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