When Two Chicks Get Married…

by Joyce Clapp

engagement-edit1-500

This Saturday it’s October 11 again, so it’s National Coming Out Day again.
Last year I rhapsodized about how much I love working for UNCG. And I still do. However, this year my brain isn’t as much on sexuality as it is on gender, gender roles, and being gender non-conforming.

Currently, I’m teaching a face-to-face course on race, gender, and social class inequalities. These last couple of weeks in particular, we’ve been talking a lot about gender roles and sexuality, and how these two separate concepts are so intertwined in society. We live in a heteronormative society that takes its cues on how you’re supposed to act in relationships from our gender roles. When you don’t fit into either the gender or sexuality mold that society expects, you’re left without a cultural scaffolding to guide your interactions with other people and in relationships. Additionally, sometimes other folks don’t quite know what to say to you.

“So, who proposed?”
“I did, but she knew it was coming.”

gay-lunchThis past December, I had the great pleasure of asking my now wife to marry me. She knew I was going to askin my world, you don’t ask questions like that if you don’t know the answerbut nonetheless, the evening of the proposal came and we were both incredibly nervous. I was proposing on campus (after all, it’s gorgeous, my work at UNCG is a huge part of my life, and it seemed way nicer than in my living room with the dog and the roommate trying not to pay attention to what we were doing). Originally, I’d intended to ask her in front of Minerva, but my wife guessed that, so I fell back on my second favorite spot on campus: the round pavilion on the side of the School of Music Building.

She’s currently living several states away while finishing her degree, so I’d promised her a bit of a campus tour. However, every time I stopped to tell her about something, she started getting more nervous (thinking that it was time), so we finally just wandered back to the School of Music. I’d had this great speech planned that zoomed out of my head as soon as it was time, and instead I just said “Lee, will you marry me?”

She said yes. We both sniffled. And then I asked her to ask me, and she did. And yes, I said yes.

(We both wore engagement rings. There was never any question.)

“I know, I know I shouldn’t ask this… but when two women are out on a date, who pays?”
“Did you really just ask me that?”

So, after the proposal and traipsing around campus in the dark, we took our dressed-up selves out to an amazing seafood dinner (I paid, her being the “broke college kid” that she is), and all was right with the world. Which brings me to this: When you’re out to eat, pay attention to the dynamics of the check drop. The check usually gets dropped in front of my (male) roommate; my card with my picture on it has gotten dropped in front of him, as well (and he has several inches more hair than I do). On the other hand, when my wife and I are out together, waitstaff approach the table, and then pause for a moment before carefully placing the check in the middle of the table.

check

“So, who cooks?”
“I do. I have a gluten intolerance and she’s worried about poisoning me. And I like to cook. She does the dishes though.”

This is not news to anyone who’s in a same-sex relationship, but since folks don’t know what to say sometimes, you get a lot of questions. Sometimes you get a lot of nosy questions. Sometimes folks are just curious. But all of the questions get back to gender roles; often folks have real trouble considering how you might structure a relationship with two women, two men, or two genderqueer folks. The woman cooks and the man sits in the living room with a beer, right? Feedback that I get from students in class lets me know that many students are being raised in homes with non-traditional gender roles; however, I’ve also heard really heartbreaking stories from female students about being expected to do all the heavy lifting in households where fathers and brothers were not doing their share. We may try to assert that we live in a post-racial society these days, but no one even tries to make that assertion about gender. We know better.

“So…who…you know…who’s the guy?”
“Are you really asking this?”
“Yea, I guess I am.”

I’m gonna let Mae Martin take this one for me

I feel like I frequently have this exchange with my straight male friends where they are like, "Oh, you are a lesbian, that's awesome. That's cool. But your relationship with your girlfriend which one of you is the man of the relationship?" Like fair enough question, but I am like we are genuinely both women, that's kinda the point. That is the essence of the arrangement that we have made. "I know, but which one of you represents the man?" And it's like saying to a vegetarian, "Oh you are a vegetarian? That's the best. Which part of the salad represents the pork chop?" No, it's made of vegetables. Which vegetable wears the strap-on is really what they are asking. The answer is: All the vegetables. Even the long-haired vegetables sometimes wear them. And when they do it's very exciting for the short-haired vegetables.

See, there is no “guy” in the relationship; we’re both just us. I cook. She does the dishes. Unless she needs to study, and then I do them. She mostly takes out the trash and recycling. Neither of us works on cars; we both have a little knowledge (her more so than me), but we don’t like to do it and we’re happy to pay other folks to do it.

She wears men’s clothes all the time but is way more particular about her looks and painting her toenails than I am. I keep my hair short most of the time (I grew it out for the wedding, but right now it’s high and tight), and wildly vary shaving my legs and painting my nails. There are mornings when my room resembles the clothing scene from The Great Gatsby, because nothing feels rightnot men’s clothes and not women’s clothes, and while UNCG may be pretty laid back, I still can’t go teach class in my pajamas.

