Archive for October, 2008

Is It Worth It?

October 26, 2008

(A helpful reminder — care of teachushistory.org — that this ain’t the first revolution.)

For anyone out there wondering: Fagbug was a huge success.  We had nearly 50 people attend (significantly trumping our previous record attendance of seven), our academic dean apparently teared up talking with Erin, and Erin herself blogged that it was “one of the most powerful days” she’s had in awhile.  It was pretty powerful from my perspective, too.  The weeks leading up to last week’s two events haven’t been easy ones, as readers of this blog well know, and I’ve found myself asking the “Is it worth it?” question more often lately than I would like.  The sponsor for the GSA has apparently been asking a similar question (about whether she hurt me, in encouraging me to resurrect this group from the dead).  I don’t think either of us realized what we were taking on when we first set out to do this, and now that we have a better sense of the battle, we struggle trying to weight that against the tiny revolutions we’re seeing on campus, to determine which wins out: the progress or the pain.  And actually, more than the notion of taking something hurtful and turning it into something good, and more than the specific issues of hate crimes and homophobia, that question — “is it worth it?” — is what struck me, spending that Thursday with Erin.

One of the hardest things to grasp about Erin’s story is that its outcome (to the extent that it has one, yet), is so complicated.  Her own community, back in Albany, has largely turned against her.  Even as she gained support internationally, she was losing it back home.  The majority of the people leading the “boycott” against Fagbug were at one time friends of Erin, and if I remember correctly, 99% of the negative response has come from within the gay community, not the rest of society.  Watching the bits of her film that she shared with us, listening to her speak, and talking with her more personally throughout the day, I found myself wondering more and more whether she felt it had been worth it.  It was clear, despite her commitment to the cause, that what she’s done and continues to do has taken a toll on her, has worn her down in some regards, and it was hard for me to see that.  Although I hesitate to think I’ve been through anything close to what she’s experienced, I feel I can relate to some extent.  My choice to restart the GSA, like her choice to continue driving the Fagbug, has had some fairly serious and “uncomfortable” consequences, and as many reasons as I have to love my university, I often consider transferring almost solely because, as a queer person, I feel so out of place.  Each time, people push me to remember the positive changes I’m helping to enact here, but it’s difficult — sometimes — to believe that social progress is worth such personal loss.  Is it worth being tokenized, ostracized, misunderstood, or simply mis-fitted?  Is it worth having my college experience transformed, even partially, into a battle to drag my school kicking and screaming into the 21st century?  More often than not, when professors or staff here attempt to suggest I have a responsibility to stay and help the community progress, I shake my head and struggle to explain that isn’t what I set out to do.  I came to school for the same reasons anyone else would: to go to class, to learn, to meet people, to have a social network, to further challenge and become myself.  Revolution, with all its casualties and mess, was not on my to-do list.  So, is it worth it?  Is this revolution worth my loss?  Is Erin’s?  Or anyone’s?

More and more, what I realize — at least for myself — is that there’s no existant answer to that question.  The initial choice — to start the GSA, in my case — was a relatively long time ago, and many other choices (and unexpected consequences) have sprung out of it.  There’s no way to look back now and wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t done that, because so many “thats” have taken place.  I would have to break it down to every meeting, every person we’ve involved, every event we’ve held, every argument we’ve made about why to hold them, and further even than that, further than I can conceive here to dissect things.  Even if it were possible to imagine, clearly, what my life would be if I had done things differently — gone to a different school, re-closeted myself for college, been less vocal than I am — there’s no weighing the gains against the losses, life after against life before, or the university’s progress against my own sense of angst.

The more I think about it, the more I think my desire (or any “radical’s” desire) to second-guess such choices is a critique of the wrong issue.  I think what we’re experiencing, actually, is not the result of poor decisions, but a problem of poor alternatives.  As I told Erin after she left, as grateful as I am for what she’s doing, and as much as I admire her for keeping at it, it makes me sad that she’s been presented with a situation that calls for it.  It bothers me that there’s any reason for us to keep fighting this battle, to keep sacrificing our personal needs in favor of public ones, or ignoring public ones to take care of our individual selves (as we have every right to do.)  It’s not that the battle isn’t worth it; it’s that the issue isn’t worth being an issue.  Fighting homopobia is a valid cause, but continuing homophobia (for instance) is a mantle that should long since have been given up.  Until it is, the individual suffering that corresponds with a battle for change, has to continue.  The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s the problem, not our attempted solutions, that are really wrong.  For me, that’s reason to continue the fight, but it’s also reason to be vocal that this is a choice no one should have to make.  We should not live in a society that’s so divided, that presents us with choices like “college or social acceptance,” “community or increased awareness.”  Like any good multiple-choice test, we need that final option, that additional alternative marked “all of the above.”

