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Adding Insult to [Intimacy After] Injury (The Ugly Side of the Nonprofit World)

Next weekend (December 11-12, 2014), the Bob Woodruff Foundation is hosting the "Intimacy After Injury" convening in Washington D.C. I should be excited about this, right? Anyone truly committed to improving the intimate and sexual wellness of wounded warriors should be an ally, I'd think.

In fact, until a few weeks ago, I was very excited about this event. I'd been invited to be one of the expert panelists, and I was very much looking forward to sharing both my experiences as a wounded warrior, and as an expert in the field of sexuality and relationships. That changed on October 11th, when my invitation was revoked.

After weeks of hoping that my reaction would dissipate, only to feel just as incensed as when I first received the notification, I've decided to speak up by sharing my "it's not me, it's you" response letter. Because really, this issue isn't about me; it's is about a larger systematic problem in society in general, and in nonprofit organizations in particular. Hopefully my words that follow will help to clarify why that's the case.

"If I don't speak up, who will? If I don't draw attention to the issue, am I complicit in its perpetuation?" These are the sorts of questions that have run through my mind over the last few weeks. I logically countered them with level-headed replies: "Don't add negative energy to the situation. Take the high road. Smile and keep on keepin' on." In an interview with a journalist, I even refused to give the name of the Foundation, convincing myself that in doing so, I was being the "bigger person." I have changed my mind.

Dear Bob Woodruff Foundation,

I am disheartened by my experience with your organization--one that prides itself on supporting those who fight for America's freedom. I was recently dis-invited from the "Intimacy After Injury" panel because, in the words of the project coordinator, there was push-back "not from our executive director but from planning committee members who Googled you and were concerned that the photo and description on your Sense Appeal website could send a confusing message about what we hope to accomplish at the convening."

Guess what, Bob Woodruff Foundation? It's not me, it's you.

Sure, your preoccupation with keeping a "sterile" image intact makes sense, considering, "Convenings like this are designed to spotlight leading-edge advances in select fields and to generate strategic partnerships among government, military, nonprofit and corporate stakeholders that have the capacity to support the Bob Woodruff Foundation’s mission" (from your website). I get it: if you want people to give you money to support your mission, you feel that it's necessary to put on a white lab coat or suit and play the part of the "proper" organization.

However, in rebuking someone based on their non-conformance to your pre-established image norm, you have reinforced the hurtful societal habit of superficially judging a book by its cover. That your organization exhibited this sort of superficial moral policing speaks volumes to your apparent prioritization of reputation- and image-management over content and character.

I have been a faithful and exceptional Marine for over 15 years. My moral character has been reflected in every evaluation--military and otherwise--I've received. You've lost a tremendous voice on the panel: someone who speaks smartly on the issues at hand, from both personal and professional experience. It's a shame that that was based on a steering committee member's perceptions about non-conformance to a set image.

I wonder if your steering committee member would have opposed my participation if my website had displayed a picture of me in my dress blues instead? I doubt it. That these people failed to see that I have the same values and character whether in a uniform or in a formal corset dress speaks to their superficiality and inability to appreciate the essence of personhood. As an anthropologist, I work in and with highly stigmatized populations--people who are judged and shamed not for who they are, but for others' judgments and misperceptions about what they do. Now, having personally experienced being at the receiving end of admonishment on superficial grounds, I see how difficult it must be to live in the path of ego-driven scrutiny.

I was dis-invited from the panel, not because of lack of qualifications; not because of lack of experience, expertise, or what I could or couldn't offer to the convening. I was explicitly dis-invited based on a picture; based on someone's superficial assessment of an image on my website. This sends a clear message: that the Bob Woodruff Foundation cares more about its own image than it does about doing the right thing. The right thing, in this situation (as in most), is to not judge a book by its cover. The right thing is to consider how, in making judgments based on superficial criteria, you'd be a part of the problem rather than the solution for discrimination in our culture.

Sadly, because of this experience, I no longer feel safe being fully honest with the world about who I am. I've learned that instead of being proud of who I am, I should try to conform to what other people want me to be. I've learned that if I want to be considered "acceptable," I have to show only the sterile version of myself that the "steering committees" of the world (or just nonprofit organizations) will consider unobjectionable. This is defeating, especially considering that much of the work that needs to be done around topics of sexuality and intimacy wellness is in teaching people that it's OK to be vulnerable; it's OK to break down walls around unnecessary taboos; it's OK to talk about sexuality and intimacy outside of a sterile, medicalized context; and it's OK to challenge the status quo.

Because guess what, Bob Woodruff Foundation? Not only am I a multifacted individual with unique lived experience, but so are the rest of the wounded warriors your mission says you want to help. And if you really want to do them some good, you'll realize that we're more than our images; we're more than our bodies; and we're more than our labels. Part of what's wrong with the system that's failing our veterans is the refusal to acknowledge and value them as unique individuals, and to instead judge them based on assumptions about who they are and what they're about. I hope that in the future, those people who make up your organization will learn to give a long, hard look at what it means to judge others, and to make decisions from a place of fear rather than a place of empowerment.

Helping to heal bodies takes place within the bio-medical framework of veteran healthcare. But helping to heal sexual suffering, improve sexual and intimate well-being, and enhance intimate relationships is going to require looking outside the bio-medical paradigm. Failing to acknowledge the need for diverse professionals in this arena is going to keep veteran care stunted on this front, since it is those who are willing to engage outside the box who are more likely to have the open-mindedness and flexibility most effective here.


GySgt and Dr. Antoinette Izzo

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