HETS-IraqiFreedom

She can drive anything on wheels (having driven trucks through Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom), but she prefers automatics because of a bum shoulder. I prefer to drive a stick. I kill the spiders (she’s terrified of them), and she reaches the stuff on high shelves (being nearly a foot taller than I am). We’re still working out a lot of this (see also: long distance marriage), but whenever we do work out something, it’s because it’s the solution that makes sense, not because society tells us that one of us is supposed to take out the trash or fold the clothes (answer: she’s a lot better at that than I). Opposite sex couples have this process of negotiation to go through as well and often go for the “makes sense” solution, but they also have a lifetime of socialization and culture behind them as well (for better or worse).

Gender is in everything we do; our society eats and breaths gender in a way that we don’t notice when we’re in the middle of it. We still have terrible levels of inequality in our society (we’re still discussing women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s, for example). And when we get down to people’s lived experiences, the differences can become even more stark: ask Ben Barres, who was infamously told that his “sister’s” work wasn’t as good as his. (And we’re not even getting into issues of violence or job discrimination against trans* people, or that some days, there just isn’t a box for you on forms, because I don’t have those emotional cycles today.)

“What did y’all do about last names?”
“Well, we had the same options any couple has, right? One person takes the other name, you hyphenate, you both keep your name…”
“Yea, I guess so. Huh.”

The takeaway is that living sexuality and gender is sometimes super messy, but a lot of times it just is what it is; mostly we’re just a normal old couple doing boring old couple things like work and walking the dog. As I’m fond of telling my students, no matter who is in the relationship, someone has to buy milk and someone has to walk the dog and someone has to grade papers. I’m just glad that I found my person that I want to buy milk with for the rest of my life.

wedding-edit-500

A few resources:

Link to UNCG Pride on Facebook

UNCG Pride on Facebook

UNCG Safe Zone

National Coming Out Day page at Human Rights Campaign

Sexual Assault On Campus. Sexual Assault, Period.

by Erin Poythress

rapevc(ed1)

I’ve been trying all day to find a way to talk about the announcement we all got in our boxes about the sexual assault on campus, and the words keep failing me. But this is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be talked about on college campuses (virtual or not), and because words matter, and this is a literature course,* it is perfectly appropriate to our learning goals to look closely at the words that went out to the whole UNCG community on a matter that I think we can all agree is terrible. So I decided that an imperfectly worded conversation is likely better than a perfectly crafted treatise days after the fact. I’m siding with it being more responsible to broach a tough topic than ignore it. Silence offers too much protection for perpetrators of sexual violence.

I’ll start with the easy stuff: I am saddened and outraged this happened in my community, even though this is merely the first campus-wide report, not the first on-campus assault. UNCG is my community, my intellectual home, and it is hard to fight the sense that this happened in my own house. As a member of the faculty, I feel responsible for my students, despite their age or life experience. I’m also concerned that the safety tips offered up were problematic at best, and at worst, part of the problem. I will get into that as we go.

sexual-assault-awareness-campaign-500

Here’s the email that went out from Campus Police, cut and pasted for reference:

TIMELY WARNING

September 10, 2014

On the evening of Wednesday, September 10, a UNCG Housing and Residence Life staff member received information that a university student was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance in a residential room in […] Residence Hall.

University officials outside of the police department know the identities of both parties and are proceeding with actions in accordance with university policies. The student has selected not to proceed with a criminal investigation at this time, and UNCG Police are respecting her decision to remain anonymous and are not investigating this incident.

In response to this incident, the UNCG Police are providing the following information on acquaintance sexual assaults. This information is general in nature and is not specifically related to this incident.***

It is estimated that nationwide one in every four to five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. The most common type of sexual assault is not a stranger but someone the victim knows, typically a date or acquaintance. To minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know, it is critical to keep the following points in mind:

  • Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage. Keep control of your drink.

  • Always trust your instincts. If you feel uneasy or sense something is wrong, do what you can to get out of that situation.

  • If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent from your partner. For more information see http://sa.uncg.edu/dean/ sexual-misconduct/consent/.

  • Have a companion or a safe means of getting home, i.e., a trusted friend, taxi, public transportation, or Spartan Chariot, if available.

  • If you are sexually assaulted, you have several options; please see related information at this website:http://sa.uncg.edu/ handbook/wp-content/uploads/ assault.pdf . If you choose a police investigation of this crime, we will investigate, provide support, and offer related services.

  • Sex offenses are treated with the greatest seriousness on our campus; criminal and/or severe disciplinary action can be taken. If a criminal case is brought, we will support you as much as possible as you pursue it. In the case of disciplinary action, it is our university’s commitment that a victim shall be informed of the outcome of any institutional disciplinary proceeding brought alleging a sex offense.

UNCG Police offer Rape Aggression Defense courses as well as personal safety information at the following web address http://police.uncg.edu/ Programs/. UNCG Police recommend people walk in groups when possible and report crimes immediately by calling 336-334-4390 or 911. They also encourage people to use public transportation, Spartan Chariot, and other reliable transportation services and avoid situations or circumstances that may increase the risk to their personal safety.

This information is being released in accordance with the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses, including timely warnings of crimes that may represent a threat to the safety of students or employees.

