Women’s Studies Graduation Speech

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.

 

Social Justice

It feels particularly silly to write 500 words about a topic as serious as this. And about a topic that I try to make so central to my life. Perhaps when you are so close to it you have endless things to say about it. Or perhaps you have very little to say about it because you are living it each and every day. Social justice should be in the very air that we breathe. But sadly it is not. In fact, we breathe in the foul-smelling smog of inequality, hate and greed all day long.

Let’s start with what social justice is not. It is not hatred, bigotry or prejudice. It is not oppression. It is not ignorance. It is not living thoughtlessly and carelessly. It is not living an unexamined life. It is not giving in to the status quo. It is not living in a state of social unconscious. It is not being unkind or being cruel. It is not hoarding everything to yourself. It is not being greedy. It is not being selfish. It is not living only for yourself. It is not cowering in fear or being eternally afraid to stick your neck out. It is not letting things go or refusing to act in instances of injustice.

Now let’s talk about what social justice is. It is, first and foremost, love, sensitivity, kindness and gentleness. It is a radical redistribution of money, resources and opportunities. It is equity, fairness and egalitarianism. It is caring, giving and sharing. It is living a meaningful life in which you examine and explore your actions and beliefs. It is integrity, honesty and a passion for truthfulness. It is living in a community, living for both yourself and for others. It is about collectivity and living in a world where every person is cherished, valued and celebrated. It is about engendering a society where dignity and respect are the norm. It is about being bold, about speaking out against injustice and about taking actions even when you are very afraid.

I learned to yearn for social justice on the playground. I was bullied and terrorized for being different. I learned to yearn for social justice when I attended an elite private school as a working-class student. I learned to yearn for social justice as a first-generation college student. I learned to yearn for social justice when I came out as queer and transgender. I learned to yearn for social justice when I began to walk through the world as a person of size. I learned to yearn for social justice when I became disabled and fought mightily against mental illness.

These experiences have shaped who I am. They have made me a feminist, an anti-racist and economic justice advocate, a size acceptance organizer, an LGBTQ+ liberationist and a disability justice activist. All of these together fall under the banner of social justice. I am a social justice practitioner. As time goes by, it becomes a bigger and bigger part of who I am. I can’t not be a social justice person. I can’t see the injustices all around us and not be outraged by them. A reader might think this is a burden. It is a responsibility to be sure, but it is not something I would ever change. There is a truism that I often say in my classes: Social justice is painful and joyful. But the work is worth the pain because you know you are fighting for what’s right. Struggling for social justice creates its own special and irreplaceable reward.

 

Empowerment

When I entered my undergrad, I entered as a traumatized young person. I had just come off of 12 years of severe bullying in elementary school, junior high and high school. I knew I was transgender by this time and in fact had come out to a therapist in Grade 12. I knew that I was in rough shape and that the bullying had an effect, but had no idea just how big of an effect it was. I had zero self-confidence and very little self-esteem. I was in a deep depression and immediately started therapy and went on medication my first year of college.

In 1993, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to take a couple of Women’s Studies courses. I later went on to declare a major. Women’s Studies not only changed my life, it saved my life. I needed a shot of self-esteem and Women’s Studies provided that. It also coincided with my coming out as transgender. I learned that I was a member of a minority group and that I basically had two choices. I could be a victim of my oppression and internalize it, or I could become an empowered minority-group person.

I chose to become empowered and it has made all the difference in the world for my life and my journey. Empowerment is when targeted group members refuse to accept the dominant ideology about their group, reject their subordinate status and take actions to redistribute social power more equitably, i.e. to work for social justice and liberation. Empowerment is the opposite of internalized oppression, which is when targeted group members internalize dominant messages and hegemonic ideologies about their social group and suffer the consequences of this insidious internalization. Empowerment is thus an A-mazing concept [meaning without a maze] in that we are able to make our way through the maze of lies and web of deception to see the truth about our own worth and value. Empowerment dovetails with the concept of self-actualization, a term from Psychology which is the drive present in all people to realize or fulfill their talents and full potential. To self-actualize, we must become empowered. We cannot be dragged down by internalized oppression.

Being empowered is not a one-time event. It is not a destination but a journey. It is not something you simply and totally acquire but something you are constantly in the process of obtaining. There have many ebbs and flows in my own journey of empowerment. The discrimination of the society is unrelenting. We are flooded with negative images and messages about transgender people. I am affected by these ideologies. Other than living under a rock, there is no way to not be impacted by these forces. So it is not being unaffected by these messages, it is what you do with them. When you are trying to become empowered, you need a tool kit for critical thinking skills and critical literacy. Empowered is partially about social justice activism but it also very much about active thinking and quiet reflection. The colonization of minds is just as real as the colonization of bodies. We must de-colonize our minds in order to be on the journey of empowerment.

