An open letter to MacMillan House and allies of Bowdoin
The following letter regarding the Gender Bender party was written by several members of Gender Matters, with additional input from other students. The letter was emailed to members of Mac House on Wednesday, a couple hours before they announced their decision to change the theme of the party. We, as the authors of the letter, have chosen to publish in order to bring our side of this discussion to the general public, as we feel understanding our reasoning and intentions will help guide dialogue moving forward. We look forward to being able to have productive and meaningful conversations with the members of Mac and other students more broadly in the future.
To the people of Mac House,
This is a letter written collaboratively by members of Gender Matters and other concerned students. We would like to be very clear and up front here: we are telling you that you must change the theme of the party. This is not a debate. This is us, as trans/nonbinary/genderqueer identified students telling you that this party theme makes us profoundly uncomfortable, and invalidates our very identities. To borrow a quote from your statement on Facebook, “We recognize that true allyship means listening to and acting upon the concerns of queer students on campus.” So now it’s time to listen and act.
Much of our discomfort revolves around the manner in which this party was planned. We understand that your party planners met with BQSA [Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance] about a month ago to discuss how this party might impact and be perceived by the trans community. Some members of BQSA have expressed that they voiced many concerns at this meeting, and were promised that the party would proceed after a more involved public discussion which never came to fruition, until you as a house hastily organized a discussion for tomorrow and asked for concerned students’ attendance. I know many of us will not be attending this discussion for a number of reasons; the last minute organization means that many of us already had plans at that time, and furthermore, attending such a discussion as a trans person is, plainly put, blatant tokenization. None of us wish to speak on behalf of the whole community, but even speaking to our own concerns in a public forum is a stressful and deeply personal experience.
Of course, the crux of this situation lies in why such a party would be detrimental to the trans community in the first place. None of us are professional educators, and there already exist numerous resources which would help to explain why this is an inappropriate party theme (or at least, an inappropriate “straight” party theme), but to sum it up in a few words: parties are environments where people don costumes and personas for the purpose of levity and comedy. By appropriating trans identities as a party theme, you are very clearly making a statement that these identities are costumes and not the actual lived experiences of members of our community. Gender is a social construct, yes, but mere recognition of this fact does not give license to turn it into a punchline. If this party really were, as your Facebook statement postulated, an attempt to create discussion and disrupt gender norms, we should have been involved in the planning, and we can guarantee that we would not have chosen a party as the stage for this discussion.
Indeed, parties like the one you are planning to host do not disrupt the gender norm, but are in fact integral in enforcing it. By restricting the visibility of non-normative gender expression to a party, you are making a statement that this expression is essentially unusual. Party themes are, by nature, supposed to be extraordinary.
We understand that members of your house have their own opinions and have been considering many of these same points, but you must understand that regardless of intention, this party has made us uncomfortable and that by continuing through with this theme you are directly invalidating us and our experiences as trans and queer identified students. The way you’ve presented the party conflates gender identity and expression with dressing up in a costume, which perpetuates alienation, tokenization and erasure of trans identities.
However, having said all this, we appreciate (based on the many emails and Facebook posts exchanged on Wednesday) that you do care about these issues. We would be happy to work with you some time next semester to organize an event which would achieve the goals you claim to be striving for with this party, but we would like to be much more heavily involved in its production. Public discussion surrounding this issue is important and necessary, but a party is far from the correct venue for this discussion.
Sincerely,Paul Cheng ’17, Rose Etzel ’19, Ari Mehrberg ’20, and Jamie Weisbach ’16(Members of Gender Matters)
Talk of the Quad: Why I'm a radical
My beliefs do not come from within myself but rather from a life in a world which opposes me.I’m not sure when it started. Maybe a year ago when I finally found a word to describe my gender. Maybe a few months ago when I began to engage critically with the concept of capitalism as a sure fact of the world. Maybe it was last June, when I spoke to a room full of high school teachers regarding the importance of gender inclusivity in school. Maybe during the teach-in, when I spoke very summarily on the experience of being queer and trans and a person of color all at once.
But really, I do know. It started years ago, when people attributed my academic success to my race. It started when I was told I needed to find a girlfriend to take to school dances. It started when cars of people would drive by and yell “Faggot!” at me and my friends in high school. It started when I was told to identify as white on college application forms.
My radicalism—and there can be no weaker word to describe the way I see myself and the world around me—birthed itself through the experiences of 20 years of life. My sense of critical deconstructionism represents more to me than a political stance—it is a weapon and the best and most reliable tool I have for self-preservation. Because I live in a world which constantly reminds me that I should not exist, that I am an anomaly and that I need to fit within prescribed boxes, every action I take, every decision I make, represents more than an individual incident but instead a political statement.
