The student sit-in at Hardy House, along with the list of demands to end institutional biases against and increase formal support for queer students, has been a remarkable example of activism over the past week. Welcoming critique and maintaining an attitude of openness, the Queer Student Union (QSU), Women’s Center and those additionally involved have seized the opportunity to make demands of an administration that publicly decries instances of homophobia such as the Mills-Dennett 1 common room vandalism, but has not yet done all it can institutionally to demonstrate support for queer students, “out” or not.
The list of demands, if realized, would begin to make Williams a place as institutionally interested in students of queer sexual and gender identity as it is in racially and geographically diverse students. It is our hope that the campus will extend its support to the movement for change being rallied in Hardy House by combating homophobia on individual, interpersonal levels, and that the College will answer the call to end institutional heteronormativity by prioritizing the demands presented over the past week. Such a response from the administration would go far in recognizing the subtle ways that institutional structures can perpetuate homophobia and that simply saying you support a community sometimes just isn’t enough.
The students organizing the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center have not planted themselves in a central campus location and are in general not calling upon the entire student body to mobilize against the attitudes that produced the slander on the MD-1 common room wall. Not attempting to engage with the “culture of hate” or other such volatile epithets used during the Stand With Us movement in spring 2008, the QSU and Women’s Center have effectively begun their revolution without demonizing populations on campus.
The movement is to be commended for refraining from the “with us or against us” mentality that alienated many students from Stand With Us. That said, we hope that students take the opportunity to consider the small, tangible ways they can contribute to making campus a safer, more supportive place for their queer peers: for instance, piping up when a friend uses the word “gay” derogatorily in casual conversation.
The current movement is also constructive by being specific in its demands; calling for structural changes from the administration, the QSU and Women’s Center are channeling their efforts in a grounded and effective way. Their requests are aimed at ending institutional policies and absences that are biased against queer students, aspiring to foster support and safety. They have focused on making change by concretely asking for it, largely leaving the elliptical, frustrating nitpicking to discussants on WSO.
We believe that their demands are extremely important and that the administration should not hesitate to implement those that are of little or no cost to the College as soon as possible. Those that require more significant funding, the College should willingly negotiate with the mind that these changes are critical to improving queer life on campus.
Gender-neutral housing â€“ the ability for upperclassmen to choose a roommate regardless of his or her gender â€“ would end heteronormativity in the room draw process; comprehensive LGBT training for Junior Advisors would give campus leaders the chance to support queer first-years in a meaningful way; and the other demands (full-time Queer Life Coordinator, resource center, full-time queer studies professor) would help to integrate discussion about and support for queer identities on campus, inside the classroom and out.
There is no way to know for how many students these changes are personally meaningful, because publicly self-identifying has, for some students, significant ramifications. For those queer students fearing the loss of parental, emotional or financial support, alienation from friends, or perhaps even political repercussion if they are from a nation that openly punishes homosexuality, vocalizing their identification is a big decision they may not be ready to make.
Even for those students in supportive situations, a queer identity is not as easy to claim as many racial ones because it is not as visible. Because of the specific difficulties of queer identities, on-campus systems of support are especially crucial. We hope that the administration, faculty and the Board of Trustees are prepared to work to meet students’ demands not only because students’ expressions of marginalization give the College a bad rap, but because they understand that meaningful diversity includes sexuality and gender identity, and that the current institutional structures and policies surrounding those identities fall short of acknowledging that.
We commend the effort of students at the QSU and Women’s Center who are going against the grain and taking action instead of simply wishing things were better, making tangible demands in a way that extends beyond calls for dialogue. They are asking for institutional respect and recognition for queer students, feats that might not necessarily penetrate through all homophobic attitudes on campus during our time here, but which instead make it meaningfully official that Williams is a college that supports queer identities.
Knowing that the institution is structurally inclusive, queer-identifying students will be more likely to matriculate, and, on the ground, homophobic attitudes, muted or overt, will become increasingly less tolerated. For now, students don’t necessarily need to be working in Hardy House in order to support the work of the QSU and Women’s Center; by speaking out against insensitive or homophobic language in everyday conversation, asking questions and keeping an open mind about change at Williams, students can encourage an attitude of openness and, most importantly, respect for their peers.