Holly Kearl’s parents have always been her greatest fans. And whether it was teaching her to fight for what was right, or leading by example, she says she owes much of her success to those lessons from her mother and father.
As my parents Beckie Weinheimer and Alan Kearl often say, in our family, we root and fight for the underdog.
Growing up, the main person my family and I fought for was my older sister Heidi. She was an underdog because she was born with cerebral palsy and could not walk, talk, or hear and ate through a feeding tube in her stomach. Most of her life was lived before the Americans With Disabilities Act passed and my parents were revolutionary for refusing to put her in an institution or keep her shut up in the house. She was 100 percent part of our family and went and did everything we did, albeit from a stroller or wheelchair or from the shoulders of my dad.
When the doctors told my parents over and over that she would not live past age X or Y or that she would never learn to drive an electronic wheelchair, my parents—especially my mom—grit their teeth and fought to prove them wrong. When people stared at my sister in public, angering me, my dad patiently answered questions and explained why she was drooling or why she had braces on her legs. The most devastating day for all of us was June 8, 1993, when she died. But at least we could take comfort knowing we’d helped her live the best life she could.
A few years later, when the church we belonged to actively campaigned against the rights of gays and lesbians, my mom spoke out. As the bigotry worsened, my mom left the religion, at a great personal cost, and the rest of us soon followed. My mom is a writer and often writes about bigotry in religion.
Rooting for the underdog also meant helping relatives and community members who needed an extra hand. Over the years, many relatives lived with us for a few weeks or a few months. I’d grumble at having to give up my bedroom or at the change in routine, but I understand and admire my parents now, looking back at what they did so freely.
People who needed a place to go during the holidays were welcome in our home. Clothes, food, and even one of our old cars were given freely to community members in need. My parents continue their generosity and recently welcomed two different cousins into their home when they needed a supportive place to stay. My parents never blink an eye before helping people, including my younger sister and me, in countless ways.
I absorbed their example, and during my teenage years, it dawned on me that my very gender made me and all women underdogs in many ways. Learning that beloved relatives, friends, and classmates were survivors of domestic violence, rape, and incest made me angry and put me in fight mode. My parents supported my anger and my mom was the first one to help me channel it constructively by suggesting I volunteer at a local domestic violence shelter. She went through the 40-hour training with me the summer before my senior year of high school.
Since then, I’ve engaged in activism on these issues in many ways, from volunteering at domestic violence shelters and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network to surveying my college community about campus rape to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace and schools in my day job with the American Association of University Women. In all of the work I do, I apply what I learned from my parents.
Not only do I apply what I learn from my parents, but we regularly join forces to speak out against gender-based street harassment.
Street harassment includes leering, catcalls, sexually explicit comments, homophobic remarks, stalking, public masturbation, and assault that happens between strangers in public places. It impacts more than 80 percent of women and girls worldwide and has a negative effect on them, from making them feel less safe in public to limiting where they go and when.
I wrote my master’s thesis on this topic at George Washington University in 2007. So few people wrote or spoke out on this topic that a few months after I turned in my thesis, I gave interviews on the topic for news outlets like the Globe and Mail in Canada and CNN in the United States.
In the comments of these articles and on related blog posts, many people engaged in victim-blaming and dismissed the problem. At the same time, hundreds of women reached out to share their stories with me or on blogs. It was clear more information and dialogue was needed.
And that’s where my parents stepped in. They didn’t understand the issue that well at first, but by the time I turned in my thesis, they could easily explain why and how street harassment is problematic. They too saw a need for more information on this topic and their idea was a book, written by me.
Unbelievably, with no prior writing experience except school papers, after a few rejections I successfully pitched a publisher and I was lucky to become a published author in 2010 at age 27.
My achievement was, unsurprisingly, in great part due to them. Not only did they have the idea and then encouraged me when I had doubts, but my mom, a published and award-winning young adult author, bought me a book about how to write a book proposal. She, my dad and others read through my book proposal, chapter drafts, outlines, and more, offering valuable input. My dad thoroughly edited the entire manuscript twice before I turned it in.
Their commitment to the issue of street harassment has only grown with time. I run the website Stop Street Harassment where people around the world share their street harassment stories. Every week, my parents spend time writing encouraging comments on these stories, letting the writers know they’re not alone. Often, my parents’ comments are the only ones on the posts; the only direct messages of support.
In March 2012, I organized International Anti-Street Harassment Week. To participate, my dad dedicated countless hours to organizing a rally in New York City. It included more than a dozen speakers and over 100 attendees. He opened the rally, introduced speakers, and managed the set-up and take-down.
My mom was an active participant, too. She ironed the Stop Street Harassment logo onto t-shirts and hats for she and my dad to wear, handed out stickers at the rally, and spent most of the rally holding signs and inviting passersby to join in. One of the young women who helped my mom for some of the time said the best part of the rally was being with my mom because she was so welcoming and kind.
There’s a phrase that people are only as great as their parents. I know that isn’t applicable for a lot of people, but my parents are such strong advocates for the underdog and for justice and they are such supportive people in general that if I can be even half as great as them, I know I will have lived a good life.
Holly Kearl is an author who is best known for her book Stop Street Harassment. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she is a National Street Harassment Expert. Kearl oversees the Legal Advocacy Council. You can find her on Twitter at @hkearl.