05 March 2013

Help! I'm... a feminist romance reader?

This post was written by guest writer Adrienne. She is attending Texas A&M for her Ph.D., where her specialty is detective fiction. She's also a reader of romance.

So so sorry for the long delay. I'm done with the move and have my life back!

Like many other women, I grew up reading romance novels. My family are all very heavy readers, and amidst all types of books, my mother read romances. One of my few fairly useless super powers is the ability to read way too quickly for my own good (my ability to resist mosquitoes is far far more useful). I never could check out enough books from the library, and so I started picking up my parent's books. Eventually my mother discovered and tried to stop my romance nabbing ways.

Now, I'm fairly sure that the reason my mother got upset that I was reading them was because of the *gasp* sexual content. And years later, I regret reading the novels and would never recommend most romances to young girls, but not for the same reason as my mother. These novels gave me a completely unrealistic and unhealthy outlook on sex, myself, and relationships. I do think that readers of romance have a far more complex relationship with the subject matter than previously imagined.1 Subject matter and ideology is not consumed uncritically. Women frequently twist and turn content to create a more realistic or more personal fantasy. I do not want to suggest that my experience was the same as all young girl's when reading romances, or that my experience was wholly naive, shallow, or one-leveled, and yet it was and probably still is a damaging experience. The romance novels reflect and create (in a nice circle as most literature does) cultural norms and expectations about love, relationships, and sex.

Let me summarize the romance: once upon a time, there was a very special woman who was going through some difficult problems, and she met a very special man who had something missing from his life. They met, gave each other what the other was lacking (for the woman- usually some type of fix to her problem, for the man- usually teaching him to love), they had sublime awesome sex, and lived happily ever after for the rest of their lives.

I'm being both mean and nice in my description, I think. I'm purposefully leaving out many of the most problematic and sexist aspects in order to describe as many types of romances as possible and in some delusional attempt to be fair. I'm also very aware that I'm leaving out many of the ways romance subvert or attempt to subvert gender roles, patriarchy, and traditional relationships.

The lessons that I learned from the hundreds of romances I read? 1) that an individual is incomplete, 2) I'm only important because I'm super special (a princess, a sad orphan abandoned by everyone and now chased by someone powerful and evil, a slave with super brain powers and the heart of gold, etc), 3) that sex is perfect and completely mind blowing (and man was I excited about this), 4) that love is only real if it's forever, and 5) that my future partner has to continually sweep me off my feet. If I wanted to be really and truly honest with myself, I would say that I still struggle with each and every one of these concepts even though my head understands that all of them are complete and utter bullshit. On the upside, I think contemporary romance novels (specifically certain types like chick lit and paranormal) are trying (keyword: trying) to combat a few of these: specifically 1, 2, and 4.

I'm going to use Sandra Booth's sub-genre summaries to explore movements from the 70s onward. The traditional romance prominent in the 1970s and frequently returned to through the decades has an amoral stock hero and a virginal and virtuous heroine.2 This reinforces gender stereotypes and promotes a culture in which un-angelic women (adventurous, sexual, etc) are bad women and therefore undeserving of protection from rape (frequently "asking for it").3

Romance frequently makes force, coercion, or men's lack of sexual control sexy and romantic. And that's so dangerous. Obvious, right? Apparently not. Yes, it is a fantasy. And as many critics have said- it's important to think of this as a fantasy and to accept that women don't uncritically consume this. But these are published and consumed in a rape culture. We don't usually fantasize about things completely related OR completely unrelated to us.

Romance in the 80s began to more frequently lessen gender stereotypes and weaken these rape myths. The hero moved from being amoral to "following the heroine's moral 'norm'" (96). Paranormal romance and humorous feminist romance began to emerge in large numbers during the 90s. Originally (as Sandra Booth contends) the paranormal was a regressive return to angel/monster dichotomy4 and humorous romance was the successful feminist and anti-patriarchal romance sub-genre.

I'm happy to say, that I think paranormal is slowly becoming a sub-genre in which some of the most exciting queer or feminist romances can currently be found. One of the reasons that paranormal is such a hopeful and interesting place for progressive work is the desire (and semi-ability) to create a social structure outside of normal (aka heteronormative patriarchal) structure. Society can have totally different rules- e.g. it can be matriarchal or androgynous.

Although Lynn Coddington wants us to believe that romances aren't "formulaic" and are wrongly assumed to be "universally badly written," I only partially agree with her (62). As with most popular culture, there is an erroneous assumption that romance isn't art and therefore isn't well written. That's utter crap. And crap a lot of us believe. Our dear blog mistress (and my dear friend) Courtney recently told me how surprised she was to enjoy Gail Carriger's parasol series because she assumed most of "that type" of fiction was badly written. There are many romance authors that are beautiful writers. But not formulaic? I just don't buy it. I've read thousands. And while yes... there are some surprises, some diversity... publishers still pay very close attention to what is in demand and what formula is currently popular. There are formulas. And when we read that formula over and over again, surely we start to believe and internalize the formula. For Coddington, "Romances are not all the same. They do not construct gender relations in uniform way, and they do not tell trivial stories. They represent a range of possible gender constructions," and I call bullshit (66). That range of possibilities only cover a few feet on a mile long continuum of gender constructions. And the idea that we've created some possibilities for women so we can stop is a very damaging and complacent place.

