The Real Danger of Trigger Warnings: A Survivor’s Perspective

Published on on March 10, 2016.

Trigger warning: Trauma, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, child sexual abuse, rape

Once again, my feeds are full of stories about trigger warnings. And, once again, precisely no one knows what they’re talking about.

Every two weeks like clockwork, social media drags out one of two types of stories: some group falsely appropriating the trigger warning banner to justify their attempts to ban a book, or some smug commentator decrying the concept like they’re the first to do so. This week’s story is just the latest in a string that critics have gleefully seized on to prove their terrifying straw man that equates “being triggered” with “being offended.” And they paint some positively dystopian views of its dangers.

Critics worry that trigger warnings are just excuses to avoid discomfort, hurt feelings or difficult subjects. They worry such warnings suppress free speech in order to coddle a hypersensitive, sheltered generation. They worry those who claim to be triggered need exposure to learn how to handle the “real world.” Thanks for the touching concern.

But for all of this hand-wringing, they’ve missed the real danger.

That’s easy to do when they’re content to ignore the perspectives of those of us actually asking for the warnings, most of whom are not properly represented by any mainstream coverage of trigger warnings to date. It is incredibly difficult to correct this false impression when major news outlets— from The New York Times to The Guardian to CNN to Jezebel — are content to write piece after piece on either side of the debate without speaking to a single trauma survivor.

Consider this one more attempt (and there have been many) to describe what’s really at stake.

I am a childhood trauma survivor. I’m also an activist, a philosophy grad student and a journalist. I’ve spent my life exposing my personal struggles to public scrutiny, advocating for freedom of information and raising awareness about issues many would prefer not to talk about. I’m as anti-censorship or “coddling” as one can get. But my personal experiences with trauma, and particularly with the trauma response we call “being triggered,” have made it clear why we need trigger warnings in academia and elsewhere.

Think of the most terrified you’ve ever been. If that fear wasn’t caused by a real and present physical threat to your safety, double it. Imagine that fear can hit at any time, with or without a discernible cause. Imagine that sometimes — maybe 1 in 3 — you know exactly what caused it.

Imagine spending the whole day with a weight compressing your lungs, like being stuffed into a too-tight shirt you can’t take off. Your throat and eyes burn. Your stomach clenches and twists, the nauseating effects of the dopamine-adrenaline-fear-danger-fear cocktail flooding your veins.

Sometimes that fear comes out in uncontrollable twitches of your chest, legs, hands. That’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s all forced back inward, one long scream sounding in your head for a day, a week at a time. No rest.

Sometimes you’re sitting in class, coming off a rough few nights of reading about childhood sexual abuse. Sometimes you think about skipping class, just this once. But the material is too important. You need to be there, to contribute.

On one of many days like that, I am sitting in a classroom talking about fathers raping their children. This isn’t even my exact trauma, but triggers don’t have to make sense that way. My breaths are coming short and shallow. I focus on inhaling. I can’t stop my leg from shaking; I stop trying.

My vision narrows like I might faint, but I know from experience I won’t. My heart is pounding; the adrenaline makes me squirm. I want out of this classroom that felt safe yesterday. I want to scream that trauma ends your life, even if you survive it. Instead, I split my focus between hiding my symptoms and listening to the discussion.

Someone says something well-intentioned but oh-so-wrong, and my heart drops into my stomach. They don’t understand. They can’t understand what this is like, and I’m grateful for every person who will never feel this way, but I’m also desperate to explain. I feel exiled, alien, as the class calmly dissects these experiences as if trauma is far away, as if it can’t touch this room.

The anxiety collapses inward, and I have two choices. I can leave right now, walk away and try to calm down, or I can let just a little bit of this cacophony bleed out into words. I choose to talk. I tell a piece of my own trauma survival story (it doesn’t feel like “recovery” right now), just enough to make an impression. I have practice turning fury and fear into testimony, but I’m never sure how sane I sound.

Talking helps. I hope my classmates understand.

After, my professor asks if I’m okay. Thanks me for my words and calls them brave. I don’t feel brave and my story barely feels like survival, much less “recovery,” but I appreciate the sentiment. I can’t stop my chest from shaking as I assure her I’ll be fine.

By the time I’m on the metro, I’m numb — the deep, dark numb of emotional dissociation. My body has had enough: It all turns off. It’s an unpleasant relief. I look at the crowd and think about the millions suffering in that moment, the bizarre way our lives go on, oblivious. I can’t feel alarmed.

I think about how simple it would be to step in front of the train. I know I won’t. I wish it would scare me more.

