Last Thursday, College Council (CC) sent an e-mail to the entire student body with the subject line “This e-mail is NOT gay.” The e-mail, sent on the behalf of CC and Dean Bolton, warned students of the offensive connotations that homophobic language often elicits. The e-mail said that this type of language serves to promote negative stereotypes, and it encouraged students not to use such slurs in any context.
According to outgoing CC Co-President Emanuel Yekutiel ’11, who was still in the midst of his term when the e-mail was sent out, “While this issue is not new, there were many incidents this fall that were brought to our attention.” He added that the time for change in the use of homophobic language at the College should be now.
Peter Skipper ’13, member of the outgoing council, said that the aforementioned homophobic incidents were reported mainly by first-years. “Council decided that the best way to address the situation was to attempt to craft an all-campus message that, while not inflammatory or accusatory, was meant to poignantly ask everyone to seriously consider [his or her] own use of language that might be unknowingly or knowingly hurtful,” he said.
The process of drafting the e-mail involved both CC and the Queer Student Union (QSU). “Everyone had an equal stake in the writing of the e-mail,” Yekutiel said. “The entire council and the QSU board were invited to two meetings where we drafted the e-mail.”
Gabrielle Joffe ’11, QSU co-chair, said Yekutiel and outgoing CC Co-President Ifiok Inyang ’11 invited the QSU board to help in the drafting process. “I was very happy to help in the process because hearing the use of that type of language at Williams and off campus is not new to me,” Joffe said. Joffe attended the first meeting in the e-mail drafting process and later represented the QSU board at the CC meeting in which the final draft of the e-mail was voted upon.
Michael Semensi ’13, QSU co-chair, also worked with CC in the drafting process. “I personally wanted to convince [council members] that if they were going to draft an all-campus e-mail regarding homophobia that they should broaden its message to include all derogatory language relating to sexuality and gender.”
The e-mail was presented twice at the weekly CC meetings for revisions. “It was really important that the entire council be involved in the writing of the e-mail, because each of their names were going to be attached to it,” Yekutiel said. “It was important that all council members’ names be attached to the e-mail to show that this was an issue that we are all concerned about.”
There was also a footnote at the end of the e-mail regarding CC’s use of the term “gay.”
“[The QSU board] strongly felt that to only use the term ‘gay’ in the body of the e-mail was not inclusive enough in indicating who was affected by homophobic language on our campus,” Joffe said. Ultimately, when it came time for CC members to finalize the e-mail, they decided to add the footnote, which Joffe called “a great solution.”
Yekutiel said that the question of tone was discussed at length. “We decided that a tone that was strong but not overly abrasive was best,” he said. “There are many people who use homophobic language who either don’t know it is homophobic or claim that it is not meant in that way. People say this all the time about ‘that’s so gay’ – that it has, over time, developed to have its own cultural meaning. Those people may not know or believe that they are saying something homophobic, but they are, plain and simple.”
The e-mail has received many responses and reactions across the campus. Skipper said that while he’s heard positive things, “I’ve also consistently heard the concern that the e-mail itself cannot change the language culture and thus will not effectively curtail the use of homophobic language.”
“I hope everyone got a chance to read it because it meant a lot to so many people,” Joffe said. “I personally got several very positive responses after the e-mail was sent.”
Yekutiel said that many people have been appreciative that such an e-mail was sent out, highlighting an issue that is often swept aside. “I am sure that there are people out there that will continue using homophobic language like ‘that’s so gay,’ but now they use it knowing that the more they use it, the less they will belong to the Williams community that is quickly becoming more aware of this issue.”
Yekutiel said that CC and other members of the student body will continue to address the issue “until it stops for good.”
Skipper added, “I don’t think Council ever expected this e-mail to completely ‘solve’ this problem, but it is a first step in the right direction.”
“My hope is that students might individually think about each other even more,” Bolton said. “I hope that if someone says something hurtful in an individual conversation, a friend will be able to raise it with them later. There may be a larger campus-wide conversation, but I think those individual conversations might be the most productive.”