But there are some romance novels that I applaud. Because this is long already, I'm going to pick three from paranormal detective/romance that I'm excited about. I'd love readers to respond with other genres, sub-genres, and/or specific authors which respond to the issues I've raised in this post.
Laurell K.Hamilton. I found Guilty Pleasures in the young adult section of my library when I was in jr. high . I've been a fan ever since. Although problematic in many ways (writing, editing, etc), I applaud her for creating a powerful female who has frequently focused on her job. They're decidedly non-monogamous, they definitely challenge concepts about the monster/angel dichotomy, and they're sexy. Packed full of all different sorts of sex. I actually wish reader response wouldn't jump so frequently on the "OMG she's a slut" bandwagon. I wish the books were more glbtia friendly (although there seems to be a nice move that way). And I hold my breath because the baby discussion has come up a few times now. Child free by choice... please don't leave me now.
One of my favorites is Charlaine Harris's works- all of them not just the Sookie Stackhouse series. The trend to not have one relationship, not be happily ever after, is one of the most successful and prevalent in recent work. In the Sookie series, she dates, it doesn't work, they break up. She's single sometimes, and she's in different relationships other times. It's a nice pattern, a realistic pattern. The Grave series deals with issues of incest, questions social stigmas in relationships, and plays with the concept of female community and female victimhood. The Shakespeare series very purposefully focuses on abuse.

Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series. This series deals with questions of class, race, gender, sexual orientation galore. Talk about novels that question authority, structural patriarchy, and male power. They also have interesting sexual dynamics, and create not just a strong heroine but a strong community of characters. There is continuously more of a focus on peer and friend relationships over romantic relationships.
These definitely fight misconceptions about love and relationships that I raised earlier including that love is forever and that an individual is incomplete without a partner. Paranormal romances are definitely not good at addressing the "special" problem (paranormal heroines are usually the only vampire/werewolf hybrid or the long lost fairie or the alien queen), but other types of romances have more successfully addressed this. I would also like to see more novels that portrays sex as realistic - less "holy crap mindblowing can't think of anything during sex but that sex is awesome." We all know that sometimes in the middle of sex we think "Oh shit, is the oven on?", and that's okay.

As I've been thinking about and reading up on romance, I've discovered that romances also helped me learn that 1) I can be an empowered woman, 2) I can be sex-positive, 3) women can be subjects and women-focused, and 4) women's bodies are beautiful. I'm excited and hopeful for a positive progression that leans towards these lessons with less of the negativity that for so long has accompanied the romance.

I also applaud romance for being a genre written by women for women. And romance is a wonderfully give and take process.5 Indeed, the few blogs of romance authors that I check out occasionally, have a far more interactive author/fan base than the general literature/fiction author has.

I want more out of the romance genre. And I want other fans and authors to understand and want more as well. We deserve it.

Further reading on being a feminist romance reader:

There are a number of resources about being a feminist and a romance reader like Kay Mussell's interview: Are Feminism & Romance Novels Incompatible , Catherine Asaro's response to the same question, College Candy's Defense of Romance Novels, and of course Smart Bitches Trashy Books has taken up this issue a number of times including Feminism is a Dirty Word and their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms.


1 This has been suggested in work on the romance genre by scholars such as Lynn Coddington, Janice Radway, and Laura Kinsale.
2 Sandra Booth explains that the traditional romance "acts as a vehicle to display the heroine's virtue... The hero [amoral and unstoppable] acts as a foil to the heroine who is presented as the moral 'norm.' Because she must assert and protect her virtue, the heroine in the traditional romance is often presented as passive, self-sacrificing, and virginal" (94-95).
3 Also Tania Modelski points out that "The myth that men are unable to control their sexual drive beyond a point and that women lead men on- and so deserve what they get- by accepting romantic or sexual overtures from them is a myth that has all too often proved lethal to women" (17).
4 The construct where the heroine is angelic and perfect, and the hero is monstrous and violent. Very Beauty and the Beast esque. Only we know that the Beast really is a monster and doesn't have this shining heart of gold.
5 Lee Tabin-McClain points out that "Romance formulae differ from earlier generic patterns in that they change based on intensive publisher research into reader preference... other aspects of romance fiction give it a sense of a collective authorship" (296).


Booth, Sandra. "Paradox in Popular Romances of the 1990s: The Paranormal Versus Feminist Humor." Paradoxa 3 (1997): 94-106.

Coddington, Lynn. "Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre." Paradoxa 3 (1997): 58-77.

Modleski, Tania. "My Life as a Romance Reader." Paradoxa 3 (1997): 15-28.

Modleski, Tania. "My Life as a Romance Writer." Paradoxa 4 (1998): 134-147.

Tobin-McClain, Lee. "Paranormal Romance: Secrets of the Female Fantastic." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 11 (2000): 294-306.

10 July 2011

New website is serious business.

I've moved! I have my own website now, www.austintotamu.com.

This site will remain live as an archive, so feel free to browse. If you'd like to contact me, see the link on the new site.


01 July 2011

Steampunk, Tech, and TARDISes: A Cosplay Tale

Cross-posted at Geek Feminism.

So the idea of my cosplay project (which I have completed a big chunk of, but am putting on the shelf for a bit, so that I can mull it over in my subconscious) was pretty simple. Most people give these very simplistic answers about their motivations for their cosplay: it's fun, it's for the pure love of the show, it's about hanging out with other fans, I like the character, I like the character's costume, etc. I suspect, like most fan scholars, that something more complicated than those reasons go into cosplayers' decision-making. So I chose a particular cosplay trend—women cosplaying as the Doctor—and tried to get beyond those reasons, both through interviewing and by "reading" the costumes. Which, of course, has all got me thinking about my own motivations and decisions in the cosplay I wore to Gally. Obviously, the premise of my project is that cosplayers don't necessarily consciously know all the reasons they make the decisions they make in their cosplay, and I don't consider myself an exception to that premise. In fact, I knew I wasn't sure what it was about a steampunk TARDIS dress that held such a fascination with me. I only knew, as I told a friend at the time, that if I could dress as the TARDIS and wear a bustle at the same time, I'd be a happy lady.

