On Receiving a Full Scholarship to College, Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago, in 2000, the Martin Family Foundation changed my life by giving me a full academic scholarship to the University of Washington.

I was 20. I’d cut my hair off the year before, split up with my high school boyfriend, and was now figuring out what it was to be out and loud and really really queer. I was struggling to afford community college and rent, and while I did have some support from my family, I was also an emancipated minor and had been living on my own for 3 years at that point.

I remember filling out the application. I remember, on the day of the interview, I missed my bus by mere moments and went to the pay phone outside of Pagliacci pizza to call the school and let them know I was going to be late. I was sure I had no chance of receiving the scholarship, based on being late, but they said no problem and switched my time slot with the person after me (who was early). (I think of this often when I’m late, the lesson being: just let them know.)

I blazed in to the interview, at a table full of silver-haired white men, a few of whom were taking notes on laptops (it was 2000, that was uncommon), and I talked about how I wanted to make queer art and write about liberational stories of sex and desire and the transformative potential for feminism to change the world.

When I left, I thought, well, there’s no way that room will give me money for my mission. But I was proud of myself for telling them what I really thought, what I really wanted to study — it was very vulnerable, to be so honest about something that felt so radical.

I remember that much more than I remember getting the call that I’d been accepted.

It meant so much to me that the Martin family heard my young adult queer ambitious heart and said, yes; not only do we believe in what you’re trying to do, we’d like to give you money so you can do that. It still means so much to me.

I never thought I would actually be a professional sexuality, gender, relationships, and kink writer — I didn’t expect to use my women, gender, sexuality studies degree so directly. (I just thought I’d be able to articulate the sexism & homophobia in whatever publishing company I worked at very well.)

In so many ways, my career started with this moment, when this group of men said yes. It gave me the opportunity to believe in myself a little stronger, a little more vigilantly. Someone else listened and said *yes, I’d like to give you money so you can do that* and they did, and I can honestly say it changed my life.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Martin Family Foundation. thank you for all you have done for me and for others at UW & beyond.

What Are You Going To Do With That Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Degree?

I wrote & performed a poem called “What I’m Going To Do With My Women* Studies Degree” at the Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies graduation in 2004.

Ever since I saw it, I’ve been thinking of this tweet. Things are changing so, so much. I’m so grateful.

One of my favorite parts of the poem? “People ask me — ‘what are you going to do with that degree? Go work at the women studies factory?'”

(That poem is called Every Single Day on my 2004 spoken word poetry album, For the Record.)

When I took my first feminist theory class, at Seattle Central Community College in 2000 (wish I remembered the professor’s name to give credit), I had such a lightbulb moment that I felt bowled over. Oh. I’m a women studies major. Right. I forgot. Well, it’s not that I forgot, it’s that I had never thought that thought before, but now that I had, I knew completely that it was correct.

I needed that degree because I needed to understand the suffering I had related to my nonbinary (though we weren’t using that word then) gender and my queerness, and I came out of it with a bigger understanding of other intersectional identities like my artist/semi-working class background and my whiteness. That degree was survival, was key for me to be able to be an adult in the world and not be completely shut down by my experiences as a person with marginalized identities.

I was also a Creative Writing/English major, and my tentative plan was to work in book publishing. I figured I’d be writing eloquent emails and identifying the sexism in the workplace, and that’s what I’d be doing with it.

I used to feel some envy — or even jealousy — when other people would write eloquently about intersectional oppression, because I wanted so badly to do that. but jealousy is often the best teacher, because I doubled down and studied and wrote and wove my experience in with all the things I was learning. Sometimes I say Sugarbutch is my graduate degree, only partly in jest.

I never expected to have the tiny platform (very well known in very few places) that I have, talking about sexuality, gender, kink, and relationships. so much of what I know comes from that degree, and from the queer education my first queer roommate led me through when I was 20, 21, 22.

So I saw this tweet the other day and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It stopped me and I had to pause my scrolling and let it settle in.

Things are changing so, so much. I’m so grateful.

Seeing so many people picking up this conversation and doing so much work, in such huge ways … instead of feeling jealousy, I just feel relief.

Relief that the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, cissexism, is being called out from within tiny communities to a national level. Not everywhere, I know, and I’m in a self-selected bubble on the internet just like I’m in a self-selected bubble in the liberal cities I’ve lived in all my adult life. But because of the internet, and advancing technology, and because of the marginalization and terror we are feeling so hard due to this presidency, it is happening in such larger ways.

And I’m feeling this slow ungripping, this letting go, this holding on to it softer. I’m still so invested, and I still get in there and get my hands and face and feet and whole self dirty sometimes, but I don’t feel obligated the way I did before.

Still, often, I feel like there is so much to do and so little has changed. But when I pull back a little, there are such significant differences even in my lifetime.

I’m so grateful for the strides.

And thank you, Earth, first for teaching me so much, and now for continuing to catch up.

