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Singing in the Wind July 24, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, people, women's rights.
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When I decided to apply for, and then got, a grant to go to The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) courtesy of Surly Amy and those who supported her grant campaign I was expecting a weekend of hearing smart talks that would make me a better thinker and meeting people who lived up to the “amazing” part of the title. I didn’t expect to step into a tornado of what feminism really means, people who would do just about anything to keep whatever privilege they were born into, and whether or how people should go about changing things.

See, I’m new to the skeptic circles, even though I’ve been one all my life, to some degree. I wasn’t really aware there was a community built around it, I’d only read some of the blogs and never imagined there were meeting of skeptics all over the country. I had heard of TAM itself and thought it sounded like something I should check out for the past few years but was otherwise mostly ignorant. I just like to think about things and like meeting others who do, too. TAM was my very first experience in the real world of this community. Sure, I’d read about harassment issues a little but had no idea how big of a line was being drawn. The first day or so I was out there my ears were filled with exclamations of, “You don’t listen to any skeptic podcasts?!?!” and, “You don’t know who that is? But he’s a celebrity skeptic!”

Frankly, I’m usually pretty busy and, while I love to find new information, I mostly just catch articles people tweet about when I take a break, sheer luck of the draw. I also worked in music for too long to care at all about celebrity (with one notable exception: I seem to keep embarrassing myself by being starstruck by Starstryder, Dr. Pamela Gay, who impressed the heck out of me the first time I saw her talk and has made me understand difficult concepts I thought I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend. That, my friends, is a woman who should be earning more than Oprah and have stars with her name on sidewalks all over the world! At the very least, she should be a household name that every little girl dreams of emulating when she grows up).

After I announced that I got a grant and was going I was asked privately by a tweep, “Aren’t you scared to go to TAM? I’ve heard there’s a lot of harassment there.” The thing is, not much scares me. I’ve lived in bad neighborhoods in New York City, spent a chunk of time in the real Jamaica (not just the touristy bits), and worked in an industry not exactly known for treating women like actual people. Heck, I spent my early 20s mostly trundling about the country as the only woman with various bunches of men who were pretty much strangers to me when I first traveled with them. The vast majority of my experiences were fantastic and I’m glad I jumped into them with a big splashy cannonball even if my choices might appear to be a bit foolish.

Well, TAM worked out that way for me, too. I met a lot of great people. I learned a lot at talks and in conversations at the bar afterwards. I made connections that I’m so glad to have and might even have some really cool opportunities coming my way due to being there. My life would be quite different right now if I hadn’t gone out of fear. In fact, the only time I was harassed at all it was by someone at the hotel for another event and one of the male speakers actually stepped in to help me before we’d ever introduced ourselves.

On the other hand, I experienced a lot of vicarious harassment that was dealt to people I really like and respect, including my marvelous benefactor. I saw the effects of trolling, judgment, and people rather casually inflicting pain on purpose in many ways. How do you help someone who has been torn down, over and over, even by the very people she is constantly standing up for? A person can only absorb so much hatred without ill effects no matter how strong. I’ve experienced it myself, I’ve seen it happen to others, and I’m exhausted by just thinking about it.

From what I understand, Amy came up with the idea to create grants for women because there is a disproportionately low number of women attending or speaking at TAM. There is a lot of discourse about whether the James Randi Educational Foundation (the group that puts TAM on) should adopt a harassment policy for this pinnacle event in the skeptic community. The result of the community’s conversations and JREF’s lack of movement on this turned out to be a lower female attendance this year. I completely understand why some women stayed away. I also think it’s hard to take a stand without showing up unless you are a big enough name that people notice (which is true of certain women who didn’t go this year and I completely support their decisions). However, the best way to defeat –isms like sexism and racism is usually to show up. I might be wrong when it comes to TAM, as it does cost quite a lot and hurting an organization in the wallet can work, but I’m also glad that I was one of the women who went and talked openly with all sorts of participants about the problems. These conversations dominated the weekend. No matter what people were talking about the subject always seemed to turn to harassment issues. This is a good thing.

I honestly believe that most people want to do the right thing and genuinely would like a harassment-free environment. The reason that denialists and bigots of all sorts are so vocal is they would otherwise be drowned out by the cooler and more knowledgeable heads that outnumber them (this also applies to the Tea Party). Many people don’t even have an informed opinion about harassment until they have talked to victims of it or experienced it first-hand. They are ignorant due to accident of birth and upbringing and can have their heads turned by learning about what women (or gays or any other group of frequent targets) go through all the time, no matter what community they exist in. This last group is the one that needs to meet people who have experienced problems and often those types do learn how to be more thoughtful in their words and actions. It’s a giant group effort of making people think and even people who identify as “critical thinkers” need more to think about. Should a community that prides itself on looking for hard answers be better informed on all of this? Yes. How can we make that happen if we don’t speak to them and make it clear that all people must be treated as equals?

In the midst of all this, my gibberish-inducing hero Dr. Pamela Gay stepped up to the microphone. Seeing her on the list of speakers was a major reason I applied for the grant and she had warned me the night before that this was going to be a very emotional talk. It was listed in the program as “Make the World Better (Ask if Anyone Minds Later)” and that sounded right up my alley. This very accomplished speaker admitted she was a bit nervous about this talk but as soon as she opened her mouth you could see strength and resolve take over. Her introduction was cursory, then she exploded into, “The past few weeks leading into TAM have been absolutely insane. Looking around the internet there have been terrible sadnesses and awe inspiring goodness. We live in a world that sometimes seems like nothing but extremes.” With that, she was off and running, giving examples of how crowds of perfect strangers banded together to right wrongs and support other strangers, yet peppered with the realities of harassment in several segments of society, especially science academia and the skeptic community gathered before her. It was the bravest and most honest talk I have ever seen at a conference of any kind. They gave her a microphone and presentation equipment and she gave us all a blast of how we can be responsible for making the world the way it is, good and bad. Now, run off and read the full text, this will be here when you get back.

She got a long standing ovation. I’m pretty sure she’s also gotten some backlash because that is what happens when you are brave, strong, and willing to call people out even if done in a most delicate and gracious manner. Be part of the ovation or go think long and hard about why you’re not.

I don’t know about you, but at a moment when I’m questioning why I’ve sacrificed almost all my personal stability to struggle as an artist, I really needed those words. What feeds me most is hearing people talk about how my music has changed their perspective on issues I care about or taught them something while they were entertained. I have a giant stockpile of music that no one has heard yet and some of it might be controversial enough to cause me problems with all sorts of haters. Granted, that worries me less than questions about how to afford all that recording, but it does cross my mind. I don’t care anymore, though. I want to change the world so that those who come after me can live in an altogether better version of it. Heck, I want to live in a better world now. I want to participate as actively as I can. Won’t you join me?

***

P.S. There is no way to say enough about how grateful I am to Surly Amy for making it possible for me to go. This was a life-changing event made possible by the kindness of strangers, an embodiment of how we can affect the lives of others. So, please, if you have the money (they’re not expensive) and don’t outright dislike ceramic jewelry, please go find a beautiful SurlyRamic to buy for yourself or someone you love. They are very high-quality and there are plenty of creative and fun designs to choose from for all.

Also, a new group that I am very enthusiastic about, Secular Woman, is trying to give grants to at least 10 women to get to SkeptiCON this fall. If you can, please donate to this excellent cause.

While I’m at it and you have your digital wallet out, if you want to support my efforts in a financial way, please make a donation or go buy some of my music on my Bandcamp site (other sites take over 2 months to pay me for your purchase, FYI. Bandcamp pays me nearly instantly. It rocks).

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