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Knowing the Body
2004 Second Web Report
On Serendip


by Maryssa Doyle, Sierra Jorgensen, Rebecca Mao and Gilda Rodriguez-Cervantes

The human body participates in politicized activities as a part of people's collective contentions about ideologies and space. The bodies of gays, women and children become entangled in violence when they enter into arenas that combat ideas. The four essays in this book illustrate incidences all in which bodies experience physical injury.

On October 6, 1998 Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson crossed paths in life with Mathew Shepard. McKinney and Henderson came from poor rural backgrounds, earned criminal records, lived in trailer parks and fixed roofs for a living. Shepard came from more privileged family background and studied as a student at the University of Wyoming. Shepard frequented Fireside, a college bar where McKinney and Henderson also drank that particular night. In a casual chat, Shepard told McKinney and Henderson that he was gay. The three left the bar together because Shepard believed that McKinney and Henderson were driving him home.

In the truck McKinney began hitting Shepard, approximately three times with his fist and six times with his pistol. Later in court, McKinney would testify that he assaulted Shepard who placed his hand on his leg, seemed to be reaching for his balls, and thus triggered his "Gay Panic Defense" which the law stipulates as a mechanism in response to the sexual advancement made by gays. After severely beating up Shepard in the moving truck Henderson tie Shepard onto a fence on the lonely mountains of Laramie. McKinney pistol whipped Shepard several more times in an attempt to later prevent police involvement when Shepard managed to read the truck's license plate at McKinney's orders. McKinney and Henderson left Shepard to die, midair in the freezing night of the wilderness.

Eighteen hours later a biker discovered a deathly Shepard after having initially mistaken his five foot one inch, seriously injured body for a scarecrow. The biker reported the crime to the police and the first officer who arrived at the scene later described Shepard's face completely covered in dried blood except for the bloodless streaks that his flowing tears had run off. EMT rushed a barely breathing Shepard to the Ivinson Hospital emergency room where doctors decided that the patient needed to be transferred to Poudre Valley Hospital for neurosurgery. Ironically Dr. Cantway, the physician who treated Shepard also treated McKinney twenty minutes prior to Shepard's arrival two rooms down the hall.

In an interview for The Laramie Project, McKinney's girlfriend Kristin Price told writers that the two men went to the bathroom where they planned to put on a gay pretense in order to lead Shepard to the truck and rob him as punishment for "coming on to straight people." Price described the punishment as a lesson that the two men were intending to teach Shepard.

In Juarez, Mexico an unknown, estimated between 300 and 600, number of young women have disappeared and been murdered in the last decade. They are all young, poor, workers or students who look about the same. Often the girls are beaten and gang raped before being killed. Very little is being done about these murders at the governmental level in Mexico, but they have drawn national and international attention. Women gather weekly in Mexico to protest and hold vigils to send a message that these murders must be stopped. While on three different occasions suspects have been arrested, the murders continued, often within days and the cases of the suspects were mishandled.

There is an interesting gender and class dynamic that is in effect in this situation. Most of the young women were workers in Juarez's maquiladoras. The environment in the maquiladora's made the murders quite easy. Women wait for busses early in the morning with no protection, are often sent home from work if they are even a few minutes late and leave late at night with no security guards or protection. A recent debate over rape laws where the sentence for rapers would be reduced from four to one years if the raper could prove that the woman had provoked him illustrates "that, in a society where men cannot be charged with raping their wives and domestic abuse is rarely prosecuted, authorities simply do not take violence against women seriously enough." This is why many believe that the crimes were not committed by one person, but many people because they realize that they can get away with this violence with no consequence.

Madres de Plaza de Mayo is a movement of Argentinean housewife mothers who to this day protest the disappearance of their children and grandchildren during the Dirty War, a period of dictatorship in the 1970s. Since associating and forming groups was forbidden under the dictatorial regime, these women began to take walks around Plaza de Mayo, the main square in Buenos Aires, at the same time every week. Walking alone, or in pairs, their presence did not break the law, but it did allow them to share their grief with other mothers suffering the same plight and, more importantly, to send a message to the government: they wanted their children back alive.

The Madres were ridiculed and called locas ("madwomen") by many in Argentina, because they thought that their cause was pointless, and that, as mothers, the Madres should grieve in private. This illustrates the dichotomy prevalent in the Argentinean gender politics of the time, where a "public" woman could not be a good mother, and good mothers could only exist within the "private" realm of motherhood. By gathering at Plaza de Mayo, the Madres upset this binary. While "going public" is a transgression of traditional motherhood, the performance of their tragedy is only valid and effective precisely because they are mothers. By taking their children away, the dictatorship forced these women to stop being mothers, both because they no longer have anyone to take care of and because they are out on the streets. Bringing back their children would also restore their motherhood.

In Three Guineas, Woolf claims that women work with each other in groups outside the main stream, working away from the patriarchal systems upon which men have learned to rely. She, for the most part, uses examples from her own time period, the 1930's, and place, England. Women have been creating and working within such groups all over the world for many years.

Women, on both sides of the Civil War, worked within the restrictions of their social classes to help with the war. In the South, Southern 'belles' often donated jewelry or other items of value as a 'lady-like' way to give support to the war. In the North, women pledged to refrain from buying luxuries and other unnecessary goods as a sign of solidarity with the troops. Women on both sides became nurses and often read letters from home to troops as a way to improve morale. It was rare, but not unheard of, for women to disguise themselves as men and become soldiers themselves.

"The term "war hero" usually refers to a man who unselfishly risks his life to fight." (AAS Online Exhibitions, A Woman's Work Is Never Done) Few women actually went into battle, but many aided the war effort in their own way. One of the most famous of these women is Molly Pitcher who brought water to the soldiers on the field and worked with the wounded and dying. Other women took over their husbands' roles on the farm or in the family business while he and their sons went to fight the British.

Women have become more and more integrated into the military, especially in Western countries such as the United States. Female soldiers have fought on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Women's bodies have been used in military and non-military capacities in many incidences throughout history.

The human body is both an object in which one lives and a site of political articulation. The struggles within many societies begin and end within the terrain of the human body, which though has no referential meaning becomes embodied by meaning within context that has a stake in and of itself.

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