The Feminist Men of the Center
Dominick Rolle and Conrad Honicker
by Susan Carini 04G
I cannot picture Conrad Honicker in a Navy uniform, nor can I envision Dominick Rolle in James Dean glitter shoes.
Assistant Director for Programs Sasha Smith assured me before I interviewed the two men that I would find uncanny similarities—in the values that they hold dear and in the tremendous dedication that they show the Center for Women. Rolle credits Smith with “a remarkable ability to build teams.” And so she has.
Both men share a deep-seated passion for social justice, and it is at the center that they find this passion best expressed. As Honicker notes in a YouTube video advertising the Vagina Monologues, “Violence against women is violence against all of us.” Honicker and Rolle walk the talk every day, as dedicated feminists who came by different paths to understand how emblematic it is to defend the rights of women.
So, Sasha was right. They are sensitive, enlightened men of good heart, perhaps indistinguishable but for the fact that they never will share a closet.
From Boy Scout in the Bahamas to youth counselor in Charlottesville, Virginia, to graduate assistant at the Center for Women, Dominick Rolle, in his words, “always has been interested in organizations that promoted the well-being of others.”
As a youth counselor, he helped young men and women wrestle with race and class disparities in a city whose town/gown split is well known. His job was “planting the seeds,” reminding his charges often of the goals they had set for themselves. It was marvelous to watch the ticked-off items grow, with young people getting custody of their children again, raising them well, some of them going to college, some excelling at sports, many of them working steadily.
Rolle knows about how a stepping-stone beyond family is often necessary. When his mother decided to retire back in the Bahamas, Rolle asked her permission to go on his own to the US. There, he lived with four families in three years of high school, migrating from Houston, Texas, to Morrow, Georgia, to Miami, Florida; at each stop, he learned that “every family has its own dysfunctions.” Witnessing physical and economic abuse and seeing many instances of controlling behavior by fathers, Rolle “gained an empathy for people who felt displaced, who didn’t fit in.”
For him, the Navy was that stepping stone, helping him negotiate his passage into manhood and into a fuller embrace of being American. He is the only American by birth in his family. While he laughs now at how easily he was taken in by Navy commercials (worldwide travel, use of the GI Bill to further his education), his view of the military after six years of service is far more nuanced. Despite enjoying unprecedented freedoms and being proud of his record, he sometimes felt conflicted about his diverse roles in the military. He also vehemently disagreed with how important aspects of gender and sexuality—including "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"—were (mis)handled.
Rolle has become a skillful historian of war and military service, studying all its contradictions (e.g., fighting to preserve peace). He is particularly interested in what is known as the Double-V Campaign—the WWII-era effort of black Americans to gain a victory over racism at home as well as a victory abroad. War, says Rolle, provides a framework for looking at so many critical issues: violence, class, gender, and masculinity.
In that spirit, as a graduate student in Emory’s English department, he developed a composition class for first-year students called Literature of Black Warfare. Surprisingly, gender representation in the class was about even. He uses texts such as Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem to explore what happened when African Americans returned from the two great wars more militant. A gifted teacher, Rolle says, “I think of my class as a community where everyone’s voice is appreciated.”
Rolle has also been part of a game-changing intitative at Emory, serving as the teaching assistant in Ulester Douglas' Men Stopping Violence couse. Douglas, the associate director of the nonprofit Men Stopping Violence, teaches from a Community Accountability Model, which holds that everyone in a community is responsible for ending violence against women.
The course is alive with feeling, on some weeks welcoming in batterers, on other weeks women who have been battered. The results have been amazing, with a few of the undergraduates publishing works on violence against women. In another case, a survivor decided to go to law school to continue the fight for justice.
In spring 2014 Rolle will become a co-instructor, a rite of passage that has enormous meaning for him. He is aware of the rich legacy of which he has become a part, following in the footsteps both of Douglas and Rudolph Byrd, the former Emory faculty member who died in October 2011 and did so much to set up the course.
Rolle wants to become a tenure-track professor, “connecting organizations pushing social advocacy with the academy so that true social change can occur.” Nothing would delight Rolle more than to stay at Emory in a teaching capacity following completion of his PhD.
As we wound down our conversation, a sentence popped out of him that made us both laugh, for it was rendered in perfect graduate student-ese, yet managed to be utterly sincere. I offer it here without translation. Rolle said, “I would love to stay at Emory and make Men Stopping Violence a sustainable part of Emory’s social topography.”
