Robert Rowan is proud of stealing 21 ceramic penises that were part of a domestic violence art show at the Boulder Public Library in Colorado. The faux severed penises were strung on a clothesline under the title "Hanging 'Em Out to Dry."
The Boulder library is the same one that recently refused to display a ten-foot American flag in its entrance because some patrons might be offended. A smaller flag was draped in the wake of controversy.
Rowan was disturbed that his five-year-old daughter might see what he calls an "anti-male" and "pornographic" display while using the public library. On Veterans Day weekend, he carefully placed the genitalia into a garbage bag as library patrons watched. In their place, he left a calling card — "El Dildo Bandito was here" — and hung an American flag. Then Rowan called Denver's KOA radio station to confess. The police arrived at his home in the wee hours and ticketed him for "misdemeanor criminal tampering" which may lead to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.
The library is using words like "censorship" and "intolerance" to describe Rowan's actions. But Rowan put his finger directly on the political issue when he pointed out the difference between private art galleries and public, tax-funded spaces.
"If they had put this up at a private art gallery that would have been fine. That way people could pay and see this stuff," Rowan said. In a private gallery, the exhibit would be a freedom of speech issue rather than the abuse and improper use of tax dollars to promote a political view.
The strung penises exhibit was displayed at a public library for the benefit of the Boulder County Safehouse, a domestic violence center predominantly supported at the public trough. This constitutes political expression being hosted at taxpayer's expense. Rowan is a taxpayer who objected. Like Henry David Thoreau, author of On Civil Disobedience, Rowan publicly and peacefully expressed his disapproval of an improper government practice. He is willing to face the consequences.
Library officials cannot dismiss the issue of the message of the exhibit by claiming to be impartial about what they display: They attempted to deny the American flag a presence at the entrance. The library seems to want to use tax dollars to fund only politically correct expression and the likes of Rowan should shut up about it.
Susanne Walker, the artist who created the exhibit of tax-supported penises, has stated that dissenters should discuss the matter with her. Perhaps Ms. Walker was not on-site to speak with critics. Whatever the case, Rowan felt he could not "debate [penises] hanging in the public library."
Why is the exhibit so controversial? The main problem is that a public institution is supporting one side of a hot political debate and disenfranchising the other.
The art exhibit and the Boulder County Safehouse do not merely educate the public about domestic violence, they are advancing an anti-male agenda.
Consider merely one fact: According to the Justice Department's 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey, some 1.5 million women and more than 800,000 men are abused by an intimate every year. However, a flood of new research indicates that the rates of domestic violence for men and women are roughly equal and suggests that the incidence of battered "husbands" is almost certainly under-reported due to the social stigma attached to male victims of domestic violence.
Yet the library's domestic violence exhibit portrays men as the perpetrators, never the victims. The display included a sign reading "Abuse by husbands and partners was ... the leading cause of injuries to women."
The Boulder County Safehouse states that its mission is to provide support and advocacy for battered women and their children. Another sign at the exhibit read, "in approximately 60 percent of the cases where the woman is being abused, so are the children." Yet nowhere is it stated that women commit most of the child abuse and child murders in America.
Given that the group lives off public funds and is therefore prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex, how can its mission embed discrimination into the organization's raison d'etre?
It is not merely that victimized men are being ignored. Hatred is directed toward all men as a result of the brutality of a statistical few.
Anti-male slander so frequently passes for domestic violence "awareness" that the YWCA of Middle Tennessee was recently able to run an ad in two Nashville newspapers that depicted the blurred photo of a boy near a front door. The caption read, "One day he'll own his own house ... drive his own car ... beat his own wife."
The "Hanging 'Em Out to Dry" exhibit provides the same sort of "awareness" as does an a priori indictment of all boys as wife beaters. It is hate speech directed at a category of human beings. If you doubt this, imagine a display of black penises strung up. It would be condemned as racist in an instant. Why is it less hate speech to expand the category from "black men" to "all men"?
Rowan intends to make a test case of this incident and he has the eager support of a burgeoning men's movement. The last two chat rooms at the prominent Web site mensactivism.org have revolved around El Dildo Bandito and how best to assist him. The participants draw a hard line between public-supported hate speech and privately funded opinion. Tax-funded hatred must be eliminated; private expression must be tolerated under the First Amendment.
As for Rowan, if the library is imprudent enough to restring the penises — which are now in police custody — he will remove them again. He will protect his daughter from publicly funded hate speech directed at her father and all men.
McElroy is the editor of Ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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