A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Ohio for a weekend excursion. The director of the Women's Studies program at my university informed me that I was named Graduate Student of the Year for Women's Studies and that there was a short awards ceremony that I should attend. In preparation for this ceremony I was asked to dress nice, write a short bio of myself for the Dean of Liberal Arts to read, and to briefly say a few grateful words at the ceremony.
As excited and grateful as I was about this honor, I could not help but wonder what my interaction with the Dean of Liberal Arts would be like. Perhaps some background information is necessary here. My university is in Ohio, and Ohio, like so many other states, is facing a lot of economic issues in education. During my last year on campus extreme budget cutbacks were made to Liberal Arts (while the basketball stadium and the Student Union were remodeled, and the basketball team was taking a trip to Italy). Not only were these budget cuts devastating, but they were disturbing. Six program directors, all women, were informed that they were being forced out of their directorships and required to teach additional classes. These women, from fields that happened to focus on minority issues (Women's Studies, African and African-American Studies, International Studies, and so on), were to also be replaced by a new dean of interdisciplinary studies that happened to be a white, heterosexual male as a cost-saving measure and way to increase course enrollment revenue.
Now, perhaps the male that would be replacing them had a strong background in interdisciplinary studies and could discuss minority issues with some level authority and expertise. It was still utterly disturbing that these women were being removed from their leadership roles when they were all six some of the most respected educators on campus. I suppose this is where my relationship with the Dean gets a little tricky. In response to these budget cuts, I worked with three other graduate students as we led multiple protests and demonstrations of civil disobedience on campus – including flooding the Dean's office and taking over an intercom system to read The Vagina Monologues to the entire campus. So my worry about standing with the Dean and listening to him comment on me was well-founded.
Excitedly, I wrote up a short bio of my educational background and my work new work with IRMA and sent it off to my program director. On the trip there I worked tirelessly to remind myself to be respectful, not to worry, and to make sure I remembered to thank my various professors for their impact on my work.
On the day of the event my fiancé and I arrived at the auditorium and I was immediately informed that my bio had been edited, because it did not seem family-friendly enough as it used words like "anal", "rectal", and "sex". Horrified by this reality, I was shuffled on stage and to my seat. Given that I was being honored for Women's Studies I would be the last person receiving my award, since starting with a "W" the program always was at the end for liberal arts ceremonies, which gave me time to either get my visually-angered self calmed down or to let my anger at this injustice grow. I chose the latter.
From my standpoint, and from my program director's viewpoint I might add, ignoring research and discussion because the word "anal" appears is not only ignorant, but is downright dangerous, as any member of IRMA certainly knows. Besides, this is the work that I am doing with my degree, it ought to be celebrated.
So I sat… and sat… and sat. And then the dean called me up to receive my award. He read my censored bio as I smiled for the crowd. Then he asked me to come to the podium to say a few grateful things:
"I'm really happy and thankful to be here today. I'm also really happy that the Dean has given me a chance to talk about my work. Right now I am working for IRMA, International Rectal Microbicide Advocates, to advocate for the development of rectal and vaginal microbicides in the global fight against HIV. I'm very thankful that the education I received here has given me the ability to not be silent, and to actively advocate for proper sexual education as well as access to condoms and safe lubricants for vaginal and anal sex. I mean let's be honest, HIV is still around and unprotected anal sex is major driver of this epidemic because we don't talk about it as actively as we should. Thanks for hearing me out today."
Nobody freaked out. The Dean shook my hand and I received my award. No one walked out or ridiculed me; in fact a few folks told me that they admired my passion. And in all seriousness, I was incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to speak about IRMA to people that likely had not heard of it before. Though to be fair, I had better not ask the Dean for a recommendation letter any time soon.
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