Update on DeSales Homophobia

I first want to thank Elizabeth Rich for commenting on my previous post and highlighting her article on the topic, which I would like to respond to here.

It’s interesting to see DeSales’ view on the matter. We could boil the argument down to whether it is indeed hypocritical for a Christian institute to not openly condemn LGBT students. From all of my research, Jesus emphasized loving your neighbor despite their ‘sins’ and not to judge yourself as better than your neighbor. However, this isn’t just a spiritual argument. This article highlights graffiti of the word “Fag” that was spray painted in one of the dorms on campus. No one was reprimanded or punished for this. It was simply glossed over.

This sort of overt hatred from one student to another should be a red flag to administrators. First off, if someone is bold enough to directly deface an LGBT student’s door, it is not a far leap before they are attacking that student in other ways. To gloss over this issue is to put the student in jeopardy of more attacks, that can very easily escalate. Besides the physical danger to the student, this sort of isolation and dehumanization of LGBT students lead to increased rates of lower grades, depression, and even suicide. If you would like to learn more about discrimination in schools and its effects, I recommend reading some resources including GLSEN’s National School Climate survey from 2009. While the focus is on K-12, the statistics show where these students may be coming from as they enter college, and why such bullying can have such terrible consequences for any LGBT students.

I also want to highlight an Op-Ed penned by a friend of mine, Adrian Shanker, President of the Board of Directors for Equality Pennsylvania. This article talks about how GSA’s are just one part of what makes an inclusive campus, and talks about the many steps a campus actually can take to be inclusive and supportive to their LGBT students. In particular, Adrian highlights that  “graffiti with the word “fag” carries no more a punishment than the word ‘frog’, when the former is a hateful epithet and the latter is not.” I have talked about how powerful the word “Fag” can be, but suffice to say, DeSales failed utterly to do so much as protect the safety of one of their own students by ignoring this.

While a GSA would not, in any way, make DeSales an inclusive campus, it would allow any queer students at the college at least one safe space they can go to and not feel in danger, not feel isolated. Several people have talked about this with me and suggested the LGBT students shouldn’t attend that college at all then. Unfortunately, from my experience, parents can often influence or directly decide what university their child attends. Most 18 year olds right out of high school cannot afford college on their own, so their parents’ often have a strong say where their child goes. I would not be at all surprised to find a fair number of students at DeSales sent their specifically by their Catholic parents in an effort to “fix” or “cure” the child. The students may have little or no say where they go.

I don’t realistically expect DeSales to suddenly turn around and support a GSA. However, I think this is the perfect opportunity for students at DeSales and local allies to highlight that the university is actively and publicly condemning it’s own students; that the university would rather keep to its “antiquated church doctrine” (which actually talks about love and acceptance despite sin, not condemnation) than protect the lives and safety of its own students. If they want to allow physical, verbal, and emotional violence from their students and staff to other students, make that publicly known. As for the students at DeSales, regardless of the outcome, I encourage all of you to get together and create a carpool to visit other campus GSA’s, attend their meetings as guests, and overall just ensure some sort of safe space for the students who need it.

DeSales University Continues Homophobic Policies

Earlier today, I stumbled upon a petition on Change.Org started by some students on DeSales University’s campus. DeSales is one of the most conservative Catholic schools in PA, so it is not surprising to hear of their discriminatory policies. Still, raising awareness is crucial to our struggle. We should not quietly sit by and give groups a free pass to discriminate. If DeSales refuses to even acknowledge LGBT rights as a valid concern, we should make their ignorance and homophobia publicly known. I encourage you all to sign the petition and spread the words to your friends. Below is the response I left when I signed the petition:

 

I am a transgender woman living in the Lehigh Valley, and a recent graduate of Millersville University, where I was the president of the GSA there. Queer student groups allow young, confused LGBT folks just coming to terms with their orientation or gender identity, people who are very likely to be rejected by many of their families and friends. Even if their family does happen to be supportive, these students still have to endure bullying and teasing, curriculum that entirely exclude the contributions of LGBT people, other student groups working actively to make the students feel like terrible sinners, Being so thoroughly and repeatedly rejected while trying to study and graduate is a constant drain on queer students that straight students do not experience. A GSA is a place where these students can gather together, share their experiences, and actively work towards acceptance and equality. This draws the ‘wayward’ queer student in, rather than pushing them out, which leads to isolation, further depression, and a downward spiral that all too often ends in suicide. I understand local religious groups are uncomfortable due to their beliefs, but a GSA isn’t asking them to change that. It is providing a resource, a safe space, to keep the LGBT youth safe, to hopefully prevent any more tragic loss of life. To any DeSales student reading this, it DOES get better!