Bustle time! Me in my steampunk TARDIS dress at Gally 2010. The dress consists of a white button up shirt, navy blue corset with appliqued windows, navy blue skirt with panels and a screen-printed "POLICE TELEPHONE" sign, navy blue bustle, and black headband with "POLICE PUBLIC PHONE BOX" painted in white.
When I started this project, I thought that my motivations for the TARDIS dress were mostly gender-related. After all, gender is something I think about a lot. When I met another TARDIS dress cosplayer at Gally, Niki la Teer, we chatted about how many TARDIS cosplays are not just women, but women wearing very femme costumes. I asked her if she interprets the TARDIS as female, and she said the TARDIS would be 
"definitely female. [...] The way the Doctor talks about the TARDIS, talks to the TARDIS. Assuming the Doctor is straight, of course, you never know." 
My own cosplay was very femme, and I share Niki's interpretation. Obviously, the TARDIS as female (and romantic companion of the Doctor) is now canon, with the wonderful Neil Gaiman episode "The Doctor's Wife." But this is an obvious example of one of my hypotheses in my project: namely, that cosplayers' costumes and choices reflect their personal interpretations of Doctor Who. In this case, we can surmise that women dressing as femme TARDISes interpret the TARDIS as a femme woman.

Me and Niki la Teer at Gally 2010. Niki is wearing a bright blue 50s-style flare dress, with repeating panels on all sides, topped by a navy-trimmed white cropped jacket. Not pictured is her cute hat, which is a pillbox designed to look like the light on the top of the TARDIS.
Niki dressed as a 50s-style TARDIS because that's the period from which the police box originated. As someone whose research interests mostly lie in the contemporary manifestations of the 19th century (mostly contemporary Jane Austens and neo-Victorianisms), steampunk is naturally fascinating to me. But I don't think this fascination is the reason I chose steampunk, or a Victorian-esque design for my TARDIS cosplay. What is it about steampunk and Doctor Who that seemed to combine so deliciously? And why the TARDIS? Why didn't I opt for a steampunk femme 10th Doctor (an option I considered briefly)? The answer seems to lie in the steampunk aesthetic itself.
So what is steampunk? What defines its aesthetic? Annoyingly, steampunk defies definition. One part Victorianism, one part science fiction, one part magic, and found in literary and material manifestations, in costuming/fashion, in film and in graphic novels, steampunk seems easy to identify and hard to define; รก la Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it. Or when we are faced with an overabundance of cogs.

Brass and wood steampunk laptop with turn key and brass pedestal feet, modded by Datamancer.
My favorite (non) definition of steampunk comes from Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall, in their introduction to the special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies on steampunk. They claims that steampunk "seems precisely to illustrate, and perhaps even perform, a kind of cultural memory work, wherein our projections and fantasies about the Victorian era meet the tropes and techniques of science fiction, to produce a genre that revels in anachronism while exposing history's overlapping layers" (1). What does that mean, exactly? Steampunk is, firstly, not about the Victorian era (or the American 19th century, an increasingly popular setting in steampunk), but about a nostalgic vision of that era, populated by our "projections and fantasies." That's why steampunk costumers do things that would seem utterly bizarre to actual Victorians, like wear dresses made of all one fabric and color, or wear their corsets on the outside. Steampunk presents a romantic view of the past. Further, steampunk is not just historical fiction, a category that's been around for a much longer time, but Victorian nostalgia mixed with the "tropes and techniques of science fiction." This is appropriate, since science as an institution and science fiction as a distinct literary category both came into being in England in the late Victorian era. But the key part of this definition is this: "a genre that revels in anachronism while exposing history's overlapping layers." Steampunk is, according to Bowser and Croxall, anachronism, temporal hybridity. Steampunk, in all its manifestations, is about blending historical time periods. According to Bowser and Croxall, it
"asks us, perhaps via its material culture even more than through its fictional instantiations, to consider the apparent disjunction of a turn-key starter and a laptop computer. Then steampunk asks us to look harder and apprehend their aesthetic compatibility. Calling it aesthetic compatibility may, in fact, understate the point. In the laptop, modded by the technical artist Datamancer (Richard R. Nagy), the compatibility is operational: turning the key actually boots the machine. We might say steampunk takes the paradigm one step further and asks what happens when the markers of various time periods are estranged from their contexts and made simultaneous. [...] The point of modding your laptop to look like a turn-of-the-previous-century machine is not to create an object so radically mashed-up that one cannot discern its functionality, but to discover their aesthetic commonalities, to blend them in a way that verges on cancelling [sic] the difference" (6-7).
Basically, then, steampunk takes the past and combines it with the present, precisely to erase the differences between the two. "This approach to temporality," Bowser and Croxall claim, "has the simultaneous and paradoxical effect of minimising the categorical differences between time periods. Steampunk illuminates the compatibility of laptops and brass, of steam engines and nanotechnology. Steampunk insists, in other words, on our continuing status as 'other Victorians' and does so in part through a manipulation of temporality that in its very machinations invokes the temporal revisions and reversals of the Victorian era" (10). Our belief that we are like the Victorians is what makes steampunk so very appealing; it projects a compatibility between us and the Victorians, between our culture and the (Western) culture(s) of the 19th century, between our technology and the inventions of the Victorian era.
Promo shot for "The Next Doctor," picturing Mrs. Hartigan in a red Victorian gown with parasol, the Doctor, the "next" Doctor (Jackson Lake) in a red patterned vest, gold cravat, and tan overcoat, and Rosita (his assistant) in a brown and gold patterned dress over white shirtsleeves.
Doctor Who is a show that, similarly, revels in temporal anachronism. This is a show that likes to take us back to the past and remind us of our compatibility with that past. Russell T. Davies's era, in particular, rather enjoyed jaunts to the past, and had a love affair with the Victorian era. Notable examples of traveling into the past in the RTD era are "The Unquiet Dead" (1869), "The Empty Child" (London, the Blitz), "The Girl in the Fireplace" (France, 1727), "Tooth and Claw" (Scottish moors, 1879), "The Shakespeare Code" (London, 1599), "The Daleks in Manhattan" (New York City, 1930), "Human Nature" (England, 1913), "The Fires of Pompeii" (Pompeii, 79), and "The Unicorn and the Wasp" (England, 1926). Going back in time is not intended to alienate the audience from the past. Rather, these episodes are characterized (like steampunk) by multiple anachronisms, multiple simultaneous meanings, and play.
Giant steam-powered Cyberking, rampaging the city of London and coming into contact with the TARDIS hot air balloon.
Further, the hero/ines of steampunk are usually tinkerers, inventors, and adventurers, all categories into which the Doctor undoubtedly fits. The compatibility of steampunk with Doctor Who is something that even the writers seemed to recognize in the production of "The Next Doctor," set in London in the 19th century, in which the Doctor finds himself once again fighting the Cybermen, who construct a giant steam-powered Cyberking. 

