Posts Tagged ‘homophobia’

Speaking Up About the Silence.

April 17, 2009

dayofsilence-0218

Photo Credit: George Sakkestad, Los Gatos Weekly Times.

There’s not really any easy way for a queer kid to say this, but nevertheless, I somehow ended up admitting it (repeatedly) today.  So, here we go again.  My name is Willendork, I’m a proud member of the LGBT community, and… well… I basically hate the Day of Silence.

“Hate” may not be the appropriate word.  Maybe something softer, like “disagree with” or “question” would suffice.  I certainly don’t align myself with the actual hate-groups, the ones pressuring school boards to mandate GSAs not participate in the Day of Silence and refusing to acknowledge the bullying and other acts of marginalization with which LGBT students must contend.  I’ve participated, however hesitantly, in the Day of Silence for the past two years, (although my actual silence has not yet lasted past midday).  And I’ll admit that last year, my sense was that this silence, taken up by a community to draw attention to a cause, felt very different than other, less liberating brands of silence to which I’ve been accustomed.  However, this year, my reservations around the Day have returned, and developed further, and as I’ve started voicing them, I’ve come to realize that others — perhaps many others — share my perspective.

Here’s the short version of my problem:  I view silence as the enemy.  Silence is a byproduct of marginalization, an outcome of oppression; it’s a characteristic of the closet, a key tool in sweeping groups of people out of public discourse.  It’s disempowering.  In the context of my ridiculously conservative university, silence is the norm.  Here, if the LGBT-identified persons and their allies fall silent for a day, one of two things happens.  Either no one notices, or they notice only long enough to breathe a collective sigh of relief.  The overall sense, at my school, when students commit to the Day of Silence is not “OMG, crazy radical protest, how can we allow this?!1!!1” but rather, “Oh, thank heaven, we don’t have to listen to them today.”  Far too many days pass here without anyone challenging heterosexism, homophobia, and LGBT invisibility (or inaudibility).  Given this environment, queers who embrace silence aren’t particularly radical.  We’re simply maintaining the status quo.

Now, I understand the arguments.  I understand that silence a group takes on by choice differs from silence forced, coerced, or created without its conscious consent.  I understand that the Day may “take back” silence in much the same way that the community has worked to take back hate-speech like “dyke,” “queer,” or “fag.”  I know that the Day recognizes the victims of bullying and other hate crimes, and it’s customary to recognize lives lost (and lives negatively impacted) through a moment (or more) of silence.  I understand the vigil-like quality of what we’re doing, the connection to a history of non-violent protests for social justice.  I “get” it, or at least — I think I do.  But I question it, nevertheless.

On the one hand, the actual silence involved in the Day of Silence is increasingly “supplemented” with other tactics to draw attention and raise awareness.  People have begun to sport t-shirts, buttons, and ribbons to identify themselves as participants (or supporters).  Groups have added “Breaking the Silence” events that take place at night, balancing out the silence with discussion, with noise.  I think these ideas are fantastic (and necessary), but I think they’re effective in part because they do what silence cannot.  They speak up.  A visual marker says, “Hey, look at me!  Stop ignoring me.  Take note!”  It doesn’t wait for someone else to initiate conversation.  It doesn’t fall into the background.  It’s actively visible.  Silence is an inaudible protest.  It requires other people to shut up and listen, without in any way pushing them to do so.  It has no inherent means of making itself heard.  And when it’s asked why it exists, or called stupid (or, well, “gay”) it can’t explain itself. 