 

http://www.change.org/petitions/desales-university-allow-each-student-to-be-who-they-are-and-be-that-well

Reaching Out to Build Up Events – Cedar Crest College

Last Thursday, I visited a local GSA, OutThere at Ceder Crest College, an all girls’ school near Allentown. It was such a great experience; it’s the first time in several months that I’ve been involved in a GSA meeting, and it was my first experience with an all woman queer group. I was really amazed by the passion and energy of this GSA, and they were eager to tap into some of my experience as a queer activist, especially with some of the events I’ve helped put together. There are many tips I have to make your group’s event bigger, more powerful, and more visible. Below are just two such tips, both involving reaching out in order to build up your event.

Reach out to Faculty – Hosting a speaker or panel can be one of the best ways to get some real information out there. The hard part is getting a significant attendance at these sorts of events, since they are not as fun and interactive as other events. The sad truth is, while many college students are interested in queer rights and would like to learn, the idea of going to another lecture after being in classes all day can be very unappealing. There are many techniques a group can use to circumvent this. Some examples include advertising heavily, having interesting and passionate speakers, getting the audience involved by letting them ask questions, providing food (pizza works miracles on a college campus), and keeping the length of the event reasonable (If its more than an hour, I’ve noticed interest quickly diminishes). One key strategy to bolster the attendance and get your group well known on campus is to reach out to the faculty. Find classes that are somehow related to the topic of the speech, even if the connection isn’t incredibly obvious at first. If you can explain to the professor how the event is connected to their class, they can tell their class about the event. For instance, while I was at college, I talked to several woman’s studies classes and got them to attend events focused on transgender issues by explaining how gender identity and gender expression were critical in a woman’s right to express however they wanted to. A professor giving just a few extra credit points to their class to attend you event can significantly improve attendance. Not only that, but it may bring in people who previously were not interested nor informed and help educate them. Of course, some of these people will not care and are only there for the grade, but it still exposes them to the queer community and forces them to at least acknowledge our presence.

Reach Out to Other Groups – I’ve talked before about the commonality of oppression, the concept that, regardless of whether you face hatred in the form of racism, misogyny, homophobia, or transphobia you are facing hatred that stems from the same source. That provides a good enough reason to reach out to other diversity based groups (such as the local chapter of the Black Student Union, NAACP, Woman’s Center, any social work groups, etc). There is another reason that is more practical though. If you host an event with, for example, NAACP, where you talk about Black Queer Women in History, the audience you will get will be significantly larger, as you will at least get part of the typical crowd from your events and NAACP events to attend. The impact will be greater than this one event though; it can have a lasting impact on your campus. In my experience on campus, one of the main causes of homophobia or transphobia was ignorance. Building relationships with groups that may not, at first, seem to be related to queer issues is an incredibly powerful way to fight this ignorance by exposing large groups of people in a very safe and comfortable way to LGBTQIA issues while they are surrounded by their peers. Sustain these relationships by trying to send some of your members to events hosted by these other organizations, and make it clear your group supports theirs. You may be surprised to find more of their members attending your group’s event as well.

Before I finish, I wanted to give a personal thank you to all of the members of Cedar Crest College for making me feel like a welcomed member, not just a guest. I’m really glad I came; it really recharged my activism batteries, so to say. I look forward to working with all of you more soon, and I’ll be there Thursday night this week for sure!

Theater to Change the World

Since my last few posts have mostly personal, I have decided to make a more informational post tonight. I’ve been working mostly closing shifts lately, my days usually go from noon-4 AM, thus all the late posts.

While I was a student at Millersville University, I became aware of numerous ways to reach out and connect with people. One tool that I was highly skeptical of was theater. My original Vice President of Allies, Justin Gilmore, pushed me to learn and apply Theater of the Oppressed, affectionately referred to as TotO. Before I go too deeply into it, please emphasize that I do not in anyways speak as the master of TotO, I just speak about my understanding of things.

The concept to start with sounds a bit odd. Use theater to address serious social issues; war, discrimination, racism, homophobia, oppression, etc. However, as I learned more and more about the techniques and as I practiced them, I was surprised how easily it worked. There was one Theater of the Oppressed performance I acted in which I saw someone grasp the entire struggle of the LGBT movement in about 5 minutes, the fastest I think I have ever seen someone have such a rapid revelation.