When I introduce myself as agender and explain that I use any and all pronouns interchangeably, I am describing not just a self-identification but an act of revolt against the very institution of gender itself. But when I am forced to use a men’s bathroom or a men’s locker room, I am undermining myself and my beliefs, submitting to a system which I cannot make submit to me.
When I check “Asian” and not “white” on the college enrollment form, I am making a statement about the manner in which I am racialized on a daily basis; I am not perceived as white, and therefore I am not treated as such. However, growing up in a white household has distanced me entirely from the culture of Asian Americans.
I am a radical merely through the fact of my existence. Because my life is a political event, my body as a politicized space is a reality whether I want it to be or not. I am a radical through process of elimination. If I am not a man, am not a woman, am not white and yet also not ‘fully’ Asian, am not straight and yet unable to define my sexuality with words that rely on the existence of a gender binary, I am forced to exist in a liminal space.
I am a radical as a means of self-reassurance. Even if I do not fit into the boxes prescribed to me, I can make my own. Radicalism frees me and my ability to explore my own identity, unbound by the circumstances of my birth.
When I forecast such extremes as the eventual abolition of gender and the inevitable death of capitalism, I do so with the utmost certainty. Because I know there is no other option. I am not the first radical, and I will not be the last. The world, as hegemonically patriarchal and capitalist as it is, produced me and my beliefs, and I am trying my hardest to change what I can and pass on a world just a little bit better than the one that was given to me. Progress engenders radicalism which engenders progress—a cycle of violent ideological death and rebirth towards a better life for everyone.
My beliefs and experiences directly inform one another. I don’t simply have a political stance or set of opinions—radicalism is quite literally a lifestyle of discontent with the system but optimism for the future. There are more of us every day, an unjust society creating revolutionaries like antibodies designed to fight a virus. I do not doubt that one day we will win
Paul Cheng is a member of the Class of 2017.
Calls against a “strict condemnation” of racism miss the point
Last week, in the continuing wake of the “gangster” party and the resultant cascade of events surrounding discussions of race and privilege on campus, James Jelin ’16 wrote a piece on the definition of progress and the path of campus discourse in the weeks and months to come. He begins by appealing to those that were hurt by the party, asking whether they want an “open exchange of ideas,” or a “strict condemnation” of racist speech and actions.
Here is the first issue with this description of Bowdoin’s future. These are not our only options, nor are they even mutually exclusive. Furthermore, Jelin fails to recognize the intricacies inherent in even these two options he highlights. Consider the idea of an “open exchange of ideas”—this is not a matter of two parties parlaying on equal footing. What he describes is the white majority wielding its privilege and asking the students of color on campus to argue merely for recognition of their basic rights. (And yes, freedom from microaggressions and racial stereotyping is a basic right.) Any discussion of race is inevitably lopsided; it must be recognized that only white people can afford to be ignorant of their privilege. For people of color, acts of racism are such an ingrained part of daily life that, for many of us, we cannot help but observe the ways that a society built upon racism demands that we bear the burden of our own race.
Which leads me to my next point: a “strict condemnation” of racist beliefs is exactly necessary. The school cannot afford to beat around the bush with its language and handling of racism on campus. And it must be clear that cultural appropriation and stereotyping are absolutely forms of racism; I have heard countless people deride discussions following the party as inane conversations of “political correctness” and issues of freedom of speech. These derisions fail to understand two basic ideas: one, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from reproach. People may say what they please, but racist speech must be called exactly that. Two, any act of racism, be it physically or ideologically violent, must be dealt with seriously.
Again, only white people can afford to be ignorant. If the school does not take a strict stance on racism, it leaves students of color to fend for themselves against a white majority which, in the interest of preservation of privilege, has no obligation to understand the viewpoints of the minority. Jelin claims that, in the “exchange of ideas” scenario, we’ll force the oppressed to the “patiently educate” their oppressors, a situation which, though he may not recognize it, has been happening on campus for ages. Orient articles such as the one written last week by Adira Polite ’18, various teach-in events which touched on race, Wednesday’s silent protest—we’ve been patiently educating our entire lives, but it is not within our power to force white people to listen or understand.
Which is why the administration must make clear that racism in any form is intolerable. Whether certain people agree with the realities of institutionalized oppression or not is irrelevant; countless resources, be they academic or peer-written, exist that elucidate the workings of oppression, from cultural appropriation to physical violence. When people fail to understand the concept of racism, what more can students of color do? How can we ever endorse anything but condemnation of racism? And still, even when it is not our job or duty, we continue to educate in any way we know how. Despite what Jelin says, condemnation and education are not exclusive. Both are necessary for students of color’s safety and well-being.