Rage and Safe Spaces in Fall

A Tale of Rage, satisfaction denied  (scroll down for outfit shots)
Once a year, my institution organizes an academic recruitment evening to which high school students are invited. Faculties and the programs and departments therein are required to set up and staff booths on this night, and then hand out pamphlets and other paraphernalia to encourage prospective students to declare us as their major when they get here next year. Usually, those of us who staff booths – and we know I have to do it every year, right? My program is teensy, so all full-time faculty are needed to staff our booth for the night – end up talking as much to parents as to teens.

Bear with me, people. I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

As you can perhaps imagine, in this age of job-training degrees and widespread post-feminism, Women’s and Gender Studies seems like a tough sell [*insert apology for consumerist language*]. But I’ve developed a spiel that includes, among other things, a list of jobs our graduates have gone on to do (lawyer, medical doctor, social worker, youth worker, international relations internship, university professor, etc., etc.).

I’d just finished the part where I talk about understanding and addressing the root causes of violence against marginalized and racialized groups, including First Nations people (women in particular), migrant workers (especially women, again), and gay, lesbian, transgendered, transsexual, and bisexual people. I began my brief outline of the research specialties of our faculty, which include examinations of issues directly related to same-sex desire, particularly lesbian people. At this point, the Semi-Interested Mom (SIM) to whom I was speaking interjected and we had the following ridiculous exchange:

SIM: Is that a big part of your classes?

A-Dubs (confused, suspicious): Is what a big part of our classes?

SIM: You know – that. How much of course time is taken up with that.

A-Dubs (thinking how I’m going to make her say “it”): Are you referring to issues related to same-sex desire and lesbian people?

SIM (besting me at this game): Yes. That. How much class time?

A-Dubs (smugly): An average amount. We try to talk about sexual desire in many contexts in order, for example, to understand and address cultural forces that prevent people (especially women) from leading full and satisfying lives.

(awkward pause; SIM gives me a dubious look; I try to think what to say next)

A-Dubs: So, it sounds like you’re alluding to the stereotype of feminists as man-hating, humourless separationist lesbians who set out to colonize unsuspecting young women, brainwash them, and thus transform them into man-hating, humourless lesbians who’ll revile and judge their parents, especially their mothers, for the rest of their lives. Is that it? 

SIM (without irony): Yes, exactly!

A-Dubs: Huh. (pregnant pause)

That’s not at all what we do. We’re NOT here to make your daughter into a lesbian. But we ARE here to support her, and we work to protect her and others from real or symbolic violence resulting from hers or others’ expressions of real sexual desires. For example, we work to understand and prevent the homophobic bullying that has caused so many child and teen suicides lately – like that one we heard about on our city news last week.

(I rattle on about anti-violence and valuing people, thinking I’m totally convincing her that Women’s and Gender Studies is awesome. She nods periodically, then interjects, again.)

SIM (big exhale, as though relieved): Well, that’s OK, then. I’m glad I asked because, you know, it could go either way.

A-Dubs (incredulous): You mean some departments would try to make your daughter a lesbian? That way?

SIM (knowingly, vaguely): Yes. It can go either way.