In the first time through the form theater piece my character, a transgender person who just recently came out and was starting transition, went to a party hosted by her GSA. The rest of the actors were just dividing up to play charades. They decided to split up male vs female. My transgender character was placed in an extremely uncomfortable situation; she wanted to go to the female team, but she knew she looked make and thus would be expected to be on the male team. The character approached the host (who was supposed to be accepting, since the host was a member of the GSA) and explained the situation. The basic gist of the host’s response was “Well, you have a penis, so go on the men’s side.” My character lowers her head an just silently walks to the male team, trying to fake a smile even as her heart is breaking.

This scene shows just how terrible the transphobia that exists not only in the general community, but also in the LGB community is. Even people who consider themselves gay or bisexual often do not accept or outright ignore transgender people. However, the true power of Theater of the Oppressed only starts showing itself in the second run through of the scene. This time through though, a member of the audience is asked how they would resolve the situation in a more positive way than the original character.

The first audience member who volunteered (was coerced, actually) to take the role of the main character was a 6’3 African American man who seemed to be very involved in sports, given his athletic build and his mannerisms. He did not look at all like someone you expect to see at a typical GSA meeting. When we asked what his solution was, he said he would simply tell these people they needed to understand and respect the main character’s gender identity. So he came up on stage and took the role of the main character. When he (playing my character) came to the party and was told he should be on the male team, he responded quickly and assertively “I want to be on the girls team. I’m transgender and I want to be on that team.” At that cue, the other actors imrpoved around my character – since all of the actors were my friends, they knew exactly what not to say to a transgender person, and they said all of these things to the man playing my character. They demanded “Wait so you’re a girl now? But you look SO masculine!” “Did you get surgery? No? Well if you have a penis you’re a guy you know.” etc etc etc. The man’s eyes went wide, he obviously took all of this personally, despite never having questioned his gender identity. “I’m just a normal person!” he practically shouted at the audience. From the look in his eyes, it was obvious he felt discriminated against, dehumanized, just for being different. I saw as he made the connection in his head, how he felt like that was similar to how he must feel when people discrimante and dehumanize him for his skin color.

That is the power that Theater of the Oppressed can have. By putting the people who are usually just the audience into the scene, making the issues I’m talking about their issue. When a person is actually engaging, moving around, and being put into these difficult situations (while knowing, in reality, they are completely safe), they can make connections and actually feel what I am talking about.

Form theater is just one of the tools that Theater of the Oppressed contains, though it is my favorite. Another tool in the TotO arsenal is Image Theater. In this activity, you have the audience members in a big circle around the room, facing inwards towards each other. The person leading the activity says a word or concept, then each member of the audience turns around and closes their eyes. They think of an pose in their mind that represents the word or concept. Everyone is told to turn around with their eyes still closed, they take their pose, and then the host tells them all to open their eyes. This makes sure everyone is equally embarrassed, and no one can be isolated as being weird. The host then facilitates a conversation based on the images people posed as.

I’m going to give an example of  image theater in order to better explain the concept. The host may say “War” as the concept for the image. Someone may take the pose of shooting a gun; another person may lie on the floor, pretending to be dead. Someone may be crying over a lost loved one. People could take the pose of a government leader, a religious leader, anger, hatred, jealousy. There are so many images that can be presented. The host would then lead a conversation about how these diverse images are united, and explore the many facets of war without having to lecture at people for hours.

While it is unconventional, Theater of the Oppressed has proven to be an extremely useful tool to activate change. This tool is great for a huge range of audience, they all serve as great icebreaker games, and its an amazing way to get people talking. Its most effective asset in my opinion is its ability to put an outsider in the shoes of an LGBT person, so much so that person can actually feel what it might be like to be gay or transgender. If you want to know more about Theater of the Oppressed (it has an amazing origin, and there is a big conference for it in July!) please check out the website here: http://www.ptoweb.org/home.html

The “Best” Type of Activism

I often hear arguments about what sort of activism is the most effective, legal, social, or personal. This seems to be a problem for many college GSA’s, but is a huge issue in the older LGBT community. Some people argue that making legal change is the most impactful. Other groups want to focus on helping LGBT individuals one on one to come to terms with their sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, whether through counseling or going out and partying. Still other groups focus on impacting their local community, impacting society in general. Of course, the terminology that is used differs from group to group, but I really feel like they tend to focus on one field the most: the single person, the society/community, or the legislation/institutional level.

However, a good friend, Justin Gilmore taught me something that immediately became imbedded in my mind and my philosophy. While it may seem like three separate ways of doing activism, they are all one. I warn you, the following example is an over simplification to show how my theory about queer activism works. Also, Justin, if you are reading this, I apologize if my paraphrasing is off.

