Posts Tagged ‘college’

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.”

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The Mother Revolution My Catholic School Didn’t Count On.

September 13, 2008

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).

‘Tude of the Prude.

August 7, 2008

Source: Getty Images

Often, when people are looking for the requisite “prude” in the room, I volunteer myself.  Occasionally, people who know me well volunteer me also, but that requires a more expansive definition of prude on their parts than the more common (“frigid, antisexual”) connotations.  After all, as the former vice-president of my school’s GSA once put it, I am, “like, this feminist lesbian activist… prude.”  Well, close.  Technically, I’m a queer-positive/ sex-positive/ feminist/ lesbian/ activist/ prude, but that’s only if you want to get technical about things.  According to mi madre, “prude” does not accurately describe me because I don’t pass judgment antisexual-style; I simply use the term to communicate my own (decreasing but still present) discomfort around explicit discussions of sex.  Mi Madre would prefer I use the term “innocent” (as in, “I am an innocent”), which actually puts me off quite a bit more than “prude.”  In my understanding at least, the term “innocence” minimizes my level of experience, implies that I’m uneducated, and suggests I’m more childlike than my peers, none of which I believe to be true.  Prude, meanwhile, always just makes me think of prunes, and given that “purpled and wrinkly” is a pretty accurate description of how I look during a (non-theory-based) sexual discussion (i.e. *blushcringeblush*), I’ve never really minded that the term is one I have to “take back” from a negative connotation, the way that (to a lesser degree, at least in my social groups), I have to take back “queer.”

My experience as a prude in the (hypersexual) college environment has actually been fairly interesting.  In addition to the constant use of sexual rhetoric by my friends and peers, there’s the added bonus of the psych classes, which are frankly nothing in comparison to all that literary analysis.  The constant reading into language, dissecting symbolism, and reading figurative meanings everywhere, would probably set up a great deal of sexual innuendo even in an environment where it wasn’t already so prevalent as it is on a college campus.  I early on became the girl who could make the world’s most sexually-charged comment while completely straight-faced, simply because it never would have occurred to me to take it that way.

After a semester or two of having to occasionally bury my head in my desk (and vowing I would never again enter a class discussion about any story involving a horse), I stumbled into my current, quite awesome constellation of friends, whose extreme sexual comedy, while never directed at me, left me wanting to curl up into a ball more than once.  They were sweet about recognizing my discomfort, and joking me out of it, but over time, I got bored — not with their discussions, or my role as the prude in those discussions, but with the limit that prude-label, as I’d previously defined it, placed on my ability to participate with my friends.  In the “safe space” of that friendship, I began to play back, intentionally making comments that months before I would have said unconsciously or not at all, and enjoying that comments which were merely a bit of smart, well-timed wordplay to me were so hilarious and shocking to my friends.  I enjoyed making them laugh the same way I would have enjoyed it if the humor were geek-based or lit-based, instead of based in sex, and I enjoyed challenging their notion of me, even as I challenged my notion of myself.