A-Dubs: No. It really can’t, and it doesn’t.

~~~~~~
We went back and forth a little more in an unfunny “She said/She said” kind of way. Ultimately, she walked away, MAYBE convinced that the version of WGS at my institution is PERHAPS an exception to the rule she “knows.”

And I felt enraged, once again, at this evidence of the kind of dull, conservative, heterosexist and homophobic thinking that kills people’s kids, kids like the ones I see in my classes all the time. Kids like the one who recently wrote (in an assignment) that her WGS course is the only space in which she ever feels safe.

What kind of a ghoulish culture seeks to avoid and/or eliminate even these moments of safety, especially for its most marginalized members?

Teaching Outfits, worn while trying to establish, as much as I possibly can, safe classrooms:
#1.

Rose-printed black polyester tunic: Winners (new to blog)
Black puffed-sleeve cotton cardigan: Kensie (via The Bay, new to blog, but sooo old)
Studded black and brown leather belt: Mexx (remixed)
Black poly-rayon dress capris: NYC (via The Bay, new to blog, but also old)
Brown/black textured knee-highs: Hue (via Winners)
Black patent leather shoes: Clarks Artisan (via Shoe Heaven, remixed)
One-armed shoe-highlighting pose: stupidly difficult to achieve, even in this awkward iteration
Wonder Woman Pose: a timeless classic, especially here at IPF

#2. Velvet, tree bark, and fallen leaves look awesome together, n’est-ce pas?

Plum cotton velvet jacket: gifted from A-Dubs-Hubs ages ago (new to blog)
Black cotton T: H&M
Printed black cotton pleated skirt: Roxy (remixed)
Riding Boots: Aldo (remixed)
Ineffective boot-highlighting pose: just for you, StyleNation (and for the love of boots)
Have you any suggestions, StyleNation, 
for things I could have said to Semi-Interested Mom? 

33 thoughts on “Rage and Safe Spaces in Fall

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  4. Well, my 17 year old son goes off to university next September and I'm only reading course catalogs since he'll be majoring in the same subject I did, 30 plus years ago.You gave her a mature, informative response — at least she cares enough to ask, which means she might be open to  consider learning more.I did a Women's Studies course all those decades ago, and it was an eye opener.   The professor was a lesbian separatist (self proclaimed) and the course was dull as can be.  I lasted two months.  There was no cirriculm (gah I can't spell anymore) and there was a political agenda far beyond what you described to SIM.  It's good to hear that things have changed.

  5. D-Med, I just posted this same thing in response. I'm catching up on posts, been a crazy few weeks. It scares me to think that these kids have no actual skills any more. When we see them on the graduate side of things they are so lost because there is no one holding their hands. I had a guy in my office yesterday who sat down with his laptop and started filling out his grad admissions application because the application supposedly told him that he would need to ask me several questions. First, he was filling out the undergrad admissions application. Second, I have had 400 applicants for Fall 2012 who haven't needed me to help them fill out the application step by step. I ended up asking him to leave and pointing him to the directions on our website, that I wrote while filling out the dang application so I could give the kids step by step account of what they need to do. *sigh*

  6. Oh my gosh, these replies are awesome! My dad worried about my undergrad studies: double major in Theater and English, then went back and got a second BS in Journalism. WOO! I'm an academic advisor now so it all worked out. I guess. My dad still worries though.

  7. "An average amount" is the best part of that entire bewildering exchange.  I sigh for her daughter, and am very glad that my dad mostly worried that my post-secondary choices would turn me useless.  (Showed him!)

  8. Yeah. I know you are and wi'll be everything that woman is/was not. Little E is soooo lucky she has you for her mom. I cannot wait to see what she does with your awesome example and support.

  9. As a Fully Interested Mom, I'm so angry at SIM that I can barely type. You have my unwavering respect (which you already had, obvs) for getting through that exchange without becoming visibly enraged.I love the belting in the first outfit, and the fall-season use of cropped pants! I must copy your croppiness post-haste.The second outfit? Just perfectly balanced in every way.I am now going to hug my daughter, who I will love and support no matter what her sexual/gender identities will be, and who can take whatever damn university classes she wants, and find some cropped pants.

  10. Thanks, h.e.! I really, really hope her daughter is a strong-minded, stout-hearted butch lesbian just aching to get away from her mother, enrol in WGS at university, and begin to  make her life awesome.

  11. Oh maude. You win. It is insane to debate evolution. How does one even begin to begin a rational discussion on this topic? Also, skirt 2 makes me think of you. 

  12. I really, really hope so, too. Frankly, it's alarming to me how reticent many of my students are to think about or say "lesbian desire." Feminist backlash plus Betty Friedan's "lavender menace" legacy just keeps on keeping on. 

