Student activism births Gender & Sexuality Resource Center

Since the homophobic vandalism in the Mills-Dennett 1 common room on Nov. 28, students concerned with queer issues on campus have worked diligently with the College administration to fulfill their list of demands. Although the round-the-clock occupation of Hardy House stopped at the beginning of winter break, significant progress has been achieved on all the proposals, notably including the creation of the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC).

The GSRC will function as an umbrella organization for student groups that deal with issues related to gender and sexuality, including the Queer Student Union (QSU), the Women’s Center and the Women of Color Resource Center. Headquartered in Hardy House, the GSRC is in the process of training students to volunteer at a help desk in the house. Mike Semensi ’11, treasurer of the QSU, said that the desk will serve as “an information hub which can direct students to other organizations and programs on campus.” One of the GSRC’s goals is to increase students’ knowledge and utilization of numerous useful programs, such as Peer Health, the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) and Queer Life Coordinator (QLC) Justin Adkins.

To the students involved in its establishment, the GSRC serves as an institutional action that creates a more embracing climate for queer students. Apart from the GSRC, the initial list of demands included increased training for Junior Advisors (JAs) on queer and gender issues, the hiring of a full time QLC and Queer Studies professor, and the institution of gender neutral housing. “The ideas and demands are sustainable, long-lasting ways that are concrete solutions to move past awareness and into embracement,” Semensi noted.

According to Semensi, the JA Advisory Board understands the need to have more training regarding gender and sexuality issues. This winter study, current JAs will receive additional training and receive tools to better address such issues in their entries. Adkins is currently reviewing and altering gender and sexuality training programming that will be implemented for the next year’s JAs.

Progress has also been made on the hiring of faculty and staff familiar with queer issues. Instead of hiring a full time QLC, the student activists are now working with Ed Epping, faculty director of the Multicultural Center (MCC), to compose a proposal to hire an assistant director for the MCC, who would work directly with the GRSC. According to the preliminary proposal, the assistant director would begin work this fall.

While the hiring of a Queer Studies professor is unlikely under the current hiring freeze, the student activists are confident that they can work with the administration to encourage the search for visiting professors who specialize in queer subject matter.

In addition, the student activists are looking at other avenues for the expansion of queer curricula within the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. They are also considering opportunities through which the College’s professors can become trained in queer academics. Furthermore, they are beginning to reach out to alumni through the College’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Alumni (BiGLATA) network in search of possible funding for an assistant professorship.

Another demand, gender neutral housing, is currently being discussed by the Neighborhood Review Committee, following votes of support from both the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) and College Council (CC). It remains unknown whether it will be implemented for the 2010-11 academic year.

The level of campus support for the demands by the student activists and administration has been strong. The QSU received anonymous letters of support for the GSRC from students who are both open and closed about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Nevertheless, there has been some criticism from both inside and outside of the College’s queer community.

Johannes Wilson ’11, co-chair of the QSU, said that although there were strong voices of support from students and administration officials, “some people took issue with the perception that homophobia exists at Williams.” Others questioned the level to which the initiatives would actually have an effect on the campus. On the Williams Students Online (WSO) forums, some criticized what they perceived to be overly optimistic endeavors that could not change ingrained homophobia on campus.

Dean Merrill commended both the students’ impact in raising awareness about homophobia as well as their ideas for addressing the problem. “At the same time, I think we all recognize that addressing homophobia at the college will take some cultural change,” she said. “That change can be encouraged and supported formally by the institution, but it will also involve having all students – not just those from the QSU and Women’s Center – step up to the plate to hold each other accountable for disrespectful and offensive behavior.”

Adkins believes the administration has taken the recent homophobic incident very seriously, but that the demands by the student activists are not the only solution to homophobia on campus. “There are always more ways that we can come together to make the campus a safer environment for all people,” he said. “If we hear someone use words in a hurtful way, racially charged, homophobic, or otherwise it is our responsibility to stand up and do something about it. The responsibility should not just lie on the shoulders of the underrepresented group – the responsibility belongs to all of us.”

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