Today is election day for student government at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). While this is an annual occurrence, this year there is a special ticket on the ballot. For the first time, the University has two openly gay, gender non-conforming students running for student body president and vice president.
David Pope and Katie Grassi, campaigning as “David + Katie,” are both active at their university. They both serve on the executive board for UNI’s LGBT student group, UNI Proud. David currently serves as a senator for student government and Katie has served as a resident assistant for two years. While the two have a variety of issues under their platform, LGBT issues are a huge part of their plan for the university, with establishing an LGBT center and gender neutral facilities being major points in their platform.
The ticket was recognized right away as being the underdog, but through creative—and controversial—campaign tactics, David and Katie have set themselves apart for entirely different reasons.
The first tactic that caught the attention of their small midwest campus was the promotional material they were distributing. Rather than go the traditional route of handing out t-shirts and buttons with their names plastered on them, David and Katie chose to hand out customized condoms. A bold move for a semi-conservative campus like UNI, they received mixed reactions.
Some students criticized the duo for being inappropriate. Others praised them for bringing taboo topics out into the open. Despite the mixed reactions, however, the candidates stand by their decision.
“Sex isn’t something to be afraid or ashamed of, it’s something we should talk about openly in order to encourage healthy and safe practices that prevent disease,” said David. “We hoped we could do a service whether or not students voted for us.”
The two students continued to cause controversy when they released a promotional video for their campaign. Once again, they took a less traditional route than the other candidates. While the other two tickets released videos of them sitting down, talking about their past, their experience and what they hoped to do if elected, David and Katie decided to make a statement in a different way.
In the middle of campaigning, when getting word out about your ticket is vital, David and Katie sparked a huge discussion by releasing a music video to promote their campaign. The video featured the candidates dressed in drag, and dancing to the Britney Spears and Will.I.Am hit “Scream & Shout.”
This move caused the most controversy of all. Critics had a lot to say, including that the two students were being unprofessional and not taking the elections seriously. But David and Katie defended the clip.
“People may not understand our gender identity or the way we love performance as a means of achieving social change, but we will always stay true to ourselves and fight for what we believe in,” said David.
The move received further critique when David and Katie showed up to the UNI student government debate in somewhat gender-normative clothing. David wore a suit and bow-tie, with Katie donning slacks, a men’s button-up and a bow-tie. Some criticized this apparent “inconsistency” in how David and Katie identified.
“Gender isn’t always a distinct destination, its a journey we are on,” said David. “Some people will want you to fit into a box and stay there because its easier for them to deal with. But if you’re free, other free people will understand you without the boxes and the labels.”
While it remains to be seen if people do understand David and Katie, one thing is for sure – they have sparked an important conversation on their campus.
“The main way in which the LGBT community has struggled to achieve progress is our lack of a voice, our invisibility,” David said. “Becoming visible is always the first step. Whether or not Katie and I win, we’ve kept the dialogue focused on LGBT issues and concerns.”
Eve is a twenty-five year old trans woman and writer, and the founder of LGBTeen. She enjoys writing about pop culture, feminism, LGBT issues — and her lived experiences. You can view her writing on LGBTeen and on her personal blog, Original Woman.