Remember the controversy over the University of Iowa's pink locker room for the visiting teams — the men's teams? I blogged about it back in 2005 when the feminist critique of it first made the news. It's flaring up again because of a threatened lawsuit:
More than a quarter century ago at the University of Iowa, the legendary football coach Hayden Fry decided to paint the visiting locker room pink as a psychological strategy, so the story goes, intended to calm opponents and curb aggression. After the university rebuilt its pink locker room in 2005 as part of a $90 million stadium renovation project, two then-law professors who objected that the color scheme carries demeaning implications for women sparked an intense and often ugly national debate involving death threats and hate mail...
After protesting the pink locker room at a Hawkeye home game in November, Jill Gaulding plans to file a complaint under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions, now that a new Iowa presidential administration is in place.
“I don’t think this is about Hayden Fry or his intention in the 1980s; I think this is about how people understand the locker room in 2007,” said Gaulding, who has since left Iowa and now practices employment discrimination law in Minnesota. “This [is] understood as a funny version of the slur that goes on in athletics about playing like a girl, playing like a sissy” — and worse, she said, the university has perpetuated the insult in “a very official, permanent way.”
“It’s based on a concept of gender hierarchy that says not only are boys and girls different, but more important it’s better to be a boy than a girl; it’s shameful to be a girl,” said Gaulding, who is researching a book on cognitive bias and gender discrimination. “Anyone who’s not deeply in denial understands and acknowledges that the pink locker room taps into this very long tradition of using gender as a put-down.”
I think these feminist insights are interesting (if exaggerated), but taking legal action is utterly polarizing. This is the kind of emotional yet subtle issue that requires conversation and debate. But everyone you need to talk to will clam up when they hear you're about to sue them. Feminism is a cause that proceeds by winning over people's minds. Lawsuits can be a part of that process, but you have to be savvy about when to litigate and when to use writing and talk to persuade and cajole (or to shame and denounce).
The reporter, Elizabeth Redding, called me because of my 2005 blog post, and I'm quoted in her story. The old blog post produced a great comments thread back then, but feel free to revive the conversation here.
Through Redding, I heard of this other controversy at the University of Virginia. I don't know why I missed it, because this is exactly the sort of thing I look for:
After a Cavalier touchdown, the marching band strikes up what, to an outsider, sounds like “Auld Lang Syne.” But, to its tune, students and alumni sing the “Good Old Song,” its lyrics written by Edward A. Craighill in 1895, its mention of all being “bright and gay” a throwback to when “gay” meant “happy,” the line a launching pad for what’s since become a university tradition of negating the word “gay” with gleeful (often drunken) shouts of “not gay!”
When Redding told me about this on the phone, I laughed out loud. I'm no homophobe, as any reader of this blog knows, but I found this funny. On further reflection, I said I thought it all depended on the context. What is life like for gay students at the University of Virginia? Do they feel like outsiders and does the cheer sound threatening, or does it sound the way it sounds to me: completely silly? I pictured good-natured straight students spoofing the old fear of being thought gay, the way someone might intone Larry Craig's "I am not gay" for laughs.
At the University of Virginia, steeped as it is in tradition, a student-led campaign this semester has applied peer pressure to encourage students to rethink the ritual. “Essentially,” said Stephen Leonelli, president of the Queer and Allied Activism group at Virginia, “we believe that it marginalizes the gay community by creating an environment in which certain people who may or may not identify as gay do not feel welcome.”Eh...
The campaign has sparked a fury of letters and opinion pieces in the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, with the latest opinion piece, on Wednesday, defending the “not gay” chant and criticizing a culture of political correctness and liberal groupthink. “I’m just expressing my religiously informed political views that it’s wrong to act homosexual,” Alex Cortes, a first-year student and the writer of “Not gay and proud of it,” said in an interview Wednesday.
If Cortes is representative, then the straight students aren't as cool and fun-loving as I'd instinctively pictured them. (I love students!) And if Lionelli is representative, then the gay students are not in on the fun. But for all I know, Leonelli and Cortes are anomalous activists pushing their political agendas and with little feeling for the campus culture.