***(Safety tips were obtained from the the University of Iowa website on timely warning notification,http://tinyurl.com/k6yh56j).

ineedfeminism

Let’s deconstruct that message…

Regarding the suggestions to “minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know”I just need to talk about this with you for a moment, even though many of you don’t take any classes on campus, even though some of you don’t even live in the same state.  You do live in the same society, and acquaintance rape and sexual assault occur all over, so you need to be part of the conversation. I firmly believe that if you are not part of the solution to a problem, you are part of the problem. Since most of what we do in this class is take a close look at language, and unpack its denotation, connotation, innuendo, and implication, I want to do the exact same thing to these suggestions.

“One in every four to five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.”
This statement suggests that 1 in every 4 or 5 (20-25%) will be a victim of an assault or attempted assault. This leaves it open as to how many of these member of our community were actually assaulted and how many endured uncompleted attempts of assault. Don’t get me wrongan attempted assault is certainly traumatic, and erodes one’s sense of safety, but most of us would agree that it’s worse to be the victim of a completed sexual assault than to endure an unsuccessful attempt. The law also agrees, as the penalties are heavier for a completed assault than an attempted assault. Given that phrasing, someone might imagine many of those women in that 20-25% of the female population of college campuses all over the country survived attempts and not assaults. “Someone” would be wrong. One in five female college students, according to the White House, are victims of sexual assault. Period. The quoted phrase in the tips from the campus police may not technically be inaccurate, but in grouping assaults with attempted assaults, it can minimize the trauma these women experience, and allows the reader to imagine a less criminal, less traumatizing experience for the victim. (Note: I usually prefer to refer to sexual assault victims as “survivors,” but since the text in question can be interpreted to minimize the very harm itself, for now I’ve sticking with “victim.”)

stats_infographic

“To minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know….
Here’s the thing. There is nothing anyone can do to reduce risk of harm to zero—no nail polish, no anti-rape underwear, no protective amulets, or mindreading glasses. Women are often advised not to drink in public, not to wear “racy” clothes, not behave in certain ways in public so that she is not a target for predators. But guess what? Predators predate. Most rapes are planned in advance. Rapists observe and then manipulate people they perceive as vulnerable to get what they want from them. So while I would never discourage a woman from taking steps to make herself feel safer, whatever that looks like, one may also be able to imply, when these well-meant suggestions are offered based on observations of commonalities in the circumstances of these crimes, that if she did not take these precautions then she either wanted to be sexually assaulted (or it wasn’t truly assault but a misunderstanding, which I will get to later) or deserved it somehow. There is no one in this world who deserves to be raped. No one. The idea that—instead of teaching people not to rape, and teaching people to recognize and intervene when they see signs someone may be targeting another person for sexual assault—targets of rape should alter all their behaviors and take all the responsibility for protecting themselves is backward. Again, it is easy to see how someone might turn that around on a victim and imply or even say outright that she should have known because she went to a frat party/got drunk/wore that dress. Law enforcement has said these things to women reporting rapes before. Just sit there a second and imagine how that feels, especially if you have already endured a rape examination (that link describes briefly what really happens– it is not a short or simple or painless exam). This is another case where focusing on a victim’s behavior allows us to avoid the questions about why that attack really happened, and the cultural currents that allow these attacks to take place.

no excuses drunk 500

“Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment.”
As a friend of mine once aptly put it: “A woman’s outfit may very well be an invitation. That does not make it an invitation for you.” This also applies to people getting drunk in public (after all, isn’t getting drunk all alone a warning sign of addiction?). There are many reasons it may not be a great idea for anyone to get highly intoxicated (Who likes throwing up? Weepy, humiliating public scenes, anyone?), but it is really important for me to point out that a woman out getting drunk is not necessarily interested in sex, and even if she is, any old partner likely does not do. And going out to have anonymous, consensual sex isn’t the same as going out to get raped, since rape is about power, not about sex. Let’s go back to that whole most-rapes-are-planned-in-advance thing. Seen through the lens of that fact, it’s easy to see that alcohol is a means to an end here—to lower inhibitions and confuse our instincts that might put us off a creep. Here’s an article to back up that alcohol is not the cause of male aggression, at least in terms of sexual assaults happening in bars.

no excuses kissing 500

That bit about it “impairing…your acquaintance’s judgment” suggests that the assailant did not realize he was raping someone, or that he would not have committed this act sober. This is a problematic assumption in the best of lights, and carries with it a whole lot of assumptions about gendered expectations around sexuality. The first thing I’ll say about it is that the notion that the victim and the assailant in this scenario could be on equal footing in terms of power and decision making is not consistent with the facts we know about acquaintance rape, since it is usually premeditated. It’s also highly insulting to someone who has been raped, because the implicit suggestion is that all she needed to do was communicate more clearly or have less drinks so she could do so. This blames the victim for what happened to her, and this is toxic for both that person’s healing as well as society, since it allows the rest of us to tell ourselves we’ll never drink that much/wear that dress/go off with someone we don’t know well/insert whatever makes you feel superior to that poor hapless girl, so we won’t be raped ourselves. That may help us sleep better, but it doesn’t make a dent in the crimes, and it allows us to focus on the victim’s behavior and not on the perpetrator’s, which only gives a predator cover. The implication that a person can always be free from sexual assault simply by being aware of his or her surroundings is the very root of victim blaming and rape culture (what’s that? Read this). The fact that rape happens everywhere to every demographic should illustrate that it is not an epidemic of drunk girls not walking home with friends.