In this episode, Doctor Who becomes translated in a steampunk version of itself, in which the Doctor carries an actual screwdriver, flies in a hot air balloon, and wears a spiffy vest and cravat. He fights the same enemies, but they are now steam-powered. Doctor Who works in the steampunk mode because that mode and its own normal operations are very similar; the tinkerer/inventor Doctor is not that different from most steampunk hero/ines and anachronism is definitional to both.

But, as I pointed out, a steampunk TARDIS seemed so much better to me than a steampunk Doctor (although I'm still considering a steampunk femme 10th Doctor for another con). That may be because the most important thing in steampunk is not the bustles or the brown, but the tech. Steampunk has been described as a response to modern technology that has become sleek, small, and boring, exemplified by the iPhone or iPod. Contemporary technology is not only boring, it's a black box. It's outside gives no clue as to what it does or how it works, and it's impenetrable. Not literally, obviously, but our own culture makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the layman to tinker with hir own tech. DRMs, EULAs, and warranties all reflect a certain attitude about how appropriate it is to bust open your technology and mess around with it, and the non-mechanical nature of tech like iPods, computers, and cell phones make it difficult for most people to learn how to tinker with it anyway. This isn't just frustrating, it alienates people from the tech that literally shapes many people's lives. As I mentioned before, steampunk hero/ines are usually tinkerers; Bowser and Croxall argue that the high-adventuring hero/ines of steampunk "not only [...] build their own devices, but also [...] discover and develop the science behind them" (20). Steampunk "stages a rejection of received notions about how technology should be treated and who should discover, make, or modify it" (21).

The inside of the TARDIS from the Russell T. Davies era of the show.
Steampunk, then, remakes and reimagines technology. The cogs everywhere in steampunk art and attire are not merely decorative (even when they are decorative), but signal to the importance that mechanical and visible tech in the steampunk aesthetic. Steampunk tech is big, bulky, and its works are highly visible, with cogs, gears, and inner workings proudly on display. This tech is no black box. Scott Westerfield, author of Leviathan, claims that "the Internet is global and seemingly omniscient, while iPods and phones are all microscopic workings encased in plastic blobjects. [...] Compare that to a steam engine, where you can watch the pistons move and feel the heat of its boilers. I think we miss that visceral appeal of the machine" (qtd. in Grossman). Tech in steampunk becomes not just visible and workable, but difficult. Sean Orlando of Kinetic Steam Works claims that steampunk is for "people who want to struggle, lift and heave their technology" (Farivar). Apple gives us toys that are silver, slick, easy to use, and difficult to tinker with. Steampunk gives us something different: tech that is bronze, dirty, difficult, dangerous, and endlessly tinkerable. 

The inside of the TARDIS for the current Doctor Who era.
If that's the case, then my choice of the TARDIS is no surprise, particularly when I think about how important I thought it was to sew some gold and silver clock parts onto the skirt and the white shirt. (I finished the costume right before the con, literally in the hotel, so I haven't finished this detail yet.) The TARDIS is not a perfect example of the steampunk aesthetic, since its many visible parts are a bit inscrutable to human companions, but it is steampunk to the Doctor. It's a very manual machine, requiring a lot of running around the console and pushing buttons, flipping large switches, and occasionally giving it a good thump, and it's parts are all highly visible, with so many knobs, buttons, and curiosities about. (This is true about both the TARDISes from the new series, though the 9th and 10th Doctors' TARDISes have more of a steampunk aesthetic in color scheme, since the machine has more faded, rather than shiny, colors, and is more navy, rather than bright, on the outside and bronze on the inside..) Further, we can see it work in the same way we can see the steam engine's pistons work. When the Doctor finally flips the switch, the movement in the center of the console and the loud noise the machine makes are both radical departures from the way our modern technology works. The TARDIS is certainly visceral, dangerous, and tangible in a way that a smartphone simply can't be.

This is not all to argue that Doctor Who is steampunk. In fact, I don't think that is true. Rather, I think Doctor Who is compatible with steampunk, and shares some of its aesthetic concerns. The Doctor is easily reimagined as a steampunk hero, and the TARDIS as steampunk technology. They both use the past to understand the present and future, and tend to collapse the categorical differences between time periods. 

The best part is not that they are compatible, though, but that my interpretation of them as compatible is visible in my cosplay and my thought process as I constructed it. Every choice I made reflected the ways in which I thought steampunk and Doctor Who meshed and the ways in which I thought they didn't. (For example, I didn't wear spats or heels, but black TOMS shoes, since the 10th Doctor wears Converse shoes, and that, at least for footwear, function and comfort are more important in Doctor Who than prettiness.) Cosplay has the potential to show us much more than what characters a cosplayer likes, identifies with, or appreciates the costumes of. It can tell us more than "I love Doctor Who." If we look hard enough, we can read whole arguments and interpretations in cosplay. Fashion, after all, speaks volumes.