For instance, if I focus my activism specifically on the individual, on counseling, empowering, and educating each person, that person will, hopefully, feel more comfortable expressing themselves, being open and proud of their sexuality, rather than being closeted and shy. If every member of my group is out and proud, there will be an impact on my immediate community. They will notice dozens of people being out, hosting events on our campus, waving their rainbow flags, and/or holding their rainbow umbrellas. The people who are out will  educate people around them about what it means to be LGBT, why it is not something to be afraid of, and how other members of society can become allies (You cant think gay people are big scary monsters when you meet face to face with a normal, well adjusted LGBT person). If these people being out and proud make an impact on our community, legislators against us will not be able to say “There are no gay people in my constituency” (which every single politician against gay rights, from my senator here in PA to the president of Iran) and legislators who wish to support us will be able to push for bills of tolerance and acceptance, since more people in their constituency are supportive of gay rights.

This also works in reverse. If my focus is on lobbying, getting legislation passed, working at the institutional level, and for instance I get a non-discrimination bill passed in my county (which is, essentially, a bill saying I cannot be fired/evicted/denied care/etc for being LGBT, something which is extremely rare in PA). Now many LGBT individuals do not have to be afraid of losing their jobs for being out. This allows people who want to be out and proud to be so without fearing losing their jobs, homes, etc. These individuals will make an impact on their immediate communities (Say, for instance if the person in the cubicle/desk next to you who wears a suit and tie every day comes in a dress tomorrow). These individuals were empowered by the legislation we passed. These individuals then make an impact on their society. If the society becomes slowly more accepting of LGBT individuals, perhaps a gay marriage bill can be passed. This will, again, empower individuals.

So this is my view on queer activism. I can understand that some groups find one way or another the most effective way of making change, but I think we can all agree all three forms of activism are important in their own way.

As for how I approach activism, I find I personally work best on the social level. Standing up in front of a lecture hall or on a stage at a rally in front of some big crowd is where I have made some of my strongest impacts. This is just due to the fact I am a good public speaker. However, the work done for instance by EqualityPA is amazing. I would love to do more lobbying and pushing for bills, but right now I know I can make the most impact at the front of an audience.

The Gender and Sexuality Alliance

This is my first post that is aimed at a specific audience – this post will be largely addressed to GSA’s in college and highschool, and the students and faculty who keep these groups going. There is still a lot of good information for others though.

The acronym GSA usually stands for “Gay Straight Alliance,” and it is usually used by the LGBTQIA student groups in colleges and high school. Sometimes these groups are extremely politically active, getting involved in lobbying and social justice movements. Sometimes these groups host a great deal of social events – dances, parties, concerts, and so forth. Other times, the groups focus on the individuals, spending their time discussing issues that matter to the students who make up the group. All of these groups are extremely useful, they all greatly benefit the members and the local community around the groups.

When I became the president of Allies at Millersville University, I was faced with a difficult situation. At that time, I knew I was transgender, but I was still living as a male. Only those closest to me knew that I considered myself transsexual, and I was trying to build the strength to transition. I think, at that time, there were maybe two members of Allies who knew my name, Ashley. I, a female identifying, male bodied person, found myself mildly attracted to women, but mostly, I considered myself asexual. And all of the sudden, I was the leader of a Gay Straight Alliance, despite my own confusion and uncertainty.

But there was a problem with being the head of this group. I didn’t consider myself gay –  most people saw me as male at that time, but I didn’t like men. I knew I wasn’t straight; I wasn’t a normal man, so I couldn’t be in a normal man + woman relationship. I wasn’t an ally either. So I was in charge of the group I felt distinctly removed from. It was difficult.

A year prior to that, I had been at the Keystone Conference (www.keystone-conference.org), and a college-age transsexual woman told me that her college group called themselves a “Gender and Sexuality Alliance.” A year later, that idea suddenly resurfaced. I pushed for it in my GSA, and everyone was incredibly receptive. I think it took us 2 weeks before we switched everything from Gay Straight Alliance to Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

To an outsider, it might not seem like a big deal. The acronym is still GSA. However, there is a huge difference. Calling the group a Gender and Sexuality Alliance portrays a much broader message of understanding and acceptance. Rather than stating “We are gay, straight, and allies,” we state “We are all genders and sexualities, coming together in an alliance, be you straight, cisgendered, gay, trans, bi, or whatever. This makes a massive difference. I was excited at how well the idea went over.

So, to the college and high school students (as well as any supportive staff/faculty) reading this post, take this back to your GSA. Rebranding yourself from Gay Straight Alliance to Gender and Sexuality Alliance allows you to keep the familiar acronym, but it shows muc more acceptance and understanding. The old acronym is so limited, it covers the LGB and Allies part of the acronym, but completely leaves out the TQIA. Making this change is a great way to start to make your group more understanding for the wide range of individuals who may come to your group.

 

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