We didn’t start the fire.
Last Wednesday, I posted about the George-Will-at-MSU debacle, in which 70,000 signatures, letters of support from over a dozen on-campus organizations, statements from faculty (including the entire history department), U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow’s support, and 30+ students/faculty/community members gathering outside of MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon’s office to deliver said signatures and read heartbreaking stories about how rape is a huge problem on campus, was not enough to even get our concern acknowledged by the administration. We didn’t want George Will to be awarded an honorary doctorate degree because his rape apologist views go against everything our university needs to do in order to make students feel safe, supported, and respected.
So we reserved a 12-minute block of time at the MSU Board of Trustees meeting on Friday to make sure the administration did, in fact, hear our voices. We split the time slot between four speakers who would address different aspects of our concern, and I decided to take on the role of “really angry.” I bought a new pair of pants at Sears the night before so I could look “respectable” because, as much as I love wearing swishy Adidas pants and hate conforming to professional culture, I have found that people will not take me seriously unless I look—at the very least—like a hotel receptionist. When I saw the 100+ people sitting around the edges of the room that was lined with oversized oil paintings of old men in academic regalia, my heart started pounding. I didn’t know I was going to be addressing a 50-foot long table surrounded by real adults in plushy, swively chairs in front of a gaggle of other seemingly real adults. I thought it would be like 10 people. Needless to say, I was pretty freaked out. The meeting commenced and the Board threw around millions and millions of dollars like confetti, but when they proposed that President Simon receive a $230,000 raise, bringing her yearly salary to three-quarters-of-a-million dollars, those of us who were there to address the fact that we—as a university—fund exactly ZERO sexual assault counselors threw up in our mouths a little bit. One of the organizers of this demonstration respectfully stood up and politely asked, “If we can hire adjunct professors to save money, why don’t we hire an adjunct president?” One of those real adults in a suit and tie rushed over to him and told him to get out along with another person who was also quietly standing, waiting for his turn to speak. A lot of “this is a public meeting!” and “get your hands off me!” ensued, which ended in arrest. I couldn’t believe they arrested someone for asking a relevant question. I looked down at my Sears pants and teal blouse (gross) and felt ashamed for looking just like all those oppressive, out-of-touch bureaucrats. I was now completely enraged, which overpowered my fear as I stood at the head of the boardroom table, looking straight at President Simon, to speak this statement:
“George Will does not exemplify the values inherent in MSU’s mission.
We will not honor him, and shame on you for doing so. It’s become clear to us over the past few days that this administration doesn’t care about the safety and support of MSU’s own students.
It’s their graduation day. They don’t want him there. We should not have to have an alternative graduation ceremony on Saturday because so many students feel threatened by the man you chose to honor during their commencement—and betrayed by you.
President Simon says “we will do what it takes to create a safe, respectful environment for learning and working. Sexual violence is not met with indifference on our campus; that goes against everything MSU stands for.” Honoring him voids everything she has claimed this year about sexual assault. Where have you been this week as we’ve been crying out to you—telling you that what we need to feel safe and respected is for that man’s invitation to be rescinded? Where were you when we waited for hours outside your office Wednesday to deliver 70,000 signatures supporting us? You betrayed us.
All of the progress MSU has made this year by starting the “No Excuse for Sexual Assault” initiative and by partnering with the White House for the “It’s on Us” campaign is for nothing if you bestow a Spartan honor on someone who openly opposes the mission of these initiatives.
It’s a slap in the face to us.
And more importantly, none of the work we do to support victims of sexual assault will work if the students themselves do not feel safe and supported in this environment—and right now they don’t. Because our own administration won’t listen to us and chooses to stand with a rape apologist.
If you won’t listen to us now when thousands of people are telling you that this man is destroying the image of our school—our feelings of safety are also destroyed because we now know that when—WHEN—one of us get raped you won’t listen to that single student—you won’t protect him or her from having to go to class with their rapist, living in fear every day. No—you’ll eventually drive away the survivors—who, if they get the support they need, turn out to be the most passionate, dedicated, loving people you’ll ever meet.
Students shouldn’t have to wait for some lengthy legal proceeding to determine the validity of their case before they receive the medical help they need.
Rape is an emergency situation that requires immediate attention.
In January 2012, I went to the MSU counseling center to talk, for the first time in my life, about my own campus rapes. I went there because suicide seemed like the only way out after having suffered with crippling PTSD for almost a decade. But after telling a counselor all of this, she told me they wouldn’t be able to review my case for another week.