I had a fun conversation with David yesterday, which left me thinking (about nine zillion things, including the idea) that playing with sexual drag or sexual humor not only draws other people into the sexual world — (case and point: David’s example in which he, an out and super-visible asexual person, mentions he “hooked up” with someone the night before, effectively pushing his friends to learn more about his experience and perhaps consider it with weight equal to how they would consider a sexual ‘hookup’) — but also allow an asexual or a-leaning or a-curious (yes, I am making up terms at this point) person access into the sexual world.  This was vital for me, and I imagine that it’s vital for many people who land closer to the asexual than the sexual end of the spectrum, because given that our asexuality (or quasi-asexuality) does not inherently make us less relational, there’s still — at least for large numbers of us — the inclination to hang out, to participate, and to connect with our sexual friends.  Sitting in a corner passing judgment (or even being eeked out by) sexuality doesn’t allow me to do that.  Sitting in the middle of the room, using sexual language to my own advantage, while continuing to set up my own boundaries around what’s comfortable, and subvert both the notion of sexuality and the notion of “prude” in dong so, comes quite a bit closer to allowing such things.  Integral to this, of course, is the importance of maintaining and contuining to communicate my own identity so that I’m not simply “passing,” pretending I’m more sexual or sexually comfortable than I actually am.  I can say, though, that humor has offered me a forum for exploring my own relationship with sex and practicing boundaries with other people around that relationship in a way I can’t or have no desire to explore and practice physically.  The bonus for me is undermining people’s assumptions.  I told David one of my favorite stories of this, which involves a discussion with a (sexual) friend across a computer lab about what on earth I should title the essay I’d written on gardens and sexuality in The Magic ToyshopThe friend responded with a thoroughly non-prudish suggestion, I threw back with an attempt to “one-up” him, and before I knew it was actually handing in a paper entitled “Tending the Bush.”  My professor, filing through the essays, turned red, laughed aloud, and looked at me with a grin.  It took me a minute to even realize what was funny; I’d already forgotten the comedy, but I laughed again with her when I remembered, only to crack up when she — remembering just who she was dealing with — turned back to me to say, “Wait.  Was that intentional?”

Indeed. 

Prude allegedly stems from “proud” — not prune — so in actuality, prude and Pride go quite nicely together, even if the combination does occasionally require more ‘splainin‘ than I’d wish.  Plus, a proud prude can occasionally sit through enough of the Wet Spots to earn a hearty giggle at their goodness.

In Search of the Other Half.

July 30, 2008

In the course of my sister’s wedding festivities, I ended up having lunch at a semi-tasty Mexican restaurant with my sister-in-law, who mentioned a conference she recently attended that talked about the Myers-Briggs personality test, in relationship to one’s professional and personal personas. I think most people are familiar with the test, but sufficeth to say that it categorizes an individual in terms of where they fall on four dichotomies (introversion/ extroversion, intuiting/ sensing, thinking/ feeling, and judging/ perceiving). When you take the test, you end up with a four letter descriptor (perhaps you’re an INFJ like Albus Dumbledore, or an ESTJ like Percy Weasley), which supposedly is unchanging. (Unless you’re me, and vascillate constantly between the J/P poles.) Regardless, what interested me about Sister-in-Law’s experience was a suggestion on the part of the speaker that the 20s and 30s are a time when people often explore the “other” aspect of their personality. So, in Myers-Briggs’s terms, our pal Albus would — as a twenty-something — have been likely to explore extraversion, sensing, thinking, and perceiving, while Percy might have explored intraversion — (would have served him to do a bit more reflecting, sans the narcissism, in my humble opinion!) — intuiting, feeling, and perceiving. (At least, this is true assuming that piratemonkey really has their Myers-Briggs evaluation of the HP characters in order. But for the sake of this explanation, let’s assume they contacted Rowling beforehand, shall we?)

The Myers-Briggs aspect of the discussion interested me less than the notion that in our twenties and thirties we explore the “other” side of our personality (perhaps more consistently than we do in later years). Obviously, there’s a sense that the college years (to some extent, whether one attends college or not) are a time for self-exploration and -definition to the point that “what happens in college stays in college” (e.g. the increased heteroflexibility straight people tend to display, or admit to having displayed, at least “that one time in college“), but the idea that we potentially explore specifically the aspects of our personality that are not as dominant or instinctual in our twenties strikes me as interesting.  Especially when you consider that the twenties and thirties are often considered prime dating years, and thus a time for exploring the relational aspect of self in particular.  Case and point, another personality lens: Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, which suggest that the main struggle for 18- to 35-year-olds is “intimacy versus isolation.”  Because one too many sociology classes has forever destroyed my ability to think solely in terms of the individual, I immediately jumped (upon hearing  about Erikson’s claims in an intro psych class) to social pressure to explore the dating scene and seek out a marriage partner between the time one reaches legal adulthood (18, in the States at least) and the time one turns 35.  I argued that this was not necessarily our main struggle, so much as it was the struggle we were encouraged by our society to be having during this stage, a point I still consider valid and possibly valid in relation to other of Erikson’s stages as well.  My point in this entry, however, was that if, as twenty- and thirty-somethings, we are — for whatever reason — inclined to explore our relational selves, and we are also inclined to explore our “other” selves, then it seems to follow logically that we would consider our “other” relational selves. 