It takes a day and a half to feel better. The only thing that makes it remotely “okay” is that I was prepared. I had a choice, and I chose to expose myself. It is so much worse to be blindsided, to unexpectedly be reminded that you are always, will always be, the terrified survivor. No wonder so many of us don’t make it to graduation.

I don’t want coddling. I don’t want to avoid unpleasant subjects. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I don’t even want to avoid my triggers. My friends and fellows in recovery often express the same. It’s hard to admit weakness, hard to let trauma affect your life. It’s even harder not to get involved in subjects that weigh on your heart constantly.

We need to talk about child abuse, rape, genocide, self-harm, suicide, sexism, racism and all the other triggering subjects. Those of us healing from trauma know this better than anyone. Our guts ignite when we think about them. We want them talked about, far more than they are.

We just want a choice. We deserve a choice. It’s a small comfort, but sometimes it makes all the difference. No one should be forced into this. No one should be surprised with it. And no one should have to choose between their mental health and an education.

So what’s the real danger of trigger warnings?

That survivors could lose out on an education because of this impossible choice. That a greater burden is falling on those already handling more than their peers. That we are re-enacting trauma by eliminating choice, by telling survivors they’re weak and cowardly for asking for a simple warning. That we’re silencing the voices we most need to hear in these conversations because they are unable to adequately prepare.

The danger is that we fail to extend basic empathy to those among us suffering the heaviest burdens. Is there any more essential mission of education than that?

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EDITORIAL: Okla. makes it harder for mothers to feed babies

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 5, 2012


Our View: Oklahoma has once again target Planned Parenthood — and hungry mothers and children are caught in the crosshairs.

After a string of attempts, Oklahoma’s conservative bloc has finally managed to cut state ties with Planned Parenthood — by taking food out of the mouths of mothers and babies.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health announced in a Sept. 27 letter it would no longer fund Women, Infants and Children (better know as WIC) services through Planned Parenthood health centers in the Tulsa area. The WIC program provides food vouchers to economically disadvantaged pregnant women, babies and children under 5 years old and mothers of young children.

Many women and children rely on this funding for access to healthy food. Planned Parenthood has been one of the limited number of distributors of this service for 18 years. In Oklahoma, nearly 3,000 women and children visit Planned Parenthood centers for these vouchers each month, according to Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

The Health Department reports more than half of all babies born in Oklahoma rely on WIC benefits for their food. Reducing the number of distribution sites for this service, which are already limited, harms the most vulnerable members of society. And it’s all because of politics.

Planned Parenthood has been targeted nationally by conservative politicians because some of its centers provide abortion services. But the majority of Planned Parenthood’s services are other kinds of health services, including essential preventative care for men and women, which are made available at reduced costs. The Planned Parenthood centers in Oklahoma don’t even provide abortion services.

These facts have obviously escaped some of Oklahoma’s lawmakers, who have attacked the organization multiple times over the past few years. In 2011, Republicans in the state House of Representatives unsuccessfullyattempted to amend a nutrition bill for seniors with a measure that would restrict private contractors like Planned Parenthood from distributing WIC funds.

Then, in February, House Republicans authored a bill that would have moved Planned Parenthood to the back of the line for state funding. The bill failed to pass.

It seems those efforts have finally paid off.

Of course, the Health Department denies this decision was politically motivated. It claims the decision not to renew Planned Parenthood’s contract, which will now end on Dec. 31, was made for “business reasons.” The department said in a statement, “This is a renewal period, and the agency has taken the option not to renew based on the needs of the Health Department, the contractor’s performance and funding availability.”

But given recent strenuous efforts to cut off Planned Parenthood, it’s difficult to believe political pressure had no influence on this decision.

Now, because those in power have been so eager to collect political points by attacking a vital medical organization for its tenuous link to abortion, thousands of mothers and their children will be forced to seek their WIC benefits from other, less convenient sources.

This doesn’t necessarily mean driving a few more blocks. These families are not likely to have a reliable means of transportation, so many will be relying on public transportation in a state not exactly know for it. Many will be single mothers, and some will not have access to affordable childcare. What might be a small inconvenience to a middle-class family could be an overwhelming obstacle.

Not to mention Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has announced there is a possibility the clinics affected may have to close because of the loss of funding. That means these women also will lose access to essential affordable medical services, such as prenatal and pediatric care.

Oklahoma’s mothers and children need your help. Call, email, write, tweet or post a Facebook message to spread the word and urge the officials listed here to work to reverse the decision.

As the state with the nation’s eighth worst hunger problem, where one in five children live in poverty, Oklahoma cannot afford to put misguided and misplaced political attacks above a mother’s need to feed her children.

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Vagina is not a dirty word

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on March 3, 2010.


