Pressure Over Trans Activist

U of California, Santa Cruz, faces online mobbing over a trans student’s controversial activism.

August 19, 2022
Eli Erlick's Twitter post, which says, Matt Walsh just released the contact info for my chancellor to his 1 million plus subscribers. He's threatening to protest at my university for refusing to adhere to unjust laws targeting trans youth.
Eli Erlick shares images from Matt Walsh’s show, in which he tells his followers to contact UC Santa Cruz’s chancellor and others.
(Eli Erlick via Twitter)

A conservative commentator is pressuring the University of California, Santa Cruz, to respond to his complaints about a Ph.D. candidate and trans activist there. And he’s urging his more than one million followers to do the same, prompting concerns about targeted harassment of the graduate student, Eli Erlick.

Specifically, commentator Matt Walsh says he’s concerned that Erlick is a “confessed drug dealer” targeting children. This is based on a since-deleted Instagram post by Erlick, in which she proposed pooling unopened, doctor-prescribed hormone therapies for trans people who are experiencing difficulty accessing this type of care.

‘Time to Escalate’

“There are over 20 states trying to criminalize hormone therapy, particularly for trans youth,” Erlick wrote in the post. “So, my friends and I had an idea: sending out our extra prescriptions around the country. If you need hormones, I’m working with a distribution network to get you access. Everything is free, no questions asked. We have hundreds of doses of testosterone, estradiol and spironolactone available right now.”

She continued, “Each package comes with information on dosage, obtaining bloodwork, etc. I realize this is only a band-aid solution: we need full access to affirmative care from professionals immediately. However, missing a single dose of hormones can be devastating (especially for trans teens and those new to hormones)!”

Erlick, a longtime trans youth activist and founder of the group Trans Student Educational Resources, isn’t a stranger to the far right. Earlier this year, for instance, she accused Walsh’s production team of misrepresenting itself in order to recruit trans people to interview for his online documentary, What Is a Woman? (Erlick was not the only trans person or ally to make this accusation.) In any case, Walsh and other conservative commentators noticed Erlick’s post and began calling her a drug dealer. Some reported her to federal authorities, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Erlick’s hormone-distribution proposal certainly raises legal, medical and ethical questions. (Such questions must of course be weighed alongside the legal, medical and ethical implications of political efforts to make gender dysphoria treatment harder to access or even illegal.) But the concern among many of Erlick’s supporters is that Walsh hasn’t just reported Erlick to UCSC, he’s enlisted his followers to force a public response, and given the university an ultimatum.

“We gave the leadership there a day to respond and tell us what steps they would take to address this before I started giving out their contact information. Well, they never did address it,” Walsh said on his eponymous show on the Daily Wire streaming service earlier this week. “Now it’s time to escalate. The University of California, Santa Cruz, is a public university. These officials have no right to ignore this issue. They just don’t have the right to do it.”

After sharing the contact information for various leaders at the university, including Chancellor Cynthia Larive, Walsh said on his show, “Next I will find the Board of Trustees, and I will find the donors at the school. After that I’ll show up there with a crowd of people. I’ll come there personally.”

The university said in a statement that “as a campus continuously working in pursuit of social justice,” it “strongly supports transgender members of our community. Transgender rights are human rights. Transphobia, homophobia and harassment have no place in our society. We at UC Santa Cruz are committed to building a society that values and respects all, encouraging and supporting individuals to be their whole selves, enabling them to thrive.”

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Regarding Erlick, the statement continues, “The university is aware of social media posts by one of our graduate students related to gender-affirming medical care outlawed in certain states. The university takes allegations of illegal activity seriously, harassment included.”

UCSC declined to answer additional questions about the case.

Asked about the status of her proposal, Erlick said via email that “trans people have shared hormone replacement therapy treatments for over 80 years. This is nothing new or unique. It is important to add that no one is providing hormone replacement therapy to children and the accusations that I am are false and absurd.”

Targeted Harassment

Erlick shared with Inside Higher Ed a number of messages that she said she’d received on social media following Walsh’s comments about her. They include anti-LGBTQ slurs (Erlick is a trans woman) and various threats of physical violence.

“Matt Walsh does not care about trans people,” Erlick said. “He is profiting from the moral panic over transness through new followers, advertisers and pageviews. Money, fame and power are his only goals.”

Erlick and some of her followers have accused Walsh of stochastic terrorism, an academic term used (in one sense) to describe the incitement of violence against a target, via mass media and with plausible deniability.

Boston Children’s Hospital, which Walsh has repeatedly accused of “mutilating” children who seek gender-affirming care, also released a statement this week saying that its workers are being harassed and facing threats of violence. Contrary to some reports, the hospital also said, it “does not perform genital surgeries as part of gender-affirming care on a patient under the age of 18.”

Walsh has countered the claim that he is a terrorist, arguing that sharing people’s publicly available contact information isn’t harassment and that criticizing someone isn’t terrorism. Yet Walsh’s actions toward Erlick do arguably fit into a larger pattern that groups including the American Association of University Professors call targeted harassment. Concerns about this dynamic in academe have grown with the rise of websites such as Professor Watchlist, a project of Turning Point USA that seeks to expose “radical behavior among college professors.”

A small 2020 AAUP survey of professors who were the subject of articles in Campus Reform, a news website with goals similar of those of Professor Watchlist, found that 40 percent were subsequently threatened with harm, including physical violence or death. An additional 10 percent received hateful or harassing messages, often over email.

As targeted harassment has the potential to chill free expression, the AAUP views it as a threat to academic freedom. And while Erlick is a graduate student, the AAUP has long held that graduate students—not just faculty members—have a right to academic freedom.

Erlick told Inside Higher Ed that “Walsh is not only attacking trans people but also free speech itself. He is attempting to silence those who support trans youth. Claiming the university has the power to punish me for online activities opens a milieu of possibilities for suppressing the speech of academics. Walsh is sending a clear message by attempting to have me removed from my Ph.D. program: those who support trans people in academia are fair game for attack.”

The graduate director for Erlick’s department, feminist studies, responded to an interview request but said he needed Erlick’s consent prior to an on-the-record conversation. He did not respond to a subsequent request for comment.

Erlick’s research centers on transgender politics. Asked about it, she said, “My dissertation project, ‘Disrespectability Politics,’ discusses groups that reject moralistic appeals to power in favor of undermining authority. Many of the groups I study are trans people that find ways to autonomously support one another.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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