In high school I discovered my love for performance. I auditioned for all of the school plays and I was accepted into a smaller branch of our theater department dedicated to improvisational comedy. It was a lot of fun but it is a truly difficult task for an adolescent simply because you have fewer life experiences in your repitoire. It’s hard to make airplane jokes when you’ve never been on a airplane and it’s hard to make jokes about love and romance when you’re 14 years old and you’ve never actually been in love. Nevertheless, it was a great source of training for thinking quickly and concretely about how any given thing in my immediate environment related to the world at large in some way. Every now and again I could even be kind-of funny.
One of the improv games we would play involved an emcee pulling a random object out of a mystery box and having two performers do as many funny things with that object right off of the top of their heads in front of a live audience. This is already a veritable layer of hell when your audience is your own high school because everyone there is paying attention primarily to judge you rather than sit back and enjoy a good faith attempt to make people laugh. On top of that, I attended an all girl’s Catholic high school. We had uniforms, we attended Mass, and we all signed our names on the line agreeing to live and study according to a Catholic moral code. I was also the recent recipient of a merit scholarship from a fascinating group of women who had once been Catholic nuns teaching in schools who went rogue and diverged from papal doctrine and kept on doing what they did best: teaching.
There were two other girls who received this same award in my class. One would go on to be the valedictorian and the other was the runner up. Then there was me. My GPA had always been strong and I was in honors and AP classes but some of my grades took a nose dive after my AP US History teacher told me that the “only way to really learn US History was to rewrite every chapter in the book in outline form.” I actually liked the material and I always did the reading. I took extensive notes, I created brain maps to identify patterns and causal relationships, but I never benefited from rewriting what had already been written. I was acing the tests, I was remembering the information, and I was actually having fun in the process and then I was told that in spite of all of the evidence that I found a technique that worked for it was the wrong way to learn and it was of utmost importance that I practice the right way to learn.
I decided that this was bullshit and that I was going to prove it. I wasn’t going to do the outlines and I was going to pass that AP test anyway because I was going to continue studying the way that was working for me. I was under the mistaken impression that I was there to actually learn something about history rather than learning how to write rote outlines about history books. Looking back on things it was a dumb idea and the only thing I succeeded in actually doing was shooting myself in the academic foot. On one hand I should have had a long heart-to-heart with my teacher and at least attempted to work something out between us but I never thought of something like that as an option. The rules were the rules and they were always more important than the outcome. Those outlines were worth 50% of our grade. I was acing the tests but I was still failing the class. At the end of the experiment I was awarded University of California credit for my score on the AP exam and fulfilled two quarters of university work with all of my AP scores combined but I did not receive high school credit and I had to retake the class online through Brigham Young University. One of the questions on my “final exam” asked whether or not I had actually empathized for a full 15 minutes with the plight of the Native Americans as directed.
What I mean to say is that I have some very real problems with authority and that was established very early on in the game of life.
Catholic schools are known for their discipline. If we did not dress in a particular way, we were punished. Knee high stocking were to be only the height of the knee and no higher. Shoelaces had to be in a specified range appropriate thickness. Drug dogs inspected our lockers and our backpacks at random. Students who were caught smoking cigarettes after school and off campus in their uniform were punished. It was a tight ship and even minute deviations from the expected norm were met with incredible hostility. It’s not the kind of space that encourages creativity or critical thinking.
That’s enough exposition, though. Let’s get back to the story. I am 14 years old and I am selected from my high school improv troupe for the prop comedy segment at a school assembly in the cafeteria where everyone is neat, tidy, and well behaved. I stand up next to my co-performer and the emcee hands her a wiffle ball and then gives me, of all things, a wire hanger.
The instant my fingers touched the cold and thin metal the only thing that I could think of was the student handbook entry regarding a student pregnancy. According to the formal policy, a student who was pregnant would be referred to a program for “unwed mothers” outside of the school as the campus would “no longer be able to provide the support that a student would need as a young mother,” but girls who had a “known” abortion were at risk of expulsion as it was “in direct contradiction with the right to life teachings of the Catholic Church.”