alcoholisnotconsent

“Always trust your instincts…do what you can to get out of that situation.”
Of course, trust your instincts. But if your instincts are confounded by intoxicants and/or manipulation by someone who has singled you out, this is less simple than it appears. In situations where a sexual assault may be more likely (see that White House doc about the Red Zone), it’s great to have a buddy system and take other sensible precautions, but it is just as vitally important that everyone take responsibility for those around us when we see they can’t do it ourselves. Bystander education has been really driving down campus sexual assaults recently. Of course I am not saying that someone in this situation should not try to get away if they feel trapped. I think every woman alive has been there at some point, and I know some men have, too. But not getting away, or placing conditions upon what is considered a vigorous enough effort to escape an attack, further blames the victim for the attack. Even in a stone-cold-sober rape scenario, the adrenaline response, which is commonly called “fight or flight,” can also cause a person to freeze (think deer in headlights). Some people, in some situations, completely shut down in the face of extreme fear. I think we can all agree that shutting down in fear is not consent.

not-sex-car(crop)

“If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent.”
This is where I actually started yelling at the screen. This assumes that sexual assault has happened because of a failure to communicate, and in addition to going against established facts about sexual assault (again), it assumes that had the victim only said “no,” the attacker would have backed down. This also completely ignores the long-established position of the psychological community (and others) that rape is about power, not sex. Think about it. A regular, non-rapist human, in a sexual or turning-sexual situation with someone desirable, gets the “no” signal. Maybe their partner breaks away from the embrace, maybe the person says something that isn’t “no” but indicates they aren’t into it right then, like “Man, I really need to get to sleep.” A non-raping human might be disappointed or even angry—there might even be words about it (PS: this is a terrible idea, and in the history of human civilization, never has anything good happened right after those words, just FYI). But the difference between someone who rapes and someone who doesn’t is that a rapist may then decide that he (statistically, he is a dude, and I will get there, male readers) will get what he wants, no matter what his partner thinks about it. The rest of us, who make up the vast majority of society, do not want to be intimate with someone who doesn’t want to be intimate with us. Because we aren’t rapists. Rape is about power, not sex.

The next bullet point, about having a safe means of getting home, is more of the same. After all, using manipulation to isolate someone sets them up to not have a safe way out. This tip places the responsibility of remaining safe on the victim instead of instructing people not to rape, or better yet, to intervene.

rape-aggression-defense

“UNCG…Rape Aggression Defense course.”
I have no firsthand knowledge of this course, though I did follow the link to its description. I am all for people doing what makes them feel safe, and while I don’t know what they say over the twelve hours of instruction, I really hope one of them is that nothing reduces one’s risk to zero, and that if someone takes that class and then gets raped, it isn’t their fault. Because remember—rape is usually planned, and rape is committed by people who don’t believe that “no means no” applies to them. If taking any kind of self-defense class makes someone feel empowered—great! That just might make them less vulnerable to attack down the road, or better at stopping it. But it also might not, and as I’m sure you’re tired of hearing, you can imagine how awful it would be to hear that you kind of asked to be sexually assaulted because you didn’t take such a course in self defense. This places the burden of responsibility on people (mostly women) not to be raped, instead of teaching (mostly) men not to rape.

By now you are probably trying to figure out, after all this dissection of what troubles me about the tips in this email, what I think we should be saying and doing.

1. Don’t rape.

dont-rape(edit)

The next should come as no surprise by now:

2.It is never the victim’s fault. The first step to transitioning from victim to survivor is having the support from family, friends, and the university community (if it happened on campus), starting with telling the person that nothing they did occasioned the attack. And then seeking to resolve the case as the survivor wishes. I am a part of the UNCG community. The idea that someone among us is harming us is very, very difficult for me to live with. I’d prefer the assailant, if determined guilty by the justice system, be as far from our red bricks as possible, because many offenders repeat. I feel like someone has harmed a member of my family because they have. But it isn’t my place to tell any survivor how to proceed, even if I want our world safer.

SVU(edit)

3. We have to change the culture around these issues. That is a much bigger issue, because it involves social conditioning that happens all our lives. That is too big for any university or all of them together to be expected to tackle all by itself since students arrive as adults. But that doesn’t mean we just accept this sorry status quo. As I mentioned above, bystander awareness campaigns have been very successful on many college campuses. In addition to talking through some of the more contentious consent issues (some college students don’t know someone can be too intoxicated to consent to sex at all, for example), the value of peer groups has also been recognized in research as critical to helping curb sexual violence on campus. Everyone cares what their friends think of them, even people at risk for committing sexual assault. So with specific training and awareness programs, students learn ways to safely intervene when they notice, for example, someone, usually a girl, suddenly quite drunk, cornered by someone, usually a guy, and looking uncomfortable. They help the would-be assailant want to identify as and be accepted as a man who respects women and doesn’t let other men act that way, either. Many of you have probably done that before without even realizing you were participating in bystander intervention because trying to keep your friends out of harm’s way is also part of being a good friend, and that includes a playful “Dude, she is not into you,” and a firm steering to the other side of the bar. Will that stop all rapes on campus? Sadly, no. But it starts to change the conversation. It starts to question the paradigm that allows sexual assault to happen.