I am so thankful that Women’s Studies provided me with the critical tool kit and activist instruction to resist my own oppression. It has provided the theory and the praxis I need to challenge the many negative things said about the targeted social groups that I belong to. Whatever the source, it is my hope that all oppressed people will find a way to sharpen their critical consciousness and that that will lead to working for social justice, which is a vision of society in which there is a radical distribution of resources that leads to a time when everyone in society is physically and psychologically safe and secure.

 

Laughter

Laughter is an instant vacation. – Milton Berle

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter. – e.e. cummings

In writing previously about hope, it occurs to me that one thing I didn’t mention was laughter. Laughter makes hope easier, more possible. Laughter is the gateway to hope, and an antidote to fear. While I am not the best at cracking jokes per se, I definitely have a good sense of humor and like to laugh. Sometimes people get the wrong impression about me because I am an activist and social justice practitioner. I also am a feminist and a Women’s Studies professor. Feminist are thought to be dour and humorless. In actuality, feminists are some of the funniest people I know. We have to be. After all, we are doing battle with the patriarchy, and that is no small feat!

One of the most important things for me about laughing is that the laughing does not involve the dehumanization of any individual or group. Too much humor punches down rather than punching up. Humor that punches down routinely goes after women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, poor people, people of size, old people, religious minorities and people with disabilities. Given how oppressed these groups are, “humor” against members of these groups functions to further press them downward and perpetuate status quo power relations. Humor can still be funny and not go after any specific group. Poking fun at people in the dominant groups can be sharp analyses of the power structure and the unfair privileges that these people receive.

Queer people are often very funny. I feel that members of oppressed groups are often funnier out of necessity. Due to the pervasive prejudice and discrimination we face, we must develop coping strategies to survive. One of these coping strategies is being funny and frequently laughing. Laughing is a medicine that is free and readily available. Life can seem less harrowing when you can laugh and make other people laugh. Stand-up comics can be very hateful and bigoted, but others don’t rely on degradation for their humor and can be fantastic. Queers have a long history of “camp” humor, humorous drag performances and there are many fabulous queer stand-up comics. I think queers also often have a sarcastic or sardonic sense of humor that also reflects our difficult life circumstances. This humor is a healthy outlet of expression and freedom.

I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder. While laughter is no cure for this serious condition, it can help to lift the symptoms, at least for me. I am thankful for every laugh that each day brings. This is one way to practice gratitude. Laughter can be taken for granted; it shouldn’t be. And the ability to make other people laugh is a true gift. I marvel at some people’s wicked senses of humor. Without thinking, they can make jokes about the most mundane of circumstances. They often don’t know how much their humor can benefit people who are suffering. So many people with depression and other mental health challenges are suffering in silence. Laughter can be, as the quote above states, an instant vacation. It can jolt somebody out of their current despair and provide hope. Thank the Universe for every laugh you have every day and remember that the silly joke you crack could be a healing balm on somebody’s else’s soul. It could even be a life-saver. Namaste.

 

Hope

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” – Emily Dickinson

I love this quote. Hope is intrinsic to the human condition. I cannot imagine a human race without the splendid thing known as hope. I ended my last post with hope because hope is a prime antidote to fear. Hope can help to quell our fears. It is a positive emotion that can make people happy, exhilarated, more certain and less anxious. My life hasn’t been the easiest for a variety of reasons. But it is a life with a lot of meaning and a lot of searching for meaning, which I see as infinitely more important than mere happiness. Hope has been the thing which has enabled me to get through all the adversity. In this post I would like to cover hope as defined by four different things: 1) hope as an antidote to fear 2) hope as a teacher of history 3) hope as a way to dream and envision the present and the future 4) hope as a motivator to act and fight.

Hope is an antidote to fear: Fear-mongering is the reality of our time. This is particularly true for people from marginalized groups. We have become subject to the forces of those who wish to make us constantly afraid. Fear is an immobilizing force. Hope is the thing that helps to pull us out of the doldrums. It works against fear by showing us the positive things that are happening and that are possible. While I think fear is a basic human emotion, I do not think we were meant to spent our whole lives immersed in fear. Hope is what we should be immersed in. The next time you feel afraid about something, consider asking yourself: how can I find hope in the face of this fear? There is no scarcity of hope; it is plentiful and abundant.