A week is too long to wait when you’re in an acute crisis. If the problem here is just a lack of resources, we don’t understand how you can choose to give money to Geroge Will—and President Simon—instead of allocating those funds to sexual assault counseling services on campus like the Council of Graduate Students and the Associated Students of MSU have requested.
When students like Jillian Coy, whose heartbreaking story I read Wednesday outside of President Simon’s office, are still waiting almost a month later to be contacted by the MSU police department and Office of Inclusion after she reported her rape—the problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of resources as much as a lack of caring.
Everybody—your students, your alum, and MSU community members—are looking to you to fix this. It is up to you help us provide the crucial support for abolishing the environment on campus where silence is safer than speaking up. And it is up to you to help us mobilize the necessary resources to help our own rape survivors.
Just last week, President Simon wrote:
“Sexual assault is everyone’s problem, and it’s on all of us to take action, whether that means protecting a fellow Spartan from sexual violence, providing support to a survivor, or raising awareness on campus or in your home. Members of the MSU community must not be passive.”
Where are you now?”
Some students stuck around to speak to President Simon after the meeting, and her remarks made it clear to us that she does not actually believe sexual assault is that big of a problem on campus. She thinks the definition of rape is one that involves violence and has now been expanded so far that it includes pretty much anything. She’s just like those patronizing people who have been ridiculing us all week because “these drunk college kids don’t really know what rape is, they just wake up and feel regret and shame and call it rape.” It wasn’t that she couldn’t get out of a contract with George Will or that she just didn’t understand our concern well enough—it was that she actually agreed with that rape apologist.
Rape can be simply defined as any unwanted sexual contact—it doesn’t have to be violent, it doesn’t have to involve penetration, it doesn’t have to involve drugs. Trust me, there is a difference between rape and regret—it’s an innate human need to have control of and possess one’s own body, and when that has been violated, your body “goes into survival mode,” and can stay there for decades. My wife was in tears as she said, “If people are thinking that everything is rape now, that means nothing is rape and nobody will believe us.”
Part of me felt stupid for thinking we could actually get these people to understand how serious this is. I felt stupid for thinking that maybe the reason the administration refused to un-invite Will is because they couldn’t get out of a contract or they just hadn’t heard our side of the argument yet. Once I realized that nothing was going to change—not anytime soon at least—I wished we hadn’t exposed the extent to which our administration doesn’t give a shit about us because now students in crisis won’t seek help—at least not on campus. But maybe that’s what the administration wants—take your petty teenage breakdowns elsewhere.
Three years ago, in my first days of sobriety, I met with a substance abuse counselor at Olin health center on campus who told me what I had already found out for myself—the formal services available to students in crisis are absolutely unacceptable. There are always allies who care and whose doors are always open, but they can be hard to find. When a student is in bereavement or withdrawal or is suicidal or in terror, how are they supposed to know where to go? The counseling center is the only option I found when I was in that state, but that really wasn’t what I needed. Last week, I talked to that counselor again—for the first time in two years—and she confirmed that the situation hasn’t changed. We really need a formal crisis intervention center where students can just walk in and not have to wait a week or a month or for the police to finish an investigation to start getting help.
So even though I was feeling pretty hopeless that anything was going to change, I was determined to protest George Will at commencement on Saturday morning. I joined 200+ students, faculty, and community members outside the Breslin Center at 8am holding signs of disapproval for the administration and of support for the students:
Of course, there were people during and after the protest who thought we were just terrible people, even though it was the most respectful protest I have ever seen. The demonstrators were congratulating students and welcoming families as they walked by, nobody disrupted George Will’s speech, and nobody heckled anybody for not supporting us. But we sure got heckled:
“Stop trying to be victims.”
“You hypocrites have embarrassed my university.”
“Thanks for making this graduation ceremony all about you.”
“You’re just looking for something to stir up.”
“You’re just out for a social event.”
“None of you actually read Will’s column.”
“Punk ass kids don’t have a clue about the real world.”
“You want to be able to say whatever you want, but won’t let other people have their free speech.”
