I remember the first time I entered a Gender Studies classroom. It was two years after completing my undergraduate courses in literature at NYU. Undergrad had not been the best experience for me. A starry-eyed freshman new to NYC, I soon realized that to be taken seriously in class I was expected to live by theoretical texts penned by dead white men. A far cry from my alternative under-funded public high school in Minnesota, I struggled. It wasn’t only that the theories discussed in class were challenging, but I found more and more I did not agree with them. As an 18-year-old student I did not have the language to critically engage and be taken seriously by the professors who worshipped these schools of thought. But I went through the motions and continued school, because that’s what I was supposed to do — right?
Fast-forward three years and I completed my undergrad degree. With a job in book publishing I was living the dream! Never mind the fact that my job in sales had absolutely nothing to do with my passions or interests, I was working in publishing (that was my mantra). It only took a few editorial meetings to realize how completely and utterly wrong I was. First off, the majority of assistants were young overeducated white women while the editors were older white men. And forget about artistic integrity: editorial decisions were dictated by the bottom line. The kicker? The editorial leadership at my job seemed to think that the way to sell books written by women was to use exoticizing cover images or photos of strangely disembodied female body parts (legs, arms — anything but their head!). Hm.
So after only 6 months of working, when I received a mass email from my old advisor about a graduate Gender Studies program in Budapest that boasted funding for its students, my interest was piqued. You mean I could study something that interested me without going into further debt? I clicked the link and immediately began my application process. About 6 months later an email popped up in my inbox: Congratulations, you have been accepted.
Doubt was the first thing that crept into my mind. This wasn’t the right time to go back to school, was it? Especially not one that would rip me away from what had become the center of the world to me: NYC. I was in a loving partnership, I had a stable job, and I had a life in New York. I could rationalize that this wasn’t the right time in my life for a move. Despite all of my reservations, deep down I knew I wasn’t happy — or even, at the very least, in touch with myself. Something had to change. I felt like I was living another person’s life. So I sent in a response to the university — something I kept from my friends, my family, and my job: I accept. It felt irresponsible. It was then that I took a leap of faith and began a long process of undoing.
A month before I was supposed to register for classes in Budapest I quit my job and moved everything (E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G) I owned back to my parent’s house. My supportive partner who was there every step along the way came with me. It was from the Midwest that I boarded a flight had a whopping 8-hour layover in Warsaw. 8 hours is a lot of time to think. The worst part about it? I was absolutely alone.
I was by myself — alone — in the Warsaw airport, trying to distract myself with unknown food items and overpriced magazines in English. I was by myself when I dragged (according to Lufthansa) 100 lbs. of overweight luggage through the Budapest airport upon my arrival. I was by myself when I (finally) got to my room, beyond excited to communicate with my partner and my family I was unable to do so because I forgot my power converter and was working with a dead laptop. So I collapsed after over 20 hours of traveling, alone in the dark, unsure where to go to get food, hungry, tired (did I mention ALONE?!) wondering whether I just made the biggest mistake of my life. That night I made a deal with myself: I would not think about bailing until I spent a week there. My faith was dwindling.
Two days later I was at orientation and jet lag was just catching up with me. I was in line to sign in at the Gender Studies office and an almost-too-perky-for-8-in-the-morning Polish-inflected voice chirped behind me, “Hi-my-name-is-so-and-so-what’s-yours-and-where-are-you-from?” So used to the banality of chitchat I rolled my eyes and turned around, giving the answer that would become part and parcel of life abroad. My name is Lizzy, I am from the U.S., I went to school in NYC but I am from Minnesota. No, I don’t speak Hungarian.
“Have you heard that they are using that Mohanty article in the orientation sessions? Have you read it? I was hoping that maybe they would incorporate Haraway into the talks, but you know maybe that’s a stretch.” My jaw dropped. I looked into the eyes of this person (a person who would grow to be one of my closest friends, who would console me over breakups, who would dance the robot with me at parties, who would hand-make pierogis for me on my birthday) and could not believe what I was hearing. Genuine conversation about something I cared deeply about. I smiled and engaged in a long dialogue about how Third Wave Feminism is deprioritized in the classroom and started to feel a bit more at home.
Gender Studies isn’t, as many people believe, the study of women or even feminism for that matter (even though both of those things are in some ways central to the discipline). Gender Studies is a critical discipline, and often times that critical lens is turned inward on itself. It interrogates structures of identity and ways of knowing. At its core, it is a discipline of undoing. This might seem very academic, but Gender Studies equipped me with the frameworks to tackle issues I faced daily. It gave me the tools to deconstruct the heteronormative drive I impulsively followed, embodied by my serial monogamist inclinations. It gave me the language to articulate my desire for other women, something I had suppressed since childhood. It gave me the political rhetoric to be both critical and engaged, to demand more of politics and myself. It gave me the tools to reflect on my own self-presentation, from my clothes to my hair, and recognize the importance of embracing my masculine side, or the subversive potential in my attachment to lipstick. As an anti-racist ally it gave me the framework to understand the assemblages of race, gender, sexuality, and so many other praxis of identity that interact with each other, forever troubling the category of woman.
But more than the coursework, Gender Studies provided a community of people that were interested in dissecting, thinking about and unpacking the world around us. These were people who challenged norms through their lives, their desires and their refusal to accept the world as it was. From the clothes they wore to the theories they wrote to the protests they organized, these people lived the change they wanted to see in the world. Over these nine months I made some of the most important friendships of my life. I fell in love with these people. It was a deep, intellectual, complicated love that made me reimagine myself over and over again. For the first time in my life I had a support system that legitimized other ways of being. (It might seem trite, but have you ever stopped and wondered why there is so much pressure to do things like shave your legs? Think about it. It’s empowering.) And despite the differences in nationality, in gender identity, or in thoughts on Zizek’s relevancy in a Gender Studies curriculum, these were my people. They helped to redefine who I was and who I was constantly (un)becoming.
The danger in moving through life without a critical lens is that you run the risk of reifying rules that dictate the way you live without being aware of it. From my education, to my romantic relationships, to the length of my hair – I lived my life within norms that permeated everything. I didn’t recognize how powerful these norms were until I moved halfway across the world. Before I came to Budapest I was so embedded in these patterns that I could not see my relationship to them. It took distance and support to develop a critical lens to filter so many things that I took for granted. For the first time I questioned things like my internalized heteronormative compulsion and my self-destructive desires to be “beautiful”. I am not arguing that a Gender Studies program (with all of its faults and internal structures of power) is the only space where this critical lens can be cultivated. But for me, it was the first space where that space was created. And it was hard. I felt duped. Angry. Like I had a blindfold over my eyes all my life and I was just jumping through hoops. But it was also really necessary. Life changing. Life saving. And luckily, through it all, I made some really good friends along the way.