Like all other Westhampton freshmen, I was informed about the changes to the Ring Dance tradition recently.
Personally, I didn't think it was a huge deal, as I wasn't well-versed in the traditions of UR before I came here. I can understand that people might be upset had they been looking forward to this event, really -- I do. It's very jarring to have your expectations suddenly rebooted, but at the same time, I'm rather surprised and disappointed by the strength of the objections.
I will freely admit that I'm biased here, because I was vaguely uncomfortable with the concept of Ring Dance when I first heard of it -- particularly the idea of the male escort down the steps. I'm fairly certain now that the escort wasn't required, but it's only after more reading on the subject that I realized this. I had been led to believe that it was an integral part of the ceremony, and that sort of made me squirm.
The implication that a woman needs a man to escort her or present her to society bothered me quite a bit, as well as the implication of female dependence. It's not that I hate the idea of femininity, which seems to be a common misconception. I want to address that.
A lot of people have been accusing those who want to do away with the white dress of hating femininity or of being crazy feminists. That isn't true. Femininity is great. Rock on.
Feminism is not about the destruction of traditional femininity; it's about the right to make a choice about what you personally as a female want to do, without being pushed into certain constructs by society.
Feminism is about women doing what they want, regardless of whether that's to walk alone or walk with an escort, to wear a dress or wear something else, to do housework, to found a business, to be a mother, a stripper, an athlete, a wife (or any combination!). It doesn't matter.
Another misconception I've noticed is the dismissal of the terms "gender binary" or "cisgender" as terms that people have made up to make themselves "feel better," or something along those lines. I saw one comment in particular that assumed "gender binary" was "pc for a confused dude." This is also untrue. Another article has already been written defining both of these terms, but I'd like to reiterate them here, as well as include some other terms worth knowing.
"Gender binary" refers to the division of people (or things too, I believe) into the two categories of "male" and "female" with nothing between or outside. "Gender" is a mental state: whatever you identify yourself to be, whether it be male, female, neither. "Genderqueer" is an umbrella term for any person who does not identify as strictly male or female. "Gender variant" is used to describe those who do not conform to their social gender roles or gender norms, but does not necessarily indicate someone who is transgender or genderqueer.
"Cisgender" refers to a person whose gender identity matches their sex/gender assigned at birth. "Transgender" refers to a person whose gender identity does not match their sex/gender assigned at birth. Trans* is the umbrella term for the spectrum of genders and gender identities within this group that is most commonly used at the moment.
Drag queen is a term for a man who dresses as a woman, usually for the purposes of entertainment or personal choice. Vice-versa, there are drag kings, women who dress as men.
Queer is another umbrella term for anyone who does not conform to the traditional heteronormative expectations of sexuality and has been repossessed by the LGBTQ community.
These words (among many, many more) exist for a reason. Yes, they are "made-up," but so is every other word in every language. We invent words because we find a need for them. That's why we have language. That's why we have so many different color names - if there isn't a name for something you want to talk about, you invent a term for it because it's needed.
That isn't to say that that something hadn't existed up until this point, it only means that we've discovered a need for a term to describe it. For example, we don't have words for a multitude of tastes - really, think about it: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, tangy, bland. Or we describe tastes in relation to others: fishy, creamy, fruity, like [insert other food here] etc. They're all very broad terms.
Other tastes certainly exist, but we don't have the words to describe them quite yet. (The taste analogy about the variance of language is discussed in "Through the Language Glass," by Guy Deutscher. I thought it was a good example. Also, if you're interested in linguistics, it's a fun read.)
Every gender identity and sexual orientation is valid, real and important. Even if it seems inconsistent or if it changes, it must be respected. People are different.
The other thing I found concerning about the situation was the way so many people seemed to brush off the minority as if they didn't matter, as if it were their fault for feeling excluded from Ring Dance. Because Ring Dance doesn't actively exclude anyone (from what I can tell, you're free to come or go or whatever you want really), it's easy to say that those who feel excluded are overreacting or making a larger fuss than necessary!
But, just because there's no active exclusion doesn't mean that a person's feelings of exclusion should be ignored or invalidated. Feeling excluded and being actively excluded are not the same thing. You can argue that Ring Dance is what you make of it, so you can do it on a very low budget, or that you can do what you want in terms of how you dress, or you don't have to have an escort, but this doesn't cancel out the social pressure to conform.
It doesn't mean you won't feel uncomfortable surrounded by others who aren't doing it the way you are. It takes a lot of guts and self-confidence to manage that, and unfortunately, not all of us have enough.
The changes to Ring Dance don't change the significance of the tradition. Ring Dance is significant because of the meaning behind it. The changes on the surface don't change the fundamental principle at the core: the celebration of achievement. I understand that people are angry that the administration chose to make the changes without consulting the students, but personally, as a first-year who will be affected, I appreciate the decision.
I might not agree with the practicality of all the changes. For example, I don't think that making it a black dress was the best idea, and I'll be sad if they decide to do away with the stairs, but I don't mind that I'm going to be part of the "guinea pig" year, so to speak. Maybe it won't work out so well; there will be other changes to make it better for the students who come after us. And isn't that the point of a tradition, in the end?