Archive | October, 2013

The Rituals of Gender Oppression

30 Oct

by Allyn Faenza

In two of my classes last week, the same conversation came up. Here in Ghana, males and females participate in class discussions pretty equally, but the males tend to be quite outspoken. Males command the room and propose interesting topics for discussion, even though I often disagree with their claims about gender and sexuality. While discussing common rituals between the ethnic groups of Ghana, the conversation that was on our minds was if females enforce gender roles through rituals: are women their own worst enemies?

It is an undeniable fact that gender oppression is a cultural norm present in a variety of cultures. The methods of oppression are different, but their strategic devaluing of one’s gender to establish a system of power that benefits the other gender economically, socially, or religiously is the same. The physical, emotional, and mental implications of the gender devaluing is devastating. “Women are their own enemies” is a phrase often discussed when considering how women could possibly be willing to subject other women to sexist oppression. With women enforcing gender expectations, they are often blamed for their own oppression. What this saying and my classmates here in Ghana fail to acknowledge, however, is how deeply gender roles have been rooted into a society’s culture and how those roles influence behavior despite its consequences for the women who enforce them. Females are often so oblivious to their own participation in gender roles forced upon them by society that they voluntarily force them upon other women, which can lead to psychological and physical trauma. Yet, this behavior by women is merely an action of habit and an attempt to avoid the label of “deviant.”

In my Gender Issues in Religion and Culture class, the class took an interesting turn when we discussed death rituals among the Ewe people who live in the Volta Region of Ghana. When a woman’s husband passes away in the Volta Region, the women of the towns are charged with performing the proper death rituals in order to honor the deceased husband and help the accused wife. I say accused because if a man dies before his wife, it is presumed that his wife murdered him even if there is no evidence of it. The other women begin a process of ritualization to ease his soul’s journey to heaven and restore peace in the community. First, the widow’s head is shaved. The people of the town then clean the husband’s body with water which the widow is expected to drink. The night before the funeral, the wife sometimes sleeps next to her deceased husband as an act of repentance for his death and reflection of their lives together. During the funeral, she is not allowed to shake hands, smile, or eat in public since these behaviors would lead the community to believe she is celebrating her husband’s death and this celebration is a result of killing him. For the next year, she should wear black every day, wear a padlock on her belt to prove herself sexually chaste, and marry her husband’s nephew. In Ghana’s matrilineal society, the husband’s sister’s male child is the rightful heir of property and wealth upon his uncle’s death. Considering that the deceased’s wife is part of his property, she is expected to marry his nephew.

While most of these examples are egregious to Ghanaians from larger cities like Accra, some of the death rituals from Volta are present among the Akan and Gaa peoples. After a woman’s husband dies, the widow is expected to wear black for a year, she may not remarry for a year, and if she does not cry at the funeral, she may be called a witch. Are these women their own enemies? What cannot be underestimated is the power of the label of deviance. No, women are not their enemies, but they are terrified of breaking social norms, being labeled “deviants” and therefore being ostracized by their culture. They are not just following societal norms to keep peace, women are trapped in a cycle of control created by men, and the only way they know to validate their roles is to separate genders and enforce roles upon their families and communities.

Patterns of oppression and fear of deviance are the enemies of women. In the case of the Ewe people, the women are not to blame. They have been conditioned to follow cultural norms in order to keep peace and follow the cycle of male control in their homes and greater community despite the trauma these rituals cause. The death rituals are dehumanizing, but they are in no way uncommon among many cultures around the world. Learning about these rituals has made me keen to observe common rituals in American culture. And even though we have gendered rituals that are preserved despite their psychological and physical repercussions for males and females, I was so quick to condemn the death rituals of the Ewe.

What this discussion about death rituals in the Ewe ethnic group has taught me is to be observant of how rituals can either lead to a society’s progress or decline depending on whether the rituals honor events like birth, education, puberty, marriage, or death or create a stigma around life events to perpetuate gender inequality and shame. Believing our rituals have power on our personal and cultural growth is the only way rituals can be addressed with respect and changed to end the perpetuation of gender inequality.

This post is part of a regular series that will be posted every Wednesday.


29 Oct

*TRIGGER WARNING* This piece deals with issues of sexual assault and violence.

by Anonymous

I was 15, and it is something I don’t like to talk about. 

I was on vacation with my neighbor’s family. We were staying on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and I had always had a huge crush on my neighbor. I’d liked him for longer than I can remember. On the first night we were there he was very sweet to me and we cuddled on the couch. We began to hook up, but only innocent things…I was completely inexperienced at 15. On the last night of the trip we had all been drinking quite a bit and we were kissing but this night there was a violent shift and it was clear he wanted to have sex. I was a virgin and I wanted to wait. The way I was raised made me want to wait until marriage. My parents had always told me that I should wait, and in this moment I had no desire to have sex with him; I was scared out of my mind. I told him no and that I wanted to go back to the room I was staying in on the trip. ‘No’ meant nothing to him. I’ll never forget how he told me endlessly to “shut the fuck up,” “I know you like it, slut,” or “Don’t ever tell anyone about this” while he tore into my body. He pinned me down with one hand while he covered my mouth with the other. I cried and begged him to stop, but there was no end. When we got home my parents noticed something was different but I refused to tell them what was wrong and I buried what happened to me deep down, never to resurface. 

