Posts Tagged ‘fagbug’

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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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.)

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).