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They Shut it Down: The Culture War Claims Another Victim in East TN

MEMBERS ONLY: It’s unconscionable to tell women they don’t count; their issues, their struggle is something to be concerned about instead of talked about and acted upon.

I got my start in political organizing as the President of the College Democrats at East Tennessee State University. I'd had some experience leading, and managing people I was a neophyte in terms of organizational development. It was 2012, Obama was fighting for re-election, and I was in district that hadn't sent a Democrat to Washington since the 19th century. We were looking for allies anywhere we could find them, and without the help of a small, but extremely dedicated student organization called the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), the College Democrats wouldn’t have enjoyed the success they had.

Not only did I enjoy an great working relationship with a fantastic bunch of women, but I learned a lot just from watching how they ran their own organization. Often I was envious of women a decade or more younger than myself who seemed to have boundless energy, displayed a passion for their work, and shared a close knit bond with each other. They seemed to be more of a community than an organization.

Although I'm not really active on campus anymore, I'm only there a couple days a week to work on my thesis, I still keep abreast of those organizations that I have a soft spot for. Last week when the FMLA lost funding for Sex Week I was incensed. For those of you not privy to the sexual repression that at times borders on the puritanical in East Tennessee it can be a bit of a shock to the system for those not native to the area. College students having an open, frank discussion about sexuality might not seem like cause for alarm, but in East Tennessee it's a couple steps down the road to Gay Pride Parade and Fleet Week all rolled into a big sweaty ball of damnation.

The reason for the ETSU Student Government Association sudden bout of the vapors, i.e. voting against the funds for Sex Week, was as one concerned junior senator, Brandon Johnson, noted, “When they started organizing this at ETSU, we were very concerned about it… We are all for sexual education -- we made a very proud stance on that, everyone should be informed about it. Unfortunately, the 'Sex Week' banner has such a negative name associated with that."

In fact Sex Week was so troubling, and junior senator Brandon Johnson so apprehensive about a conservative backlash he “made a phone call to controversial and outgoing state Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) about the potential campus event, and concluded that if the student senate funded the Sex Week, the university would ‘get our hand slapped by legislature’."

It’s good to know that student senators like Brandon Johnson, who are elected to serve the students at East Tennessee State University, defer to one of the biggest jackasses ever to get elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. Stacy Campfield, a fellow alum from the Mike “The GOP Ain’t Doin’ Enough to Stop Them Gays!” Huckabee school, has the dubious dishonor of pushing for the “Classroom Protection” bill better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Then he went further and modified the “Don’t Say The Gay!” bill to include a provision that forced school counselors to out gay teens to their parents.

And then there’s Campfield’s enlightened, totally-backed by science-n-stuff not all barely veiled hatred of gays, views on the origins of the AIDS virus: “Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community – it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall.... My understanding is that it is virtually – not completely, but virtually – impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex...very rarely [transmitted].”

Like most things progressive in nature Sex Week at ETSU was almost doomed before it began. Cries of state money being used for something profane are a sham meant to disguise the true motivation: silencing leftist opinions. East Tennessee is the buckle of the Bible Belt and the front line of the culture war. Here a typical the conservative tactic isn’t to shout down the opposition it’s to silence it all together. This means points of view from oppressed groups like ethnic minorities, women, or gay people. Considering the FMLA advocates for all these, in particular women, they suffer the brunt of it.

What the FMLA does, has done, and will continue to do is be a fantastic organization for young women, and men who want to be of service not only to their campus, but their community. In my work with the College Democrats at ETSU FMLA was one of the first organizations to support us. Without the tireless efforts of some truly outstanding individuals the College Democrats, along with a lot of other organizations wouldn’t have been successful as they would’ve without the FMLA.

The FMLA has pushed for AIDS Awareness week, they supported One Billion Rising, helped organized a cancer walk, supported LGBTQ Awareness, were a driving force behind Civility Week, helped get students registered to vote, and so many other campus & community activities listing them would require another article. If encouraging young women to take an active role in their community, engaging them in political, economic and social justice issues, and training the next leaders of tomorrow is something to “be concerned about” perhaps those fretful few should reexamine their priorities.

This is the hypocrisy faced by liberal forces. We have to be tolerant of old men, non-students handing out bibles on campus, or worse antagonistic religious bigots peddling hatred, calling young students harlots as they walk through campus. They can harangue gay people, calling their lifestyle an abomination because their speech is protected. These hate mongers are not students of the university but they’re allowed to reserve university space. You won’t see Stacey Campfield, denouncing these folks. He actively courts their support.

Defunding Sex Week has nothing to do with “concern” over offending the already perpetually aggrieved religious right in East Tennessee. It has everything to do with standing in the way of women being given ownership over their own sexuality. That is the true concern of those who want to stand against Sex Week at ETSU.

Kat Hachié pointed out in her wonderfully written article at Bustle:

“The real danger here is not Sex Week. The danger here is furthering the idea that sex is taboo and cannot be discussed in an open, frank manner. The danger is pretending that sex on college campuses does not exist. The danger is refusing to address issues like consent and boundaries when sexual assault is a reality for students not only at ETSU but at universities across the country. The danger is ensuring that kowtowing to the whims of a reactionary state legislature becomes precedent.”

I’ll go further. It’s unconscionable to tell women they don’t count; their issues, their struggle is something to be concerned about instead of talked about and acted upon. Their issues are so verboten they can’t be debated in a place that’s supposed to be a marketplace of ideas. That because the words sex, vagina, abortion, or gay might make some people uncomfortable they get to silence those who wish to talk about those things. After all that’s what pulling the funding for Sex Week is really about. It’s telling people who simply want to make their place, and by extension the rest of the world better that they need to shut the fuck up.

That’s the truly concerning thing in all of this.

(Note: The FMLA hasn't quit. Not by a long shot. If you want to help these awesome, kick ass folks see their hard work come to fruition please donate what you can.)

(Image via Facebook)