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Delightful dinner conversation at the Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College

Date: March 16, 2010

This past week, I attended the 29th Annual Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College. Since I am local and available, I seem to get invited just about every single year on various panels, but this year I was invited to speak on the topic of disability and sexuality.

There is also a dinner reception on the first day of this conference for organizers, college staff, and presenters each year. I’ve never actually attended the dinner in all those years I’ve been part of the conference, but this year I thought I’d check it out. So I walked into a room full of people I didn’t recognize, and picked a table to join.

It turned out that all four people sitting at the table I picked were administrators at Lewis & Clark who had something to do with the conference. After a quick introduction, they went back to the conversation they were having before I joined the table, which was about the small swastika drawing inside men’s bathroom at the said campus.

To summarize their conversation, they were talking about how students initially did not take the issue seriously, dismissing the drawing as an isolated incident that didn’t mean anything. But the school took time holding campus-wide conversations about the incident and how it might affect Jewish students, students of color and others targeted by the Neo-Nazis and other white supremacy groups, and many white non-Jewish students began to understand that it meant something to some students and should not be tolerated.

“Can I ask a question?” I asked. “Well I was reading the program for this year’s conference, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that all main speakers and performers seem to be white this year. I don’t think this conference was like that in other years I came. Has there been any conversations about that?”

Immediately, a couple of the administrators started stressing, “it was not intentional!” “We noticed that after we planned all the main speakers, but we didn’t do that on purpose. We picked our speakers according to their expertise in this year’s theme, and it was a coincidence that they were all white.”

It wasn’t on purpose? Of course it wasn’t! If I thought it was on purpose, there is no way I would step a foot on this campus ever again (and while this isn’t the main point of this blog post, WTF is up with the name of this school anyway?). And am I supposed to feel comforted because even though all of the main speakers and performers in this conference are white, it was not intentional?

The problem, of course, is not the presence of malicious intent, but the absence of anti-white supremacy intent to create a conference whose speakers and performers are not just competent, but also diverse. It is about the lack of willingness on the part of organizers to go a little bit deeper to find and invite researchers and speakers of color with equal level of expertise and knowledge who are not receiving fair share of attention or status either because of their background or because of the focus of research that white academia deems unimportant.

And if the college is not interested in making an effort to not let very predictable “coincidence” after “coincidence” take place not just in terms of the racial breakdown of the main speakers, but in other aspects as well, what’s the point of hosting Gender Studies Symposium anyway? Besides, how did the administrators fail to see the parallel between the defensiveness of Lewis & Clark College students over the swastika drawing on the urinal and their own defensiveness in response to my query?

To Portland State University Women’s Studies Governing Board re Proposed Name Change

Date: January 24, 2010

January 23, 2010

PSU Women’s Studies Governing Board members,

I am writing you as a former student, instructor, and frequent guest lecturer of Women’s Studies Program at Portland State University regarding the public discussion I attended this past Thursday about the potential change of the Department name.

At the public meeting last Thursday, it became clear from early on that there were two main concerns/interests that the group was trying to balance: first, there was a strong sense among some outspoken participants that the word “women” should remain, in order to honour the Department’s legacy and to resist erasure of women in the rest of academia; second, there was an even stronger feeling among others that the name should be expanded to include gender and sexuality, in order to more fully represent the content of the program as well as to appeal to a broader audience. Both groups quickly acknowledged each other’s arguments, which made the conjuncture, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, a popular alternative.

And then, several women of colour brought up a concern that highly abstract terms like “gender and sexuality studies” alienate members of their families and communities, making it more difficult to recruit and retain women of colour within our program. I felt that their concerns were very relevant and valid, but I did not hear any other people acknowledge them or to offer compromises to address them. I requested a five-minute caucus time for the women of colour in the group because I felt that the “public” in this public meeting ignored and dismissed the real concerns of women of colour who spoke up, and I wanted to hear them better and to strategies how women of colour can have real impact in the process.

