Who do you think you are?”
Nick Bilich asks the question from across a small table at Blackhorse Espresso in downtown SLO. He’s not posing it in a “you suggested that we meet at a coffee shop and now you’re not even ordering anything—so just who do you think you are?” sort of way. No, his question, though rhetorical, is also existential. And it’s at the heart of the Cal Poly Gender Equity Center’s current efforts to engage students and staff and the community at large.
Here, in the dying days of another school year, the center is seeing some of its fledgling programs starting to take hold: a gender symposium is officially moving from inaugural to second-annual status, and a series of skit-and-discussion-based workshops devoted to promoting positive masculinity is transitioning from a model lifted from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to a re-branded, more Cal Poly-centric endeavor.
The student-run center is still just beginning to find its footing as a whole. It began life as the Women’s Center, which opened in 1994—making Cal Poly the last CSU in the system to operate such an organization. A sexual assault response program, known as SAFER, moved under the center’s umbrella in 1998. Nothing changed for more than a decade; then, in 2011, the Women’s Center morphed into the Gender Equity Center, and SAFER split away a few months later, though the two groups continue to work in tandem.
Last year, the freshly minted Gender Equity Center announced a triple focus: masculinity, feminism, and gender identity—including transgender and intersex individuals.
“A lot of people look at gender in a binary,” says Bilich, who works as the AmeriCorps VIP with the center. “A lot of people identify as hyper-masculine, some people identify hyper-feminine, but a majority of people are somewhere in the middle.”
Who do you think you are, indeed.
To help Cal Poly students and locals explore such questions of identity, society, and experience, the group decided last winter to hold a large spring quarter event. They launched the first-ever Gender Symposium, which drew about 60 people. The goal was a formal, academic event—not stuffy, but something more than a casual conversation.Organizers aimed at creating “a really high-caliber education event,” but kept the focus local. This year, they’ve broadened their horizons, welcoming staff from other schools, like the University of San Diego. Keynote address speakers for the May 18 event are coming from UCSB and Stanford.
Two days later, on Monday evening, the center will hold a quarterly event devoted to “challenging and dismantling” acceptance of traditional masculinity and its associated negative impacts on people and society.
Previous events in this series have started with a platform presentation and talk about a stereotypical aspect of masculinity, followed by skits and monologues related to the theme of the night, then a guided discussion.
There have been half a dozen or so of these events—covering such topics as men’s health (including prostate issues), intimacy (featuring examples of different types of hugs between guys), and relationships (exploring how men sometimes talk about sexual conquests in a way that objectifies and is negative toward their partner)—over the last two years at Poly. The idea began life at University of Massachusetts Amherst in a program dubbed “Phallacies.” That school, however, has seen growing interest in the program, Bilich said, and is licensing it.
“We don’t have a lot of money … and two, we wanted to keep the door for our students’ creativity open,” he explained.
Thus, “The PEN 15 Club”—named after an elementary school prank that involves tricking someone into agreeing to have the word “PENIS” written on his or her arm—was born. The May 20 event will be the first at Poly to operate under that name, which Bilich said was the result of a brainstorming session. He conveniently couldn’t remember any of the other suggestions for a title.
The newly christened PEN 15 Club is also the final such event before summer starts.
“Since it’s the last one of the year, we’re expecting around 100 people or so,” Bilich said.
This go-round will focus on the different intersections of masculinity and identity; if you identify as masculine, what does that look like to you? Does it mean you’re physically male? A son? A boyfriend? A dominator? A force for change? Is it something that helps or harms those around you? How does your view of masculinity fit with people who identify themselves as masculine, too, but define it differently than you do?
In short: Who do you think you are?
Contact Executive Editor Ryan Miller at email@example.com.