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Beyond HeforShe

Forget the jargon for a moment.

Intersectionality, privilege, heteronormativity. Cissexism, feminism, microaggression.

These words are important—they describe complex concepts that have been explored and supported by reams of research literature. But for many students on this campus, and certainly for the majority of people in this country, these words are new and strange.

So we won’t start there. In order for these words to have meaning, we must have empathy. Change begins with empathy—the basic recognition that we should treat other people as, well, people. So let’s start with that.

The daily reality for trans persons—people whose gender identity differs from their sex at birth—is, at best, hostile indifference, and at worst, an active intolerance. Tragically, this intolerance often manifests itself in violence: A comprehensive study by the EU found that nearly one in 10 trans respondents was physically or sexually attacked or threatened with violence because of their perceived identity. 

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And violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are ugly prejudices—some unconscious, many conscious—which make people feel unwelcome in what should be their own communities.

These issues are interdependent, and any response must be multifaceted. To that end, the UC is launching Side by Side, a campaign to promote gender solidarity and inclusion on campus. We do not presume that gender is the only facet of a person’s identity, nor can we possibly hope to speak for all the rich and complex set of experiences created when gender and other identities intersect. But we can hope to create a safe, inclusive space for all gender identities to share their experiences in a spirit of alliance. 

We are not the first to make these points, nor are we necessarily even the best people to effect the changes that they call for. After years of combined experience on the UC, we would be foolish to proclaim that this campaign will single-handedly change the culture of the College—heck, we couldn’t even make a public nap space happen. But we can hope to provide a platform for the growing chorus of voices that say that gender-based discrimination is unacceptable, and that everyone should feel welcome in the Harvard community.

As part of Side by Side, we’ve asked every student group to partner with us by submitting pledges with concrete plans towards reducing gender-based discrimination. The Harvard Science Review, for instance, has pledged to incorporate “themes for [their] issues that will encourage conversations about social as well as scientific topics that will appeal to a wide audience.” The Havard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers has pledged to hold at least one collaborative event with another student group on issues of community and inclusivity.

And as the saying goes, change begins at home. Three years ago, when a guest speaker from the Office of BGLTQ Student Life introduced herself to the UC with her name and her preferred gender pronouns, she was greeted with snickers. And after the general election last fall, only a third of UC representatives identified as female.

We’re here to admit that we’re imperfect, but we’re also trying to get better.

The Side by Side campaign itself bears marks of that imperfection—but also of an ongoing process of improvement. Initially, Side by Side was part of the HeForShe campaign, the UN’s global movement to promote gender equality. But as we planned our campaign, we heard growing concerns that “HeForShe” reinforced a pernicious gender binary—the idea that gender only fits neatly into two socially-prescribed boxes.

If a campaign explicitly designed to tackle gender inequities can falter in its own mission, then no one is immune. Only through honest discussion and thoughtful critique can we hope to expose our own missteps and prejudices. We saw the obvious merits of the UN initiative: Men should be included in (but not dominate) the conversation around female empowerment. But we realized that cutting off whole swaths of the human experience in our message was contrary to our ideals, and we decided not to officially endorse the UN affiliated HeforShe brand.

Our Side by Side launch event is Monday, March 2. If you don’t know those words listed at the top, come. If you don’t agree with the words used at the top, come.

Not out of a commitment or opposition to those abstract concepts, but out of the basic human obligation to learn about the living experiences of other people.

 

Oliver W. Kim ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House. Michelle S. Lee ’16, an inactive Crimson news editor, is an anthropology concentrator in Mather House. Ava Nasrollahzadeh ’16 is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Leah C. Goldman ’15 is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. William Oh ’18 lives in Apley Court. All are members of the Undergraduate Council.

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