*The degree at University of Washington Seattle at the time was called Women Studies, definitively with no apostrophe-s, because it was studies about women, not studies that women do. It’s now changed to Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies, which they abbreviate to GWSS and pronounce g-whiz. (Love it!) As a student, my class petitioned the department to change the name and expand to gender and sexuality, even to use the word ‘queer.’ This is one of the oldest Women Studies programs in the country, however; started in the early 80s (I think), and the first batch of professors were just then starting to retire. They said, you have no idea how hard we fought to use the word women, to convince the university that women studies is legit. I learned a lot from those conversations, and while I’m glad they changed the name, I respect the roots and think it’s important to name the lineage it comes from. Much love to the professors there who changed my life.

Bent Mentor Showcase in Seattle

If you live in Seattle, don’t miss the Mentor Showcase at Bent: A Writing Institute.

I studied at Bent for almost six years, when I lived in Seattle and was going to college at the University of Washington getting degrees in both Creative Writing and Social Change. I have been quoted saying that Bent taught me just as much, if not more, about writing than my entire undergraduate degree in creative writing, and Bent’s founder, Tara Hardy, has been one of my most influential mentors. So much of what I know about gender, sexuality, trauma, healing, artistic pursuits, and writing comes directly from my studies with Bent and Tara.

If you’re in Seattle, or passing through, I highly urge you to check out some writing classes or Bent performances.

BENT_showcase_final_lores

“All of the LGBTIQ community should lift our ears to receive Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha,” says Bent founder, Tara Hardy. “Her vision stands to rearrange the ways we approach community, creating art, and loving. Every time I’ve heard her read I’ve come away new.”

Bent’s unique Mentor Showcase has become a fall tradition in Seattle. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer Sri Lankan writer, teacher and performer joins a fabulous line up of Bent writers for this year’s annual Showcase. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work explores the interconnection of systems of colonialism, abuse and violence. Bent is America’s only writing institution for queers.

Tara Hardy has once again assembled the comic, the tragic, the downright magical and wildly diverse Bent writers who join Piepzna-Samarasinha on the Museum of History and Industry stage November 13th and 14th. The annual Showcase production is a wonderful opportunity to experience great writing before it hits national tours. Each of the Bent writers brings a unique voice, history and insight to the stage. Now in our 8th year, the showcase has grown from a class in Hardy’s living room to become a highly anticipated and life-changing community event.

Bent & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Museum of History and Industry, 2700 24th Ave. E, Seattle, WA
Friday November 13 & Saturday November 14
Doors 7:00pm / Curtain 7:30pm

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha Mentor Writing Workshop
Lifelong AIDS Alliance, 1002 E Seneca, Seattle, WA
Saturday, November 14
11am-1pm

Tickets: Brown Paper Tickets

LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA:: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer, performer and teacher. She is the 2009-10 Artist in Residence at UC Berkeley’s June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program, a 2009 Sins Invalid performer and the co-founder and co-artistic director of Mangos With Chili. Her one woman show, Grown Woman Show, has toured nationally, including performances at the National Queer Arts Festival, Swarthmore College, Yale University, Reed College and McGill University. The author of Consensual Genocide, her writing has appeared in Yes Means Yes, Visible: A Femmethology, Homelands, Colonize This, We Don’t Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, Brazen Femme, Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws, Femme and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World. She has performed her work nationally, in venues as diverse as the National Queer Arts Festival, La Pena, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Bowery Poetry Club and Asian American Writers Workshop to immigrant rights protests, queer youth center benefits and strike lines. She is finishing her second book of poetry and her first memoir, and is happy about the forthcoming publication of The Revolution Starts At Home: Transforming Partner Abuse Through Community Accountability, which she co-edited with Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani, by South End Press in 2010.

BENT: Bent Arts, a non-profit organization, is the only queer writing institute in the nation. The mission of Bent is to promote and encourage written and spoken word among LGBTIQ people and in our communities. The concept and work of Bent began August 2000, in the living room of Tara Hardy, Seattle-based writer, performer, and Slam Champ. Since, Bent has grown to a full institute, having served over 200 students, offering a variety of weekly classes and local and regional performances.

MENTOR SHOWCASES: These annual spoken word showcases are a chance to see Bent students, whose works are generating much attention both locally and nationally, perform alongside a writer whose work they look up to and have chosen to honor. Moreover, they are a chance to bring underrepresented voices to our greater communities. The showcases are Bent’s largest annual fundraiser. There have been six other sold-out showcases and workshops since June 2003, with standing-room-only crowds and growing student rolls. The last showcase was housed at Piggot Hall at Seattle University, met with two packed nights and critical acclaim. In these prior showcases, Bent has honored queer writers and mentors: Kate Bornstein, D. Blair, Dorothy Allison, Buddy Wakefield, Juba Kalamka, Justin Chin, Michelle Tea, Ivan Coyote, and Sini Anderson.

This event supported by Poets & Writers, Inc. and GLAmazon