I did not bomb the prop segment that afternoon with a wire hanger in my hand in front of my entire school, I utterly choked. All at once I felt terrified that I would find myself pregnant and not know what to do or who to turn to because anyone I spoke to at my school would be obligated to turn me into the administration for proper handling. I stared at the wire hanger in my hand and all I could see was a potential outcome, one that many other young women my age had been forced to turn to in the absence of other options. Up until this point I had been confident, stubborn, and assertive. I was an out and loud atheist, I was open about my budding queerness, I wasn’t accustomed to being terrified at the thought of speaking my mind. I knew what would happen to me if I told the dry, bitter, and cynical things I wanted to say about wire hangers. I knew that I loved the stage and that it was the only place I ever really felt comfortable at all and I knew that the administration would take that away from me if I “abused” my public speaking “privileges.”
As I experienced my first real public performance flop I learned something about feminism. The campus had consistently made use of feminist rhetoric. All of these rules and regulations were in place to make us “strong, confident women focused on leadership.” I didn’t feel strong or confident at all that day and I was the farthest thing in the world from being a leader when I silenced myself out of fear. I felt so small, so sad, and so angry because I was immediately aware of the fact that everyone around me was trying to control my body and my words for my own good. I believe that I have right to my own body and the body that I have is called “woman.” Many of my struggles and challenges existing in the world with this body of mine coincide with the tenets of feminism and it seemed like a natural fit. I used to call that failed performance my feminist “A-Ha” moment because it was the first time that it all clicked together for me as a storm of silent rage and grief. I made a promise that day never to back down so willingly from a situation where my body was a battlefield. I called my resolve feminism.
I don’t know if I’m a feminist any more. I enter a lot of feminist spaces and all I hear is the same damn crap about how I should learn about the world and its context, how I should dress, how I should be sexual, and what should make me happy. I’m not going to spend hours of my time doing something that doesn’t work for me especially when I’ve discovered an alternative that has been proven to be effective and is backed up by rational thought and objective evidence. What I know now that I did not know at 14 is that no one can take my voice away from me. If they turn off the microphone, it’s time to shout. If I can’t be heard, then hold up a sign. If no one is paying attention, then do something different. When I implement these strategies to talk about reproductive rights they call me a feminist. When I start doing the same thing for sex worker rights, I am told that I have been brainwashed by the patriarchy and maybe re-writing the chapter in 15 pages, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12pt font, and 1 inch margins might help me understand “better.”
I remember getting involved in feminist action in college and taking part in a “Take Back The Night” rally. When I got to that rally and I found out that people had been deliberately excluded and turned away from the event entirely, I got pissed off because the night has been stolen from more than just middleclass white women and if anyone has any real intentions of taking it back then we’re going to have to do it together because no one is willing to let it go without a fight. I want to take back the night alongside anyone else from whom it has been stolen. I want to march alongside people who are transgender or gender variant because when they walk the streets at night they run the risk of being assaulted, raped, or murdered. I want to march alongside men who don’t match the traditional notion of masculinity because when they walk the streets at night they run the risk of being assaulted, raped, or murdered. I want to march alongside people who never even make it onto the streets at night to run the risk of assault, rape, or murder because they have to work two full time jobs at minimum wage to survive. I want to include people who have physical limitations with mobility because everyone makes the automatic assumption that they aren’t interested in anything that happens after dark because their body functions differently than most. I want to march alongside people who are stopped by the police when they walk the streets at night and run the risk of being arrested, assaulted, raped, or murdered for having the “wrong” skin color on the “wrong” block. I want to march with sex workers. I want to march with older people, I want to march with younger people, I want to march with bigger people, I want to march with smaller people. It’s not really the night we’re trying to take back, it’s our own bodies and our right to exist on this planet alongside everyone else. What I want is social justice for all humans, not just people who look like me. Abortion by wire hanger is not solely a woman’s issue and it was my keystone into a larger struggle.
I’m not 14 years old anymore and I am no longer willing to quietly retreat from matters of wire hangers or anything else that marks my body as a battlefield. I will not write outlines about the status quo. I will not be silent. I’m not coming out as a feminist because I the only thing I ever can be or want to be is a “Mayhemist.” My party line is simple: oppression is bullshit and it must be confronted in its tracks. I’m not afraid to do this, are you?
This post has been written as part of the Feminist Coming Out Day blog carnival. Read more feminist coming out stories and share your own!