Tuesday, January 27, 2009

University LGBT Political Organizations: Unity's National Coming Out Day Project

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455 Feminist Theory
Dr. West
November 29th 2005

Unity’s National Coming Out Day Project Report

When I lived in Buffalo, New York, I spent most of my time studying for classes, enjoying time at home with my partner, and participating in activities with my extended family. I was interested in campus and community organizations, but my lifestyle and personality embraced the comforts of being at home (home being various comfort zones, such as my house, my parents’ house, my partner’s office, my car, or a local coffee house). I relied on my immediate surroundings for activist opportunities because they were convenient and comfortable. Thus, my voice and feminist ideas were expressed in classes and at dinner tables.

Having recently moved to Macomb, Illinois, I am faced with having to evaluate my choices. The change in environment has provided me with new opportunities for activism, but my natural tendency is to do what feels good (and, therefore, what is easy). I enjoy attending classes, studying, and being with my family. While that is what I want to do, I also want to contribute to my community in other ways. I haven’t quite figured out how to make it work because I enjoy being with Sandy and when I am not with her, I feel unsatisfied and become fixated on wanting whatever activity I am engaged in to be over so I can return to her and our life together.

I have had to think about my desires and responsibilities this semester, and the discussions in Feminist Theory 455 have stirred me with questions and concerns, as well as feelings of guilt, that I naturally avoid. I am currently in the process of choosing what to do with my voice and my ideas, and my completion of this project is currently having a ripple effect on other areas of my life.

For my Feminist Theory 455 Activism Project, I chose to work with the campus organization, Unity, on its annual National Coming Out Day activities. When I first moved to Macomb, I had e-mailed various faculty and staff contacts from the Women’s Center and Unity, hoping that Sandy and I would participate in community activities together. Although the responses were helpful, we were presented with other issues. There are different campus organizations for faculty and students. At first, I hoped that we could overcome (or ignore) the formal labels for the student and faculty/staff groups, but it’s near the end of the semester and we haven’t yet figured out what to do. I convinced Sandy to attend the second Unity meeting with me, but she didn’t feel comfortable and she thought the meeting wasn’t productive. I agree with her that the weekly meetings aren’t particularly productive, but I am interested in the political activities.

Had I not known about this project, I might have lost interest in the Unity meetings, but it gave me incentive to make my time productive. I decided that I would attend Unity meetings without Sandy. It wasn’t easy because I had to drag myself out of the house at night, when I wanted to remain at home. It is easier for me to participate in activities during the day (especially during the morning) than at night, but campus groups typically hold evening meetings.

So, in September and October, I attended weekly meetings, as well as separate meetings with the political committee. By the second political meeting, I was asked to be the chair coordinator for National Coming Out Day. I felt overwhelmed by the request because I feel overwhelmed when given a leadership position. It isn’t the position of being a leader, but the responsibility of the title that intimidates me. I am a responsible person, and when I take on a responsibility I simultaneously experience a great deal of stress. When I returned home after agreeing to chair NCOD, I regretted my decision and felt anxious. We had less than four weeks to plan the events for NCOD, and I didn’t want to be responsible for its failure or success. I also felt that I was under prepared, but I now realize that I feel that way most of the time, even when I am adequately prepared.

Through my participation in NCOD planning, I learned about my fears and insecurities. I also learned about my personality and my qualifications as a political organizer. The learning experiences that I was afforded and the achievements of the NCOD events were valuable, but the challenges that I faced were powerful deterrents. I was stressed out over my work load for a few weeks, and even though everything worked out, my impulse in the future will be to avoid that stress. I don’t always know what the best choices for me are, but I do try to be conscious and make positive choices.

The actual NCOD events were successful because they made an impression on the campus community. Just by having Unity and NCOD events on campus, we are exposing students, faculty and staff to important issues that are often invisible to most people. We had decided to connect Unity, a group some students might perceive as simply a self-centered organization for promoting alternative lifestyles, with a positive community-oriented activity that would help dispel this simplistic notion. The bake sale that we held on Monday, October 10th earned approximately sixty dollars to be donated to the local domestic violence victim’s services unit. It wasn’t as much as we would have liked to donate, but it was something. Students and staff were responsive to the bake sale, even if they did not buy anything. We had a rainbow flag up and students from Unity who interacted with the campus community. The event not only brought attention, but positive attention to Unity. It also reminded people about domestic violence because we connected the bake sale to Take Back the Night. The interweaving of issues and events is an action that I hope Unity will continue to embrace, because it helps to support the name and purpose of the group itself.

Just as the bake sale raised awareness in the campus community, the NCOD “Let’s Talk about It” Gathering made Unity visible to Western Illinois University students, faculty and staff. Approximately twenty-five people showed up at the gathering, most of whom were Unity members. We discussed National Coming Out Day, hate crimes, same-sex marriage, bisexuality, and other pressing issues that people asked about. Most people listened, but there were some who engaged in the discussion. I was happy that a reporter for the Western Courier attended the event, giving attention to NCOD and recognizing Unity’s efforts to encourage openness. For the most part, the gathering ran smoothly, with a few challenges that were out of my control.

My contributions to NCOD were also contributions to a feminist political agenda because they were made in response to issues that are relevant to me as a lesbian and a feminist. Through my work with Unity, I am aware of the importance of political action in the form of organized activism, but I am also aware of the importance of political action in the form of personal choices because they are both political. My routine behavior and organized participation are both activisms because they involve conscious decisions and visibility.

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