Advertisements

So Much Racket, Something Out of Kilter.

October 5, 2008

I promise I don’t hate my university nearly as this and other recent entries might make it sound.  Still, I’ll admit that there are times a private, Catholic school in the Midwestern heartland strikes me as the worst decision I could have made (although my choices were admittedly limited.)  In those moments, which often revolve around such goings-on as what I have now officially termed “the Fagbug bullshit,” I tend toward a desire to flee.  I had another such moment this past week, which resulted in a bit of a meltdown and required one hell of a pep talk from a favorite professor, who was thankfully able to convince me that the good I do on this campus more than balances out the harm done to me.  In all honesty, the good done to me outweighs the harm as well, but when I’m being forced to read a New Yorker article based entirely on gag-inducingly repulsive gender stereotypes (not for a gender studies class, mind you, but for a writing class) and when I’m receiving word that the campus may not have enough time to “process” and “recover from” Erin Davies’ speech before the next GSA event we want to have (featuring AVEN’s own David Jay), I start to lose my mind a little.  I filed an unofficial complaint with the professor about the article (which advocated pain for the sake of fashion, threw in a 98-pound adult woman presumably just for good measure, and in general contributed to — instead of challenging — the rephrensible practice of teaching women they are ugly and worthless, so that they’ll be more comfortable trying on shoes than other clothes, and learn to feel “valuable” by buying more, specifically if the “more” in question is a dumptruck full of designer stilettos).  Although he initially blew me off (while pretending to agree with me in part), the professor (who’s notorious for sticking to his original arguments and never, ever giving in) actually conceded the article’s repulsivness after I once again took it apart in class.  Sexual stereotypes appall me almost as much as their acceptability in our current cultural climate, and I said as much.  I can’t see how an article based entirely on gender stereotypes is allowed to stand, when an article based on racial stereotypes or religious stereotypes would be reamed immediately.  My professor’s initial argument was that there are plenty of women who love shoes, who will pay exorbitant fees to own more of them, and who really do base their value on such things.  The notion, apparently, is that because this exists we’re not allowed to question why it exists or to question why it’s allowed to continue.  Instead, as a feminist, I’m supposed to consider myself an anomole and move on with my crazy-divergant lifestyle.  I don’t think people realize how offensive that is.  I may not cling to gender or to “doing gender” as much as many other young women I know, and I may hate the binary with a passion.  Regardless, I do still identify as a woman, and I do still have an echo of Sojourner Truth in my head when I’m told that the term “woman” generally (and therefore “really”) means all of these things I am not.  An article in my school newspaper this week, discussing what male students and female students consider necessary for their dorm rooms, confirmed the same hypothesis.  According to said article, I am neither female (obsessed with clothes) nor male (obsessed with video games).  I am somehow less representative of my gender than my female classmates, because unlike many of them, I do not conform to the norms.  Apparently, gender is defined quantitatively.  If enough people agree to a definition of women, it no longer matters how destructive that notion of womenhood is; it becomes the legitimate defintion.

I cannot be the only person who thinks this is lame.

It’s actually the same thing I find bothering me (most) with the fights for our GSA events this year.  I’m increasingly hearing from people behind the scenes that, in spite of how much we’re actually *supported* by the administration, the real concern is that the events will upset/ offend someone outside the school and as a result, the school will end up in hot water politically or (perhaps worse) lose funding.  I understand this argument so much better than the bullshit excuses they keep trying to give me.  I understand the fear of people losing jobs, of bad press for the university, or decreased resources to serve the students, faculty, and staff.  I really do.  I don’t understand the notion that our events are somehow more “controversial” than a hundred other things that are allowed to take place on-campus, or that a flyer advertising them will upset some unidentified member of the student body.  Am I not a student?  Are my friends and the other group members not part of the student body?  Are the faculty and staff who attend our meetings and our events, who write us letters of support, somehow less representative of this campus than those who conform to the notion of what it means to be Midwestern, or Catholic, or of a certain age?  Of course not… which is why they should just drop the smokescreen, admit it’s about money, and quit trying to pass off the significantly more offensive lies.

