Students mobilize in Hardy for LGBTQ support

In a flood of all-campus e-mails and WSO posts, members of the campus community have learned over the last week of the vandalism and homophobic bias incident that took place in Mission over Thanksgiving break. Since the incident, members of the student body have occupied Hardy House in an act designed to draw attention and pressure the administration to give greater recognition to issues surrounding homophobia and institutional support on campus.

Entry vandalism

The campus learned of the vandalism incident upon receiving Dean Merrill’s campus-wide e-mail on Nov. 30, which reported that the word “Fags” had been written on the common room wall of a first-year entry in Mission, Mills-Dennett 1, between 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 28.

According to Jean Thorndike, director of Campus Safety and Security, she had been notified of the incident earlier that morning by Queer Life Coordinator (QLC) Justin Adkins, who had learned about the vandalism from Johannes Wilson ’11, co-chair of the Queer Student Union (QSU). “I found out about the incident a day after it occurred from a Junior Advisor (JA) friend, who showed me an e-mail sent to the JA listserv by the JA whose entry was vandalized,” Wilson said. Wilson asked Adkins what the response should be, and Adkins notified the administration.

Security reported that in addition to the presence of the offensive word, paint had been splattered in the entry’s common room and penises had been drawn on bathroom doors. “This was another instance of an entry being vandalized, and it’s part of a bigger problem on campus with common spaces,” said Ifiok Inyang ’11, a JA in MD1. “For most people, the entry common room is one of the most revered common spaces you’ll have in your four years. For a person to come in with intentions of destruction while you’re on break is terrible.”

The ensuing investigation into the incident has yielded few leads thus far. Thorndike said that 40 students had used their ID cards to swipe into Mission during the hours in question on Nov. 28, and that members of Security are following up with those students. “The investigation will remain open and active,” Thorndike said. “We plan to talk to all the students and follow up with any leads. We have to wait and see if we get any information from them or from the tip hotline.” Thorndike added that the anonymous tip line can be accessed through the Security Web site.

The response

While the investigation into the incident by Security was beginning, Merrill informed the campus in her e-mail that members of the administration were arranging to meet with LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) students to determine how to move forward.

At a lunch meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 1, members of the QSU and members of the administration began addressing the incident. “The discussion was a chance to talk about what happened, how people felt, what their sense was of the administration’s response with the e-mail,” Merrill said. “A first thought on the part of the administration was that we wanted to be transparent about what happened. We also wanted to try to jump right into discussion as quickly as possible.”

In a series of meetings following the lunch with the administration, members of the QSU began formulating their response. “The incident elicited a number of responses, such as anger and frustration,” said Mike Semensi ’12, QSU treasurer. “We met to discuss this and what we wanted our demands to be, what we wanted the administration to do to support people struggling with these issues.”

The QSU also joined forces with the Women’s Center, who offered support and collaboration. “There are already a lot of existing overlaps on our respective boards and in our group of friends,” said Tracey Vitchers ’10, co-chair of the Women’s Center. “We wanted to support them. Had this been a sexist incident instead of a homophobic incident, we would have wanted their support as well.”

Out of the lengthy discussions came both a “List of Demands” and a letter to the College community announcing their decision to “re-conceptualize the underused space at Hardy House” into the “Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.” At an open forum organized by College Council (CC) on Wednesday night, members of the QSU and the Women’s Center unveiled their response, and proceeded to Hardy House. Since that time, members of both groups have been at Hardy House around the clock.

“We realized that for the administration to look at these concerns, we needed visible action, so we’re ‘squatting,’” Semensi said. “It’s not really a sit-in, not an occupation. Squatting is homeless people living in a space that isn’t used, and that’s what we’re doing. This is already in many ways the house the QSU and the Women’s Center use, so we want recognition that there needs to be a visible space addressing these concerns.”

A back-and-forth conversation between the QSU and Women’s Center and the administration has led to consideration of the list of demands put forth, which, aside from the call for a Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, also includes a series of other measures designed to recognize LGBTQ issues on campus. The list includes the creation of a full-time QLC position to direct the Gender and Sexuality Resources Center, the implementation of comprehensive LGBTQ training for JAs, the creation of gender neutral housing to allow upperclassmen to choose roommates regardless of their sex and the hiring of a full-time Queer Studies professor.

