Take Back The Night generates tough questions, intense dialouge at Ohio University

Photo by Haylee Pearl
Photo by Haylee Pearl

Dozens of people — men and women, gay and straight, old and young — flooded the streets of Athens, brandishing homemade signs and chanting, “The people, united, will never be defeated” at Ohio University’s annual Take Back The Night march.

Just two years ago, this event would have looked very different. 2013 was the last year in recent memory that participation in the march was limited to women only, and the motion to open the event to all genders and sexual orientations came with a complex set of questions about what Take Back The Night is really about:

Is it a women’s-empowerment march, or a march to unite survivors and raise awareness for sexual violence? Should the event remain open only to women to honor its history in the women’s-rights movement? Are women’s-rights movements diluted by the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people?

Julie White, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at OU, said there may be no easy answers to any of those questions.

“It is something best dealt with in a context where we recognize that reasonable people can disagree,” White said. “And I don’t think that people who would disagree with me would necessarily take gender injustice any less seriously than I do.”

The chief organizer of Take Back The Night this year, Madison Koenig — a senior studying English and the Women’s Affairs Commissioner in OU’s Student Senate — agreed that the issue wasn’t easy to settle.

“I’ve always felt like this is the hardest thing about this, that I can see both sides, and I understand where both sides are coming from,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have an investment in Take Back The Night looking one way or the other. I’m trying to do my best to be swayed whatever way the community wants me to be swayed while recognizing that there are so many different subsets of the Athens community.”

Last year, the Women’s Affairs Commission announced the week before the event that the march would be inclusive, which, Koenig said, came as a surprise.

“A lot of people felt taken aback,” she said. “They didn’t see that coming… Nobody was in the loop.”

This year, after being elected to the Women’s Affairs Commissioner position herself, Koenig tried to incorporate student and community perspectives into the decision-making process behind planning the event.

Over the course of the fall and spring semesters, Koenig hosted four public forums and a brown-bag lunch during which students, faculty, staff and Athens residents were invited to share their opinions on what shape Take Back The Night should take. One of the forums took place at the LGBT Center, and another took place off-campus, at the Athens Public Library, in an effort to solicit feedback specifically from the Athens community.

“The hope for the forums … is that they would just provide a space for people to have conversations about what we want from Take Back The Night and what Take Back The Night could look like,” Koenig said.

LGBT Center director Delfin Bautista, who uses the pronoun “they,” summarized their view of the LGBT community’s perspective on making Take Back The Night gender-inclusive.

“All we are saying is that all survivors have the right to be supported,” Bautista said. “If there is a male who is sexually assaulted, they have a right to feel supported and to share their story and to march if they choose to march if it is indeed a march for victims and survivors of sexualized violence. If it’s a women’s-rights march, that’s a separate conversation. But if it is a march for victims and survivors, then we know that victims and survivors are not only white, heterosexual, cis-gender women.”

Limiting the march to only women would force the organizers to decide what it means to be a “woman,” they said.

“If it is a women’s-only march, my fear is that ‘woman’ would be narrowly defined,” Bautista said. “Because trans women are women. So if we say it’s a march to end violence against women, trans women have just as much right as cis-gender women (to be there).”

After the forum at the LGBT Center, Koenig said, she abandoned the idea to conduct two separate events of equal size during Take Back The Night week — one for women only, and one gender-inclusive.

“It would draw some weird political lines about which one is more important or less important,” Koenig said.

The forum at the LGBT Center helped change her mind about what Take Back The Night means to LGBT community.

“A lot of trans people and gender nonconforming people felt that when we talk about violence against women, we erase their experiences,” she said.

While planning the other events in Take Back The Night Week — which included panel discussions, a film screening, a name-burning ceremony and a keynote speaker — Koenig decided to keep some of the activities reserved for women, such as a self-defense workshop.

“Take Back The Night has historically been a way for female students at OU and female members of the OU community to connect with women in Athens, and I don’t want that connection to be lost,” she said.

At the event itself, after nightfall on April 17, about a fifth of the 50 to 60 marchers were male. As they followed a police escort down Court Street, through East Green and past Park Place, demonstrators carried signs that read, “64 percent of trans people have been sexually assaulted” and “4 percent of college men will be sexually assaulted.”

One man who chose to march was Daniel Telek, a sophomore studying English and a survivor of sexual assault. Telek said he was grateful that he was allowed to participate, but that he too could see the issue both ways.

“I think it’s great. It makes it more inclusive,” Telek said. “But I would totally understand if they would just want it to be women’s only, because it tends to be more of a women’s issue, even though (sexualized violence) faces both genders. But it’s cool they let us in.”

Telek attended Take Back The Night with Sarah Felder, a sophomore studying human sexuality and member of the Women’s Affairs Commission, who said she was happy her friend was welcomed at the event.

“I think it’s so great that (Telek) can march with us,” she said. “It’s not a women’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue. If only women are fighting for that, then nothing’s going to get done.”

White, the sexuality studies professor, said that even though the inclusivity discussion can at times be a tough one to have, it’s important to keep having it. Hosting forums and engaging with the people who would participate in the march should be a priority every year, she said.

“In the end, I think we have to reckon with the hard questions about how we all live together,” White said. “Defensive boundaries require that you put a lot of energy into protecting those boundaries, when I think that energy is better spent trying to move forward together, rather than protect ourselves apart.”

For more information on Take Back the Night, read the author’s personal reflections on participating in Take Back the Night and compare the numbers of reported sexual assaults at campus across Ohio.

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