Five years later they still don’t know what has happened to me, and I’d never tell them. I would never want to tarnish my parents’ stainless image of me, their virginal daughter who is waiting until marriage. I still wear my purity ring and feel it burn every time I do something that would be thought to be ‘impure.’ After this incident I completely shut my entire life down for almost a year. I didn’t talk to anyone, I only left the house to play tennis and go to school, I had no friends and I trusted nobody, not even my family. To this day if someone hugs me too close, especially unexpectedly, I completely lose it, no matter who it is.

My sex life has been a roller coaster. I can’t have sex with someone unless there is an complete and utter trust. Aggression is completely out of the question and the amount of times I’ve broken down mid-sex is insane. We need more allies, we need more men that stand up against this behavior, and we need to end rape. Nobody should ever have to feel victimized or embarrassed the way I do. Be strong and speak up.

‘Mail Order Brides’ Are Not Always Victims

28 Oct

by Kat Kelley

This post originally appeared on Kat’s blog, and the soundtrack to the post can be found here. 

Sitting in a booth at TGI Fridays is a young Filipina, sipping a mango smoothie through a red straw, hands in her lap. Across from her is an American man, with a receding hair line, thinning and turning dull, in the way that only light brown hair does. She is startlingly thin, in deep blue skinny jeans, a tight black top, and flip flops. He wears an oversized white tee shirt, just hinting at a belly, and olive green shorts, as he leans in towards her. She looks sixteen, but could pass for up to nineteen; he looks sixty, but could pass for as young as fifty.

I clench and unclench my jaw, making eye contact with my friend Lydia. We shake our heads and return to the menu, debating Filipino vs. American portions, shrimp quesadillas vs. mac and cheese.

We return to the menu, because despite our discomfort, our borderline disgust, we are not phased. This is nothing new. We learned that this is just the way it is when visiting a sports bar geared towards expats, which apparently means middle aged Western, and primarily white, men. The bar was full of these pairings. No age gap between the Western men and their respective Filipinas was less than a decade, and most were more than two. We are reminded that this is just the way it isevery time we step out of our apartments. The vast majority of Westerners we see are middle aged men, and the vast majority of them walk arm in arm with much younger Filipinas.

Initially, in my attempts to learn more, I broached the subject with colleagues, and even the occasional taxi driver, and while my assessments were reinforced, I felt uncomfortable discussing the ‘plight’ of Filipina women with Canadians, Romanians, and other Americans.

The conversations followed scripts with which I am quite comfortable. We discussed ‘power dynamics,’ free and coerced choices, and the patriarchy (well, my conversations with taxi drivers were bereft of such academic feminist jargon). Consistently, these Filipina women were positioned as victims, subject to the whims of fathers and foreign men, in need of a savior in the form of first world feminism.

These conversations- with intellectuals, many of whom self-identify as feminists, who have traveled extensively, who are immersed in the field of public health- took the agency away from these Filipina brides.

Because of course these beautiful young Filipinas don’t want to marry old white men! They are clearly being coerced by their fathers, maybe even their brothers, really just the general patriarchy. Even if they choose to enter these marriages, it isn’t really a choice; they’ve been indoctrinated to want this.

Which is all valid. However, these women aren’t just brainwashed by the patriarchy, and they aren’t just indoctrinated to want to marry old white men. These women want more for themselves and for their families.

These conversations with colleagues have come from places of privilege. As WHO personnel, if we did not come from backgrounds of privilege, we have since attained the privilege of excellent educations and promising job prospects. We have the privilege of security and comfort, which allows us to seek love above all us in marriage.

For these women, security and comfort are exactly what they have to gain in marriage. These women want financial security and stability for themselves and for their families, and they want men who were raised in cultures where women are seen and treated as equals (relatively).

This is not unique to Filipinas, and this is an internal struggle I myself have had. Regardless of how a man treats me as a partner, I know that I would struggle to marry a man from a culture where women are not regarded as (once again, relatively) equal as they are in the United States. As is, I already struggle to find men within the Georgetown community who don’t see my raging feminism as problematic. I’ve consistently been involved with men who feel uncomfortable with how vocal I am. They find themselves infatuated with who they think I am, seeing my feminism as a “pet project” in order tohandle it.*

However, I am privileged enough to not need a man, and I am privileged enough to hold out for someone who is right for me. I am privileged enough to prioritize love.

When these women look for partners, they have much bigger concerns.

