Homophobic harassment leaves students stunned

Homophobia is nothing new at Williams. A concentrated series of incidents of homophobic harassment have occurred on campus over the past two months, sparking discussion about what can be done to prevent harassment and to address the broader issue of homophobia at Williams.

The harassment has primarily taken the form of verbal assaults in public places, usually by a group aimed at one or two students. A student was also physically grabbed in a store on Spring Street and offensive messages have been left on students’ dorm room boards.

Andrew Singer ’00, a co-coordinator of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered Union (BGLTU), noted that homophobic harassment is especially prevalent among first-years. Some students come to Williams and deal with issues of sexuality for the first time.

Dean of the College Peter Murphy said, “In my discussion with students, Williams seems to have a climate where people feel relatively free to harass, especially to make homophobic comments.” The harassment has created places on campus where queer students do not feel safe.

When queer students go to such places, like many row-house parties, “You’re taking your chances,” said Laura Guichard ’99, co-coordinator of the BGLTU with Singer. Guichard also noted that there are certain “safe places” on campus where queer students do not feel threatened. “Williams should be a place where everybody feels safe,” regardless of who and where they are she said.

The harassment and safety of the queer community is not an issue limited to queer students and the BGLTU. “[Homophobic harassment] is not just an individualized attack. It’s a stereotyped attack on an entire community,” Singer said. The whole Williams community of students, faculty, staff and administration including the queer community, must work together to address issues of homophobia on campus.

The BGLTU has already begun working with the Deans, Security, the Dively Committee, the Committee for Diversity and Community (CDC) and plans to work with the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) to address the harassment and the atmosphere that makes it possible.

Guichard supports “an approach on a systemic level, getting lots of campus institutions involved to make [homophobia] a visible issue that people talk about.” Low levels of reporting have made addressing homophobia and harassment more difficult.

Students often do not report harassment because it is humiliating. “They think it happens all the time, and they don’t feel like anything will be done,” Singer said.

In a BGLTU meeting last Tuesday, Guichard and Singer encouraged students to report harassment when they are targeted. They offered tips on effective reporting, like noting possible witnesses and identifying specifically who did and said what.

Security plans to increase officers’ understanding of homophobic harassment not as isolated incidents, but as “indicative of wider intolerance,” Singer said. If students feel comfortable approaching Security, they might report harassment more frequently.

The Deans office primarily plays a disciplinary role in the effort to address homophobia. “It is fundamentally important to pursue incidents [of harassment] from a disciplinary point of view,” Dean Murphy said. “It is very important in developing a sense of safety and making people feel supported by the administration,” he added.

Another administrative support for the queer community could come in the form of a Queer Intern, possibly sponsored by the Multicultural Center (MCC). The Dively Committee has worked with the coordinators of the BGLTU to develop a vision of an “active and visible [queer] advocate” on campus in an administrative role.

Such an intern would “analyze different institutions in the College, determining what needs to be worked on in terms of homophobia, queer awareness, initiating faculty and staff awareness,” Guichard said.

The Dively Committee is “a committee of faculty and students who plan events which raise campus awareness of human sexuality and human sexual diversity,” said member Kathryn Kent, associate professor of English.

The CDC has not yet met to discuss the harassment as a group. Professor of Music M. Jennifer Bloxam, a member of the committee, has been in contact with the MCC and Deans about organizing a response in support of the queer community, “including possibly a rally, a statement condemning homophobia and supporting gay/lesbian students in the Record,” Bloxam said.

The CDC has traditionally “worked on long-term changes to improve campus climate for all members of the community,” Bloxam said.

The CUL will discuss “issues of diversity and gender on campus” during its next meeting, which is open to all, said Bill Darrow, chair of the Committee and Jackson Professor of Religion.

“I think the CUL certainly has a role to play in response to these incidents. The most useful thing we can do initially is be a safe and supportive public meeting site for open discussion, but talk must then be followed by action,” Darrow said.

Faculty can also play a role in preventing homophobia on campus. Kent suggested, “They can strive to be actively anti-homophobic in their teaching and in their other dealings with students. Many gay/lesbian/queer-identified and queer friendly faculty already try to support queer students by attending rallies and occasionally BGLTU meetings and parties, and by acting as mentors and advisors.”

Singer and Guichard suggested changing the programming of First Days and SPARC to address issues of sexuality more adequately. The changes would serve “not to warn people, but to say ‘these kinds of things [homophobia] are not acceptable here,’” Singer said.

Changing homophobic attitudes and preventing harassment begins with discussion, and requires active efforts to build awareness. “People are made to think [homophobia] is not a big deal, and we’re saying Yes, it is,” Guichard said. “If you want things to change, you have to go out and actively change them,” said Singer.

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