In an additional all-campus e-mail, Interim President Wagner announced the position of the administration, saying, “We support their efforts to end at Williams all behaviors aimed at intimidating or targeting people because of their gender, sexual identity or gender expression and to build a community that welcomes and supports all.”

“All of the ideas put forth by the QSU address how we can try to eliminate that type of biased behavior specifically and also how we can create an environment where all feel welcome in this community,” Merrill said. She acknowledged, though, that this type of proposal must go through the institutional channels of consideration, which is made more difficult due to financial constraints. “There is an understanding that we’re in a difficult budgetary situation, but we feel we should move forward and see where these ideas take us,” Merrill said, noting that the administration is willing to continue discussions.

Incoming President Adam Falk received the letter drafted by the QSU and the Women’s Center, and responded by offering both sympathy and support. “I agree completely that, especially in the aftermath of this incident, students and administration must come together around the critical purpose of eliminating from the Williams campus homophobia and other forms of discrimination against the many varieties of sexual expression,” he wrote, adding that he looks forward to participating in ongoing conversation when he arrives on campus in April.

Squatting at Hardy

In claiming Hardy House as the current site for the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, members of the QSU and the Women’s Center have turned the building into their center of operations, moving Adkins’ office from Jenness House to Hardy. “This is base camp, ground zero for what we’re trying to do,” Vitchers said. “Hardy is a space we’ve already been designated, but it has been underutilized up until this point.” At Hardy, students, faculty, administrators and staff members wander in and out, stopping to chat. “This is the most open sit-in ever,” said Gabrielle Joffe ’11.

The goal of “the most open sit-in ever” is in part to advance the College’s goal of creating a welcoming and supportive community. “Williams does a great job of attracting diverse students, but could do a better job of addressing their needs,” Semensi said. “There are students who face homophobia. These issues aren’t discussed openly and regularly, so there are those who might not know there are issues that exist. There are those who don’t feel comfortable here, who face bias, and that’s not okay.”

As Semensi articulated, the groups felt the need for visible action. Vitchers agreed that the groups’ response has been directed towards inspiring institutional change. “We want to pressure the administration to provide students with what we’re asking for,” she said. “With it being the end of the semester, it’s hard to know how things will play out, but the response from faculty and staff has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive.”

In creating a Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, the two groups hope to create a place that offers a resource and support for “the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and straight populations” at the College, the groups said. Adkins specified that what the students are asking for is not simply a building for themselves, but for something that can provide resources to everyone on campus. “Everyone has a sexual identity and everyone has a gender identity,” Adkins said. “Often when we say ‘gender,’ it’s taken to mean women, and when we say sexual identity, it’s taken to mean those who aren’t heterosexual, but what the students are doing is something that can serve the whole community, not just these smaller groups.”

For the QSU and the Women’s Center, one of the most pressing issues is that of space allocation in Morley Circle, where four buildings – Siskind, Jenness, Rice and Hardy – have been allocated to the groups that fall under the purview of the Multicultural Center. Vitchers said that the QSU and Women’s Center are working on a proposal to have all the Minority Coalition groups write up their space needs, so that space allocation can be rethought.

Meanwhile, the efforts are already being felt by some on campus. “Not only does this building feel like a home now more than it ever has, but I feel more at home on this campus than I ever have before,” said Chelsea Luttrell ’11, referring to the occupying of Hardy House.

Student body speaks up

The discussion surrounding the actions of the QSU and the Women’s Center has been characterized by strong divergent opinions, which, to many members of those two groups, has been helpful in guiding them to address concerns as they arise.

“WSO has allowed students to pose questions and concerns that we’ve looked at,” Vitchers said. “It’s brought other people to these events. We want to create discussion and debate, because then people come and talk – and people have left with a positive attitude.” Vitchers explained that the groups had hosted an open forum on Thursday night, which various students attended to voice concerns. According to Vitchers, the discussion went well and garnered the movement additional support.

According to Fiona Wilkes ’12, the discussions have value merely in getting attention. “The fact that so many people are responding to threads, reading threads – whether or not they’re in support of what we’re doing, the fact that people are talking about it and thinking about it, is great,” she said.

Wilson agreed that the discussions are productive. “We are all trying to take everyone’s criticisms and suggestions to heart as we move forward, and this whole situation has taught me a lot about how the QSU is perceived on campus,” he said. “Whatever results from our actions, the QSU board will certainly move forward with a highly enriched perspective.”