  13. Nah, she doesn't have kids (she also asked if there was a presidential election this year… which would be in a week if there was – so I don't really value her opinion on things like this).  And we were eating with another co-worker who got both her daughter and son vaccinated, so at least there's some responsible parents out there.

  14. Yeah. It's sad how accustomed I've become to discussing students' education with their helicopter parents. And I share your concern about HPV vaccines. Why wouldn't people want to provide as much protection for their children as possible? Please, tell me your coworker doesn't actually have a child whom she is denying the HPV vaccination! Also, thanks!

  15. Wow, I applaud you for carrying on the conversation with SIM for that long.  Sometimes it just gets so frustrating.  Like D-Med, I wonder where the daughter was.  My mom's not close minded anyway, but I sure am glad she let me make my own choices about my education.  Only semi-related, but it is a women's issue that also frustrated me – I kind of got into it with a co-worker at lunch the other day who didn't understand the need to vaccinate pre-teens against HPV, because why on earth would 9 year old girls be having sex?  9 year old girls may not be, but they could grow into 12 or 13 year old girls who are having sex.  And if they're unfortunate enough to have ignorant parents who are in denial about their children growing up, they may not be prepared, educated or protected.  Then woops, your kid gets a strain of HPV which turns into cancer, and you could've prevented it with a round of shots.Lastly, love how you've paired velvet and tree bark.  The fallen leaves really do tie the outfit together.

  16. There is a lot that is wrong with this–your measured, mature response aside–but I think I'm most bothered by the obvious.  What is this woman doing talking to you at all and where the hell is her daughter?  Shouldn't she be asking about your programme?  When I was visiting prospective schools, I drove myself to them and asked my own questions as did all of my peers.  Our parents were not involved, nor did they want to be as far as I can recall.  I know this kind of helicopter parenting is the latest thing, but this explains a lot about my students' attitude to work and responsibility if students are letting their parents do all of the research and make all of the choices.

  17. I'm a (returning adult) university student who often finds herself frustrated by the huge gulf that separates the way we discuss controversial issues in my classes (in a rational, honest, respectful and informed way), and the way that those issues are discussed in the "real world" (in an irrational, intolerant, and misinformed way).  Your conversation with that parent shows that the gulf can be bridged.  Thank you for the example.

  18. I think you handled this situation really well.  You responded thoughtfully and carefully in a way that might well make that woman — to say nothing of her daughter — begin to rethink some of her assumptions about a variety of things.  Kick-assed-ly done!  As are those outfits.

  19. Reading that story of yours made me feel deja-vu-ish because I've had a nightmare with that scenario.  I, too, commend you, however I've become less ecumenical the last few years and I wonder if I would have just said, "unless you can say 'lesbian desire' then I think this conversation is over." Loved #2 especially.

  20. You have so much patience and kick-assery.  I totally commend how you handled a delicate situation.  Maybe someday the daughter will teach her mum a thing or two.  In the meantime, way to kill, sartorially speaking!

  21. I'm a big believer in leading by example, and I think that's exactly what you did. You explained your position, answered her (ridiculous and unsupported) questions and hopefully gave her something she'll actually think about. And I hope that your attitude is shared by colleagues across departments, so no matter where her daughter ends up she'll be in a safe environment that encourages her to think and question the world around her.

  22. I'm not sure what I would have said, but there is a good chance that her daighter will learn about tolerance in college and the work world, regardless of which major she chooses.

  23. You look fabulous, I especially love skirt #2, and, god, no, I am not sure what to say to those people.  It's like they live in a completely different reality that rationality does not touch.  I'm always worried I'll get one in my classes.  Controversial topic:  evolution.  We have a crapload of them down here on this side of the border; otherwise known as Republicans.  Right now they're obsessed with trying to sneakily legislate away birth control while they'll soon be having riots on their doorsteps if the economic inequity problem we've got isn't improved.

  24. I'm not sure what else you *could* have said. It sounds like you did a reasonable job here – she went away willing to countenance the fact that -some- feminist scholars might not be the feminist!bogeyman; she might not kick up too much of a fuss if her daughter enrols in your courses, or indeed in gender studies elsewhere. It sounds to me like you've done some of the groundwork for the arguments this daughter would spend her college years having with her mother, if she did take up feminism and/or lesbianism. If there's a magic wand for suddenly making mothers Understand Everything, I haven't yet found it, or I'd have waved it at my own mother by now!Also, fantastic skirt!

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