Photo Credit: AllOverAlbany.com
Is there such a thing as an unintentional revolutionary? Because, if so, I think I may qualify as an example.
I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned here that I’m president of my university’s GSA; I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that I attend a private, religious institution (despite the fact that I’m neither private — as evidenced by the fact that I blog — nor religious, as evidenced by… many things.) I’ve held that position for over a year now, and I’ve taken significant, rainbow-colored pride in the fact that despite the not-so-gay-friendly stance of this school’s religious affiliation, the GSA has managed (in the way we conduct ourselves) to actually receive quite a bit of faculty, staff, and even administrative support. That’s part of what made it so painful, my first weeks back this semester, when our group came up against significant (unidentified) resistance from the higher-ups about a specific event we had planned (starting last spring) to host in October.
The event is pretty simple: You may have heard of Erin Davies, the woman from Albany, New York whose VW Beetle was vandalized with homophobic (and only borderline literate) slurs — “U R gAy” and “fAg” — on the Day of Silence last year, presumably because she had a rainbow sticker on her bumper. Afterward, she went on a lengthy road trip (graffiti and all), documenting the responses to the car (which one of her friends christened the “Fagbug.”) She’s now created a documentary, submitted it to Sundance, and continues to travel the country, in the car, (which has been repainted rainbow) speaking about homophobia and her own experience of taking something ugly and turning it into something positive. She was profiled on NPR awhile back, which is how my suitemate (who I’m hoping will be vice-president of the GSA this year, if we ever get elections underway) heard of her, and how we ended up contacting Erin about speaking here. She’s been fantastic about working with our lack of budget, et cetera, and we had basically reached a point where all we had to do was fund-raise. Then all of a sudden, when we returned this fall, we began to hear about “concerns” the administration had. Was this event right for our school? Was it against the university’s Catholic mission statement? Did it — gasp — promote homosexuality?
They literally insisted Erin answer whether her presentation “advocated/ condoned sexual activity between members of the same sex” — much to the dismay of our sponsor, who felt that without an answer to that (and other equally horrifying) questions, we didn’t stand a chance of persuading them, but who was understandably hesitant to ask something so blatantly offensive. After my friends, my family, and my therapist — [fight the stigma; acknowledge therapy!] — pushed me to do so, I stayed in the fight, and managed to play it (mostly) cool while doing so, but I’ll admit the first time I heard of that question, I literally burst into tears. There’s nothing quite like having a school where you really do feel you belong (in some odd way) question the legitimacy and the morality of the way you love. It’s further complicated by the fact that I haven’t had sex and don’t presently desire to have sex, so that I’m facing prejudice that’s not actually founded by Catholic teaching. (To clarify: Catholic doctrine — which I know in this instance despite not being Catholic myself — does not actually teach that homosexuality is a sin, but rather that homosexual action is a sin. It’s a split hair in my opinion, and I still recommend people, especially Christians and people who talk to Christians, see For the Bible Tells Me So to help them realize even homosexual acts are not condemned by Christian Scripture, but in spite of the fact that our GSA held a screening of it last semester, too few people have seen it. Note: I have a few issues with this movie, but this entry will never get posted if I go into them, so ask me some time, if you’re curious.) Still, as a not-so-sexual lesbian, there are times when I want to point out to people that their immediate assumption that I identify as lesbian because I have sex with women (i.e. their tendency to collapse my sexuality/ orientation to my sexual habits) is actually prejudice, and they have no right (even based in their religion) to condemn me. I rarely do, however, — partly because I hate discussing my personal (non-)sex life, and partly because I think it’s something of a cop-out. I think LGB people need to be accepted regardless of whether they’re actively sexual. But there are times, like this one, when it’s hard to keep my mouth shut about the fact that I’m not.
