These are the remarks I made at our Women’s Studies Graduation today. The remarks at the event were shortened for time; these are the unabridged remarks.
In thinking about what to say today, I was struck by the phrase full circle moment. As many of you know, I graduated as an undergrad at UNH in Women’s Studies back in 1996. We had our very small women’s studies graduation in the Smith Hall reception room and I never imagined I would be back teaching at UNH 22 years later. As an undergrad, it was Women’s Studies that radicalized me. I came to the institution traumatized after 12 years of severe bullying based on my gender expression, my weight, my socioeconomic status and even my height. When I got to my first women’s studies class with Penelope Morrow, my whole world started to shift. Up until that time, I thought the bullying I received had been my fault. But the more I learned, the more I learned about patterns of systemic oppression. I began to study gender and gender expressions beyond the gender binary. I came out as transgender and knew that I did not fit the gender binary system. I realized the oppression I faced was not my own fault but the fault of the transphobic system we lived in. After many years of study, I returned to UNH as a faulty member and came to that full circle moment. In addition to Penelope Morrow now being a colleague, so too is Jane Stapleton who taught me feminist activism when I was a sophomore. I wanted to give a five brief lessons learned in my years at UNH and beyond that I think are important reminders for all our wonderful women’s studies students.
1. Know and respect from where you came.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Let us be thankful for our families, blood and adoptive, and all that they have given us in our journeys thus far. For a long time I was very bitter towards my parents and focused endlessly on what they didn’t do or didn’t give me. Now that I am older, I focus on what they did do for me and what they gave me. I see the tremendous sacrifices they made to bring me and my siblings into the world. On their end, my parents should also be grateful. They got a son, a daughter and a J, so they got all bases covered. In addition to our families and our ancestors, I also want us to thank out feminist, queer and ancestors of color… For me these include people like Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Pat Parker, Sylvester, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Gloria Anzaldua and many more. Remember how hard these folks fought and be inspired by their sacrifices.
2. Be who you are.
During your four years here, it is my hope that you have been able to explore your identity and figure out a little bit about who you are and who you are becoming. I say a little bit because being who you are is truly a lifelong process. I have had identities change and identities stay the same but it is all a part of the process of who I am. The most important part of this phrase is to be unrepentant and unashamed in the person that you are. We live in a society that is constantly trying to make people conform and be someone that they are not. These forces are strong and they are ubiquitous. I urge you to resist these forces as much as you are able. The true you is incredibly beautiful and deserves to radiate powerfully in this world. As Alice Walker wrote: “No person is your friend or kin who demands your silence, or who demands your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended. Or who belittles in any fashion that gifts you labor so to bring into the world.” I specifically urge those from oppressed and marginalized groups to be who they are. So often, we are taught we don’t belong or that we should not even survive. What a revolutionary act it is to be Black or Trans or a Feminist Woman or a Disabled Person and refuse to be silent and refuse to hide in the shadows. We are beautiful and we deserve to be here. Be who you are. Or as Oscar Wilde famously quipped: be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
3. Love who you are.
Folks, this is a really tough one for me. I don’t have a problem being who I am in the world, but I sometimes I have a hard time loving who I am because the cultural zeitgeist is so dominated by bigotry, discrimination and prejudice against all marginalized social groups. We assert ourselves and often get beaten down and told to hate ourselves. This message to hate ourselves, whether subtle or overt, is incredibly injurious to us. Self-love is the love that makes all other love possible. It is especially important for people of color, LGBTQ people, feminist women, disabled people and others to love ourselves because to so strongly leads to self-empowerment. When we go in being who we are and loving who are, we have already won half the battle. There will be more than enough people who diss us, who hate on us or who throw shade at us. We don’t have to be one of them. Our self-love will take us through many difficult passages in our lives and it will help to radiate outward our internal essence to the whole outside world. I am not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying I don’t struggle with it myself. But even if only a goal, even if only a destination, when we throw our ourselves into self-love, there ain’t no telling what we might be able to accomplish.
4. Stand up for what you believe in.
Those of you who know me might know that this is definitely my favorite one. I love to fight back against injustice. I love to see my teaching as not only an academic pursuit but as a form of activism or social justice seeking. As a teacher here, I am thrilled to see students’ transformations. From first year to senior year, I get to witness students change their minds and refine their thinking. Together, we look at issues from multiple angles and figure out our own thinking. From there, if we are activists, and women’s studies students almost always are, we can take our thinking and figure out how to fight for it in our society. Today’s society needs progressive activism more than ever. We stand up and demand that all people have reproductive justice and the ability to make choices about their own body. We demand respect and rights for people of all genders, including Trans and gender non-binary people. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and with all communities of color fighting police brutality and mass incarceration. We stand for a solid social safety net that does not put the elderly and the disabled at risk or in harm’s way and we demand a universal, single-payer health care system that shows that health care is not a luxury but a right. We stand for these and so many other things. What do you stand for? What do you want to stand for? What do you want your legacy to be? Go out there and fight for your beliefs and know that I and Women’s Studies are here cheerleading you on every step of the way.
5. Never, ever, ever give up.
Think about the civil rights movement and how long it took to obtain basic civil rights in the fight against slavery and Jim Crow segregation and how that movement continues in the fight against police brutality and against the prison industrial complex. Think about the suffrage movement and how it took 72 years for them to finally get suffrage in 1920. Think about Harvey Milk and how he gave his life in the battle for gay rights. Think about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson who fought for transgender people, homeless people and the incarcerated for decades before their tragic and premature deaths. None of these folks gave up. We have a responsibility to follow in their footsteps. Activism is not for a week or a month or a year. It is a truly a lifelong pursuit. Never give up. The words needs your passion, your fierceness and you stunning fabulosity.
In conclusion, I want to say thank you. Each day in the classroom I have learned so much from you and taken away so much wisdom. On this, the time of your commencement, I want you to go forth and continue the work you have started here at UNH. I wish you many full circle moments. A quote from one of my heroes Leslie Feinberg goes: “Imagine a world worth living in, a world worth fighting for. I closed my eyes and allowed my hopes to soar.” Let your hopes soar high and always know that what you are doing matters to the world. It may not be easy but it is totally worth it. There are few feelings as wonderful ad changing the world for the better. Thank you all so much for listening.