Works Cited
Bowser, Rachel A., and Brian Croxall. "Introduction: Industrial Evolution." Neo-Victorian Studies 3.1 (2010): 1-45. Neo-Victorian Studies. Web. 17 June 2011. 

Farivar, Cyrus. "Steampunk Brings Victorian Flair to the 21st Century." NPR. All Things Considered. National Public Radio, 6 February 2008. Web. Accessed 17 June 2011.

Grossman, Lev. "Steampunk: Reclaiming Tech for the Masses." Time Magazine. Time Inc., 14 December 2009. Web. Accessed 17 June 2011.

la Teer, Niki. Personal interview. 19 February 2011.

22 June 2011

Text size change

Hey all. I'm going to start publishing my posts in a larger font. I noticed my original font was tiny, and I wanted to make the blog more accessible to those who have trouble seeing small fonts.  I'll be going back over the next week or so to republish all my old posts in the larger font. Cheers!

18 June 2011

Well, goddamnit.

So, I haven't been around. Again. I'm sorry about that. I promised you a Doctor Who post! And a Doctor Who post you shall have.

Right now, I'm looking forward to homelessness at the end of next month (assuming I can even pay my rent next month, and my electricity isn't cut off at the end of this one). So, I've been doing a lot of crying. And hoping I can ask friends for money instead of my mother, because she'll be just awful about it.

I told my friends I'm not moving to Austin after all because I met a boy, because it's partially true, and because "I'm too broke to eat, much less move" sounded so much more pathetic. I'm about to have a master's degree! I was supposed to be upwardly mobile. Instead I'm looking at poverty worse than when I was growing up. Thanks, graduate school.

So I've been doing a lot of crying and not a lot of writing. Doctor Who post on the finale of this season (because, dude, WHUT) and ALSO a post about my Gally costume and steampunk aesthetics (more exciting than it sounds!) super soon.

28 May 2011

Texas A&M does not offer protection to LGBT employees

Dude. Apparently, Texas A&M does not offer discrimination protection to their LGBT employees. It's a goddamn tragedy. Garrett Nichols set up a petition to ask them to fix this deficiency:
To be delivered to: Dr. R. Bowen Loftin, President, Lt. General Joe Weber, Vice President of Student Affairs, Vickie Spillars, Executive Secretary to the Board of Regents, Dr. Christine Stanley, Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Dr. Karan L. Watson, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Michael Benedik, Speaker of the Faculty Senate and Dr. Antonio Cepeda-Benito, Dean of Faculties and Associate Provost
“Include sexual orientation and gender identity in Texas A&M's official employment non-discrimination policies.”
Texas A&M's current employment non-discrimination policy does not protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It is the only Tier 1 institution in the state of Texas that does not offer these protections. (Both the University of Texas and University of Houston include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and UT also includes gender identity.)

The administration at Texas A&M has expressed its verbal support of the LGBT community on this campus. We're calling on the administration to stand behind their words and officially protect this population from employment discrimination and harassment on the basis sexual orientation or gender identity.
You don't have to be a student or associated with Texas A&M to sign, so go do it!

27 May 2011

A&M administration silent as anti-GLBT rhetoric flies

Cross-posted at Left of College Station.
We ask that the administration address the recent series of events surrounding the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender (GLBT) community on campus. We, as faculty, condemn the recent TAMU Student Senate Bill 63-106 (Sexual Education Equality in Funding Bill). By suggesting that students seeking guidance from the GLBT Resource Center are not represented by the terms 'family,' 'tradition,' or 'values,' this bill blatantly goes against Texas A&M's commitment to a diverse, unified campus that incorporates multiple perspectives as part of Aggie tradition and values. Other recent events--such as the secret recording and then broadcasting of GLBT meetings on YouTube--ostracize GLBT students form the safe space that the TAMU campus should be for all students. Such events, and TAMU administration's silence in the wake of these events, reflect the institutional forces that limit the representation of and support for historically marginalized and disempowered groups in our university. We acknowledge that these current events have incited a sense of fear and mistrust among the GLBT community. We reach out with empathy to all those affected and remain committed to addressing injustice as members of the campus community and as anthropologists. Further, we hold the administration accountable for addressing this issue in a timely manner.
-Statement unanimously approved by the faculty of the Department of Anthropology in May, from a memo to the upper administration at Texas A&M University, May 10 (emphasis added)
A&M students holding a sign reading "We are all part of the Aggie family" at the "Hands Across Aggieland" Unity March on April 15. (From the Texas A&M GLBT Resource Center Facebook page)
Following the groundswell of support from faculty, staff, and students in the Department of English, and with the advice and support of the department's directors and diversity committee, I am writing to endorse the statement of the Anthropology faculty in the memo addressed to you on May 10 concerning support for the Texas A&M Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender Resource Center in particular and more generally the GLBT community on our campus and the call for a positive response from the upper administration that affirms a re-commitment to diversity inclusive of sexuality and gender differences. The GLBT community, as a growing part of the Aggie family, deserves the support of our higher administrators, as well as our support at the departmental level. [...] Many members of the English department have expressed a desire to sign a petition in support of this position as well, but in the interest of acting quickly, I have decided not to collect those signatures at this time. Please note that many others do not feel that they can safely sign their names to such a petition. Let us hope for a future when the feelings of vulnerability that these silent ones experience will be dispelled by a campus community known for its civility, tolerance, and respect.
-Memo from the head of the Department of English, Dr. Killingsworth, to the upper administration at Texas A&M University, May 12 (emphasis added)
An A&M student at the GLBT Resource Center's "gay? fine by me." t-shirt giveaway on the National Day of Silence, April 20. (From the Texas A&M GLBT Resource Center's Facebook page)
You may think of me as a faggot, a queer, a poof, a fairy, or a dirty homo. You may think that I will certainly die of AIDS…some of you may even think that I should die because of it. I know people on this campus and in this community who think that I deserve the death penalty for being gay. That is the reality of being gay on this campus, Senators. Even if a GLBT man or woman never once experiences outright discrimination, the knowledge that if it weren’t for Texas politeness they almost certainly would stays with them. It is fear, a constant awareness that we have to have when we’re on a date or walking across campus, an undercurrent of uncertainty about how people will react to us holding hands, wearing a GLBTAggies t-shirt, or standing in front of an Aggie Allies table by the Academic Building.

