July 7, 2014 — I come from suburban New Jersey—not an area notorious for its backwards attitudes—and attend a small liberal arts college in the Northeast. I entered college interested in computer science, but after a few months I shifted my focus to gender and women’s studies. Aside from a few comments about the latter’s relative “uselessness” as compared to the former, my fellow students’ responses to this switch were generally positive, if not outright enthusiastic.
Though my parents were supportive, other members of my family weren’t so understanding. Upon hearing that I intend to major in gender and women’s studies, two of my 30ish relatives asked me, with great amusement, questions like, “Are you a lesbian? Because the only people I know who studied that are lesbians,” and “Are you gay? Do you wish you were gay?” I received a similarly dismissive reaction from an old swim coach of mine, who snorted and said, “I bet most guys your age are interested in studying women.”
As anyone reading this blog likely knows, #YesAllWomen is a hashtag started in response to the Isla Vista shootings that has brought to light hundreds of experiences of discrimination and harassment faced by women everywhere. While I will not pretend that my experiences are remotely equivalent to those shared in conjunction with this hashtag, the reactions I’ve received to being a man with an interest in gender and sexuality issues are a product of the same attitudes that #YesAllWomen seeks to combat—those that reinforce the perceptions that either there aren’t any real problems with gender discrimination, or that these problems aren’t worth solving.
The fact that a man with an interest in issues of gender is automatically funny to a lot of people demonstrates that we still have a long way to go.
My point here is not to make this campaign about me, as some men have attempted to do with the gratuitously defensive #NotAllMen hashtag. It’s to underscore the importance of efforts like #YesAllWomen. Though I was caught off guard by the negative reactions I received to my new major from friends and family at home in New Jersey, I now realize that providing examples of how assumptions about gender have affected my life, like those shared in #YesAllWomen Tweets, would have been an excellent way of explaining why these issues matter to me. The stories shared on #YesAllWomen have provoked countless discussions of sexism and forced many to acknowledge its lingering presence in our society. Recounting my own experience is one small part of that. And getting people to acknowledge that we have a problem is a huge step towards getting them to care about solving it.