By Sarah Hogg, Choice Out Loud intern at James Madison University. Connect with Sarah at @SarahLovely or email her here.
I remember exactly when I made the conscious decision to make politically charged pro-choice and queer activism my life’s work. I was just barely nineteen, sitting in my college town’s Obama campaign headquarters on November 5th, 2012, waiting for election results to come in and reflecting on my work over the past three and a half months. In August of 2012, I accepted a fellowship with Organizing for America to work on President Obama’s campaign. I worked everyday canvassing, phone banking, registering voters, and advocating for political issues on my campus, James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in tears, simultaneously full of anxiousness and hope, waiting for the race to be called. When I found out that President Obama won, I knew I could never turn away from this work. I had truly found what I was meant to do, and that was an amazing feeling.
Fast forward to now, almost a year and a half after election night, and so much and so little has changed at the same time. Since fall of 2012, I’ve interned with Planned Parenthood and staffed Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for Governor. I’m in the middle of my second year serving on the exec board of JMU’s only student-led LGBTQ+ organization, Madison Equality, and I’m in my third semester interning for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. All of my experiences have been amazing, and I feel so fortunate for the opportunities I’ve been afforded. While I love the work I do, it can also be unbelievably challenging mentally and emotionally, something I’ve especially come to find in the last week.
At my school over the past week, our queer community has received a shocking amount of backlash to our annual pride week, GayMU. GayMU is a weeklong celebration of queer sexuality and gender identity, and it’s been a part of James Madison University for many years. While in previous years we saw a protest here or there, this year Madison Equality and the queer community at large at JMU have been the unfortunate recipients of a considerable amount of discrimination and hate speech. After sending out our bulk e-mail advertising GayMU, our exec board received homophobic responses from students complaining about our week of celebration. One e-mail was from an outraged student who threatened to take legal action against us immediately because his religious liberties were being infringed upon. (Of course, this is utterly ridiculous and he has no ground.) Another student’s e-mail detailed the ways in which we were throwing our choice to be queer in his face, and also claimed we were indecent and seeking attention. These e-mails were accompanied by a smattering of negative responses on social media.
On Thursday evening (April 3rd), a twitter account surfaced named “StraightJMU.” It’s bio reads: “Real JMU gentleman. We need to take our school back into our own hands!” and associates itself with a fraternity on JMU’s campus. The account quickly began to spew hate, bigotry, and extreme discrimination, and even began to target specific students—myself included. In a response to a tweet of mine proclaiming queer people’s right to be at JMU, I was told to go up north. Other students were also told hateful things. This account doesn’t have many followers, and I want to emphasize the outpouring of support that JMU’s queer community has received from students and faculty, but that doesn’t change the fact that people like this exist on our campus.
One thing is clear about the GayMU issue we’re facing at James Madison University: Queer people are not always welcome. On a campus that boasts acceptance and friendliness like no other school, this is a huge deal. We are told we should not be here, that we should not exist, that we should stay subordinate. And this is why I’m writing today. It is absolutely impossible to look at queer issues without also thinking of issues of reproductive justice, of racism, sexism, classism, ableism. I’ve been organizing in the pro-choice movement for almost a year and a half, and I see an unbelievable amount of connections between the subordination of women and women’s bodies and the homophobia and transphobia queer folks are facing on my campus today. Women have consistently been told that we are not fully human. Instead, we are seen as pawns in political games, individuals whose bodies are not truly their own in doctor’s offices and abortion clinics, unworthy of equal rights, protection, and respect. Queer folks experience the same thing. We are repeatedly told that we are in some way unnatural or abnormal, that expressing ourselves and loving others freely are high crimes, that we don’t belong in society and should instead hide ourselves and step back into the closets that confined and damaged so many of us for so long. People of color, disabled folks, and individuals of low socioeconomic status (among many other oppressed and minority groups) experience similar discrimination that is equally as threatening and dangerous.
As an out queer woman, I know how important intersectionality is when engaging in activism. I cannot fight for queer rights or women’s rights without also fighting for the rights of other historically oppressed minorities. Our oppressions intersect within ourselves, within our communities, and within our culture. Being an activist means constantly fighting dominant, subjugating systems and forces within our culture—patriarchy, heteronormativity and heterosexism, the gender binary, white-centric ideas of what it means to be American, institutions that refuse to make themselves accessible for people with disabilities, the list goes on.
When I made the conscious decision to make activism my life’s work, I had no idea there were so many entanglements and red tape surrounding what I love. I hardly knew what intersectionality meant, and I hadn’t come out yet. I will continue to fight, and I urge you to join me. Please support my queer community at James Madison University this week, keeping in mind the intersectional oppressions that keep so many of us in places where we feel immobile and unable to take action. But, with this, we CAN take action. You CAN help. To stand in solidarity with queer students at JMU, please share the above graphic & use the hashtag #SupportJMUpride. Thank you for standing with us!