Last week, I found myself up on stage in front of a crowded auditorium talking about my vagina.

Yes, that’s right: You just read vagina in the paper. It’s OK, I promise. No one’s going to get into trouble. And if your eyes haven’t started bleeding yet, I don’t think they will.

I imagine you might be feeling a bit like some of the audience members did that night. I could see a few of them from the stage, and it’s amazing how uncomfortable people can look in those Meacham seats. In fact, one of Eve Ensler’s reasons for writing the Vagina Monologues (which was the reason I was on stage) was to point out how awkward, even ashamed, we feel talking about vaginas.

Go ahead, say it. Wherever you are right now — assuming it’s not the middle of class, in which case you should put the paper down and pay attention — just take a deep breath and say it out loud. Vagina. Va-gi-na.

See, don’t you feel better? That’s because the embarrassment, the taboo, is all in your mind. Try it again. Really, I promise it won’t bite. It’s not insulting or degrading. In fact, I think it’s rather powerful.

And it’s not just women’s hoo-hahs I’m talking about here. It’s just as important (though slightly less taboo) that we can all talk about the very real facts of the male body. So say it with me: Penis. Testicles.

It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? Even if it’s getting less so, you can’t avoid at least a little culturally inspired awkwardness. We’re taught to think it’s inappropriate, taboo or downright disgusting to talk about these issues. We’re conditioned to recoil from the conversation. We like to hide behind the politically correct phrases, like “women’s issues.” Even at The Daily we’re so afraid of blunt language that we censored this column on censorship.

We’re all adults at this point. Isn’t it time we had a blunt discussion? To say what we really mean? Isn’t it time to reclaim these words and recognize how powerful they can be?

These topics are not disgusting; they’re natural. It shouldn’t be taboo to talk about them; it’s healthy. It might be uncomfortable, but maybe it’s time we made ourselves uncomfortable. Most of all, they’re not “inappropriate.” They are an important, powerful potentially dangerous part of everyone’s life. We share hopes, fears, joys, sorrows and desires in the realms of sex and gender. We need to normalize these things, to share knowledge of the dangers and celebrate the joys, to recognize these are fundamentally communal experiences. How is that not the most appropriate topic of conversation?

Vagina is not a dirty word. Neither are penis, sex, orgasm or clitoris.

It’s time we claim these words and the topics they represent. It’s time we claim the right to have these conversations. It’s time we all grow up a little and recognize that sex is a beautiful, powerful, natural part of human existence, and that it cannot, in fact, hurt our poor puritan brains to talk about it.

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It’s more than a housing issue — it’s about respect

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on March 7, 2012.


This week, the university has a chance to join in this generation’s civil rights movement.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans still are denied basic, fundamental rights because of an innate, uncontrollable, harmless facet of their identity. In what many call the greatest nation in the world, society is actively marginalizing your fellow citizens.

We cannot allow this to continue any longer.

While a newspaper must inform, there are times when a newspaper must speak up for what’s right.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have been denied justice and basic human dignity for far too long. The fight for their rights is a fight for human rights.

GLBT citizens are told day in and day out that they are different, immoral and disgusting. That they are causing the downfall of this nation and the unraveling of families.

It still is socially acceptable in many circles to express hateful, discriminatory, even violent sentiments about these people in polite conversation. In fact, we live in a state where regular citizens feel comfortable spouting toxic hostility and contempt for them in the public forum of a city council meeting.

These individuals can be fired, denied housing, kept from adopting children, banned from teaching, barred from basic tax and inheritance rights, and denied validation of their relationships from the state. They still face daily discrimination, harassment, violence and murder. They are driven to suicide.

A congressional representative in Oklahoma said these citizens are more dangerous than terrorists, and Rick Santorum, who Oklahoma has nominated for president of the United States, compared their love to pedophilia and bestiality.

These citizens are relegated to second-class status, easily denied acknowledgement and basic rights, on the basis of who they have sex with and what gender traits they feel comfortable expressing.

GLBT Americans face the very real, everyday threats of isolation, bigotry and hate. It is ridiculous that we are still debating civil rights, that there still is so much stubborn opposition to the proposition that all men — those you like and those you don’t — are created equal. It is backward, unacceptable and, frankly, insane.

It is time for change. OU now has one small, symbolic but effective way to challenge that reality. Sooners cannot afford to play it safe.

The gender-neutral housing option students will present today to President David Boren would give students the choice to live with students of any gender. This is an important right for all OU students, but it is particularly important for GLBT students because it provides a safe home on campus — something many do not have.

Gender-neutral housing means the choice to live with someone whom students know will be supportive of their sexuality or gender identity. It means freedom from discomfort, discrimination, harassment and fear.