There are also times when it is unbelievably hard not to internalize the homophobia. I’ll be straight-up here; I care a lot about what people, particularly those I identify as adults, think of me. I care a lot about the connections I have with faculty and staff here, and when I heard that we were coming up against such strong opposition (for reasons that struck me as so fundamentally stupid misguided, I was incredibly hurt.) My immediate thought (fight or flight? fight or flight? FLIGHT!) was to transfer. I found the insistence of others, along the lines of “nothing will change if you leave” unfair. I did not come here to change anything. I did not come here to challenge anyone or to drag my university kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I came here because after five or six years without attending school — (I left for medical reasons as a sophomore in high school, and spent two or three years after graduation working past the anxiety that was keeping me homebound), — I was desperate to be a part of a community again. I really did feel that I had that here, and I don’t think many non-queer (or non-minority) people realize that when you accept people conditionally, when you accept them in an “all but this one aspect” / “love the sinner, hate the sin” fashion, you steal that sense of acceptance. As much time as I spend questioning my orientation, its morality is not something I question. But I started to as this unfolded. For the first time I can think of, including when I was questioning my orientation before coming out as a lesbian, I really did start to wish for the “easy option” of a straight identity. I did not want to lead a revolution. I wanted to go to class, goof around with friends, and host events with the organizations I’m a part of. I did not want to break the mold.
One problem I have with prejudice is this: Its ability to collapse people works both ways. People hear that I’m a lesbian and they judge what that means. I hear that I’m being judged, and I forget that it’s not by everyone. In those first weeks of fighting, I forgot that not everyone at this school hates me, that we have quite a bit of support from people on-campus, and that the people who really matter to me were the same ones primed to go to the board, to write letters on our behalf, and to seriously raise some hell if the school made the wrong decision. I forgot that just as we never learned who was against us — or who, to put it as they did, had “concerns” about the event — we also didn’t (in all cases) know who our friends were. Even now, when the event has been approved in its entirety, — (whoo!) — making this university the first Catholic institution ever to host Erin and her Fagbug, no one can tell us who made it go away, or why. One professor, who also happens to advise the school newspaper and is pushing that a piece I’m working on (for class) on this topic, be published in an upcoming issue, says it went away because we were right. Others say that we were “professional,” that we kept our cool and made our point well, which is what made the difference. (I told the director of Student Activities early on that I don’t have a problem playing by the rules. I said, with a smile, that I’m “just as capable of winning by the rules,” and I think we proved that well.) My personal favorite explanation is that no administration, no matter how powerful, should ever take on English majors with tattoos. (I’m one of a few in this group.) Hard-core people who can write will take you down. It’s just a given.
In the end, I received an uncharacteristic hug from the belovedly snarky Assistant Director of Student Development, along with a “thank you for educating the administration.” The head of Student Life told me that, with a double major in English and Human Services (read: pre-social work), I am “well-placed.” We have more people planning to attend Fagbug this October than we probably would have had, without the battle. This doesn’t make what happened less unacceptable, and it doesn’t make the hoops we were asked to jump through less discriminatory, but it reminds me of the importance of sticking together in order to stick it out. I’m able to be the unintentional revolutionary because I don’t have to do it alone, because in reality our school (for the most part) is not “kicking and screaming” about coming into the present century. They just need an invitation, written in a way that makes sense to them. They need their beliefs recognized, validated, and expanded, rather than simply kicked to the curb. They need their legitimate fears (such as the bishop’s ability to come in and raise some hell if they step too far out of line) considered, in a way that (as a product of public school not used to giving a shit what the bishop thinks) I’m not always compelled to do. They need to change; I don’t doubt that, but they need to be shown why. Part of what’s most challenging, for me, is to create change in a way that is less hurtful for others than the need for that change is for me. It’s hard, when my right to exist as I am is questioned, not to question their right to be who and how they are.
It’s hard, but it’s not impossible, and it’s a hell of a thing when you hang in there long enough to make it happen.
ETA: Look forward to our rather detailed answers (which are also rather brilliant, in my humble and thoroughly unbiased opinion) to their questions in a future post. I want to share them in hopes that other GSAs and queer-friendly organizations dealing with religious resistance can benefit from the work we put into this. Not to mention an entry more than once a month strikes me as a bonus at the moment (even if I managed two — or at least 1+ — today).