An Open Letter to the Chicago Humanities Festival

By: H. Melt

chicago humanities festival mail

My name is H. Melt. I am a poet and artist in Chicago. I was born at Prentice Women’s Hospital. The original one currently being demolished by Northwestern University.

A few months ago, I attended the talk “Kara Walker: Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Rubloff Auditorium. This event was part of the 23rd annual Chicago Humanities Festival, as I’m sure you recall.

I ordered tickets over the phone for this event, which took place on February 20, 2013. When I received the tickets for my partner Janie and I in the mail, I became infuriated. They were addressed to “MS. H. Melton.”

I am a transqueer person. Trans people do not exclusively identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The manner in which my mail was addressed was offensive, upsetting, and incorrect. At no point in my phone conversation while purchasing tickets (for an event that should have been free and open to all) did I indicate my gender. I intentionally used an abbreviation of my legal and birth name during this interaction and do so in my daily life so that people do not gender me based on my name. I was never asked what title I prefer for my mail. Instead, someone made an assumption for me. That is not consent.

This situation of misgendering happens to me daily. After seeing how this affected me, Janie decided to take action and called Natalie Harris Lenz who works at the Art Institute as part of the Leadership Advisory Committee. Lenz was listed on the event page as the contact person. Janie left a long, detailed message about this incident and the existence of trans and gender nonconforming people. She was very nervous and shaking during the phone call.

It is difficult and often thankless work challenging individuals and institutions who enforce a rigid gender binary, refusing to acknowledge the rest of us outside of it. I do not always have the energy, courage, or time to confront people and organizations when they misgender me. When I do, my voice is often ignored. We did not receive a return phone call.

Despite this, we still attended the talk. What a mistake. The audience was filled with balding straight white men in suits partnered with real fur coats brushing up against us rudely like we were not worthy of being there. Kara Walker clearly did not want to be there either. Her work was stripped of its politics and power during her discussion led by a white woman from the Art institute, who failed to ask any real, challenging questions about race and representation. We also found it highly disappointing and shameful that Walker’s work was squeezed into a tiny back corner of the second floor of the Modern Wing, instead of being placed in the large first floor galleries. Her work demands room and the Art Institute failed to provide adequate space.

I thought this would all be behind me until yesterday when I received more unsolicited mail from the Chicago Humanities Festival. It was a letter asking me to become a member that began “Dear MR. Melton.” You got it wrong again. I will never become a member of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

I am not mister or miss. As a humanities festival, one would hope you’d be highly aware of the power of language and very careful how you use it. It may seem natural to gender people male or female. It is not. You must unlearn this impulse. You must allow people the freedom to determine their own genders.

Please make the Chicago Humanities Festival more aware and inclusive of trans and queer people, issues, and realities. Are there trans, queer or LGBTQI people on your staff? Do you have trans health coverage, name change policies, gender neutral restrooms? Do you design programs, feature speakers, and offer educational material that focuses explicitly on us? I am sure you have members and people in your audiences like me who do not identify as straight or cisgender and they might appreciate content relevant to non-normative sexualities and genders. I encourage you to think about how you can make the Chicago Humanities Festival better for all.

Attached you will find images of the two mailings I received from you, with the different titles “Ms.” and “Mr.”

Please stop sending me mail, unless it is a response to this letter.

H. Melt


One response to “An Open Letter to the Chicago Humanities Festival

  1. I’m a genderqueer person who prefers to use no title at all (when Mx. is not available). I received mail addressed to a “Mrs. FemaleName”. I returned it with the name crossed out and a correction written in, but no title given. Not long after, I received mail addressed to a “Mr. MyName”. It’s as if they only have 2 options to choose from and can’t possibly override it with anything else or nothing at all. Sloppy programming if you ask me. I’m a member of organizations that have a fill-in-the-blank option for titles, and I get mail from them, and it’s correct, and the universe did not explode.

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