It means the choice to live with those who are most comfortable with them, and, in turn, to live in the environment they find most comfortable — a right taken for granted by every other student at OU.

It means one small step toward equal treatment for GLBT citizens. It means a step into the 21st century for OU and for Oklahoma. It means the University of Oklahoma being a true leader.

It means equality.

This is something OU must do. It is only a little step, but every little step is important. Sooners may not be able to change the world today, but we certainly can change OU.

We’ve heard it said that change like this can’t happen here because this is Oklahoma, as if Oklahomans can’t care about equal treatment and human rights. But this always will be Oklahoma — the same old Oklahoma — until we make it better.

So this is not just about providing a new housing option for one group of students. This is about ensuring every American has access to the American Dream, to the equality of rights guaranteed by our Constitution.

This policy is a message to every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender member of the Sooner community that they are worthy of acknowledgment, protection, support and safety.

This issue affects us all. Equality isn’t a special interest. Americans have a responsibility to demand the promises of our founding be fulfilled and to fight so their fellow citizens may be recognized as human beings worthy of the same regard, the same respect, the same basic dignity.

This country has struggled to answer that demand and win that fight for a long time. It’s still struggling. We are calling on our fellow Sooners and the University of Oklahoma to join that struggle and take this simple, powerful step to reject repression and affirm freedom for all.

And that’s why it’s more than a housing issue.



Related stories:

View the full gender-neutral housing proposal.

Read The Daily’s open letter to President Boren addressing the need for gender-neutral housing at OU.


Student groups to propose gender-netural housing at OU

Students to present gender-neutral housing proposal to Boren

Students aim to strengthen GLBT safety, comfort at OU

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Columnist calls attention to sexual violence in Congo

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 5, 2009.


The woman on the screen does not cry. Her eyes are empty, not quite looking into the camera, as she tells her story. She was raped. She is not the only one.

The woman of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being targeted by a “systematic military strategy” of mass sexual violence. They are raped by 10 or 12 soldiers at a time. In front of their families, husbands and children. Sometimes with rifles and sticks.

Old, young, pregnant or ill, any woman is in danger. Some are teens, too young to have been married yet. Some are children, even infants.

Some will die from their injuries. Many will develop fistula, a hole in the lining of the vaginal wall that causes incontinence and pain. The lucky ones will end up at Panzi hospital, the only hospital in the country which can perform the surgery to repair fistula.

Many will suffer from sexually transmitted diseases. Health care officials worry that the next few years will bring an explosion of HIV to the Congo. Many are pregnant with the child of their rapist. All of them will have to live with the memories of their brutal rape for the rest of their lives.

Last March, as part of a week-long rape and violence awareness campaign, a documentary covering the violence against women in the Congo was shown to students who attended “A Night for the Women of the Congo.”

Since then, attention for this issue has been growing rapidly in the U.S. and abroad, culminating in a unanimously approved United Nations resolution condemning sexual violence in war zones.

This resolution creates a special envoy to coordinate the fight against the use of rape as a weapon and focuses efforts on advising governments on the best way to prosecute offenders.

While these measures certainly begin the journey toward progress, the international community has much farther to go to truly combat this problem.

When the conflict known as “Africa’s First World War” officially ended in the Congo, the violence did not stop. Rebel groups backed by foreign countries are still fighting in the country’s eastern half. The chaos of the continuing conflict has allowed those foreign countries to pilfer the abundant natural resources of the area.

Rape is used as an official strategy of both the rebel groups and the official Congolese government, because of its ability to tear apart communities and dehumanize individuals.

The UN has estimated that over 200,000 woman have been raped in the area in the last decade.

But it is impossible to accurately estimate the number of women raped during this conflict because most of these crimes go unreported. Men convicted of rape can easily pay their way out of jail and potentially come back to further harm the woman who accused them.

This lack of accountability is the primary challenge facing efforts to stop this phenomenon. Congolese culture not only supports an apathetic attitude toward rape, but also places the blame on the victimized woman. It is considered infidelity, as if she wanted it to happen.

Many rape victims are abandoned by their husbands and left with few means of survival. To save their own and their children’s lives, women hide the fact that they were raped and cannot receive the medical and psychological help they need.

Organizations such as Panzi hospital are attempting to bring help to these women, but it is an uphill struggle. They are underfunded and threatened, attempting to change the gender roles on which Congolese culture is based.

There must be accountability for these crimes, real punishment. There must be sympathy for the victims. There must be attention from the Congolese government. These things will not happen if the global community does not continue to act, decisively and continuously.