In a perfect, post-patriarchy society, these women will be able to prioritize love and they won’t have to endure encouragement or even coercion from relatives to marry for money. In the meantime, who are we to take the agency away from the narratives of resilient women wanting more for themselves and their families than merely love?


*The personal reflection piece here is primarily based on a conglomeration of experiences I’ve had. For those who know me personally, please do not make any assumptions regarding which men these experiences are or are not based on. No one with whom I am currently involved is guilty of this.

Sexism Abroad

23 Oct

by Allyn Faenza

“Ghana is a male-dominated society, and we like it that way.” This speech was given to every visiting student on the first day of orientation here in Legon, Ghana by a professor of political science. The female students were warned to watch their behavior and never leave their intentions unspoken. We were told that Ghanaian men often interpret “no” as a woman’s challenge for them to try harder. In the past, a visiting international student invited a Ghanaian man into her dorm room and after a few minutes changed her mind about going any further physically. The man didn’t listen. When she tried to alert the university’s police that she was raped, she said they practically laughed in her face. It seems the police could not wrap their heads around the notion that a woman can exercise control over her own body or direct a man’s actions. The professor told us this as a cautionary tale with no hint of irony, no hint of an apology. What the speech came down to was this: men here are in charge and women have to learn to play by the rules to get what they want.

Rarely has a day has gone by here in Ghana that I haven’t been grabbed, catcalled, or proposed marriage. The best way for me to advert attention from myself is to tell the men I’m married. It is as if they could only understand my disinterest by rationalizing that I belong to someone else. On more than one occasion I have heard women and men alike come to the consensus that the female body is a tool for male pleasure. As I walk through crowds of men, I can feel their eyes on me, and more often than not, their hands. They grope and grab me, and if I protest, I am often challenged. They say “Who are you to tell me not to touch you?! You are a woman, you are a woman!”

Today during my Sociology of the Family class, the topic of domestic violence came up. I have seen some of the television programs Ghanaians watch and oftentimes they center around a male/female romantic relationship that ends with the female screaming at the top of her voice only to be punched and slapped by her male companion. But seeing as I am attending class at a premiere university in West Africa, I assumed their opinions of domestic violence would be that it is something to be taken seriously, something that needs to end, and something that is shameful. I hoped they would find it as deplorable as I do, but I was wrong.

The professor began her lecture about Radical Feminist Theory on the family by proposing the question : “Does a husband have the right to physically discipline his wife?”

The male student behind me scoffs, “Of course!” with all of his friends giggling in agreement. Considering my experiences with some Ghanaian men thus far, the male response hardly surprised me. I have come to expect men to believe themselves biologically superior, and, therefore, somehow responsible for the disciplining of females. They get their validation from religion, media, and societal gender roles. What I was most astounded by was the female response to the question. While no one directly answered “yes,” the women laughed and acted like the conversation was unnecessary. I was angry and so very disappointed. I wanted to scream from the frustration, but then I considered the conversation from a new angle. How could these female students think of the lecture as nothing more than a challenge to the norms of this society? And with many women here in search of a husband, they don’t want to look like the dissenting women, bitter with experience. Ghanaian women don’t want to be a woman no man would want to marry. They do not have the tools to stifle sexism or the support they need to demand respect.

The only comfort I can find in this experience is telling and showing males here that I am a person. I am a living someone who cannot be objectified. I am not a tool for your pleasure. I have a mind and thoughts and feelings that tell me their behavior is demeaning. And even though it might get annoying to Ghanaian men and women, I talk about the inequality every chance I get. I am learning how to explain my culture and my expectations as eloquently as possible. While we might have a long way to go in Ghana, I am learning to live with the satisfaction it gives me to stand up to these gender roles and the hope it gives me for a Ghana that takes pride in the minds of Ghanaian women and not their bodies, for an equal Ghana.

This post is part of a regular series that will be posted every Wednesday.

My Non-Negotiable: A Reflection from Rwanda

21 Oct

by Laura Shrum

Preface: I am a senior International Health major studying abroad in Rwanda.

Being in different cultures you often deal situations that make you uncomfortable to the core. Dealing with these feelings is important – recognizing what bothers you, not acting out of turn for the situation, and later coming to terms with what issue arose. This week I have been struggling to come to terms with a conversation I had with Edward, our day guard. The experience highlights an underlying theme of my stay and my silent battle with culture shock and living in another country.

To be honest my motto is always “go with the flow,” and if you know me you would probably agree that is how I act in almost all situations. If I really don’t want to do something then I just don’t do it – I am excellent at not caving to peer pressure (in my opinion).

This week I had one of my most uncomfortable experiences to date, nothing overt, just a conversation. Edward, our day guard and handy man, asked me some probing questions as I ate breakfast and he ironed some of the boys shirts.

“Why do you always wear a ring Laura?”

“Did you drink beer too yesterday?” (we had had a BBQ at the house) he asked with a very questioning tone

“You are not married?”

