After some students were offended by Jada Pinkett Smith’s comments at Saturday’s Cultural Rhythms show, the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) and the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations have begun working together to increase sensitivity toward issues of sexuality at Harvard.
Students said that some of Pinkett Smith’s remarks concerning appropriate gender roles were specific to heterosexual relationships.
In a press release circulated yesterday by the BGLTSA—and developed in coordination with the Foundation—the BGLTSA called for an apology from the Foundation and encouraged future discussion of the issue.
According to the Foundation’s Student Advisory Committee (SAC) Co-Chair Yannis M. Paulus ’05, the two groups have already planned concrete ways to address the concerns that Pinkett Smith’s speech rose.
The BGLTSA release acknowledged that the Foundation was not responsible for Pinkett Smith’s comments. But the Foundation has pledged to “take responsibility to inform future speakers that they will be speaking to an audience diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender and class,” according to the release.
Pinkett Smith was honored as the Foundation’s “Artist of the Year” at its 20th annual Cultural Rhythms show, which she also hosted.
BGLTSA Co-Chair Jordan B. Woods ’06 said that, while many BGLTSA members thought Pinkett Smith’s speech was “motivational,” some were insulted because they thought she narrowly defined the roles of men and women in relationships.
“Some of the content was extremely heteronormative, and made BGLTSA members feel uncomfortable,” he said.
Calling the comments heteronormative, according to Woods, means they implied that standard sexual relationships are only between males and females.
“Our position is that the comments weren’t homophobic, but the content was specific to male-female relationships,” Woods said.
Margaret C. D. Barusch ’06, the other BGLTSA co-chair, said the comments might have seemed insensitive in effect, if not in intent.
“I think the comments had a very strong focus for an extended period of time on how to effectively be in a relationship—a heterosexual relationship,” Barusch said. “I don’t think she meant to be offensive but I just don’t think she was that thoughtful.”
In order to discuss these concerns and ensure that such a misunderstanding doesn’t occur again, Paulus said the BGLTSA and the Foundation are planning a joint breakfast later this week as well as a general discussion forum for all of the SAC member groups.
Paulus added that the Foundation will issue a letter later this week apologizing for any offense the show might have caused and encouraging concerned students to attend the planned discussions.
According to Paulus, the letter will acknowledge that “Pinkett Smith was just giving the story of her life. She just told things from her perspective, and her perspective was a heterosexual perspective. She wasn’t trying to be offensive. But some felt she was taking a narrow view, and some people felt left out.”
Barusch said the dialogue with the Foundation has been “productive.”
“Both groups have really talked about issues of intercultural relationships and sexuality and the way that student groups can talk about these topics in sensitive ways,” she said.
Barusch also referred to a “minor controversy” that occurred earlier this year, in which some members of SAC questioned the BGLTSA’s role in the Foundation.
“They weren’t sure how the BGLTSA would fit into the Foundation...There was some conversation about the relevance of queer issues,” she said.
But Barusch emphasized that the Foundation has been very supportive of the BGLTSA’s efforts to address this weekend’s comments, stressing that the two incidents are unrelated.
“We’re not blaming the Foundation. It’s not about blame. It’s about how we all need to think more about what we’re saying,” she said.
Ofole U. “Fofie” Mgbako ’08, a performer in the Cultural Rhythms show who watched Pinkett Smith’s speech, said he thought the speech was “insightful.”
“You can never appeal to every single group,” he said. “You’ll always in some way be exclusive. I thought her message was clear. I thought it was sincere.”
—Liz C. Goodwin contributed to the reporting of this story.