Political pressure on the government of the Congo is the only way to stop this femicide, and while the UN resolution lays the groundwork for this pressure, it will be nothing but an empty gesture if not followed by action.

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EDITORIAL: University’s weak sexual-assault punishments can be disappointing

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 29, 2012


Our View: Sexual assault warrants a strong minimum punishment to ensure survivors receive the justice they want and deserve.

The Daily’s sexual-assault series has established that the criminal-justice system can cause serious stress for survivors without achieving results. And, while the university’s punishment system is more reliable at achieving justice, the punishments passed on to attackers can be disappointing.

So, should OU institute minimum punishments for those found guilty of sexual misconduct?

Minimum sentences in criminal justice are not always the best way to achieve justice. They may fail to fit the individual circumstances of every case.

And if these punishments are too harsh, they may keep survivors from reporting (especially in the more than half of cases in which the survivor knows the attacker, according to the Department of Justice).

They may even make juries — or hearing panels — less likely to find attackers guilty, even with good evidence.

However, the lack of minimum punishments at the university level leads to a dangerous situation. When confirmed attackers received light punishments, it seems as though they got away with the crime. OU fails to send a strong message that it does not tolerate sexual assault.

Such punishments do nothing to curb the rate of assaults on campus and even may encourage more assaults through the impression that attackers face no serious consequences.

This is a problem across the country. A study by The Center for Public Integrity showed universities across the country fail to assign serious punishments in the majority of confirmed sexual-assault cases.

At OU, the panel that hears student-on-student sexual-assault cases also decides the punishment in the case of a guilty finding.

Current discipline options

1) A verbal warning to cease the behavior.

2) A written warning that stays on the student’s disciplinary record for a certain amount of time.

3) Disciplinary probation for a set period of time, which can include exclusion from university-affiliated entities and activities, such as student organizations. If this probation is violated by further student code violations, more serious punishment may result.

4) Educational programs, such as community service, a reflective paper, a class or lecture on the subject, counseling sessions or other similar activities.

5) Payment of restitution for damages or loss of property.

6) An administrative fee to pay for mandatory educational programs or costs related to the policy that is violated, charged directly to the student’s Bursar account.

7) Assignment to a different university housing unit or exclusion from university housing.

8) An administrative trespass, which bars the student from part or all of campus except for during limited periods and for specific activities.

9) Suspension of the student for a specific period of time, after which the student will be able to enroll again.

10) Expulsion of the student from OU and all affiliated campuses indefinitely.

11) Restriction or denial of specific university services.

12) A delay in issuing a student’s degree for a specified period.

Of the 11 OU students found guilty of sexual assault since 2000, only six faced suspension or expulsion. Other punishments included no-contact orders and educational requirements. Simply requiring the student not to contact the person he or she attacked is not sufficient punishment for rape.

Despite the fact that the Justice Department encourages campuses benefiting from government grants to train its disciplinary panels to hand down “appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion.” At least 75 percent of disciplinary actions handed out by schools reporting to the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women were minor sanctions.

Though we think expulsion or suspension is the very least a confirmed rapist should face, we understand the negative consequences that could come from making such punishments the required minimum.

But a lesser form of minimum punishment would assure survivors and the OU community that OU takes sexual assault seriously. Particularly in cases of sexual misconduct that involve sexual activity — we exclude things like harassment not because they do not matter, but because they cover a broad range of situations that may be less serious than assault — a minimum punishment is justified.

The minimum punishment:

1) A year-long probation including exclusion from all university activities.

2) A semester-long suspension from OU.

3) A mandatory educational program about sexual assault.

4) Reparations paid to the victim for any hospital or counseling fees.

A repeat offense should result in automatic expulsion.

OU must take a firm stance on sexual assault in order to reduce the number of assaults and send a clear message that sexual assault is a serious crime. How can OU let attackers return to their normal lives — freely moving around campus, going to classes and having a social life — while the survivor likely cannot do the same.

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Piece of OU history finds its way home [news feature]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on February 18, 2013


It was sitting in a dark corner of warehouse north of campus in 1966 when he found it: a piece of OU’s history.

David Harper was working for OU that summer, having recently graduated from Norman High School. He said he was working with a crew of 15 summer hires and six “grown-ups” in the area they called the “north base.”

His crew was dusting classroom desks in a dark warehouse when he found a piece of granite, engraved with the year 1892, a list of names and a word he didn’t recognize: “regents.”

The next year, working in the same warehouse, he came across the stone again. When he asked his boss about it, Harper said his boss offered to let him take it home, thinking it likely had little value.

Harper saved it from destruction and kept it safe for more than 40 years. He said it has been in his possession all that time, except for a brief stint in the air force — during which his brother-in-law attempted to carve a peace sign into it.