The voting took place immediately after the caucus time, and “Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies” was the most popular name, as I had expected. It received many more votes than the second choice, which was to retain “Women’s Studies.” I do understand that there is a need to change the name if only to reflect the presence of sexualities studies curriculum, and suspect that many people expect the Governing Board to go along with the popular will. But given the fact that the split between WGS and “Women’s Studies” went almost along the racial line, with most people in the white majority preferring WGS and most women of colour preferring “Women’s Studies,” I caution against the use of simple majority rule.

At the same time, I do not expect the Governing Board to throw out the most popular choice entirely, along with two years of internal discussions, simply because most women of colour voted against the change. I suggest that the Governing Board adopt the new name: Department of Women’s Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies. This is longer than even the longest proposal that was on the table this past Thursday, but it is the natural compromise between the two top picks from the community, and has the advantages of both: it is inclusive of scholarly explorations into gender and sexuality issues outside of the traditional “women’s studies” framework, while at the same time allowing people to continue to refer to the program casually as “Department of Women’s Studies” as a shorthand.

To be honest, I did not walk into the meeting thinking that I would be sympathetic to the argument for status quo. I am very excited about the expansion of the program into areas of gender, sexuality, and queer theory, and I would have picked something more along the line of WGS if I were to decide it by myself. But after hearing voices of other women of colour, and seeing how the process failed to include and address their concerns, I felt that it was more important for me to stand in solidarity with them than to promote the name that I personally like most. I urge members of the Governing Board to take their/our concerns seriously, and come up with a solution that satisfies their/our needs, possibly but not necessarily along the line of my suggestion.

Sincerely,

Emi Koyama

Fred Phelps visits Portland, Emi counter-counter-protests the counter-protest

Date: November 25, 2008

Today, I spent a cold November morning counter-protesting folks from Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing funerals of anti-gay hate crime victims, U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, and others to promote its homophobic interpretation of the Bible and current events (they argue that the 9/11 attack and hurricane Katrina both happened because of the nation’s acceptance of homosexuality, which I’m sure would surprise Osama bin Ladin). They came all the way to Portland to protest the establishment of Queer Resource Center at Portland State University, and gender-neutral bathrooms.

There were about five people from WBC, holding signs that say stuff like “God Hates You,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and my favourite: one that shows Barack Obama’s face with devilish horns attached, with the word “antichrist” over it. In contrast, there were about 200 students and community members there stretched across two blocks and an empty lot, who also held signs protesting WBC (I love the sign that says “Jesus had two daddies”). You can see the photos from the scene in my Flickr set.

After taking photos and chatting with my friends, I got courageous and walked up to the man I believed to be Fred Phelps Jr. (the senior Fred wasn’t there), and started a conversation.

“So, I think I understand why you don’t approve homosexuality, but what do you have against gender-neutral bathrooms anyway?”

“Well, it promotes something that’s against God.”

“Do you have two separate bathroom for men and women in your house?”

“No, but it locks, so women are safe in there.”

“So gender-neutral bathrooms are okay as long as there’s a lock?”

“You don’t have to call it gender-neutral bathrooms.”

“So the problem is how we call it?”

“It’s about what it promotes. Read Romans 1.”

“Don’t you think it’s easier to have homosexual sex in the bathroom when it’s single-sex?”

“Romans 1.”–and began citing the Bible, abruptly terminating a two-way conversation.

So then, I left “God Hates You” side, crossed the street to re-join “God Loves Everybody” side, who weren’t feeling so loving at that very moment as they chanted,

Hey hey, ho ho, Fred Phelps has got to go!
Hey hey, ho ho, Fred Phelps has got to go!

…which seemed strange, as Phelps actually wasn’t there at all. But soon the mostly white crowd began chanting a new phrase:

Fred Phelps, Ku Klax Klan, We can stop them, yes we can.

Argh. Phelps is pretty horrible indeed, but if he were the Klan we wouldn’t be so certain that we are physically safe enough to openly oppose him. I was irritated and wished that people would stop chanting it after a couple of times, but they didn’t. And it wasn’t one of those times I could pull them aside to have a deep conversation about (in)appropriateness of comparing certain aspects of racist violence with homophobic preachers, since there were dozens of people chanting loudly.

