Justin Exists

6 Oct

Last week a former student of mine got assaulted on Augsburg’s campus in Minneapolis, MN for being gay.  He asked me to tell everyone his story, so here it is.  I met Justin in the classroom first.  He did not thrive in a desk, but he is brilliant, and I could tell right away.  He is an amazing actor and play write.  I really got to know him in El Salvador when we spent ten days studying war and poverty there.  He has a capacity and desire to be a change agent in the world that is second to none.  He came out to me the fall of his senior year.  And Justin hit the ground running in college, thriving at Augsburg as he found a community who created room for him to be himself.  Justin is creative, kind and sassy.  I think of him as having an amazing combination of potential and kinetic energy bubbling around.  He is gentle, yet not to be underestimated.

Last week, Justin was hanging out on campus with his friend Sam, who is also gay.  Both men enjoy playing with and smudging gender lines.  Four men approached them, one more aggressive than the others, taunting them and calling them faggots.  Justin simply asked, “Do you know what faggot means?”

Definition: a bundle of sticks, twigs, or branches bound together and used as fuel, a fascine, a torch, etc.1910–15, Americanism cf. faggot  a contemptuous term for a woman (from ca. 1590), perh. the same word as fagot -Dictionary.com

After some verbal sparring, the men left, only to come back in what seemed a very planned physical assault, which left both gay men on the ground while the four attackers fled.  Justin said that the next day was the first day he felt unsafe walking around his campus.  Totally courageous, he asked me to tell all my students his story.  We had been reading The Laramie Project, the play about the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming.  I keep waiting for that 1998 story to be outdated and irrelevant, but we are so far away from even the tolerance of live and let live.  Justin wanted my students, who still think of him fondly, to have a face to this issue.  Shepard, the Rutgers student, and now one of our own.  In a way that felt eerie and prophetic, Justin offered, “It is going to be a big year for LGBTQ human rights.  I can feel it.  There is tension, and there is going to be friction, conflict and growth this year.  It is in the air.”  I agree.  It feels urgent.

I could teach Laramie and tell Justin’s story at my Catholic high school because even in the most conservative Church teaching, it is absolutely not ok for someone to be the victim of unjust discrimination because of her or his sexuality.  Justin was not doing anything wrong by standing on his campus.  He did not deserve to be assaulted, and even conservative Catholics can agree we need to work to ensure all people’s dignity and safety.

What happened to Justin just astounds me.  What is it about Justin existing that attacks his executioner’s masculinity and sexuality so much that the attacker needs to act out in violence to re-establish his masculinity and heterosexuality?  Why do gay men get assaulted so much more often than lesbian women? What is the deep connection between gender and sexuality?  Why do we categorize so avidly in a binary system that any human being who chooses to express gender more complexly needs to be beaten back into the rigid norm?

Go back to the origin of the word that was used to insult Justin.  Why is the biggest insult to call Justin a woman?  How is beating him physically going to make things more clear?  It seems to me we have work to do on educating about both gender and sexuality so that all human beings can self- express without having to worry about their physical safety.  Justin wants his assailant to know that punching him will not force him back in the closet.  Justin is a gay man who does not feel fully alive when living by the acceptable gender rules society has laid out for him.  He exists.  And if that makes people uncomfortable, it is their work to be done.  And it is my job as a heterosexual who loves Justin for who he is to tirelessly work to make the world a place where he is not only tolerated, but celebrated.

Hunger in Haiti

26 Sep

My spouse works for an organization called Lutheran World Relief, who has community development projects in many countries, including Haiti.  The entire staff decided to try to eat for a week under the average food budget in Haiti.  The highly disputed number, after converting it to US dollars, was $34.33, about $5 a day.  This seemed shockingly doable at first, although it became abundantly clear that I would be drinking only water and could not eat out.  The project is not about succeeding primarily, but raising awareness about how other people live.  Here are some of the things I thought about as the week went on:

–I got to pick which day I started and which day I stopped.  Privilege.  I knew it would end.  It was not my perpetual existence.