“You have a boyfriend, no?”

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

I put together a few short responses and tried to go back to reading the morning news on my phone. I have been subconsciously avoiding him since.

I know Rwandan culture makes conversations much more up front about topics: anything is on the table (similar to what I found in Denmark), but I am a very private person about certain parts of my life and no matter the context or place, these questions will make me very very very uncomfortable. I am fiercely independent, introverted, and love doing things on my own. The tone of voice used to ask the questions made me think that Edward was questioning my age and status without the attachment of a man. I know he is a very nice Rwandan man and has only shown kindness and a desire to be friends. He has shared stories about his life and family struggles with me.

I know I have to step back and accept that it was not malicious, but when something hits your core it is hard to pull away. I didn’t realize how much this conversation had bothered me until I read Kat’s blog post this week.  The patriarchal society and experience of being a foreigner have been underlying in my stay but with my general attitude on life (ridiculously positive), haven’t bubbled to the surface past subconscious observances.

I find being very white in a very dark country honestly amusing as people shout “Muzungu” (foreigner) when I walk by. I see women walking on the streets but it is very much a 25% women 75% men split – although government policy may not dictate inequality, society is still very patriarchal and women are the primary care givers, or under a double burden. Everyone stares as I walk by. Sometimes I stare right back, which seems polite enough, but I always wonder what is behind each stare. What is she doing here? Why is she so young? Complete indifference? A marvel at how easy I could get sunburned?

I completely ignore the “hello, givememoney” response I have received from almost every single child I have passed. I find children trying to touch me annoying; that is something of my Western mindset I will not shake because I know that to them I am not a person, but a novelty. I have gotten used to differences in body space over the last couple years and am fine wherever I am – the personal bubble is very American, but perhaps being viewed as other than a person is the line.

Maybe it is result of living with an awesome bunch of feminism-conscious females last spring or growing up close to the Latino community where I saw gender roles reinforced time and time again. I do not take well to culturally enforced gender roles. It is something that I view must be changed in societies all over the world – gender equality is no joke and is a quintessential tool of development. There is no contestation.

I have never felt so looked at as an object or something other than an independent functioning woman than here. Not even as a checker in the orchard among the migrant laborers. And to be honest it bothers me more than I would like to admit.

I love having four male roommates here; I really don’t mind being the only female in the group.

“The girl with all the boys.” “Are they your boyfriends?” The unspoken question of who I am with or if I am with them all.

It may be funny on the surface when someone comments on my “romantic status” or asks questions that emulate what this said “status” should be. But it is not deep down.

It is something I will not get over.

This may sound terrible but oftentimes people do marry within their own culture. And I can see why – having a commonality on the way you want to feel and be treated in a relationship, the way a culture fundamentally values and views you – is not something easy to overcome. I admire inter-cultural relationships, but I don’t know if yet I can bring myself to one.

It is all about your non-negotiables (albeit in a slightly different context), stated by my dear friend Kat. And I think she is right: you may see differences out there and adapt to many of them, but its human nature to have non-negotiables. And I think I’ve found mine.

My independence. My feelings of self-respect. My privacy. How I expect to be viewed by the opposite gender.

I feel privileged that I am from a society where I can have these non-negotiables because I know many women and men in the world don’t have the same affordance. But this does not change the fact they are non-negotiable for me, even if I am in a culture where they certainly are negotiable.

Culture can be relative. I do not dispute this fact. But I also personally hold a certain set of standards, morals, ethics, be what you name it, which are not relative. The only way I’ve really come to know them is from traveling out of my West Coast bubble, even my American bubble. The cliché is that traveling changes you, but I would say it doesn’t change you; it just lets you realize what makes you grounded and what makes you, you.

Miss Pink Tights

17 Oct

by Katie

On June 21st, 2013 I decided to do an extra hard workout at my high school’s track to help improve my chances for a spot on the cross country team in the fall. The only thing motivating me to finish on that sweltering day was that fact that I would be turning 16 the next day. According to Mexican culture, I was supposed to have transformed into a woman already. Many Mexican girls have a traditional, elaborate fifteenth birthday celebration, called a quince. I had a modern sort of quince; I just went to the beach with my family over my birthday weekend, but it’s not as if I felt any different afterwards. Maybe being sixteen would be different, I thought. Maybe when I would turn sixteen I would become woman. When would I have my metamorphosis? And what is a woman, anyway?

I nailed my workout into the ground on the humid, 95-degree June day.  As I felt the warm, stinging, salty sweat run down my face, I saw the heat rising off of the track in steamy waves. Just completing the workout made me feel like a total “badass,” as Coach Moore would have said if he had seen me. Popping my hip up and out as I took a long drink of hot water, I had a triumphant walk of a champion. I felt confident about going to states in November! I had put on my favorite t-shirt and new electric pink spandex shorts to make me extra confident for my run, and it worked! Though, I was also worried that maybe my new shorts were too tight.