I’m extremely bothered by the notion that only conformists are allowed to be representative.  If, by diverging from a gender norm, I sacrifice my right to claim that gender-label, how does the definition of that label ever change?  We could have a million women defining that identity differently than the New Yorker is defining it, but “woman” would still be based in the stereotypes, because to so many people, feminists, (self-identified or otherwise), are somehow not “real” women.  And to “improve” things even further  — (can you hear the sarcasm?) — those of us who dismiss (even partially) those gender norms are considered somehow free of their influence.  For the same godawful writing class that assigned the New Yorker piece, we had an in-class reading about the purse, — its history, its sociological and psychological meaning, and so forth.  The claim at the end was that women were tending to use purses less (at the time the article was written), and that this represented some sort of sexual freedom, or perhaps more accurately, freedom from gender roles.  I consider this conclusion worthy of a whole-hearted eye-roll.  Even if you could prove to me a statistically significant correlation between how often women use a purse and their decision to reject or accept gender norms, I don’t think you can claim that the decision to reject those norms represents freedom.  As someone who rejects at least a handful of those norms on a daily basis, I don’t think the rejection itself is a full enough definition of freedom.  Internal freedom is powerful, but to some extent, I think freedom does require external approval, acceptance, or at least tolerance as well.  A woman in a culture that observes Purdah might feel internally free enough to socialize with men, but that internal freedom will not protect her.  Likewise, a woman at my college might feel internally free enough not to shave her legs or not to wear a shirt during a sports practice, but this will not provide her real immunity to the consequences of such actions, which can range from raised eyebrows and ostracism to action on the part of the school.  In my experience, the rejection of sex and gender norms does not automatically translate to a release from them.  As often as not, the result is instead a constant battle between personal choice and public environment, between one’s own understanding of the world and the conditioning that world provides.

There’s a marvelous passage in Megan Seely’s Fight Like a Girl speaking to the issue:

I believe that there is a special type of pressure for self-proclaimed feminist women.  We understand nonfeminist-identified women strugle with self-image — look at our culture!  Diet fads, personal trainers, and cosmetic surgery.  Between 4 and 20 percent of college-age women are estimated to have an eating disorder, and approximately 80 percent of fourth graders are dieting — they’re nine years old!  But feminists don’t recognize themselves in those statistcs — we’re the ones who know the statistics; we’re not supposed to be part of those statistics.  And so we continue to harbor the secrecies of our betrayal. 

Seely is speaking specifically to the social pressure on women regarding appearance, and as a feminist-identified woman in recovery from an eating disorder, her specific observation rings true for me.  However, I think the basic notion remains true even generalized to other populations and/ or other sex and gender expectations.  Even when we firmly step away from what’s expected of us, even when we “claim our freedom” from stereotypes we find harmful or simply not genuine, rarely (if ever) can we manage to escape their scope of influence fully enough to no longer feel their impact.  Whether I’m in tears of frustration over once again seeing in print an argument I know is harming women, or in tears of defeat over not measuring up to standards I’ve long since recognized as flawed, the emotion testifies that I have not fully escaped.  And since those of us who would like to escape the system cannot manage to do so, we continue to fight to reconstruct it, to see it dismantled and improved.  This becomes significantly more difficult, however, when we’re not seen as one with the population that we’re still a part of and that we’re attempting to protect.  If I’m not seen as a woman because I own only three pairs of shoes, if I’m seen as free from sex and gender stereoytpes because I just as often stuff my pockets as carry a purse, then how can I argue that this system is hurtful for women?  “Plenty of women,” I’ll be told “are fine with it.”  And my own experience will be dismissed.

But I am no less of a woman than my purse-toting peers.  I’m no less of a student than my homophobic classmates.  And I’m no less of a feminist for the pain I still experience, living in this environment.  I’m a feminist lesbian student at a Midwestern Catholic university, and I will  represent.  (Because I struggle to know what else to do and because, when you represent, things sometimes happen: Both Erin and David will be speaking on my campus this week.)