missoula1_0

I promised I’d talk a little more about the gendered stuff. By now, I’d bet there is at least one reader squirming, maybe male, maybe even feeling possibly judged. Assuming you are not one of the 3% of men who has committed sexual assault, I am not pointing at you when I talk about rapists. I don’t believe for a second that all men would rape given the chance, and my belief is backed up by the stats. Three percent is not a lot of people, but one in five women have been affected by them, and one out of 16 men have, too. That is a lot of collateral damage. If “See Something, Say Something” is good enough for a counter-terrorism campaign, then maybe it should be good enough for a sexual-assault awareness campaign. If it threatens your safety to intervene, call 911, of course. I want all my students and their kids and grandkids to live a long, happy life, wherever they are, so don’t go getting yourself hurt. But if you see a situation in which a person (usually a girl, but not always) looks uncomfortable and stuck or too intoxicated to know what is going on, and you see one or more people acting a little too interested, go talk to her. About anything. Maybe you’ll find you misinterpreted the cues, and everything is okay. Maybe, though, you’ll find a way to breed disinterest in the ne’er-do-wells, and she’ll be grateful. Or she will be too drunk to get it and won’t even be grateful, but it won’t matter because you still did the right thing. Take it from a teacher: if doing the right thing were only about the unwavering gratitude we got in return, we’d give it up and never look back.

___

* Ms. Poythress originally wrote this to send out to her BLS 321 class.

BLS321

Editor’s note: UNCG Campus Police has been receptive to criticism of that email text from the campus community, and has taken steps to update that information. UNCG also has a bystander-awareness campaign beginning this month.

UNCG Sexual Violence Campus Advocacy page

 Some suggestions for further reading

hobartReporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t
How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint

Obama College Sexual AssaultsEnding College Sexual Assault
Can Obama’s new campaign bring change?

Edit: New video released this week by UNCG SAF:

Miscarriages of Justice

by Jay Parr

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.

Both of these men were convictedand condemnedbased on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These menscared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police beforewere convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.

Brown at the hearings.

Leon Brown at last week’s hearings.

Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decadesas men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.

A cell in North Carolina's death row.

A cell in North Carolina’s death row. (WRAL)

There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.

The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trialthe system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubtfailed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.

That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphereincluding a Supreme Court justicehas trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”

Reverse view of death-row cell. (WRAL)

Reverse view of the cell. The ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger. (WRAL)

The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.

These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”

The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.

The death row day room; McCollum's world for decades.

The death row day room; McCollum’s world for decades.

These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.

McCollum faces reporters outside. What awaits in the outside world?

McCollum faces reporters upon his release. What awaits in the outside world?

It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.

These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.

Something like this.

Something like this. With a staff.

If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.

Tim’s Vermeer: The Science of Dutch Art

by Ann Millett-Gallant

tims-vermeer-optics

Tim Jenison with his “Vermeer” and the equipment used to make it.

I love a good documentary film, especially one about art, so I was happy to receive Bob Hansen’s recommendation of Tim’s Vermeer. It is an eighty-minute film about one man’s quest for art featuring Tim Jenison, an inventor, video equipment specialist, and entrepreneur who is fascinated with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Known as “the painter of light,” Vermeer was a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, best known for his portraits, interior genre scenes, and inclusion of detail. For more information on the life and work of Vermeer, see the website Essential Vermeer.

tims_vermeerThe film is narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, of the famous team of magicians Penn and Teller. Penn and Teller were also a part of the team that produced the film, and themes of documentation and magic pervade it. Other major themes include the nexus of art and technology, photography and illusion in art history, digital technology and technological imaging in art, and seeing through photographic reproduction versus human seeing. These themes relate to two of my BLS courses, BLS 345, Photography: Contexts and Illusions and BLS 346, The Art of Life. Discussions of art history and the media and techniques of artmaking in the film are also relevant to my Art 100 course. Tim’s exposé of Vermeer may be interpreted as challenging the notions of artistic talent and exposing the myth of so-called “genius” painting. Yet, in the process, Tim discovers a newfound awe of Vermeer’s resources and artistic focus.

Tim is most interested in Vermeer’s possible use of early camera technology and reflective devices. Inspired by Vermeer’s Camera (2001), a book by Philip Stedman, professor at University College of London, Jenison crosses continents and narratives of art history in pursuit of the truth behind Vermeer’s oil painting The Music Lesson (1662-1664), and eventually attempts to recreate it. Tim says in the film that he feels a kinship with Vermeer as an inventor and musician. He also explains why he decided to focus on The Music Lesson, stating that it is “so complete and self-contained,” compared with all other Vermeer paintings, and he declares it “a scientific experiment waiting to happen.” Through his research and art project, Tim aims to offer an “alternative narrative of Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

While experimenting with various reflective devices, Tim paints his first portrait from the reflection of a photograph of his father in law. He is modest about his painted product and says emphatically that painting it was a decidedly object experience, rather than a subjective, or personal one. Tim then zooms in on studying image-making and methods of illusion specific to the seventeenth century, which includes optical machines and—most prominently—the camera obscura, an ancestor of early 19th-century photography.

