Above (by Ryan Conrad) is the piece that launched 1,000 ships, if you will. “Down Is Not Up” laid the aesthetic and theoretical groundwork for my project.
Equality is not justice.
Reading this, I shuddered. Of course equality is justice.
I used to believe marriage equality would solve everything. An Orange County native, I protested on the corner of our high school against Prop 8. I was vice president of our GSA. I was the first person my best friend came out to. In my head: coming out, good. Marriage, even better.
One year later, and I’ve had to seriously rethink many positions I held, and continue to hold, near to my heart — positions I constructed my identity around: an avid same-sex marriage supporter reiterating how similar we all are and how dare you withhold the beautiful right/rite of marriage from my gay friends who were born this way! I wanted to be the ultimate ally. To be honest, I still do, whatever ally — or gay, straight, trans, queer — may mean.
Needless to say, it has been an exhausting year. But it has also been very rewarding; for all the mental turmoil that comes with constant self-reflection and critique, there is also peace in the idea that we’ll never be above critique, we’ll never be quite there; we’ll always be looking to the horizon. On good days, I love this. On bad days, it makes me want to cry.
And for me, I’m still not comfortable with stuffing marriage into the throwaway pile. It’s still hard to come to terms with the idea that marriage — these other assimilationist things we fight or have fought for — cause the very problems that got us into this mess in the first place. That our panacea is really our perpetrator. That more often than not, the solution will not be simple.
But this isn’t about gay marriage. This is about how Conrad’s piece is one of many that pushed me to think beyond “this will make us free,” and toward a more radical approach that asks us to keep asking.
The irony of this resulting in choosing to create a poster to show the intricacies and intersectionalities of various reproductive issues in one-line sentences does not escape me. However, in this current moment, it can pay to be catchy and brief. This is not to devalue the importance of what we conceptualize as “highly theoretical,” but to also point to how theory is also present in Conrad’s piece, which conventionally sits on the “activist” side of the spectrum. But theory and practice can’t be held separately, as many scholars, such as Laura Briggs in “Activisms and Epistemologies,” have argued. To do that would be an injustice to both.
And so my project began: produce a poster similar to Conrad’s that condensed — without watering down — reproductive justice issues, and then put them up around our campus. And because I’ve learned to broaden my definition of activism from just picketing and marching, I decided that we should try to make this as fun as possible. That is, put up the posters in the middle of the night, like activist vigilantes. Anyway, I am a staunch believer in the fact that everything is more fun at 1:30 in the morning.
So I created the original draft, and put it up to the revision of my wonderful friends and teachers. We revised, revised again, and did it again 30 more times. I cannot tell you how many drafts of this thing I have on my computer, which has resulted in more than a few emails in which the wrong file is attached. For this, my fellow classmates, I deeply apologize. This process took about three weeks and was more intense than I’d foreseen. It makes sense, though; once you invest yourself in a project, it needs to be perfect. With issues of reproductive justice, too, there are so many histories you don’t want to erase, so many stories you want to tell. And how are we going to tell our stories? I asked myself this after reading the introduction of Clare Hemmings’ Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory.
Then came the part I knew I was going to hate: funding and bureaucracy. Here was the issue: I wanted to put these posters up in places I knew I wasn’t going to get permission. However, we still wanted to connect these posters to our group (End Fake Clinics). And, to be honest, I wanted to be a bad-ass vigilante activist. I didn’t want to lose the idea of activism being infused with youth, joy and a tinge of rebellion, which Asef Bayat points out in Life as Politics (chapter: “The Art of Presence”). Furthermore, this project was getting really personal for me, and it’s not always easy to put something you’ve poured yourself into up for discussion, debate and rejection. I had originally planned on using my free printing at school, but ultimately decided to try and acquire funding. After all, if there were resources, why not take advantage of them? I found myself writing off any “official” involvement, and it’s something I’m constantly negotiating in my head. A note to myself for the next time I do something like this: It is possible that not all institutions are the enemy (you’re working for one next year), but it is certainly not possible to fully operate outside one. Lo and behold, we acquired $100 in funding!
That $100 is still sitting in our bank account. After organizing a time for our excursion, I went to our campus publication center to print the posters. Turns out, if you’re going to use your school organization’s account, they give you a little slip of paper to fill out and you need a whole host of information (account number, start balance, PO number, balance). I was one for four. Can’t you just check your bank account balance online, you might ask. No, no you cannot. You have to go to the administration office and fill out another slip to request all that information — “we’ll get back to you in a day.” This was my own fault; I didn’t have a day. I had nine hours, but I did not have a day. Roused within me was that Lisbeth Salander that rued the day she ever tried to deal with bureaucracy. Walking off in a huff to the printing lab, I used my free printing. A word to the wise: If you have an inkling you’re going to get into a bureaucratic time crunch, give yourself at least a few more days. Or try to make it work and do it yourself.
Then came game day. Six of us met at 1:30 in the morning in dark clothing (except for me, I wore yellow like an idiot). We divvyed up campus and set off. A few things I learned:
- Packing tape is loud — really loud — and if you can’t rip it with your teeth, then bring scissors.
- Tape with confidence.
- Wow, our campus is large.
- If you put your text on the inside of a bathroom stall door, then your viewer has little choice but to look at it; it’s near-perfect isolation.
- Another good location: on the wall above a trash can. Especially if there are many to catch your eye. This also means you have to climb onto the trash can to adhere said activist piece. Be prepared for this. Breathe through your mouth.
- Also, benches, or places people will definitely sit. People are more apt to read something when sitting.
We left campus at 3 in the morning. I can only speak for myself, but I was exhausted, but the kind of exhausted after a long day at the beach. A happy exhausted.
Walking back to campus today, I tried not to look at our posters. I saw a girl look at one, and I tried to read her expression, beckoning the question of what I wanted that expression to be. It’s hard to articulate the goal of this project without sounding condescending, but if one person Googled “reproductive justice” or anything related to something on that poster, that would be a really terrible average, but it would be worth it. Maybe my goal was to pique curiosity, to make a complex issue accessible, to show that people of my so-called indifferent generation care not a little but a whole lot, to be an activist but have a lot of fun. And don’t get me wrong, I love writing papers (I’m not even being facetious), but we need to realize that theory isn’t something you can only implement by holding a pen nor a picket sign. Theory is supposed to help you make sense of your life, and it is present in how you “do” activism, but also in the ways you have fun and the kind of friend you are and the kind of ally you want to be.
I’ve come out of this happy and proud of the text we created, but we need to go on a break. It’s hard to look at it and have it be that. For anyone interested in social justice, it’s terrifying to think that something you have created with the best of intentions might end up being problematic, exclusionary and harmful. What if we’re doing more harm than good? This usually leads to a downward spiral of questions which then leads to the ultimate black-hole, “Will things even change?” This is usually where I stop myself, for my own sanity if anything. I don’t know if things will change. I really hope they will. One poster won’t Hulk-smash homophobia, racism, ableism and sexism all at once. These are really complex, deep-seated, tangled issues. I didn’t think this poster would suddenly enlighten the campus community to fight against the prison industrial complex and Monsanto, but my intention was never to be the enlightener. But I do think there is immense value in discussing, in disagreeing, in revising. Even if radical change seems so astronomically far that it makes you want to stay in your bed all day, does that mean the solution is to actually do nothing? I don’t know about that, so I answer my own apprehension with “might as well try.”
i. Laura Briggs, “Activisms and Epistemologies”
ii. Clare Hemmings, “Introduction,” Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory.
iii. Asef Bayat, “The Art of Presence,” Life as Politics.