On the morning of April 17, thousands of young people across the United States awoke in total silence. They poured their cereal, brushed their teeth, and made their way to class without speaking a word. Some thought of their temporary vow of silence as a relatively simple act of protest. For others, like notoriously talkative University of Mary Washington sophomore Grace Mann, the prospect of going even five minutes without talking seemed like a high, high hurdle.
Grace was usually not one for silence. According to roommate Kathryn Erwin, her “ridiculously loud” footsteps echoed through their small, shared home at all hours of the day -- and night. “She walked with determination to every destination,” Erwin said, and if Grace’s resume is anything to go by, she brought this single-minded determination to every arena of her life. Grace was a member of Mary Washington’s task force on sexual assault, a devoted member of the school’s Feminists United on Campus club, and a dedicated participant in LGBTQ activism on campus.
On April 17, like so many other students across America, Grace took a vow of silence as part of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Day of Silence to protest the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBTQ students like herself.
By late afternoon, Grace had been silenced forever.
Grace’s murderer quite literally silenced her, reportedly asphyxiating her by pushing a plastic bag down her throat. But in the weeks to follow, Grace would be silenced in a much more insidious way.
Mainstream media outlets and feminist publications alike presented her death as a brief chapter in a more interesting story, and ignored her lesbianism and Judaism in favor of portraying her as a martyr for straight, gentile women. Both groups of journalists are deploying long-standing, tired narratives which serve to erase violence against queer and Jewish women. They are minimizing the impact of Grace’s incredible life and work. They are erasing vital parts of her identity to tell a universalized, whitewashed story.
They are silencing her.
On May 8, as I was browsing my Tumblr dash, I came across a picture of a girl holding up a roll of stickers, each emblazoned with the slogan, “This is what a feminist looks like.” She was heartbreakingly pretty, with big, bright eyes and a smile that stretched from ear to ear. As I scrolled, the girl’s photos gave way to a set of violently disturbing Yik Yak screenshots, each one more horrifying than the last. “Hey Feminists United on Campus… kindly FUC off,” one quipped. “Rugby better watch their shit,” read another message. “The dikes from FUC are going to literally eat their dicks.” Another, bypassing Yik Yak’s profanity filter, threatened, “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and grape them in the mouth.” The last screenshot in the photoset read, in stark black and white, “About to kill a bitch… or two.”
And then, in tall capital letters, the headline: “FEMINISTS UNITED CLUB MEMBER GRACE MANN MURDERED AFTER MONTHS OF THREATS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AND VIOLENCE.”
The poster captioned the headline, “You can literally be murdered for being a feminist.”
My reaction was immediate, visceral; I was sick to my stomach. Looking at my blog now, I can see that I tagged the post, “#OH MY GOD THIS ISN'T REAL THIS ISN'T REAL THIS ISN'T FUCKING REAL PLEASE GOD.” But the story was, unfortunately, all too real, and as days went by, more and more terrifying details were revealed.
But something strange was happening: in virtually all of the ensuing coverage, Grace’s murder took a backseat to the litany of social media threats fired at the Feminists United on Campus. One local news station headlined their story, “Feminists: Mary Washington condoned hostile environment by permitting Yik Yak.” Ms. Magazine led with, “Title IX Sex Discrimination Complaint to be Filed Against University of Mary Washington by Feminist Groups.” And the Washington Post wrote, “Feminists at Mary Washington Say They Were Threatened on Yik Yak.” The first paragraph of the Post’s story reads like this:
A feminist group at the University of Mary Washington is accusing school officials of failing to act on threats against its members — one of whom was killed last month — on the popular and controversial messaging app Yik Yak, an attorney for the group said.
It’s so curt. So flippant. A young woman’s life and tragic death are reduced to a seven-word aside, and the reporter doesn’t even bother to name her. In this and many, many other media reports, Grace became little more than a conduit for discussions about social media and harassment. Most articles didn’t bother to provide any information about her, beyond her involvement in Feminists United on Campus. Of the dozens of articles I read, in publications ranging from local news outlets to feminist websites to papers of record, only two identified her as openly gay. Only one article, a lengthy Fredericksburg.com report on a funeral officiated by a rabbi and scored by “Jewish songs she loved,” identified her as Jewish.
Unless you were paying very, very close attention, you would have remembered Grace as a straight Gentile who only ever encountered discrimination and harassment in the form of misogyny. This is the weakened, watered-down version of Grace that mainstream feminism has embraced as a martyr, as a piece of evidence of the danger inherent in identifying as a feminist. Never mind that queer women and Jewish women both endure sky-high rates of violence and unique forms of oppression utterly foreign to their straight and non-Jewish counterparts.
It’s time to remember Grace as she actually existed. Not as a one-dimensional, inconsequential sidebar in a tale of online misogynistic harassment. Not as a symbol of oppression for straight, non-Jewish women to claim. As a deeply passionate young woman who literally spent her last day on Earth fighting for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ children. As someone who refused to remain silent in the face of injustice. As someone who mattered.
Promo image by Morgan Riley, licensed under Creative Commons.