–No wine, beer or even pop.  The quickest shortcut was to drink water, which for me is free.  That made me wonder, How is the water in Haiti?  Is it drinkable?  Is it overly privatized?

–I was offered free food all the time during my week.  A student bought me a Jamba Juice one morning.  On a teacher inservice day, the staff ate for free.  Was accepting this food breaking the rules? Is free food a reality in Haiti?  How are social services?

–I decided to spend part of my food budget on medicine because I got so sick that I could not taste my food anyway.  I am assuming that it would be similar to the average person in Haiti.  Getting medicine may mean not eating as much.  How is their health care?  Do people in Haiti have to choose between medicine and food?

–Gotta love the carbs.  Rice, noodles, bread…I am a vegetarian, so I am used to not having meat.  Is this diet sustainable for them?  How is the nutrition when $34.33 is not just one week, but forever?

The best part of the week being over was just not having to be as vigilant.  It is so nice not to have to plan ahead, count dollars and follow rules.  My spouse and I do not eat like royalty by any means, but I was ready to not put so much time and energy into surviving the week. I do believe that all people deserve a dignified life that is not consumed with where the next meal will come from.  It was a good exercise in awareness building about my wealth, one that will stick with me as I continue to take steps toward naming my role in making the world more just.

Continuum of Violence

12 Sep

Disclaimer: This may not be very coherent or well written.  I attribute it to simultaneous shock, outrage and deep gender fatigue.  Some things just need to be said, even if they are not said well, until things change.

Thursday was the first Vikings game of the season.  I like watching football, and I like the people I watch football with even more.  But no matter how much football I watch, I never get used to the blatant connection between sports, sex and violence.  On one hand, there is the violent, testosterone- driven, physical, at times warlike game of football.  Then there are women standing in leather boots and sequenced bras sharking their hair and pom poms on the sidelines.  NFL cheerleaders do not even attempt to be athletes by doing gymnastics or leading the fans in cheers, as their title would try to convey.  They are simply there to be looked at, sexually objectified, in between cheering on hard hits, facemasks and sacks.

For my friend’s birthday, she unfortunately picked a bar called Sneaky Pete’s to celebrate.  The walls were covered with TVs showing Ultimate Fighting Challenge.  Men were lining the bar, sipping beer, cheering on brutally violent and bloody matches.  In between matches, they could spin their bar stools and look at the bachelorette parties of drunk women, sliding down the stripper poles provided on the dance floor.

I just recently learned that Minneapolis has passed the zoning to have a topless sport bar outside the newly built Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play baseball.   Baseball fans can enjoy a game and then enjoy looking at women’s bodies.

Can’t we all see the connection between sports, violence, objectification of women’s bodies and violence against women?  How can it be so pervasive that we do not even get outraged?  Where do I place my pain?  To whom do I direct my anger?  We have so far to go.  How do we get there?  Where do we go first?

More than Eleanor, Por Favor

2 Sep

Oh, Eleanor

This fall I am team teaching a course on social justice to high school seniors with three men.  I noticed that they had very few women up on their walls, the room saturated with amazing men like Malcolm X, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela.  I think it would have been great if the three men had noticed this and joined me in the search, but be it as it were, I took it upon myself to find some posters of powerful women to join the ranks on our walls.  I had no idea how difficult this Cool Women Poster Project would prove to be.

First, I Google searched “women’s posters,” “posters of women,” “powerful female images” and general phrases such as these.  I found almost exclusively sex posters.  Not quite what I was going for.  When I expressed my frustration with this part of the Cool Women Poster Project, people just dismissed me by saying, “You have to be more specific in your search.”  Yes, true, but isn’t that the problem?  MLK posters are all over the Internet, and the fact that I had to really dig creatively points to a systemic problem of gender.  But I did persevere, and upon digging more specifically, I came upon angry, man-hating feminist posters, which is not quite what I was going for either.  In the depths of virtual reality there are some pretty cool posters of obscure women with powerful quotes, but they are tucked away pretty deep.