All the little people in my brain were arguing back and forth: “Katie, you look like a total whore wearing those shorts! Everyone makes fun of That One Girl who feels the need to show everyone her ass all the time. Don’t be That Girl. Those tight spandex will ruin your reputation,” Conservative Katie warned.

“Hey, it’s not my fault if a boy thinks I’m attractive while I’m running in shorts and a cutoff t-shirt. It’s really hot out! We wear spandex for track meets; it can’t be that inappropriate. Anyway, I am going to be at the track; it’s not like there are drivers there that can honk at me and catcall,” Feminist Katie reasoned.

I was jogging slowly in the soupy heat, rounding off the 200-meter backstretch. I saw some football players talking and laughing past the gate that connected the track and the lacrosse practice field. Look down, look down, I remembered. Don’t make eye contact. I chanted in my head: chingate, chingate, chingate, my silent Spanish curse to force them to ignore me.

But then Reasonable Katie reminded me: “Not all guys who are talking and laughing while looking at you are necessarily laughing and talking and looking at you. The guys at your school aren’t going to catcall you and say something inappropriate.”

“Yeah!” Low Self Esteem Katie chimed in, “Stop flattering yourself; you’re not attractive enough that a guy would even want to hoot at you.”

Embarrassed for my vain thoughts, I kept running. I rounded out the 200-meter mark. The clock read 2:15 pm. It was too hot. I was dizzy. I hadn’t hydrated properly. Coach Moore would have been disappointed. I swerved a little to the side. My foot rolled over a pothole in the track. Stupid pothole. I started tripping. I looked up as I wriggled around, trying to prevent myself from rolling my ankle. The boys and I made eye contact. Quickly, I ducked my head. I adjusted my ponytail so they couldn’t see my face. The boys. They were all crammed into the athletic director’s golf cart-maintenance truck hybrid. There were some short, squirrely freshmen boys standing in the flat rear part of the cart. There were two older boys, seniors who were sitting up front. I knew who they were, but I denied it to myself for a while afterwards. The sweat ran down into my eyes and my mouth. I could taste the bitterness. I was inhaling, doing my silent curse and praying that the eye contact had gone unnoticed. But their voices were getting louder. I saw them nudge each other again. I inhaled. I held my breath. The boy I knew hooted something. “Hey, pink tights!” Another seconded the call, “YEAH! You go, pink tights!”  They all laughed deep from their bellies and sped away. The boy I knew drove.

Pink tights.

I hear it from landscape vans. I hear it from middle aged men. I hear it from speeding cars and I even hear it from Jewish boys walking down Main Street to get to Friday evening services.

I never hear it at school.

Once I got home, I cried and holed up with my computer for an hour. I’m a member of a Facebook group that is a gay-straight alliance (GSA) for students in the DC area who are allies of the community that surrounds the vlogbrother videos. Everyone in the group is always supportive. I uploaded a rambling post about what happened to the group Facebook wall. The track was always safe. How could I have dressed so horribly as to provoke this? Was this incident even enough to report? Or am I just a bitchy feminist? Once I tell the football coach and the administration about this, I thought, they are just going to laugh at me and tell me it’s no big deal. They’re just going to say that I was asking for it. Jesi, one girl in the GSA whom I really admire, commented on my post, “Yes, it’s totally valid to be creeped out and want to report them; what they were doing was not okay.”

I agreed with Jesi that I would send an email. But first I created a new email address, That way, no one would need to know about who I was and I wouldn’t be harassed if the football players were in trouble and people started to blame me. I drafted and edited a long email to the head coach of the football team explaining everything that happened. But I didn’t mention the boy’s name.

I copied the 10th grade Assistant Principal, the 12th grade Assistant Principal, and the athletic director on the email. After making my third edit, I became anxious again and I started crying. I didn’t ask for any of this. All I did was wear clothing that made me feel confident and kept me cool on a hot day. I just wanted to forget everything that happened.

But if I never stand up for my right to wear what I want, then who will?

Who else would make sure that these boys, who were soon to be men, would treat all women with respect? I commented on the post, “And email sent.” Rapidly, my computer kept making this repetitive pinging sound. It was the sound of Facebook notifying me that five people liked the comment.

Then, one of my best friends from the GSA, Hannah, sent me a message that read, “You are seriously the best im so sorry you were subjected to them because they make me SICK.” All the support that was pouring in made me cry a little at my computer desk.

I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone.

From Jesi, who helped me stop blaming myself, to Hannah who showed me that even people at my own school found this behavior despicable, to all the people in between who simply liked the comment that read, “And email sent.” That meant the world to me.

The 10th grade Assistant Principal and the head Coach of the football team both emailed me back a few days later and apologized that I had to go through the experience. The Coach assured me that he would, “Find out who was responsible because this sort of behavior will not be tolerated by [my] players.”