Indeed, not all students are in support of the Hardy House occupation, as some have spoken out against the methods of the QSU and Women’s Center, and others have challenged the idea that there is a problem to be addressed.
Some have voiced opinions that the QSU’s and Women’s Center’s response was an overreaction. Jordan Freking ’12 called the incident of vandalism noteworthy, but added, “I don’t think it deserves as much attention as it is getting,” noting in part that he believes that “the way resource centers are being utilized is highly ineffective in combating biases that exist on this campus, and they don’t even begin to have any positive, real-world consequences.”

Others, while questioning the movement, have become convinced that it may ultimately be beneficial. “Although I don’t necessarily approve of the tactics that the QSU has engaged in to achieve its ends, I know that what they are doing will be a good thing for Williams in the long run,” said Christopher Hikel ’13, who noted that the QSU has clarified some of its original statements and reached out to a “broader constituency” as the week has progressed.

Nonetheless, the QSU and the Women’s Center have gained significant student support. CC co-presidents Mike Tcheyan ’10 and Lizzy Brickley ’10 invited the student body to an open forum on Wednesday to give students a place to voice opinions, as well as to help CC learn how to move forward.

According to the co-presidents, today’s CC meeting will be dedicated to a discussion with QSU and Women’s Center members so that CC can vote on measures to support when approaching the administration. “It’s clear that everyone has the same goals in mind, but it’s difficult to contend with budget restrictions,” Tcheyan said. “CC and the students can help put pressure on the administration to align themselves with concrete proposals and not just the vision at large.”

Looking back, moving forward

That there have been concrete actions taken and steps proposed has been seen as a significant step by many on campus. Katie Kent ’88, professor of English and women’s and gender studies, recalled her own experiences in a first-year entry in which homophobia was overt and threatening. “[Now,] I don’t think members of an entry would make jokes about killing the member of the now-QSU who was coming to give an entry talk,” she said.

Kent noted that activism and awareness around these issues has “waxed and waned” over the years, but noted that, “I don’t know of any action of the magnitude of this one, in terms of the continuous occupation of a building and issuing a set of demands.”

For some, the incident that sparked the events of the last week was reminiscent of the events leading up to Stand With Us two years ago. “In one respect, this incident is similar to the Willy E incident in that there was a slur used that is unacceptable on this campus, targets a group of people and results in students feeling upset and demeaned,” Merrill said. “These are moments in which we can reflect on what we’re doing as an institution. At the same time, we must understand these incidents as different in terms of context.”

Members of the QSU and Women’s Center noted that they are taking a different path – one that focuses on the institution rather than the type of discussion created by Claiming Williams Day. “It’s great that there’s a day that can address these issues, but I’m proud that the students are moving beyond just one day,” Adkins said. “Sometimes there’s a big response that happens immediately, but then it fizzles away. I’m proud that the students aren’t just doing one big thing, but rather asking for institutional change.”

“This is a campus culture problem, but by the administration providing this service, the institutional changes will trickle down into community change,” Vitchers said. “Days like Claiming Williams aren’t mandatory. It allows students who don’t want to go to not have to go, so it can be preaching to the choir.”

Semensi mentioned that while their movement is taking a different approach than Claiming Williams, Wendy Raymond, associate dean for institutional diversity and professor of biology, came forward to ask on behalf of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee what they could do to help and demonstrate alliance.

Raymond said that the mission of Claiming Williams “reveals strong interconnections” between the day’s goals and the actions of the QSU and the Women’s Center. “We hope that people will be curious to learn more about how they can develop as allies to those who feel they cannot ‘claim’ Williams, and we hope that Claiming Williams events will help encourage learning,” she said.

Brickley noted that while institutional change may make a difference, there is still a role to be played by individual students. “Too often campus can be too passive and non-confrontational when discriminatory behavior occurs,” she said. “People can step out of their comfort zones and speak up against the disrespectful actions of their peers.”

While members of the QSU and Women’s Center acknowledged that winter break will necessarily slow-down their efforts, they plan on continuing to hold the administration accountable, Wilson said. “We’ve started to get even more specific with the proposals we have made to the administration, and winter break will give us more time to do research, refine our actions and reflect on what has happened so far, what has been said and how we should move forward,” he added.

For Semensi, there is an additional message to take away from the last week: one of opportunity. “Williams is seen as largely apathetic to social disobedience and to change, which is partially due to how many other things people are doing,” he said. “I think it’s great that if you care enough and build a strong enough base, you can get things done here.”