18th-century camera obscura.

18th-century camera obscura.

Tim then compares the painted details of The Music Lesson to optical effects of photography, concluding that Vermeer depicted photographic seeing, rather than human sight. He states that the appearance of “absolute brightness” in the painting is proof that Vermeer painted from photograph, because such light is not visible to the naked eye.

To prove his hypothesis, Tim first visits Delft, Holland, where he learns to speak Dutch, to grind pigments, and to mix oil paint. He also studies the light, furniture, and interior architecture. Finally, he hires artists to make exact replicas of the pottery found in the composition of The Music Lesson. Tim discusses a list of craftsmen and engineers he would need to serve as “experts” in building a life-size model of the scene, saying that he can attempt to complete all the work with a computer.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Tim proves that he is a quintessential “Renaissance Man” (although Vermeer was post-Renaissance historically); to be photographed by a self-built camera, Tim constructs a replica of the scene of The Music Lesson in a San Antonio warehouse from wood, concrete, metal, and glass. Tim’s set is complete with furniture, woodwork, stained-glass windows, and musical instruments. Experimentation leads Tim to discover a system of lenses and mirrors (including a shaving mirror) which, joined with visual color-matching tricks, allow him to build a surprisingly accurate, three-dimensional reproduction of The Music Lesson. Tim also shows his musical skills as he plays on the violin that will serve as his model in the composition.

Earlier in the film, as Tim and Philip Stedman each tried their hands at copying portraits, the music and tempo of the shots slowed down, but they build up again as Tim builds the room and begins to paint the image from it. More dynamic camera work and background music set the stage for many scenes of Tim painting, in which he used his daughter and her friends as live models. This pace is held up for 8 minutes. Time is marked by images of the calendar dates in the lower corner of the screen, as if torn from a desktop calendar. Everything slows down significantly after forty days. At about fifty days, Tim makes a discovery; he finds curves in the painting where there should be straight lines. He explains that Vermeer’s so-called mistake in angles of perspective was a result of viewing and painting a photographic image.

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Following this discovery, time further drags as Tim experiences the physical pain of his actions and seated position, while the viewer watches him paint details such as violin strings, minute decorations on the piano, and the individual threads on a draping, patterned tablecloth. Somewhere in this period, a threat of carbon monoxide poisoning arises in the studio. I must admit, I do not remember why. I may have zoned out. After eighty to ninety days, Tim becomes “repulsed” while painting a royal blue chair with bronze lion heads on the back and correcting his mistakes with a cotton swab. All in all in the film, there are approximately thirteen minutes of footage of Tim painstakingly painting. It feels longer.

In the final scenes, Tim shows Stedman and David Hockney his painting. Hockney, with whom Tim has met previously in the film, is another artist interested in these reflected forms and technologies (see David Hockney’s website here).

Stedman and Hockney discuss Tim’s painting and determine that it is better than Vermeer’s. In the last shot, the humble Tim claims Vermeer was an inspiring inventor and artist.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

The film chronicles important discoveries and historical revisions, but I wasn’t sure if the information alone carried the film. I was just so fascinated by Tim Jenison. He stole the show. He was obviously very smart and skillful, yet also witty, eccentric, and obsessive. It takes one hundred and twenty days for him to paint a replica of a famous Vermeer painting, and the whole project, captured on film, took over five years (2008-2013). For this entire time, Tim’s life seems utterly driven by art and photography.

tims-vermeer-music-lesson

Not Exactly World Cup Fever: Why Soccer Isn’t More Popular in the U.S.

by Matt McKinnon

world-cup-2010

World Cup action.

I confess: I love soccer, or fútbol, or football, or whatever you want to call it. I have three sons who play it year-round, both indoors (including the house) and out. And we watch it all the time, more so than any other professional sport. Now don’t get me wrong, I love and watch American football and watch a fair amount of baseball, basketball, and hockey. It’s just that soccer has become our main sport—both to play and to watch. So, I admit: I am not an objective observer here.

Ann Coulter

Of course, then again, neither is Ann Coulter, who recently blasted the sport in her own blog post.

Coulter lists nine reasons that “Americans” hate soccer—from the ridiculous (no.5 You can’t use your hands) to the uninformed (no.1 Individual achievement is not a big factor—tell that to the US Team whom Portugal put out with one brilliant pass from perhaps the world’s current best player; no.2 Athletic talent is not a large factor; and no.4 No threat of humiliation or major injury—again, tell that to the Brazilian Neymar who fractured his vertebrae in the match against Columbia).