So I shouted “shut the fuck up white people, you don’t know what Klans are like” and walked out of the area. Chanting continued for a couple of more times before it subsided, and a reporter from a local TV station rushed toward me to interview me, thinking that I was a supporter of WBC or something. I ignored them and walked along.

So what if Blacks caused Prop. 8 to pass?

Date: November 19, 2008

This evening, I attended a meeting titled United & Moving Forward, which was convened by Portland Latino Gay Pride, Basic Rights Oregon, and other local LGBT/queer organisations. The discussion was on the outcome of Proposition 8 in California, which amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages, and how communities of colour are unfairly blamed for its passage. I’ve been following similar discussions online for a while, but I was glad to hear from a panel of activists who were actually involved in the campaign against Proposition 8.

On the night of the election, CNN reported on the basis of a small exit poll sample that almost 70% of African-American voters endorsed Proposition 8, leading many in the media to conclude that Black voters, who turned out in record numbers to push Barack Obama into the White House, was responsible for the ban on same-sex marriage, which in turn prompted many angry, often racist statements among (white) gay and lesbian communities that are too depressing to reproduce here (but you know what I am talking about).

At the meeting, a woman from National Gay and Lesbian Task Force explained to the crowd that CNN’s numbers are likely wrong, as it was based on such a small sample of exit polls, and they are working to produce the actual breakdown of Black votes, which appears to be much closer. Many people echoed the sentiment that the media were wrong to portray Black voters as the culprit for denying marriage equality, and we need to challenge those members of our LGBT/queer communities who are lashing out at the wrong people because of the misinformation.

But it concerns me that we are putting so much emphasis on disproving CNN’s numbers. What if they were real? What if 70% of Blacks actually did vote against marriage equality? Does that justify white gays and lesbians lashing out against the entire Black population, even shouting the N-word at them? And doesn’t it say something about the underlying racist bias on the part of white gays and lesbians that white they were so quick to believe the CNN figure in the first place and run with it?

And why is our national leadership so eager to pacify them with “accurate information,” as if the only problem with their racist display of outrage is that they were misinformed? How is it relevant if 50% of Blacks oppose same-sex marriage or 70%–would it become any more acceptable for white gays and lesbians to respond in racist fashion if Black people were in fact disproportionately homophobic?

CNN’s numbers should be challenged, because it is slanderous and harmful to the honour and reputation of Black communities across California. But it is not enough to simply challenge the notion Blacks caused Proposition 8 to pass; the LGBT movement needs to confront ugly bursts of racism within our communities as such, rather than providing excuse for it by pretending that people who lash out are merely misinformed.

Racist Feminism at the National Women’s Studies Association

Date: June 28, 2008

In March, I was invited to speak at the “tribute panel” dedicated to Black feminist thought, especially the work and life of Audre Lorde during the National Women’s Studies Association. I felt honored, and more than slightly intimidated, to be selected to address the importance of Audre Lorde’s work in my own life as well as in the feminist movement at large. Other panelists were Kaila Adia Story (University of Louisville) and Melinda L. de Jesus (California College of the Arts).

It was during my second year of college I was first introduced to the writings of Audre in a Women’s Studies course. Throughout the academic term, students read several articles each week, discussed them in the class, and wrote journal entries that reflect on the week’s readings. Week after week, most of the assigned materials were those written by white, middle-class, straight (or sometimes “political lesbian”) women, and I was having difficulty relating to much of what was being discussed. I kept writing in my journal how I didn’t relate to the reading, but I did not realize it had anything to do with the selection of the materials. I felt bad about being so “negative” about feminism and feminists.

Toward the end of the term, one week was dedicated to the work of “women of color” (yes, a whole week–woo hoo!). If I remember correctly, it consisted of selections from the anthology “This Bridge Called My Back” (Combahee River Collective statement, and I think one of the Cherrie Moraga’s pieces) and Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.” For the first time, these articles spoke to me. They gave voice to my feelings of alienation and frustration that I could not point a finger on. And even though it was just a week out of the entire term, and it is possibly the worst form of tokenism within the discipline, they anchored me to feminism and Women’s Studies to this date. Without “Sister Outsider,” I may not have been a feminist today.
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