That is why the GLBT Resource Center is essential. It was part of what kept me alive a year ago, having a community where I knew I could find support, be able to talk to people who knew what I was going through and had the funding and resources to help get me (and every other person who visits the center, gay or straight) the information and support that they need to make it through a day, a week, a year, a lifetime.

Because guess what Senators? Somehow, most of us still love Texas A&M. Despite everything, we still bleed maroon. That’s why we are still here, why we haven’t just up and left, packed our bags, and hit the road for California or New York. The people who work at the GLBT resource center could have just given up years ago; it would have been easier. GLBT Aggies and their allies are still bettering this campus through our involvement in the student body. But we will continue to fight to be recognized fully as Aggies, despite the Student Senate’s clear position that we are not.
 -from an open letter to the Texas A&M Student Senate, signed "An Aggie No More" (emphasis added)

A&M student holding a sign reading "Hate is not an Aggie value" at the "Hands Across Aggieland" Unity March on April 15. (From Dallas Voice)
You may have heard of of the Texas House of Representatives passing a bill, introduced by Wayne Christian, that would require any public school with a GLBT student center—or any center "for students focused on gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning, or other gender identity issues"—to have an equally funded center on "traditional values." While the supporters claim that they are only requiring equal time and funding for all sexualities, critics argue that the goal of this bill is to shut down university funding of GLBT centers altogether. Universities, after all, are all facing hard financial cuts, and the bill effectively forces them to choose between shutting down GLBT student centers or increasing expenses by funding two centers. And according to Inside Higher Ed, "the Young Conservatives of Texas, a group that worked with Christian on the legislation, did so with the hope that public colleges would respond to a law, if the bill passes, by ending support for existing centers." Supporters claim that GLBT centers preach the values of homosexuality, and make it difficult for students with "traditional values" to feel accepted on campuses. 

The preposterous nature of the implicit claim of this bill—that is, that straight students with "traditional values" are unrepresented and marginalized, just as much as GLBTQI students—is captured by a column at the Texas Observer that begins 
Imagine the plight of the heterosexual student stepping on to a college campus for the first time. How will he fit in? Should he tell his new roommate about his alternative hetero lifestyle? Will he be bullied, just like he was in high school, where he was mercilessly teased for being a sexual deviant? Where does a straight person turn?
This is not a reality for straight students. Heteronormativity is everywhere on college campuses, which is precisely why GLBT student centers exist. They are there to support GLBTQI students who face harassment and ostracization, precisely because homophobia is tacitly accepted by fellow students, faculty, coaches, and administration at most universities. There is a culture on campus that believes homosexuality is wrong, immoral, deviant, and chosen, and that culture is mainstream. It is sometimes clever and sneaky, to avoid accusations of outright bigotry, but it does not have to hide. It rears its head in the classroom, in the campus bookstore, in the local bars and restaurants, in the university policies and administrative action and inaction. Homophobia is institutional and societal, which is why GLBT student centers are vital to combating it.

What this bill intends is to cut off one more avenue for gay students who are depressed and/or harassed, to make it just that much harder to find justice when they are discriminated against, by their peers, their professors, or their school. These students don't have that much institutional power, and this bill is attempting to take away the small bit they do have, so that the mainstream university culture, of homophobia and heteronormativity, is unchallenged and unchanged.

This is all particularly true at Texas A&M, where outright homophobia, racism, and misogyny, are so common as to be unremarkable, and where "tradition" is a buzzword used to keep marginalized groups in their place. The Princeton Review ranked Texas A&M the 17th most LGBT-unfriendly university in the country.** In 2008, the Department of Student Life Studies did a study on the campus climate (which refers to the general attitudes toward diversity) at A&M and found that 70% of gay or bisexual students (as opposed to 2% of straight students) have felt uncomfortable at Texas A&M because of someone's reaction to their sexual orientation. The comments from straight students, however, are the most telling:
Having grown up with mostly women and being a male, I have picked up a few effeminate mannerisms which prompts some males to depict me as "gay" or "fruity", which is not the case. (Senior Hispanic male)
 If I were gay I would not feel safe unless I hid that fact on campus. (Senior White female) 
A&M is not a safe place to be gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or queer. These students recognize the culture of heteronormativity that exists at A&M, and the dangers of counteracting it, whether through your behavior (acting "fruity"), your sexual choices, or your identity. 

It is clear that A&M is not in need of a "traditional values" center, and that its straight students do not face institutional and widespread oppression that needs to be countered with a center that would  "encourage chastity or marriage between male and female students."* Seriously. If you were to sit in on one of my classes this last year, you'd have heard students call a woman a "prostitute" for wearing pink high heels, suggest that "men always want sex, and women never do," claim that it's "a compliment" for a woman to be catcalled by a stranger, argue that abortion should be illegal because women should "face the consequences" of sex, and that it is okay for men to browbeat women to make them shut up. And when that crap comes up in the classroom, I'm usually the only one to counter it. Which means either a) all of my students believe that heteronormative rapey nonsense or b) they are too scared to speak up. I know that a) is definitely not true, and I also know that I do everything I can to make sure that b) isn't true either. But I can only do so much in a classroom when those students know that an entire university tradition and history and tacit administration approval leave them vulnerable if they step outside of heteronormative value systems. Encouragement from a teacher can't overcome teasing, harassment, and ostracization from fellow students, and many of my Corps students have actually told me that they don't feel they can say things in class because it could get them harassed by their fellow members or in trouble with their section leaders. 