I’m actually glad that this happened. I am so proud that I said something. I have no idea if the boys were ever even punished. I just hope that the players and their coach know that we won’t tolerate this. I know that I can’t change the whole world’s ideas about the objectification of women in one step. I know that if I’m running on the road that I can expect some idiot to hoot out his window because he thinks my ass looks good or whatever, but I drew a line at this kind of behavior happening at school.

I do know that I did become a woman on the last possible day of my fifteenth year, just like I was supposed to when I celebrated my quince. I stood up for what I believe in and for how I want to be treated. Jesi couldn’t have pressed the send button for me while I was getting the new wave of anxiety. I had to do it myself. As a woman, I hope to embody what Gloria Steinem once said: “Whenever one person stands up and says ‘wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people to do the same.”

One in Thirty-Three

14 Oct

*Trigger Warning*: This piece deals with issues of sexual violence.

by Anonymous

I don’t really remember 8th grade very well. It was a long time ago for one thing, but I also didn’t really want to remember.

Unfortunately, I never forgot being sexually assaulted.

He was a little older, a seemingly cool and rebellious high school kid. I remember thinking how lucky I was to finally find anyone who liked me. I was never well liked, so finding a guy who was interested was a breath of fresh air. He took my breath away, first by flattering me, and then by holding me down on the floor as I struggled to get free. I said no, so he put his hand on my mouth. I tried to reach up and unlock the door to the room we were in, so he grabbed my hand and slammed it to the ground. He said I looked like I was enjoying it. He said that I wanted this. He said I shouldn’t have been such a flirt. Then, for a split second, I broke his grip and yelled for help. I am so glad someone heard me. I can’t imagine how things might have ended up otherwise.

So why am I telling this story? It is not just because I was sexually assaulted at a young age. I am telling this story because I am one of those 1 in 33 men who experienced an attempted rape, and I bet most people reading this assumed I was a woman. Some people realize that victims of rape or assault are not exclusively female, but a lot of people don’t. I am telling this story because since I started talking about what happened to me, other guys have approached me about their own experiences, and I think it is important that both male and female voices are sharing their stories.

Problematizing “Coming Out”

11 Oct

by Emily Coccia

Imagine this scenario: a group of self-identified queer women gather together to talk. They come up with topics of discussion, with issues that concern them. But these topics, while important, are never the common bond, the shared experience; instead, they are the areas of division within this already small community. Rather than looking for a shared discourse, a language common to all, they focus on areas of ever-greater marginalization. And as important as those are on an individual basis, one must ask: How is it possible that half of the group leaves disheartened, wondering why in a group that should be their own, there was nothing that applied to them? In a circle with an already-narrow common denominator, why did they feel like they didn’t belong?

As National Coming Out Day rolls by and Georgetown’s LGBTQ groups host events in Red Square, I have to stop and wonder: are we doing more harm than good? When we excessively and compulsively label ourselves, creating ever-narrower bounds for our identity, do we actually seal ourselves off from the possibilities inherent in human existence?

Perhaps this is a side effect of being a student in Intro to Queer Theory, of reading as Foucault problematizes the notion of “coming out,” of revealing the secret, the one secret that defines our identity. As I navigate LGBTQ-labeled spaces, I fail to find a spot for myself. I see people so sure of their identities that they come, not with an L, G, B, T, or Q, but with a list of four or five more designators. And while I can certainly respect this pride and refusal to stand by the norm, I still can’t help but feel that this might not be helping anyone. I feel compelled to buy into this specification, to label myself and box myself into some neat category. I feel how easy (relatively speaking) it would be to take a broad survey and check off the categories that apply to me, to know precisely who I am and who I want as a partner (be that relationship platonic, multiple, or nonexistent).

But frankly, that would be a lie. I don’t want a box. I don’t want a label. I don’t want to “find” myself in a dictionary definition. Instead, I want possibility—an openness to love and happiness, whatever form that might take. I want to find myself on a broad “lesbian continuum” with Adrienne Rich. I want to stand and queer the notions of femininity and masculinity with Judith Butler. I want to talk about the false dichotomy of binaries and the linguistic problems of labels with Eve Sedgwick.

On National Coming Out Day, that’s not the point. The point is to find pride in an identity, to find pride in community—and that’s a beautiful moment. It’s an amazing feeling of pride that emerges from seeing how far Georgetown as a community and America writ large has come. But I can’t help but worry that when the rainbow flags get folded back up, when the door is disassembled, when the day comes to a close, that we will be left with labels that separate and segregate us within an already small community and with specified identities that may close us off from the possibilities of love and happiness standing among the disparate community left around of us.

One in Ten

10 Oct

*Trigger Warning*: This piece deals with issues of depression, suicide, and self-harm.

by Anonymous

I wrote out my will when I was 10 years old.

I placed it under my pillow each night, praying that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. I would have killed myself already – I thought about it all the time – but I couldn’t figure out how. No guns in the house; all the blades were too dull; nothing to hang myself from; no access to heights.