Part of my Cool Women Poster Project included asking both men and women what females they look up to.  I was shocked and dismayed at the lack of variety in answer.  Most people could site a woman in their personal lives who they look up to, which is great, but that was not what I wanted.  There were very few famous, powerful women that people could name off the top of their heads.  Another red flag.  It bothers me, going back to my last post, how women remain unnamed in history.  Think about the Bible (I have to since I am a religion teacher).  We have the Greek women who refers to herself as a dog, the woman who anoints Jesus with oil, and the woman who is healed by touching Jesus’ cloak.  What are their names?  And even the women we can name: Ruth, Rebecca, Mary—how much do we really know about them?  What is wrong with our systems that we look up to our moms but have few public figures to aspire to?  Looking over my own list, the women I like to channel for power are mostly musicians, writers, justice workers and survivors who are by no means known widely in the world.  Finding posters of them was close to impossible.

The last observation I will share from my Cool Women Poster Project process is that when women were named, they were usually wives of famous men: Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton. Don’t even get me started on Eleanor Roosevelt.  Now, Eleanor was wicked cool, but by the end of this process, I was a little done with posters of frumpy Eleanor busts with her one, over-used quote about feeling inferior.  Men would name her as the one woman they could come up with, but then could not tell me anything specific about her.  And what does it say that our namable women are wives who greatly stay in the shadow of the men they are connected to?  It is not just about having women on posters to look up to.  It is about having women writing policy, getting published, inventing things, working successfully on justice, singing songs, and building buildings in our society so that the feminine soul is reflected in our world.

During the Poster Finding Project, I did some reflecting on how our culture values the individual.  It was not Rosa Parks who ran the bus boycott alone, but we are wired to look to one person to personify a movement.  Instead of valuing community work and consensus, we put one person on the top, and so often the person is a man.  I reflected on the waves of the unnamed, unpostered people who have been a part of the foundation on which we stand.

Last week I stepped back from a bulletin board I had claimed in my classroom that I covered with striking 4 X 6 photos of gorgeous, empowered women that I had printed off myself on my home printer.  It was the result of a summer-long struggle to name and raise up powerful women so my female students could see their souls reflected in the world, too.  I smiled at the beauty of the board while noting how exhausting it was to create.  It felt like swimming up stream the entire way, and that fatigue is systemic gender oppression in the US.  Sometimes it is as subtle as noticing what comes up on a google image search.

Oh, Hollywood

10 Aug

Have you heard of the Bechdel Test for movies?  When watching a movie, ask 3 simple questions:

1) Are there 2 or more women in the film who are named?

2) Do the women talk to each other?

3) Do the women talk to each other about something other than a man?

I became aware of this test last spring, and I really like it because not only do shockingly few movies pass the test, pointing to the systemic gender problem in Hollywood, it is also quick and straightforward.  Somehow when I try to talk about gender roles or the lack of scripts presented to women in film, it can turn into a debate.  This test is three simple, yes or no questions.  The last two movies I watched failed the test: Inception and Where the Wild Things Are.  Both are amazing movies in their own right, and I enjoyed both exceedingly.  But they did fail the test.  Noted.  Now, I will grant you that in the latter most of the characters are not actually human.  But it still didn’t pass.  There is a mother and a daughter in the film.  The mother is not named, and she never talks to the daughter in the movie.  Inception has a plethora of gender issues, but I will avoid a deep analysis by saying it also failed.  There are two female characters, but I only caught one name, and they only talk to each other about Leo’s character.

Give it a try next time you watch a movie.   I have found that it is an easy way to be media savvy, to be able to simultaneously love a film and want more for women from Hollywood.

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