"Normal" at A&M is being politically conservative, and being a "real Aggie" means supporting heteronormative conservative politics and values. "Traditional values center" could describe almost every building on campus, including the student health center.

Bumper stickers on a Texas A&M student's car, reading "Keep College Station Normal" and "Real Aggies Choose Life."
In late April, the Texas A&M Student Senate passed SB 63-106, the so-called "Sexual Education Equality in Funding Bill."*** This bill formerly supported Wayne Christian's amendment in the state budget, and proposed that the funding for the A&M GLBT Resource Center be halved, and allocated to fund a center on "traditional sexual education." Further, the bill claimed to speak on behalf of A&M students. It's weird, because the Student Senate bill seems to argue that the problem here is not one of political agendas, in which a dichotomy between "traditional values" and "not hating on the gays" is the main concern (like the Christian amendment), but focuses instead on "sex education." As if the main function of the GLBT Resource Center is provide sex education for queer people, and this needs to be "countered" by offering sex education for "traditional values" people. (Nevermind the whole lotta people on campus who are neither of those things.)  

This misconception may be because of the smear campaign the Texas Aggie Conservatives (yes, those Texas Aggie Conservatives) have launched against the GLBT Resource Center since Wayne Christian's amendment became a thing. TAC is all for this Student Senate bill, and to prove it, they secretly taped an event on "butt play" in March, hosted and funded by the GLBT Resource Center, put it on the internet (heavily edited, of course) and proceeded to call it "pornographic" and thus inappropriate for a student group. (And, of course, since we are adults, there is absolutely nothing in the school's rules about pornography and funded student organizations. So go to hell, TAC.) From the TAC blog:  
Is this really an appropriate use of university funds, mandatory student fees, taxpayer dollars, facilities, and donor contributions to Texas A&M University? Do A&M donors have any idea how their money is being spent?
Um, yes it's appropriate for university-recognized organizations to spend their money however the fuck they want to. That's kind of how it works. For example, if TAC, as a university-recognized organization, wanted to invite an Islamophobic speaker to campus, to talk about how dangerous Islam is, they should be allowed, and the university should allow them to use university facilities to do so. (Unless, of course, the university believed the speaker would be participating in hate speech or endangering the Muslim community on campus.) The point is, TAC doesn't get to arbitrarily decide that A&M won't fund and recognize groups that have seminars/speakers on what they personally find gross, like butt sex. (By the way, the video of the seminar they posted was so fucking tame. It was merely about how to engage in anal play while being safe and not hurting anyone.) I mean, I find TAC to be utterly abhorrent, and really fucking offensive, but that doesn't mean I should demand that A&M pull their recognition or funding. (They claim they get no university funding, which may or may not be true, but as a recognized group they do get privileges like the use of A&M facilities, which has monetary value, comped by student fees.) So when TAC claims with outrage that 
Most Texas A&M students do not support the GLBT agenda, yet they are forced to pay for the GLBT activism center through mandatory student fees.
all I have to say is, no shit. I don't support your agenda, TAC, but I still pay for your privileges with my student fees. That's how it fucking works. When the university picks and chooses what organizations get funding based on their political or ideological agendas, that violates their commitment to viewpoint neutrality funding, which you claim to support by supporting the Student Senate bill.

The problem is that idea that politically conservative is "normal" at A&M. This is what allows TAC, the Student Senate, and various other A&M students to believe that their outrage about "alternative" or "deviant" sexual practices are something that the school should pay attention to. They are right, because they are "real Aggies." Because they are what A&M is supposed to be. Because they are normal, and everyone else is not. That's what caused student Bryan Neale to post this on the Texas A&M Student Senate Facebook page on April 24:
The fact of the matter is that A&M has always been known as a conservative university. That makes us different than 99% of colleges in the US. A lot of aggies past and present love that about A&M. The majority of Aggies are conservative, so a resource center for them is a great way to spread awareness on a number of issues. Frankly, the LGBT group is lucky to receive any kind of funding or recognition at all. (emphasis added)
That last bit is important. Students like Neale think that the conservative politics should direct the actions of the university, and if you aren't conservative, you're lucky that the university even listens to your needs. So if you want to counter homophobia, do it on your own time and money, and don't do it on campus. If you want to create a resource center that gives queer students a haven in a university full of discriminatory harassment, fuck you. Because you don't count. You aren't real Aggies. And that, that dichotomy between "real" and legitimate A&M students and those that are different and don't count, is precisely what is wrong with the culture here at A&M. That is what our administration should be discouraging and countering every goddamn day.

A black outline of an A&M Corps member playing a marching drum, surrounded by rays of rainbow colors.

On May 10, the Department of Anthropology sent a memo to the upper administration, criticizing them for their inaction after all this anti-GLBT activity. They condemned the Student Senate bill and stated that the bill and other actions (like TAC's secret taping of the seminar) made the campus an unsafe place for GLBT students. The head of the English department sent a memo seconding the Department of Anthropology's sentiments, and I know that a petition signed by faculty and graduate students is also under way in the English department. The Department of Psychology and the Women's and Gender Studies program faculty and staff have also publicly supported the GLBT community and the Department of Anthropology's memo. The Graduate Student Council (GSC) passed Resolution F2011.11 on May 11:
Whereas:        The Texas House of Representatives has passed the Texas Budget bill, HB 1 with Amendment 143, “Funding of Student Centers for Family and Traditional Values” (sponsored by Representative Wayne Christian), that requires Texas public colleges and universities, if they use state funds to support “a gender and sexuality center,” to provide equal funding to support a “family and traditional values center”;