But despite her overall offensiveness and ignorance about the game, Coulter does manage to raise a couple of possible reasons: it is “foreign” and often ends in a tie (her other reasons basically boiling down to the fact that soccer, or more specifically, watching soccer, just hasn’t caught on). Even here, of course, her ignorance outpaces her insight, since soccer as a sport that people actually play (both youth and adults) is just as popular in the US (if not moreso) than football or baseball, and is arguably more popular as an organized sport than basketball (though the latter is played more informally).

Neymar on field with fractured vertebra.

Neymar on the field with fractured vertebra.

Her point about soccer often ending in a tie has some merit—even though it is also more a reflection of current US interests than historical ones. After all, both American football and hockey could end in ties until rather recently: the NHL instituted a shootout system in 2005 and the NFL only instituted overtime in 1974, though if no one scores, games can still end in ties even now.

I would argue there are five main reasons why watching soccer has been slow to catch on in the US.

1: Some, like Coulter and others, do indeed see it as a “foreign” game, despite its close relation to American football (where the now popular “forward pass” was once illegal). But even this is problematic, since the US watches many “foreign” sports at venues like the Olympics (more on this below).

2: Closely related to the foreign origins of soccer is the fact that soccer is representative of the current changing demographics of the US. To be blunt, soccer tends to be popular among the growing Mexican and Latin American community, as well as various African and Asian populations as well. Now I’m not saying that someone is racist or xenophobic if they don’t like soccer, only that if you are already racist and xenophobic then you are more likely not to like soccer. After all, soccer reminds us that a majority of the world is not white, and neither is the US for much longer.

Mexico beats US, 5-0

Mexico beats US, 5-0.

3: We are just not as good at it as other countries. This one is more substantial, I think, as well as more complicated. Our women’s team, after all, is one of the best—if not the best—in the world. But then again, most countries around the globe do not support female athletics the way we do with women’s soccer. It’s also one of the hardest reasons to admit: but the fact of the matter is that we watch the Olympics, both summer and winter, even though some of the games and most of the people involved are “foreign”—because, well, the US athletes are usually better or just as good as their competition. This is just not the case with the US Men’s Team: not now, and not in the foreseeable future. Sure, the US goalie Tim Howard had an incredible game against Portugal, and he is arguably the best position player the team has. But he features on an English Premier League team (Everton) that perennially finishes in fifth place or lower. He couldn’t cut it at the powerhouse Manchester United (despite flourishes that suggested he might) and would not even feature as one of the top ten goal keepers at the 2014 World Cup, much less in the world today. This fact is disturbing to be sure, but US players are just not anywhere near as technically good as the players at the highest level of world soccer. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that player development in US soccer remains very much an upper middle-class pastime, and rules like those imposed by the NCAA actually prevent further development compared to soccer in other countries. (World-class players like Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, and Ibrahimavich tend to sign professional contracts before they’re fifteen and are not bound by rules maintaining amateur status.) The best soccer players in the world are not US citizens, and neither do they play for teams in the US.

US vs Canada, 2012 Olympics

US women’s team vs Canada, 2012 Olympics.

4: Soccer can seem boring to the uninitiated. Closely related to the above discussion of the tie, however, this reason is complicated. After all, where boring sports are concerned, it’s hard to argue that soccer is any more boring than golf, or car racing without the wrecks, or the majority of time in football games spent in huddles or timeouts, or most baseball games. Of course, to the initiated, none of these are actually boring, though the truth is that most sports that have a sizable market-share on TV have gone through changes over the past few decades to make them more exciting to a US viewer whose attention span seems to be getting shorter and shorter. The problem with soccer is not that it is boring, or that it can and often does end in a tie. The problem is the way that the game is played.

super-bowl-commercial

Super Bowl commercials: Verisimilitude at its finest.

5: Yes, the biggest reason that soccer has not grown more in popularity in the US is the complete absence of the commercial break. Those of us who love watching American football and basketball and baseball and hockey do so with the assurance that there will be breaks in the “action” (even if most of this action is watching players in the huddle, or keeping a runner at first, or standing around the free throw line). The point is that the typical US viewer wants to know when, more or less, the action is going to come—in that rather short moment between huddles, or when the bases are loaded, or at the end of the half when there are only seconds remaining. We like to go to the kitchen for snacks, or to the bathroom to relieve ourselves, or to check out what’s on the other channels. But with soccer, you have to watch the game continuously, for 45 minutes at a time, with only the occasional injury or goal celebration to break up the ebb and flow of the game. A score can come at almost any time during the total 90 minutes of the game, making soccer, for many in the US, more akin to waiting for the cable guy than watching a sporting event.

So, in my humble opinion, unless and until the marketing masterminds come up with a way to institute commercial breaks and tv timeouts into a game that lacks timeouts altogether, soccer is doomed to be less popular than its rivals—at least in the US.

Until, of course, the sheer force of our demographic shift ultimately has its way.

After all, what interests the “Average Joe” of today may not necessarily interest the “Average José” of tomorrow.

Mexico fan

This man just might be rooting for Mexico.

Editor’s note: Matt’s post was a little more timely when he submitted it, but I got busy and sat on it for too long. Bad editor! -JP

BLS Student Featured on UNCG Home Page

by Jay Parr

Nargiza Kiger featured on the UNCG home page. Photo: Brian Kiger

Nargiza Kiger featured on the UNCG home page.