It wasn’t until October, when Harper saw a photo of the university’s first building, that he understood the significance of the stone he had been using as an end table.

The stone is a plaque that once hung on the university’s first building before it burned down and is engraved with the names of OU’s first regents and Oklahoma’s territorial governor, A.J. Seay.

“It was lost in time,” Harper told the audience at the plaque’s unveiling during a press conference in Gaylord Hall’s auditorium on Monday.

OU’s first building, which was located behind the current chemistry building facing east, was ready for student use in 1893 and housed all functions of the university. Classes were taught there, students lived there and administrators worked there.

“It was the first thing that really rooted the university into the ground,” said OU President David Boren.

OU historian David Levy said the local residents were pleased with the building, but not everyone felt the same way.

“Opinions varied about the beauty of its architecture,” Levy said, noting that Vernon Parrington, OU’s second head football coach, called it an ugly building with “a wart” on top.

For better or for worse, the architecture can be attributed to the Kansas construction firm chosen to build the university’s first building, because the first regents were all Republicans with ties to Kansas, Levy explained. Harper’s plaque bears the firms mark.

When Harper saw a photo of the building, he said he knew the plaque he had belonged to this part of early university history. And he knew what he needed to do.

“I immediately thought, ‘This has got to be at the university,’” he said. “And my second thought was, ‘It’s going into the hands of David Boren.’”

But how does an everyday citizen go about getting an audience with Boren?

For Harper, it was as easy as doing his civic duty. Harper ran across OU’s president at the Episcopal church polling location they both visited to cast their votes in the most recent presidential election.

Seizing the opportunity, Harper said he extended his hand to shake Boren’s and asked for a minute of his time.

“He didn’t give me a minute,” Harper said. “He gave me about 15 minutes.”

Boren said the pair were almost thrown out of the polling location for talking, but by the end of the conversation, Harper had gifted the plaque back to the university.

“It was the right thing to do, but not everybody does the right thing,” Levy said. “He did, and I think the community is in his debt.”

After receiving the plaque, Boren handed it off to Levy and John Lovett, the curator of the Western History Collection and director of Special Collections, to verify its authenticity. The two used markings on the plaque and information from university archives to confirm its origin, according to the press release.

At the plaque’s Monday unveiling, Boren announced it will be permanently displayed in the wall of Stuart Landing in the Oklahoma Memorial Union with a brass plaque explaining its historic origins.

Harper said he hadn’t particularly thought about bringing the artifact back to the university for future generations to appreciate, but that his actions were just common sense.

“He viewed it as us preserving history,” Harper said. “I viewed it as ‘What’s this old stone just doing out here in my workplace?’ But I’m very glad it’s where it belongs.”

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EDITORIAL: Baseless blood donor restrictions risk lives

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on November 13, 2012


Our View: Blood donation eligibility should be based on health, not identity.

If you’ve ever wanted to donate blood but didn’t, it was probably because you dislike needles or happened to be sick at the time.

But a certain group of Americans cannot donate blood even if they choose to — and it’s not because of a health problem or a phobia.

Since 1983, gay and bisexual men (and any other men who have had sex with other men) have been banned from ever donating blood.

This decision was made in response to the AIDS epidemic. But the country has come a long way since the days of calling AIDS a “gay disease.”

While the AIDS virus did strike the gay community first, it is not limited to that population. Other U.S. populations see new HIV infections at similarly horrifying rates and also exhibit behavior that puts them at risk for infection.

What about heterosexuals who have many partners or unprotected sex? Someone with that history is free to donate.

Even those who have served as or had sex with a prostitute — behavior that certainly puts one at risk for infection — only have to wait one year before donating blood.

And if you visit a known malaria outbreak zone? You still only have to wait a year.

That’s because malaria, like HIV, only takes so long to show up in test results or as symptoms.

A yearlong delay in donating would still be four times the amount of time necessary for HIV to become detectable — most instances can be detected within a matter of days after infection.

And that’s where the ban on gay and bisexual men becomes truly irrational: All donated blood in the U.S. is tested for infectious diseases before it can be released to hospitals. That includes testing for HIV.

The Red Cross estimates that the current risk for transmission of HIV through a blood transfusion is approximately 1 in 2 million. That’s because of reliable and consistent testing, not because the U.S bans millions of potential donors.

One conservative study from the University of California Los Angeles found that if men who had sex with men were allowed to donate after a one-year period, more than 53,000 new donors likely would make more than 89,000 additional blood donations.

Given the periodic shortages in the blood supply (the most recent of which was just this summer) and the need for additional blood in times of crisis (like the recent Hurricane Sandy), these new donors could save thousands of lives.