All of this can (and is) being worked around, but what I keep returning to this year is a sense that the Day of Silence not only re-creates a fundamental tool of LGBT oppression, but it inherently limits itself to a one-day movement.  While people who participate in the Day of Silence may taste the sense of community, and the power involved in taking a stand together, they learn nothing about how to continue fighting for progress.  A march, a rally, a day spent lobbying — all of these things teach individuals to stand up and be visible.  To insist on being noticed.  To, (as Harvey Milk suggested), never take an elevator in city hall.  Silence does not.  It cannot, on any other day of the year, be replicated to support the cause.  An alternate protest, centered on making noise, (verbal or visual), could.  It could jumpstart the kind of vocal participation that needs to take place on a daily basis, to make sure homophobia and heterosexism are challenged, and LGBT people are not invisible.  If the goal of the Day of Silence is really to raise the question on those buttons — “what are you doing to break the silence?” — then why do we begin by participating in it?  Why do we annually pool our energy and contribute to the very thing we’ve decided to fight against?

During the hours I spent silent today, I kept imagining myself making noise.  I imagined attaching bells to my clothing, transforming myself into a walking musical instrument.  I fantasized about the way even my slightest shift in posture, while sitting in class, would suddenly demand attention.  I daydreamed about walking across campus and turning heads.  

Turning heads is difficult for me.  Attention is complicated, and — in an unsupportive environment — often painful.  But it’s also necessary.   We can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, and we can’t somehow remodel that house into a livable queer space.  (Especially if we’re unwilling to look at how we’re complicit in maintaining it.)  If we’re allowing our activism to be non-apparent, we’re allowing ourselves to be swept out of sight.  If we take ourselves out of the discourse, we lessen our power to change it.  And if we, as a community, are teaching young queers to stay silent, who can we expect to help them find a voice?

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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.”

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).

Rainbow Brite vs. The (not-so) Religious Right.

June 22, 2008

Walking in San Jose this evening, my uncle, aunt, mom, and I ran across a handful of people protesting.  It barely occurred to me to blink an extra time when I heard the main mouthpiece of their effort repeatedly remind passers-by that Jesus had cured the lepers, or when he urged everyone in the surrounding square to repent.  I may not put much stock, personally, in the concept of “sin,” but I have enough close Christian friends to not find public reminders of our (relative) freedoms of religion and speech too irksome.  Only when we passed behind the protest and I caught sight of the back of the speaker’s sign, which clearly read “Homo Sex is a Sin” did something in me start to swell with anger.  My uncle, who has been in a poor mood these past few months, commented that he was grateful the restaurant we were heading to wouldn’t force us to directly view these “assholes” during dinner, and then – because he apparently has not yet recognized that my personal speech habits would quite often cause sailors to blush – he apologized to me for his language.  I pointed to the quote on the back of the picket sign and said plainly that, if he wanted to call these particular people assholes in my presence, I would not take offense.

I don’t know why exactly homophobia bothers me more at certain points than others.  To be honest, it still angers me far more often than it doesn’t; I have yet to cultivate the level of cynicism that would lead me to expect it or the level of Zen acceptance that would lead me to dismiss it without sudden budding negativity.  (I’m not suggesting this is entirely a bad thing.  As a rule, cynicism is not something I attempt to cultivate, and generally speaking, I consider it a sign of conscience that prejudice pisses me off.)  I think, however, that part of my sudden wish for a megaphone in that moment (either to recite the spoken-word piece I’m currently working on, which is based on my need to tell off a – thankfully adjunct – social policy professor who once told my class she “could not support” gay and lesbian foster parenting … or simply to beat the shit out of these people with any available blunt object) stemmed from where we were: a California arts district.  I wonder to what extent my anger today reflects the fact that I do, on occasion, like to pretend that I live not in Actual California, where the Terminator can be elected Governor and a fifteen-year-old can be brutally assasinated in a computer lab by a homophobic/ transphobic classmate, but rather the Hypothetical California I learned to believe in growing up in the Midwest.  Hypothetical California, I imagine, exists only over the rainbow; it’s a place where progressive politics are not only the majority but the standard starting point.  It’s a politically active queer utopia, accepting without exception and absolutely diverse (minus, of course, the conservative end of the spectrum).  As someone only spending her second summer in the area, I can – curled up in the comfort of my own social circles – occasionally pretend this is the actuality of California.  …Until I take a walk with family down a public sidewalk and am slapped with a reminder that, even an hour south of San Francisco the weekend before Pride, homophobia is an unavoidable reality.  Perhaps not the only reality, but a reality neverthetheless.