I had a pretty good life, family and friends, and good grades in school. But I hated living. It consumed me throughout the day and long into the night.

Eventually, my parents noticed something was wrong. I was mopey and pessimistic. So they sat me down and threatened me to snap out of it. After that, I learned not to express my feelings, to keep them inside, and show outwardly only what people wanted to see.

I became broken, stuck with only one visible setting. To others, I seemed to have no problems. I was the perfect daughter, the perfect student. But I was terribly, cruelly alone. I didn’t feel that I had the right to burden someone else with my true feelings. I struggled with my depression, I struggled with my sexuality, and I struggled with my faith.

By the time I went to college, I knew that things had to be different. I began to open up about my faith and sexuality, when I thought that it could improve the quality of my life. I joined clubs. I made friends.

And then, something new happened. I fell in love with those friends, and they came to love me. I became a person that I actually liked. I enjoyed the tasks and activities I was involved in.

But, ever-present, the depression started creeping into my life more and more. This time, though, I didn’t want to die. Or-at least- I didn’t want to want to die. The existence of dear friends in my life led me to seek out help at my university’s counseling center.

While the therapy I engaged in there was intellectually and emotionally stimulating, it wasn’t particularly helpful at keeping my harmful thoughts at bay. I started cutting myself and wearing more modest clothing to cover it up from the observant eyes of coworkers, peers, and friends.

Then, medications came into play, with similar success. When I started openly talking about my plan of killing myself, my therapist called my parents. They wanted to force me into the hospital. Somehow, the counseling center, the school administration, and my parents worked out a plan, such that I could graduate as anticipated. I couldn’t kill myself, but I still cut myself daily.

Only my best friend knew. Even I was surprised that I was able to confide in him.

After graduation, I moved back in with my parents, away from the home I loved so much, back to the home I had fled from just a few years before. Within a week, I tried to hang myself. As fate would have it, my support wouldn’t hold, and I finally allowed myself to enter the hospital.

Two weeks and four medications later, I was released, still having “suicidal ideations” but less likely to act on them. It seems like forever since then, but my doctors and I still haven’t found a medication to help me live a life other than barely functioning but faking it well.

This isn’t a story with a happy ending. This is life with a mental illness. More days than not, it’s a struggle. It’s hard. It’s painful. And for way too many, it’s lonely.

I got help and have a much higher chance at a long life because I had some great friends. They didn’t even know about my depression. Most still don’t know. But I knew that they loved me, and I knew that I wanted to be around to keep on loving them.

So love each other. Care for each other. Listen to each other.

Your friends may not tell you everything they’re going through, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help.

This was written in honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

For more information, please visit:

Queera Personalis: My Journey From Rejection to Reconciliation to Celebration

9 Oct

by Thomas Lloyd

The last few months have been a whirlwind for the LGBTQ community at Georgetown.

We elected our first openly gay student body president and had our LGBTQ history pushed in to the spotlight by outlets like The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and my personal favorite, The Cardinal Newman Society Blog. Those who oppose our advance deride our community as Catholics and Catholic institutions abandoning their values.

I’ve had to answer the same question in dozens of conversations: how has this change come about despite Catholic doctrine?

Having been at Georgetown for over two years now, and having been a gay Catholic my whole life, my answer is simple: It doesn’t. Advancement of LGBTQ issues is critical to the fulfillment of the Catholic mission. These changes are necessary because of Catholic doctrine.

I’ve made this argument before, citing Catholic social teaching, the catechism of the Church, and (unsurprisingly) the Jesuit concept of Cura Peronalis.

But to be honest, I formulated those arguments well after I had made up my mind on how Catholic doctrine fits in with the LGBTQ rights movement. The real game changer for me is my experience. In a way, this is the ultimate form of Catholic argument. As the Universal Church, Catholicism is ultimately about its people and their stories. So for this Coming Out Week, rather than rehash theological arguments I’ve made here and here, I’m going to out myself again, but by sharing my personal faith journey.

Growing up, before I knew that my limp wrist and love of offering my aunt fashion advice meant that I’d be labeled “gay” or “homosexual” (or anything “sexual” for that matter), I never thought that what made me “different” would somehow negatively affect my relationship with God or with the Church. My high voice and flair for the dramatics actually made me an asset at many a church basement musical production of Jesus Christ: A Life (no Jesus since has been able to give Judas the appropriate one-eyebrow raise during the last supper scene).

The Church was the way I connected to my neighborhood. I never went to school near my house. So I made local friends through Sunday school. I joined our boy scouts chapter (however briefly) and taught Sunday school for years. My supervisor, a nun who I affectionately referred to as Sister Gene the Dancing Machine (in a reference to the campy 80’s Gong Show) seemingly embraced my “unconventional” personality.

