Twenty-three year old Morgan Kail-Ackerman was catcalled three separate times near Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park. “Fuck you lady,” “Bitch,” and the familiar cringe-worthy wolf whistle accompanied her walk near DePaul University.

As she held the door open for a man at Lou Malnati’s, she was objectified. “He thought that because I opened the door for him, he was entitled to compliment me on my looks,” she says.

In 2019, University of Illinois Chicago student Ruth George was cat-called in a parking garage by Donald Thurman who got angry when she ignored his insults. He followed George to her car,  strangled her to death and sexually assaulted her. 

Thurman’s defense? He said he thought George “was pretty,” and tried talking to her. When she didn’t answer, he got mad.

In an online survey conducted by nonprofit Stop Street Harassment in 2018, 81% of women said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

Even with a global pandemic and layers of masks, rates of catcalling haven’t been minimized because street harassment is not just bout look, but also about power.

From left to right: Asko Skladany, Kailah Peters, Morgan Kail-Ackerman and Megan Harris. Photo provided.

When Kail-Ackerman was cat-called, she decided she would take some of that power back and the first edition of They Call Us was envisioned.

They Call Us is a literary magazine run by four current and former Depaul University students. One of the publication’s goals is to empower gender minorities, and They Call Us accepts submissions of art and writing from the public in order to further that goal. The first edition of the zine, “They Call Us Theirs,” explored bodily autonomy and street harassment.  

Since its launch in spring 2020, the zine has had nine editions ranging from “They Call Us Bitches” to “They Call Us Bridezillas,” each exploring a different label that is often put on gender minorities.

Slut, Prude, Damsel, Witch, Bossy or Dyke – it’s all about letting gender minorities know they are for themselves and no one else, says Megan Harris, social media coordinator for They Call Us.

“We want people to be able to see themselves and know they aren’t alone,” she says. “There are larger societal issues at play and by talking about it, we can identify it and change it, where is the root and how can we rip it out.”

The final piece of prose in the winter 2021 edition helped to shame the edition’s theme, “They Call Us Bossy.” Natosha Locken’s piece “Call Us Bossy” reflects the names that gender minorities have been called for centuries and the absence of the control they’ve never been allowed to obtain.

Locken’s essay starts, “They call me Bossy. They call me Nasty. They call me Mean. I don’t give a fuck anymore. I wear each of these monikers. They are my badges of honor, bestowed upon me for being a difficult woman. For misbehaving. For being the very thing which threatens their fragile egos. I am bossy, nasty, mean difficult I am more,” the introduction of Locken’s piece reads.

They Call Us opens submissions for each edition with a prompt and a topic and allows contributors to identify the ways many themes may intersect. For, “They Call Us Bossy,” it was important to the founders that Black women were highlighted in the edition because of the intersection of racism and sexism they often experience.

They Call Us Dykes Cover. Illustration by Asko Skladany.

Harris co-wrote the introductory essay to the “Bossy” edition with Kailah Peters, the editor of They Call us as well as the organization’s treasurer.

“Women of color had to work long before white women started pounding the pavement. In fact, minority women have always had a higher workforce participation rate while simultaneously earning significantly less pay,” a section of the forward reads.

Across the editions, there have been over 250 people who have contributed. Although the beginning mirrored the DePaul arts and literature scene, the latest editions go global with submissions across the world.

Peters, Harris, Kail-Ackerman and illustrator Asko Skladany plan the themes months in advance and the inspiration often comes from their own experiences. From Kail-Ackerman’s cat-calling experience, Peters love of witchcraft or Harris’ cousin’s marriage (the inspiration for They Call Us Bridezillas), the founders say the zine is really to get readers talking and have the familiar realization that only the power of female and non-binary friendship can provide (“Oh, that happened to you too?”).

“We care about these topics, and we want to write about them, but we are more than anything a platform to raise up other voices in our community,” Kail-Ackerman said. “It is a way to take back your voice.”

Historically, when gender minorities gather and talk, things change. The earliest example of this might be witchcraft – or what Peters explains as “women gathering and talking about things men didn’t want us talking about and having our own power.” She continues, “We want to reclaim that and bring it back into the modern world.”

From the early 1930s to the late 1980s in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, it was tradition to host a “witch burning” on Halloween.

“Burn the witch!” people would yell as a witch effigy, often made with newspapers and papier-mache, was set on fire in Chicago and suburban public spaces including Grand Crossing Park, Avalon Park and Merrionette Park.

Witchcraft has always been feared but for They Call Us, it’s a crucial pillar of feminism and the inspiration for Coven Congress, the zine’s quarterly Zoom discussion about the previous edition opened to all readers and contributors.

They Call Us Bridezillas Cover. Illustration by Asko Skladany.

Peters said that the discussions on witchcraft are separated from the practice of it and more focused on the empowerment that witchcraft provides.

“Witchcraft is someone feeling power within themselves and enacting that change in the world,” she said.

The logo for the zine is the three-moon symbol of Hecate, the Greek goddess. The goddess of magic and witchcraft, Hecate’s symbol has two outward facing crescent moons with a full moon in the middle. The three moons are described as the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, each symbolizing a separate stage in the female life cycle as well as the phase of the moon.

Hecate, being the Divine Mother of all witches and one of the most powerful goddesses in Greek mythology, represents the zine, the founders said, a home for all feminists to find not only representation but commonality.

They Call Us will be releasing their next issue, They Call Us Matrons, on March 31 and will soon be accepting submissions for their summer issue, They Call Us Battered. Share your story at: https://www.theycallus.com/submissions

This article is copublished in collaboration with the Chicago Reader.

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Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a writer and the calendar editor for Rebellious Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.