I generally like to keep this blog about things other than the BLS Program, lest we be accused of navel-gazing. This is going to be one of those exceptions.

If you open the UNCG Home Page in the next two weeks, the first thing you’re going to see is our very own BLS student Nargiza Kiger smiling at you from a field in West Africa. Though she’s technically an in-state student (she and her husband live here in the Triad), I know of no other student who brings a more international perspective to the BLS Program. A native of Uzbekistan in central Asia, where relatively few women manage to achieve higher education, Nargiza traveled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan to attend a university. It was there that she met her husband Brian, and after finishing her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Tech, she had to reconcile her desire to continue her own education with Brian’s career in international development. The BLS Program allowed her to do just that, continuing her education at an American university while stationed with him in Nigeria and then in Ghana. She’s on track to graduate in December.

Nargiza greeting an elephant in Ghana.

Nargiza greeting an elephant in Ghana.

Nargiza came to my attention last fall, shortly after she had moved to Ghana (one downside of my mostly-administrative role is that I’m not as in touch with all our students as I was when I was their academic advisor). I think it may have been infrastructure issues—unreliable power and internet connections—that brought her to my attention. Always on the lookout for BLS students who lead interesting lives, I asked her if she would be interested in writing a post for our blog. Given her history, which you can read in her cover story, I expected her to write about her own experiences. Boy, did she ever turn that on its head.

The post she gave me starts out on the frustrations of being an online student in an African city with tentative infrastructure—with the nerve-wracking image of taking an online test with a glitchy internet connection and having the power go out (yet again) in the middle of it. But then, after getting the reader sucked into her frustrating circumstances, she immediately turns around and points out that in Ghana, she is the privileged one. In a country with a per-capita income of roughly $2.00 a day, where education beyond 9th grade costs real money, and where placement into professional programs is rife with corruption, she can afford tuition at an American institution that costs more than most of her neighbors will make in a year. And yet, despite all these challenges—her own and others’—the post she gave me is ultimately the inspirational story of a security guard who is paying for his siblings to go to school, and who aspires to become a nurse so he can help others.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Nargiza and Ibrahim, the security guard.

I feel like our little online program is all grown up, out there on the front page of the university’s website. And I can’t think of many people to better represent us than Nargiza, wearing her UNCG colors in Tamale, Ghana, and constantly doing the little things she can do to make the world a better place.

Why I Do My Job: A Letter From a Graduate

by Jay Parr

I was recently cleaning out a pile of old papers in my office—going through each one, because anything with FERPA-protected information must be shredded—when I stumbled across this old email sent by an alumna just after she graduated in August 2011. It reminded me of why I do this job.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dear Jay,

For decades I called myself a high school graduate. Today I call myself a graduate student. What a change the BLS program has made in my life!

Three years ago I made a courageous decision to complete my bachelor’s degree, although I was in what some would consider my “golden years.” I sought your advice and you recommended I complete my Associates degree. I subsequently enrolled at a community college in the fall of 2009 and graduated with an AA degree in August of 2010, earning a 4.0 GPA.

contemporaryshortstory

Last August, just one short year ago, I began my studies as a BLS student at UNCG while working full time. I managed to complete all the BLS requirements within one year, graduating on August 12, 2011, and again attaining a GPA of 4.0. I completed 3 hours more than was necessary in order to qualify for Latin Honors [summa cum laude] and the potential nod of Phi Beta Kappa.

As with most adult students, I was eager to complete the degree, yet I also juggled a career and a household and struggled with finances. Fortunately, the academic community has begun recognizing the needs of the online student, with time and convenience being paramount to address a work-life balance.

While I certainly have no desire to become a poster child, future candidates are inspired when they realize their dreams are so close to becoming a reality, thus hearing my story may provide the motivation to pursue their goal. I also had the pleasure of serving as a University Marshal, indicative of the BLS students who are becoming involved in more traditional campus activities and honors.

mysterymayhemmurder

While my time in the BLS program was swift, my educational experience was excellent, graced by exemplary professors and a robust curriculum. Hard work and late nights, blended with lively discussion boards and insightful professors, proved rewarding beyond all my expectations.

Just one month shy of my 55th birthday, I have fulfilled my dream thanks to the wonderful BLS program at UNCG and the guidance of their attentive staff. It is my hope that other potential students will see that via the BLS program, the end of the rainbow may be closer than they think.

On a closing note, please accept my sincere thanks for your advice and encouragement through the years. Our early conversations were the catalyst that sparked the inspiration and courage to return to UNCG after a 30 year hiatus.

Many thanks,
Dawn L. Humphrey
Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies Candidate

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year after this letter.

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year later.

Ms. Humphrey finished her Master of Arts in the MALS program one year later—faster than any previous MALS student, and with yet another perfect 4.0—and she now serves as a teaching and research assistant for Dr. Stephen Ruzicka, one of the senior faculty in that program (also a committee member and occasional teacher in the BLS Program). She writes that the pay is negligible (she still has another career), but that “it is the delight of interacting with students that calls me back to the MALS table each semester.”

Thank you Dawn!