Friday, April 22, 2016

Spring tours to North Seattle and Reed College – a lesson in survival

There are savvy students everywhere. Feminist students come to see me when I tour to colleges. I preach to the choir more often than not.

A commuter school, like North Seattle College, makes me smile. I know from experience that the students will be smart and ask good questions. From the moment I step onto campus I feel I am part of an open space where the exchange of ideas is encouraged.

At North Seattle College this week, I presented, “Act like a feminist artist – what no one told youabout starting a grassroots organization.” Organized by the Women’s Center it was their most well attended event to date.

It is great to feel the audience right there with me – laughing, nodding in agreement, listening intently, taking notes and posing poignant questions at the end of it all.

After Seattle I headed south to Portland and Reed College to present the same lecture. The week before I arrived a controversy erupted over one of Guerrilla Girls On Tour’s posters - displayed on campus to promote my talk.

The poster, created in 2008, is entitled “Female By Birth…” and was inspired by a t-shirt we saw while on tour that read: “American by Birth, Christian by Choice.” The spirit in which we wrote the words “female” and “feminist” was meant to be inclusive of any person who identifies as female and/or feminist.

This poster angered students at Reed College who felt it was transphobic. When I learned of this I wrote to Reed and said:

“…guilty as charged…but hopefully I can turn this into a discussion about how feminist groups are not perfect and what we do when we fail and how we can all help each other understand each other as well as how to look at older work in the context of when it was created.  That poster is 8 years old - a great deal of awareness has happened since that time and again, the spirit we wrote it in was honest. BUT I would like to challenge the students at REED: Change and rework the GGOT poster “Female by Birth” so that is not Trans-phobic.  I will accept any and all ideas to this email address and will happily display and discuss them in my talk.  AND I also challenge the students to make posters that are pro-transgender and anti-transphobic and plaster them all over campus before I arrive - especially in my green room. Please send out the call!

The faculty sent the call out. They even provided tape in the green room to display responses. I kept checking my inbox for replies.  None came.

I learned, sadly, that the students had created posters and responses but chose to share them privately, only among themselves. They did not let me or anyone on the faculty see their reactions.

I gave my talk. It was sold out. One student questioned me about the "Female by Birth..." poster and I repeated what I said above, reminding them of my challenge – extending it and hoping to have a further dialogue with the students about it.

Today, I visited a class of made up of a number of art history, art studio and theatre students who gathered for an hour to have an informal dialogue with me. I loved talking with the students. Their questions were well thought out and honest. Yet, I sensed some of the students were still very angry, suspicious and unwilling to engage with me. 

After the class visit I learned every copy of the “Female By Birth” poster, which had been placed all around campus, had been taken down by students. An act of protest. Fine. But nothing had been put up in response. What offended them had been simply removed from sight.

Dear Reed College Students – you have to create an alternative message in order to change the world. Differing ideas and new experiences are what make college campuses incubators for the next generation of activists and artists. Just removing images, ideas, text which offend you, does nothing to change the status quo. 

The world is full of discomfort and offense. It is up to us all to respond publically to it. If we act as passive bystanders and only share our outrage with our friends on facebook we limit ourselves. As feminists of different genders, classes, races, identities, we must engage with each other to survive.