Of course, even the yearlong ban is not ideal. Although it would be a step in the right direction, it fails to attack the root of the problem: That high-risk heterosexuals may donate freely, while even low-risk homosexuals are banned for life.

It would be far more rational to restrict donors based on past sexual history and other behaviors that put them at risk for HIV.

And those donors would not need to be blocked from the blood pool — their donations could be held for the three-month incubation period recommended by the FDA for the most accurate testing.

But a one-year ban is a good place to start. Argentina, Australia, Japan, Hungary, the United Kingdom and Sweden all have instituted one-year bans for these donors.

The HIV Medicine Association, the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and the American Association of Blood Banks all urged the U.S. to follow suit.

In ignoring these calls, the FDA has made it clear it is operating on stubborn prejudice and old myths. When the ban on these donations was first instituted, the medical community knew very little about the new and deadly disease of HIV. But that no longer is the case.

The U.S. cannot afford to continue giving in to baseless fear. The blood donation policy, like any medical policy, should be based on evidence and scientific fact — not cultural perceptions.

Fortunately, you can do something right here on campus to change this harmful policy. Give blood today, but stop by the South Oval first to sign a petition urging a more rational blood-donation policy.

Even if you can’t donate, take a few minutes to sign the petition and help ensure there always will be enough blood to cover the more than 44,000 daily blood transfusions in the U.S.

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Every step out of the closet is in the right direction [Editorial]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 11, 2012.


Our View: Coming Out Day is about more than personal decisions — it’s about community progress.


Today is National Coming Out Day, dedicated to the difficult process of revealing one’s identity as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender American.

Coming out is a life-changing decision that makes or breaks careers, families and lives. And, of course, it’s not something you can do in a day — it’s a continuing process.

But today is about more than just the brave personal decisions of individuals. As important as it is to live honest and open lives, Coming Out Day represents something more significant.

Today is a celebration of how times have changed. In 1988, when the first National Coming Out Day was celebrated, those who came out faced serious risks: loss of a job, abandonment by families, rejection by communities, and even injury or death.

Those risks, unfortunately, have not disappeared. But Norman and communities like it are testaments to the fact that it does get better.

Today is a celebration of the fact that many GLBTQ Sooners feel safe enough to live open lives. That hundreds of Normanites feel comfortable publically supporting the GLBTQ community and working for gay rights.

That two men or two women can walk across campus holding hands and be relatively certain they will not be harassed. That the harassment or discrimination that does happen is not the norm.

It is a celebration of the fact that some students and faculty members felt safe enough to come out in the pages of the The Daily.

In just the span of most students’ lives, the U.S. has made such progress. Just 20 years ago, GLBTQ Americans were invisible in popular culture; marriage equality was a distant dream; attacks based on sexual orientation were not called hate crimes; and “gay” was a dirty word in politics.

Now, the battle for marriage equality has spread to every state, the patchwork collection of rights and protections for GLBTQ citizens grows constantly, and the president of the United States himself is a proven (and open) advocate for gay rights.

But today also is a reminder of what it takes to keep that change coming — because the battle is far from over. As of January, in 29 states you still could be fired because of your sexual orientation, and in 34 you could be fired because of your gender identity.

Fourty-four states still lack marriage equality, barring same-sex couples from the 1,138 federal rights that come with marriage. In fact, 30 states have enshrined this discrimination in their constitution.

Most importantly, the effects on the GLBTQ community have not abated. To come out in America is still to take a risk.

Studies show GLBTQ people are more likely to commit suicide and more likely than members of any other minority to be victims of hate crimes. Hatred and homophobia still are accepted — if not expected — in the political discourse. And interpersonal discrimination is a fact of life for many.

But we’ve seen that it does get better. In order to continue this trend of progress, GLBTQ Americans must come out and be counted, and their fellow citizens must do what they can to make their communities safe places in which to exit the closet.

So do your part to make this community inclusive. If you’re an ally, work to ensure your fellow Sooners feel safe enough to live honestly. If you’re a member of the GLBTQ community, consider coming out.

In the end, today is a fullfillment of the promise made by one of the first openly gay politicians, Harvey Milk, before he was assassinated: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

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Awareness vs. Wallowing [Mental Health Blog]

Published on my mental health and recovery blog.


