This past week was National Coming Out Week - a big one for the LGBTQA community - probably second after Pride Month. Anyway, The GSC ran a ton of events, including a drag show with drag queens from the Gay 90s (a club in the twin cities), discussions about identity, training for LGBTQA panels, vigils for Matthew Shepard and other victims of violence based on their sexuality or gender expression, a movie night, and a release party for our local publication "When I Knew." However, the most moving and important part of this week was the panel about the Matthew Shepard murder which was at noon on Thursday. Some faculty and staff presented their thoughts about where they were, what they were doing and how it impacted them and their coming out or their being out. After hearing from them, it was opened up for us to talk about our experiences.
The panelists talked about following the trial for an entire year, and how it changed the dialogue of coming out. Steve Wisener, director of ResLife, talked about feeling scared for his students. Shepard was a college student who walked into a dangerous situation and died because of his identity. To Wisener, he represented the idea that college students are not always as safe as we think, and that there is a different world outside the college "bubble." Jennifer Gildner, a psychologist at the Wellness Center, discussed living in Houston and seeing vigils and support mixed with signs filled with hatred and slurs. Alum and member of the Development Office, Mark Lofstrom, talked about being at the first LGBTA family reunion, and enjoying their time together at the same time this murder took place. He mentioned that many of the LGBT alumnis had had negative experiences at Carleton, due to harassment or intolerance. It was this mixture of alumnis reflecting on their experiences here and the nationally covered crime that resulted in the creation of Kaaren Williamson's job as LGBT advisor, later to change to the Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center. This is only a small sampling of the faculty/staff discussion.
Students discussed being around 11 years old and some of them trying to grapple with their own sexualities in an atmosphere filled with discussions of tolerance, hate, and danger. The conversation of "Mom I'm gay/bisexual/lesbian/genderqueer" changed to one of worry about physical assault and harassment. This became yet another conversation that queer people, especially youth, were forced into, whether they were ready to confront the realities of intolerance or not.
As we talked, I remembered watching Anatomy of a Hate Crime: Matthew Shepard, which MTV made in 2001. I was around 13 or so, and didn't entirely understand what was going on. I remember having very mixed feelings about it (they made one of the killers out to be a more sympathetic character, and at the time, I really believed it). But then a commercial came on. It made you feel like you were pinned down on the floor of a locker room with someone screaming slurs at you - "queer" is probably the only one I should repeat here. Then Judy Shepard, Matthew's mom, came on and said, "The next time you say one of those words, think of my son." This really struck me and I vividly remember it. I had never even heard most of those words before, but I knew immediately that was something I should take to heart, and I have remembered it for the past 7 years.
Carleton just released its Campus Climate Survey, which is an independently run survey about how people feel the "climate" is. What is climate? It is the general atmosphere, particularly involving minority identities. Many of the questions asked whether people knew of, had experienced, or perceived an atmosphere of intolerance or ecxclusion on campus. The response rate was around 56% of students for a 100 question survey and reveals many issues we didn't know we had or didn't know how bad they were. Some of the issues included sexual assault, inclusion of ethnic/racial minorities, divsions between various faculty and staff designations, learning/psychological disabilities, and harassment of LGBTQA students.
The most striking number was that around 50-60% of the harassment experienced by students of color was based on their color status. For LGBTQA students, the rate of harassment based solely on sexual orientation or genderqueer status was around 80%. I don't understand all the statistics all the time, but I can tell you that is a problem. This is the kind of thing that needs to be grappled with and addressed with open dialogue. You can look for yourself, if you want (and you probably should). The college has posted the unedited, undiluted contents of the independently run survey for all to see, including donors, prospective students, and all of us currently on campus and trying to figure out how to address these issues.
This is a pretty serious subject, and I don't want you to think that Carleton is intolerant and unwelcoming. The fact that we have a GSC, and that students, faculty, and staff are willing to be openly gay, allied, or transgender is a good sign that that we're not going to be expelled (like at some schools) or physically assaulted (like in many unwelcoming atmospheres). I don't have to worry for my safety when walking around campus or in town with my girlfriend. However, Carleton is not a Utopian paradise and by conducting this survey and engaging dialogues across campus it is working to improve what can be improved, and engage those who sometimes feel disengaged. I have heard a lot of new dialogues going on around campus and there have been committees and discussion groups formed to address these issues. I believe the administration is really trying to address these problems, and I hope I can write in the future about improvements and responsiveness to student needs.