Hope teaches about history because it forces us to consider the lived experiences of our ancestors, both those by blood and otherwise. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. People in the past faced enormous challenges. People in the present face similar and different problems. We can learn about family members and activist figures and use them as a source of hope. Many members of my family in the past faced extreme poverty. I marvel at the fact that they were able to move forward from this place of poverty to carve out working-class lives and raise families. We can look to someone like MLK who faced enormous violence, being jailed and cultural opposition and yet still managed to accomplish a tremendous amount in terms of changing laws and changing hearts and minds in the American populace. If we let it, the quest for hope can teach us about our history, and how people overcame obstacles to accomplish great things, or even to just survive in the face of poverty, violence and discrimination.

Hope enables us to dream and to envision. The world around us is not the way it has to be, and certainly is not the way it should be. We need to change the world, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Hope is like fuel for the car; it makes us run. Hope helps us to dream about what has not yet been. And it helps us to envision radical alternatives to the status quo. Hope can be harnessed and used to provide a blueprint for the future. Hope is not a maudlin fantasy. It is a very real tool that stimulates our brains to discover new ways of living, of being and of inter-being. How wonderful that there is an infinite supply of hope to inspire us to fight for the dawning of a new world. Hope infuses our activism with spirituality, and I believe this is what is needed for the activism of the new millennium.

Finally, hope is a motivator to act and fight. It is not enough to dream and envision. We must then take our hopeful blueprints and transform them into concrete action. This is the stage where hope cajoles us into taking action, into fulfilling our God-given directive to be change agents and to repair the world. Tikkun olam, literally meaning “repair of the world” in Hebrew, is a concept in Judaism that encourages people to act constructively and to behave in ways that are beneficial to the world we live in. We can’t reach this aspiration if we are motivated by fear or hate. We must be motivated by hope. We must lead with love. From fighting fear, to resurrecting history, to producing a blueprint and pushing us into action, hope is an entity that will transform us and transform the world simultaneously.

I leave with a question: How can we harness the power of hope today to take one small, concrete step to improve the world for someone else, to be a hopeful blessing to them?

 

Fear

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am afraid of failing with this project. And it is not just some irrational, theoretical fear. It is based on lots of previous experiences. I tried to keep a spiritual journal in 2017 and failed miserably as I started to write fewer and fewer entries. But as I worry about failure, as I am fearful I will fail, I am also determined to hold myself in compassion. The world won’t end if I don’t complete a Blog entry. It will be more of an internal disappointment, as developing greater discipline is important to me, and writing itself is life-giving to me.

Fear is many things. It is: anxiousness, trepidation, terror, fright, alarm, panic, dread and many more feelings. It is a basic human emotion. I categorically reject the notion that we should not be fearful, that we should rid fear from our lives or try to rise above fear. It is OKAY to feel fear. We would lose a part of our humanity if we did not feel fear. Being fearful is a part of who we are. Fear is not something I wish to eliminate from my life. And I couldn’t even if I wanted to. The “no fear” mantra is patently ridiculous in my view. Fear can be a great teacher. We can learn from fear. We need to listen to what it is telling us. Fear could potentially save our lives, or at least promote actions that make us vigilant about the situations we face on this journey called life.

It’s not having the fear in and of itself, it’s what you do with it. Fear becomes an obstacle if we allow it to stop us. As mentioned, I am fearful about this blog and the regular completion of entries. However, I am trying to not let the fear stop me. I can work through the fear, acknowledge it, but not let it deter me from my goals. It is certainly true that we can become a prisoner to fear. It can be all-encompassing and can paralyze. It can make us indecisive. And we must respond to our own fear and the fear of others with great compassion and understanding, even if we think their fear is irrational. Not all fear makes sense. But feelings are feelings and we must honor and validate people’s feelings and especially honor our own feelings.

I am afraid when people make overtly bigoted remarks. I often am not sure how to proceed. As someone dedicated to social justice, I feel a need to respond and not let it go. As some who fears confrontation, I do not want to hurt the person’s feelings, make them defensive or angry or make them shut down. There is no easy answer to these situations. When someone is confronted, called out or called in, they may respond with fear themselves. It is tempting to lash out, but ideally there should be compassion for both parties. Often the person making the offending remark is doing it without malice. This is not to excuse it, but to humanize the person who says something problematic.

Fear is such an important topic, including in the context of my own life, that it needs two entries. Tomorrow I will write about fear and queerness, as being queer in and of itself raises a lot of issues of fear. In summation, own your fear. You are human and have a right to be fearful. But if it stands in the way of your goals or dreams, try to work through the fear. Not conquer it, but feel your power and attempt to do what you need to do in the face of the fear.