Such a possibility seems increasingly likely in our current culture, which manages a sort of fair-weather queer identity, one that allows a certain (limited) amount of freedom for straight people to experiment with queer experience, even as it remains queer-negative in terms of social policy, religious propaganda, the definition of marriage (even in federally-funded sex “education”), et cetera.  I wonder to what extent this privilege of “flexibility” extends to out queers.  (“Queers” in this case excluding bisexuals, as I’m presuming people who are even rather “rigidly” bisexual manage at least as much sexual flexibility as the most heteroflexible folks among us.)  I know that, linguistically at least, gays have been offered a parallel term in “homoflexible”… and yet, I suspect there’s a great deal more at stake (or at least something very different at stake) for gay people than for straight folks.

For multiple reasons (the ongoing animosity many gays and lesbians feel toward bisexuals, the continued insistence of homophobic people that one’s homosexuality may be “just a phase,” etc) experimentation by queers with ostensibly non-queer relationships is tricky, and I think any bisexual who lands in a committed relationship with a partner of the “opposite” gender can begin to attest to why.  While socially gays and lesbians stand firmly in the realm of the other, an exploration of our personal shadow-side can land us in unfamiliar/ traditional territory.  While self-described “heteroflexible” individuals experiment with a social-other that is also a personal-other, the “homoflexible” individual risks a queer identity rooted in the social-other to explore zir personal one.  If I, as a lesbian, follow an impulse in my twenties to date a boy, the consequences are different than if I, as a straight woman, follow an impulse in my twenties to date a girl.  Similarly, while asexuality — given the resounding message of “fuck you” (or rather, “no thank you”) it sends to the hypersexual culture, which insists sexuality (and sexual activity in particular) are defining aspects of the 20-something existence — lands squarely in the “other” category, the out-asexual exploring their other/shadow self risks increased questioning (by the outside world) of their asexual identification.  Claiming the “asexual” label is a difficult enough move for a celibate person to navigate, but what happens to an asexual experimenting with sexual behavior?  Impressively, from the limited number of conversations I’ve witnessed amongs aces, there seems to be a tendency to support sexual exploration, even when such experimentation isn’t all that understandable to the people doing the supporting.  Whether this is just another reason aces are inherently cool, a glimpse of what the queer community looks like sans politics and phobias, or some combination of the two, I can’t really guess.  But as a not-exactly-asexual person who recently started a blog on sex and has thus ended up “exploring” it quite a bit more than ever before, I can say I appreciate the openness.

I’m a huge fan of queer culture (shocking, I know), so I find it unbelievably lame that — as a result of our persistent biphobia, our fear of having our own identification de-legitimized, or some other need I’m not recognizing at the moment — we continue to try and limit other people’s explorations of their a/sexuality.  Labels, in my view, are ultimately words.  They are seriously fantastic tools for communicating our experiences and attempting to explain the lens through which we most often interpret the world, but when we spend our time polishing (and limiting) the definition of those labels instead of using the labels to define ourselves, we end up unnecessarily constraining not only our own experience but that of other people whom we have no right to hold back.  What’s with the queer-on-queer oppression, seriously?  I honestly think it’s past time that we as a community explored our “other” side.  Do you know the one I’m talking about?  It’s the one where we manage to relate to one another without imposing our own experience onto each other or insisting that this person’s lesbianism look like our lesbianism instead of a third person’s bisexuality.  Words are shorthand for understanding people, after all, and as a community, when we continually sacrifice people (ourselves included) for the sake of protecting those words, we have a serious problem.