed a group of more than 85 trans kids. Olson kept in touch with both the children and their parents over the years. Her team ultimately found that an overwhelming, vast majority of the children stayed consistent with the gender nonconforming identity they chose in childhood. In other words, these trans children were correct about their gender identity from a young age. The notion that children pick up trans identities as a “fad,” or are wrong about them, is outdated. 

We already know that Republicans are dangerous to trans children, and have already prevented them from receiving health care or playing sports in many red states. But what we need to stop is dialogue from progressive voices that discourages gender fluidity in youth. These statements from otherwise liberal leaning people are contradictory to the very values that Democrats stand for. 

Isaac Amend (he/him/his) is a trans man and young professional in the D.C. area. He was featured on National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ in 2017 as a student at Yale University. Amend is also on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Find him on Instagram @isaacamend.

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