This semester, I taught a section of the First Year Experience, a one-credit, pass/fail class that’s essentially a banner announcing, ‘Welcome to college.’  My students, for the most part, are good kids:  sometimes rowdy, sometimes apathetic, sometimes distracted and beyond my reach.

But, as I said, basically good kids.

Prompted by the recent spate of high-profile gay suicides, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to talk to my freshmen about anti-gay bullying and harassment.  In particular, the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after an intimate encounter with another student was broadcast without his knowledge by his roommate, raised issues that went beyond the bullying — negotiating privacy, living with other people, controlling your on-line image.

The discussion went well, I thought.  When I told Clementi’s story (amazingly, some hadn’t heard about it, which I expected from the international students, but not the English-speaking ones), one of the guys in class (who looks familiar with the Jersey Shore) commented, “That’s fucking demented.”  Towards the end of the conversation, he glanced up at the clock repeatedly, but he got it, I thought.  He understood.

That night, when I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, the first thing that popped into my head was:  Joan of Arc, gender warrior! Of course, she was persecuted for heresy, but when the warty, jowly judges press her about her preference for men’s clothing, it brings to mind Daphne Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress.  When Joan is first asked, Renee Falconetti, wide-eyed, nervously fingers her collar, as if the clothes are tightening around her neck.  When another judge presses — “So God orders you to dress as a man?” — her eyes are half-closed, as if in resignation.  Her answer doesn’t receive an intertitle, but her whisper is unmistakable:  Oui.

Yesterday, I took my class to the student center on campus for a lecture.  On the front of a building were posters announcing an upcoming drag show.  The featured drag queen, Sahara Davenport, was plastered on every window, in every conceivable color Hammermill provides:  fuchsia, goldenrod, lime, taupe — a Warholian whirl of fabulousness.  As we entered, the Jersey Shorean student muttered, “Seven bucks for a fucking tranny?”

Fucking tranny.

What upsets me is not that he said what he said — but that I didn’t stop right there and say something.  I kept walking.  Students sat at tables, eating their lunches.  The smell of fried Chik-Fil-A sizzled in the air.  His words hung there, unconfronted, unaddressed.

I’m no Joan of Arc.  At best, I’m Jean Massieu, the monk (played by Antonin Artaud) who knows better but is cowed into silence.  He supports Joan in spirit, but when things get hot, he bows his head, and lets his tonsure reflect his shame.  We share cowardly silence.  As punishment for our sins, how many more martyrings will we be forced to witness?

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