Whereas:        The term “family and traditional values” is not defined by HB1 or Amendment 143 and is therefore difficult to promote and/or implement such education beyond services currently provided at Texas A&M University (through, for example, courses, current counseling services, and health care services);"

Whereas:        The term “family and traditional values” implies a false dichotomy that suggests “family and traditional values” and the GLBT community are mutually exclusive;

Whereas:        The Policy Institute of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force commissioned a Campus Climate Assessment Project which found that, of the respondents: 19% fear for their physical safety on campus, 51% have concealed their sexual identity to avoid intimidation, and 34% have avoided disclosing their orientation or identity to an instructor, supervisor, TA, or administrator due to fears of negative consequences, harassment, or discrimination; and that 36% of GLBT undergraduate students had experienced harassment in the past year;

Whereas:        The Princeton Review’s “The 373 Best Colleges: 2011 Edition” found Texas A&M University the 17th most “LGBT-unfriendly” campus in the United States;

Whereas:        The GLBT community at Texas A&M University (including students, faculty, staff and administrators) has been a historically marginalized and traditionally underrepresented group that faces distinctive challenges, therefore requiring mandated assistance and education to fulfill the Texas A&M University anti-discrimination policy;

Whereas:        Texas A&M University’s Diversity Plan states, “Our commitment to diversity, broadly speaking, encourages respect for individual differences. Respectful treatment of others affirms and encourages individuals to take pride in their identity and results in the inclusion of all in the ‘Aggie Family.’ The Aggie family is diverse. Diversity involves an exploration of individual differences in a safe, positive, welcoming, and nurturing academic environment.”;

Whereas:        The Texas A&M University Statement on Harassment and Discrimination prohibits “discrimination, including harassment, on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, or veteran status”.

Let it be
Resolved:        That the Graduate Student Council of Texas A&M University, on behalf of the graduate student body, does not support the passing of HB 1 with Amendment 143 and strongly encourages the Texas Legislature to remove the “Funding of Student Centers for Family and Traditional Values” budget amendment;

Let it be
Resolved:        That it is the opinion of the Graduate Student Council of Texas A&M University, on behalf of the graduate student body, that if HB 1 is passed by the legislature with Amendment 143, then current Texas Governor Rick Perry should veto the “Funding of Student Centers for Family and Traditional Values” budget amendment;

Let it be
Resolved:        That the Graduate Student Council of Texas A&M University, on behalf of the graduate student body, requests that Texas A&M University continue to provide funding and support for the GLBT Resource Center;

Let it be
Resolved:        That the Graduate Student Council of Texas A&M University, on behalf of the graduate student body, requests that President R. Bowen Loftin and other university officials continue their support of diversity efforts in accordance with Texas A&M University’s Statement on Harassment and Discrimination and Texas A&M University’s Diversity Plan.
 Basically, huge chunks of the university's faculty, staff, and graduate students have gone on record to oppose the Student Senate bill and Wayne Christian's amendment, pledge their support for the Texas A&M GLBT Resource Center, and (this is important) chide (directly and indirectly) the upper administration for their silence and inaction during this whole debacle. 

The administration's response was essentially a non-response. You can read the message from General Weber here, but it basically says nothing except, "We support you, but only if the law doesn't tell us not to. Have a good summer!" The "Wait...WHAT???" Blog states it well
It seems that university administrators are, in fact, not willing to publicly and adequately address the specific instances of anti-GLBT hate that have occurred in the last several weeks. While we appreciate Weber and Parrott taking the time to meet with all of us yesterday, we also wonder if our fears, hopes, and concerns really got through to them. Lip service "public support" is nearly as harmful as institutional silence (which is what we have experienced up to this point).

And speaking of content, the message from Weber -- as many at the meeting yesterday feared might happen -- glazes over GLBT issues merely as issues of diversity on campus. While GLBT individuals do contribute to the diverse community at Texas A&M, the fact is that some who are vocally anti-GLBT do not see it this way. They see the GLBT "lifestyle" as perverse and in complete contradiction with University core values and missions. Beyond the mention of the acronym GLBT a few times, Weber's message does little to address the real issue: hatred toward GLBT people.
 While the statements from various departments, and the GSC resolution, all directly address the issue of homophobia and anti-GLBT rhetoric and behavior, the administration seems unwilling to do so. They don't want to go on record, it seems, supporting GLBT students, nor do they seem to want to do anything to change the hostile, unwelcoming, unsafe environment that A&M is for many GLBT students, faculty, and staff. This is flat-out unacceptable. We clearly have a problem here, and it isn't being addressed. Frankly, I think the administration is being cowardly, and the GLBT population here is going to pay the price for their cowardice. Apparently, the Christian amendment is not in the Senate version of the budget, but even that is true, and the budget does not contain the amendment when it passes, that won't change the fact that TAC and other A&M students have engaged in hateful anti-GLBT rhetoric, and the administration has done nothing about it. It doesn't change the homophobic environment on campus, or make A&M a safer place.

o o o

*Also, WTF. Encourage marriage between male and female students? Is it really appropriate for ANY center at a university to "encourage" marriage at 20 years old? If a "traditional values" center were to do awesome things like give safe sex seminars or seminars on consent geared towards straight kids, that would awesome. (Yes, I know that wouldn't happen.) But apparently all a hetero center can offer is abstinence and "get married as soon as possible." So a hetero center wouldn't even benefit most hetero students, because they aren't virgins or want to get married after they graduate from college. Seriously, fuck that noise.

** You have to create a free account to access that link.

*** The Student Senate site is apparently under construction, so I couldn't find the link and full text of this bill. I will keep an eye on it, though, and link it when it goes back up. If you click on the Left of College Station link at the top, though, a helpful commenter put up the full text.