It’s Not about the Shoes
When Conrad Honicker entered Emory as a first-year student in 2010, he had to step off the cloud of adulation that he received as a community activist in his hometown Knoxville, Tennessee.
It began in a park near his church, where one day—at age 14—he was walking holding hands with his boyfriend. People of varying ages, including many adults, began shouting at them, calling them names, and pounding their fists. Honicker got a pen out of his backpack, afraid that the verbal violence would escalate into something physical.
When that episode of bullying ended, Honicker—the son of antinuclear demonstrators—determined to make the path easier for those who would follow him. As Yes! Magazine reported in a piece from December 2007, “The aggressors probably didn’t expect their actions to result in a procession of same-sex couples marching hand-in-hand through downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.”
That was the Holding Hands demonstration, which attracted about 200 people, and Honicker’s courageous work didn’t end there; he also founded the first gay-straight alliance in Knox County and worked with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to increase its impact in the East Tennessee school system.
In April 2008 Honicker was profiled in the cover story of Knoxville’s Metro Pulse. A year later, the publication was still following him. This time Honicker had been to Washington, invited as part of a delegation of activists appealing for more support from the Obama administration.
Honicker was representing GLSEN and its work opposing harassment of sexual minorities in schools. Honicker’s words to the president were: “Thank you for being a visible ally for teens like me.” His shoes for the meeting were silver leather dress shoes with James Dean on the bottom, and they earned this comment from the president: “Man, those are the coolest shoes that have ever been in the White House.”
For the sake of Honicker’s sanity, fast-forward to Emory. Part of the appeal of coming here was giving up, as he calls it, “poster-child status.” His trajectory—from the Holding Hands demonstration onward—was eye opening to Honicker, who saw how easily young people get exploited and how quickly even community organizers can trip on their own egos. In some ways, all his community work had become a single soundbyte—the president’s response to his shoes.
Honicker came to Emory as a pre-med student; however, early on while watching a performance by Issues Troupe, Honicker realized that he wanted to interrogate “edgy issues,” and so he became a women’s studies major, grateful for the department’s strong reputation. (Don’t ask him about his co-major. That is more variable than the weather.) In three years, he is proud to say that he has progressed from what he calls his own “one-note feminism” (paraphrase: reading bell hooks and thinking he knew it all) to a more sophisticated intellectual framework, one that craves interdisciplinarity.
As someone who is avowedly interested in “disrupting normative frameworks,” Honicker has seen that impulse both encouraged and not at Emory. Overall, in Honicker’s assessment, it is not that easy to “push and be edgy, especially when students are dependent on faculty for letters of recommendation.”
Enter the Center for Women, which he credits with supporting and fostering his individuality. Says Honicker, “It is the one place I can bring my full self, where I don’t feel as if I am performing for anyone.” He works at the center most of the time he is not in class, and it is there that he met his roommate, Camille Hankins.
He laughs when recalling how they met. He had become involved with Emory’s production of the Vagina Monologues and needed to produce some posters. His desperate line to Hankins was, “Want to draw some vaginas with me?” The poster project led to once-a-week dinner at Hankins’s house and then, finding themselves without housemates, they decided to room together. Notes Honicker, “We were serendipitously paired by the universe.”
When not contemplating potential dual majors, Honicker is busy—producing the Vagina Monologues last year and co-producing it this year; helping the center with a major project that brought many more women’s centers to the 2011 National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta; sponsoring discussion about synthetic biology among a diverse group of undergraduates after having his neurons fired as a first-year student in a graduate seminar taught by Deboleena Roy.
Honicker will spend his senior year in Milan. Following graduation, he wants to move to Los Angeles to pursue costume design. Beyond that, he imagines circling back, at some point, to form a collective with many of his Emory friends; it will be called House of Charleston. In addition to working the gardens, collective members will be expected to advance artistic projects.
It is a life already featuring more chapters than most 21-year-olds can claim. Similarly, the plans for the future are many and suffused with passion. What of the glittery shoes that transported him to Oz and back as a teenager? They have been put aside. Honicker is making his own way now.
Susan Carini 04G is executive director of Emory Creative Group, a member of the Center for Women's Editorial Advisory Board, a graduate of Emory’s Excellence through Leadership Program, and is just completing a six-year term on the board of directors of Partnership against Domestic Violence.