It wasn’t until I was at the most vulnerable moment in my life that the Church became an “obstacle” to be “overcome”. In high school, my gay mental dam of cognitive dissonance began to break down. My heterosexual identity, built up by years of bullying and abuse from other students, was crumbling under the weight of my real sexual orientation. I starting to think that I might just be “gay,” or that thing that I’d denied being for years because people laughed at me, excluded me, and fought with me.

These conversations with myself about my identity were conducted in the deepest segments of my person. I could feel them as series of tugs in my chest, right next to where I had (usually joyful and joking) conversations with God. There, in my most private and sacred space, I never felt a tension from God related to my identity. If anything, God was a central player in that discussion. I remember the first night that I asked God to change me, to hide the thing that made me a target. I lay awake and silently begged as my eyes burned up. But I never thought God disapproved, just that a bunch of assholes did. God was on my side, right?

Unfortunately, at the same time that I grew increasingly conscious of my sexuality, I also grew increasingly aware of the American political attitudes towards gay people. The debates over LGBT issues were, and still are, imbued with religious arguments against the acceptance or inclusion of gays and lesbians, with almost no religious (let alone Catholic) voices on the other side. Even more unfortunately, the increasingly insecure and paranoid closeted me was very prone to internalize those voices. These included voices of my family members, whose political discussions I began to understand more. I let them pollute my personal and longstanding relationship with my faith.

I would go through what was a painful coming out process, thinking that I couldn’t lean on the support system that had given me community, confidence, and meaning. Further, I was afraid to engage some individuals closest to me because of their association with that same community. At first, this just made me anti-social. But becoming more and more alone in ever-more profound ways led me to moments where I considered and planned suicide.

It was with the support of very loving (and sometimes pushy) friends and teachers that I emerged from my coming out process unscathed. By the time I felt comfortable to come out to my parents and school, I had all but given up on trying to bring together my LGBTQ and Catholic identities. In the same way that I lived with a mental wall between my “heterosexual identity” and obvious homosexual orientation, I erected a new wall between my values and my private life. For some, this could prove dangerous. (un)Luckily for me, I was high school debater with acne, so this didn’t become a concern.

I would go on for years with a simple answer to “How can you be gay and Catholic?”  I would answer with a pithy cop-out, “The Church is about more than sexual orientation.”

At Georgetown, the Jesuit education lived up to its reputation and called me out on my bullshit. My (at the time) conservative roommate lived up to his political affiliation, ordering me to tear down the wall between my identities and engage the questions I had effectively been postponing. There was no getting around the fact that if I wanted to keep identifying as Catholic, I had better get a damn good reason. After all, I would be engaging my orientation (and others’ orientations…) with an octogenarian Priest down the hall.

My reason came as I started to re-understand Catholicism in the way I had as a child: as a sum of individuals from all backgrounds, working together to achieve spiritual fulfillment and salvation by living a life of service, advocacy, and love, just as Christ did. I was a part of that equation, as are a whole host of queers, commies, radicals, republicans, democrats, feminists, NRA members, whatever, even if I had been told for years that we all fell on opposing “sides.”

How did I come back to this understanding? Simply by engaging all of those people that truly make the Catholic Church Universal. Was the Jesuit who told me masturbation made one not a virgin more Catholic than the one who affectionately nicknamed me “a wonderfully irksome shit” because of my work with Pride? Are the ministers behind Love Saxa more Catholic than those who show up at the LGBTQ Resource Center open house or who run the LGBTQ prayer group? Who is anyone, any human being, to answer these questions?

When one lives in a Universal Church, it becomes impossible to view someone’s unchangeable and loving identity as disordered.  It’s impossible to think that there is one ideal Catholic, or any set of absolutes that can apply to a universal institution. Its impossible to do anything but CELEBRATE the fact that such diversity exists.

To those that disagree, say an alum who graduated 10, 20, 30 or more years ago (Hi, William Blatty, Class of 1950!), I have this to say:

Georgetown is a more Catholic place today than ever before because gay students no longer live in the same fear of being the victims of hate crimes when walking to their dorms.

Georgetown is a more Catholic place today than ever before because gay students needn’t feel like their faith tradition is against them.

Georgetown is a more Catholic place today than ever before because through being more welcoming, our community saves more students from self-harm.

Georgetown is a more Catholic place today than ever before because we are finally “universal” enough to encourage multiple trans* students to make themselves visible.

Georgetown is more Catholic today than ever before because LGBTQ students, with or without faith traditions, have made this university truer to its Jesuit commitment to community in diversity, to social justice, and to Universality.

In the same way that I stopped letting those who didn’t understand the LGBTQ experience pollute my relationship with God, I refuse to let similarly antiquated beliefs taint the conversation of what makes us a Catholic University.

I am gay and I am Catholic. Accepting my identity enabled me to be more Catholic. My University is Catholic, and it is only becoming more LGBTQ-friendly, making it all the more Catholic. This is more than acceptable—this is our motto: Utraque Unum.