As far as the free speech thing goes, this was not a free speech at all—George Will was paid at least $50,000 and the students and family did not have a choice but to listen to him. George Will can say whatever the fuck he wants, but not on our dime and our time and in the name of our university. This reminded me of the comments Mandy and I get about us “wanting everyone to accept our [gay] situation, but us not respecting anybody else’s opinions about it.” That particular comment was in in reference to us not being allowed to go to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner this year. Ignorance and bigotry are not respectable “opinions.” These comments were idiotic, but the ones trying to make this into a political thing were even more baffling:
“Just because you are liberal and complain, doesn’t mean you can always get what you want.”
“This is a typical blind liberal rant.”
“If what you “believe in” is nothing more than leftist hack-job, spoon-fed ideology, it’s best you stay home, because you provide no value to society by advertising your stupidity in public.”
“Un-thinking tin-pot fascists.”
“Most people understood this was a partisan political attempt to suppress the speech of a well-known conservative and that the sexual assault victims were props the lefties exploited to further their cause.”
And my personal favorite:
“Mastubatory displays of moral indignation by moron college students, whipped into a frenzy by their marxist indoctrinators.”
People kept saying things like, “You don’t see anybody protesting liberal Michael Moore in the afternoon ceremony because conservatives don’t stifle free speech like those liberals who are just so spoiled and can’t stand when they don’t get their way and have to listen to someone else’s opinion.” I could write a whole article about how wrong that sentence is, but this has absolutely nothing to do with partisan politics. I can’t tell you how many times I was called a liberal as if that was some sort of insult. I guess our next step could be to show that, indeed, both Republicans and Democrats get raped and are equally as fucked up by it.
I could laugh off all of these stupid comments, but the ones that hurt were the ones implying that the students’ involved in organizing this demonstration didn’t know what they were talking about, that we should be doing something to make an actual change instead of just standing around holding signs, and that our efforts were worthless:
“Be a Spartan and instead of whining, why not take the proactive route and try to organize fundraising to pay for counselors.”
“Address it with the board in a proper forum. Protesting is a waste and causes people to not support you rather than support.”
“If you want change, you can’t just show up & demand it. We have a system & a democracy. Petitions are mostly worthless, as they act as a silent majority, and that’s it.”
“If you’re going to survive this world, it’s not going to be through begging or demanding help. That’s called entitlement.”
So many students worked SO hard on this–during finals week!–working 20 hours a day for a week to gather support, take a stand, research the facts, and plan appropriate actions to get the administration to respect the needs of the MSU community. This is an issue of public safety and human rights, to which we are all absolutely “entitled.” It shouldn’t be the students’ responsibility to raise their own money to get the medical help they need when they are raped. The money is there, we saw it being tossed around like it was nothing. EVERYBODY involved in this knew what they were talking about—most knew first-hand what it’s like to be raped and ignored, ridiculed, and blamed by our university. It’s the people ridiculing and berating us who didn’t do their research into our cause.
I don’t know what else we could have possibly done to get the administration to listen to us. Delivering 70,000 signatures of people who agreed that George Will should not be an honorary Spartan to the President’s office didn’t do any good. Getting motions passed by both the undergraduate and graduate student councils asking the President to rescind the invitation and instead spend the $50,000+ he’s getting on sexual assault counseling that we desperately need on campus didn’t do any good. Getting official statements demanding George Will not be honored from more than a dozen university registered organizations didn’t work. Getting faculty support didn’t work. Speaking at the Board of Trustees meeting didn’t do any good. Getting the press involved didn’t work.
So maybe the protest didn’t accomplish anything (yet) as far as administrative and monetary support goes, but at least we were out there standing up for the students who felt betrayed by their administration. And at least we were able to offer the students the respect they deserved by organizing an alternative graduation ceremony for them. We were doing more than just standing around.
Even with all the negativity we received, the positive support far outweighed the ignorance. I can’t tell you how many people told me they were proud to be my friend, to see me standing up for what I believe in. How many people told me that because of what we did, they were able to speak about their rape for the first time or seek help for the first time. How many people finally got connected with other survivors in what will lead to lifelong supportive friendships. Those comments were far more powerful and meaningful than the shallow, cowardly remarks trying to beat us down.
At the beginning of this fiasco, I said that I was ashamed to be a Spartan because of how our administration was treating us, but after everything that has happened this week, I find myself feeling more proud than ever to be a part of this group. I have never seen such a dedicated, passionate, hard-working, kind, honest group of young people in my life, and I am honored to be a part of this movement.
I also have never been more proud of and, at the same time, more disappointed in the human race. Such is life I guess.