These last few weeks have been about me taking the first faltering steps out of depression. And I’ve already written about how those steps are frustrating, slow and often involve just as many steps back as forward. That’s still the reality. While I haven’t come anywhere near close to how I felt at my worst, I still spend most of my time below what I’ve identified as my “normal” — much less thriving. I feel capable of getting basic things done (self-care, school, communication, etc.). But those things are still often a struggle, and I almost always do them despite lacking motivation.  My moods are much more stable than they had been, and I find myself more and more genuinely enjoying the pleasant things in my life. But I still can’t think about my life or my future for more than a few minutes without triggering myself.

But I have had another good day. Another day where I felt normal, energetic, happy. Where I had motivation and ideas and clear thoughts. I found myself walking back from the subway actually dancing along to the music I was listening to, looking around at the people walking past me like they were interesting, complex, probably not malicious fellow human beings. Like they might actually pertain to me and be worth meeting. I thought about projects I wanted to work on, books I wanted to read and stories I wanted to write. I thought about the future and felt like I could (and would, and wanted to) accomplish anything.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget what all of that feels like after even a short time being depressed.

Of course, that mood didn’t last. But it left me feeling a little better than before and with a clearer picture of what I’m working toward in this recovery effort. It was a nice reminder that what I’m feeling right now isn’t who I am.


It’s time to get up 

And it did something else even more important. It made me realize that it’s time to get my life going again, even if that means starting at a slower pace than I’m used to. See, I had put everything I could on hold once I realized how hard recovery would be. Over the summer, I finally started to see how I had used work and responsibility to enable my denial. As long as I was throwing everything I had into a job, a leadership role, various projects, etc. I could push away the depression and anxiety. It was like being in crisis mode 24/7, and my mind had realized early on that I do well in a crisis. I’m allowed to push away my emotions in crisis. Who would expect anything different?

Once I realized this disassociation from my emotions was a big part of my mental illness, I knew I needed to disconnect from my usual coping mechanism that relied on that disassociation. Basically, I needed to be depressed. To let myself be depressed and feel unpleasant things and take time to take care of myself and stop running around trying so hard to healthy and functional on the outside while I was hurting on the inside.

That was, and still is, true. But these coping mechanism have been with me since adolescence. They were literally the way I survived that part of my life. They are a fundamental part of the identity I’ve developed, and when they’re happening, they’ve practically invisible to me. The only reason I could see them in the first place was because I had a breakdown big enough to force me to be depressed long enough to look inward and see the clockwork.

So what did I do? I cut out everything I thought would let me fall back into those habits. I took a break from activism and even partially stopped reading the news. I was lucky enough to have some time before I needed to find a job, so I decided to take this semester off. I didn’t look for groups to join on campus, I didn’t look at internship offerings (because this is DC, and if I looked, I would find one I couldn’t refuse). Even school ended up not being quite the challenge I expected. I went from a full sprint to a nap over the course of a month.

You can probably already see where this is going. By trying not to listen to the impulses in my head that want to keep me in denial about my depression and disassociated from my emotions, I had inadvertently given my depression everything it wanted. I was trapped at home, often alone given my roommate’s schedule, watching TV, occasionally reading philosophy and trying really hard to remember to shower and eat. As much as I do need more rest, downtime and self-care than before my depression, this lifestyle is the opposite of conducive to recovery.

And those two good days I’ve had? Both came on my one day a week I have class. The day I have to get up, go be around other people, accomplish something and feel smart. Obviously, not a coincidence.


Finding a balance

So when an opportunity to apply for an internship practically fell in my lap (thank you universe, for speaking loudly enough that even I have to listen), I took it. I’m interviewing sometime this week for a part time internship at a housing equality organization.

But as sure as I am that this is the right step, a funny thing has happened as my depression has slowly and unevenly gotten better: My anxiety has gotten worse. At the worst point in my depression, my anxiety was completely gone. The week or so, I haven’t gone a day without taking one of my anti-anxiety meds. And they freak me out a little, so I only take them when it’s really necessary. A lot of this anxiety is focused around this internship and around my other responsibilities.

What I’m moving too fast? What I’ve lost my ability to do, well, anything since my depression started? What I have a significant relapse? Can I go and do a job while I feel like that? Can I face the idea of not being able to do my best work? What if I have to take a day off because of my mental illness? Something that should be so easy (who wouldn’t take a day off for a cold?) sounds like a cardinal sin to my ears.

What if I never get over this incredible flutter of fear every time I have to respond to a damned email?

Fear of not being able to achieve something I want (or, worse, not being able to trust that I will continue to even want it) is not something I’ve had to deal with before. And all the while I know I need to be on the look out for these old habits that I’m not completely sure how to recognize. So I need to trust myself to succeed, but do so in a way that’s different from everything I’ve done before.

That’s the balancing act I’m dealing with right now. But I’m committed to biting the bullet and going for this internship. I think this may be one thing you can only learn through experience.

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