Obviously, I’m not unacquainted with homophobia.  Although I have the good fortune of coming from an unexceptionally liberal nuclear family that basically responded to the Big Announcement of my lesbianism with an overall chorus of, “right, but what was the Something Major you wanted to talk about?” and – as a campus activist – repeatedly benefit from the (otherwise annoying) fact that my generation, minus their budding support of Obama, appears to be the most apathetic bunch of people on the planet, I haven’t exactly managed to avoid the reality that homophobia still runs rampant in society and that it often disguises itself as religion.  (I did, somewhat accidentally, attend a Catholic university.  I do have an extended family that considers “love the sinner, hate the sin” the hallmark of tolerance and prays every Sunday for my speedy recovery from, you know, loving people with the wrong chromosomal pair.)  Still, every time I encounter homophobia, I respond like it’s some new beast, or rather an old one I thoroughly expected would be extinct by now, and after the fury cools (or starts transforming itself into material for the next short story/ slam/ et cetera), I’m left confounded by the fact that people are still holding onto this.

I’m left, also, to wonder if this constitutes perhaps the slightest fraction of my resistance to adopting “asexual” as a self-identifier.  I spent a lot of time, as I considered coming out, wondering why exactly I wanted to, and realizing that – in a few, specific cases – I very much did not  wish to inform people of my asexuality.  I knew, in those cases, that it would lead that person to assume celibacy on my part, and while that’s not an inaccurate assumption, it was not a card I wanted them to hold.  I’ve been told on occasion – though not directly by these aunts and uncles – that I would be allowed to bring a girlfriend to the homes of certain relatives only on the condition that we played ourselves off as platonic.  I have attended more than one (otherwise blissful) family gathering (on the other side of my particular genetic tree) where multiple relatives talked lovingly of my cousin’s close “friend” (and, you know, decades-long partner and co-parent of two beautiful hounds.)  I know that in that world – where people pray at least a rosary a day, regularly attend pro-life marches on Washington, and declare Hurricane Katrina a necessary attempt by God to purge Louisiana of the wrong kind (read: shade) of people – the knowledge that I have yet to sleep with and may never sleep with a woman, despite the fact that I will proudly and repeatedly declare myself a lesbian, would be taken as a significant victory.  Perhaps I can still be saved.  Perhaps, I will never fully commit to a straight lifetyle, but at the very least, I will not act upon the sin of my orientation.  (What’s that theological bullshit about it being okay to be gay as long as you repress it entirely?  You remember, surely.)  In the face of that kind of prejudice, it’s all I can do to keep from creating a thoroughly promiscuous alter-ego, who makes it her mission to seduce the sweet, straight Christian girls who attend her college in order to “lie with” them every Sunday evening when she should be at mass repenting. 

Lie, indeed.  Because it is a lie, obviously.  I am, in actuality, much closer to the kind of lesbian my extended family and the rest of the homophobic population can pretend to accept.  And in actuality, I’m compelled to be this person openly, to not pretend a different kind of lesbianism in order to drive home a point.  I don’t want my life to be their teaching tool; I simply want my story as my truth – and yet… I refuse to be accepted because I have seemingly sacrificed the sexual aspect of my orientation for the sake of their acceptance in this life and “God’s” in the next.  So for the moment, I keep the reality of what I (don’t) do in bed private, and allow the hypersexualization so typical to that perspective to force them toward accepting something I technically am not.  I allow them to misunderstand my sexuality because it forces them to encounter my politics, and if I only get to have one sentence on the subject I prefer to replace “I’ve never f*cked a woman” with “homo sex is not a sin.”

ETA: These beautiful pictures from protest-protesters.