When straight people see posters for gays and lesbians around campus today, what will they think? If you're like most heterosexuals at Harvard, you probably believe they don't concern you, even if you're generally supportive of gay rights. You're not bigoted, you may have gay friends--and you still keep walking. But those posters have a lot more to do with you than you might think.
Today marks the beginning of the second annual Queer Harvard Month, a series of discussions, conferences and social events that will last throughout April. This month, we put the spotlight on the lives, contributions and concerns of queer people. The Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters' Alliance (BGLTSA) and other groups will reach out to the rest of Harvard--especially heterosexuals.
Just as white people were a crucial part of the civil rights struggle of African-Americans, just as men stood beside women to seek equality of the sexes, straight people are an integral part of the fight for gay rights. In churches, in the media, in Congress and on campus, heterosexuals can speak with tremendous power and influence precisely because they are heterosexual--because they directly counter stereotypes and prejudices.
At Harvard, the BGLTSA can't advance its agenda without the help of other groups and non-gay students. But why should straight people work for the "gay agenda"? Well, consider some of our goals for the upcoming year, which might sound familiar.
Gender-blind shuttle service. The free, after-hours pickup service the University provides responds far more quickly when women telephone than men, students report. Because the T closes earlier than most dance clubs, male students are often left with no easy way to return to campus. Gay men in particular are at high risk for gay-bashing, assault and hate crimes during the night. The shuttle service needs to be expanded to all students equally.
Junior faculty. Last December, the University denied tenure to Jeffrey A. Masten, a specialist in queer theory and the history of sexuality. When a popular, highly recommended associate professor like Masten is denied for no obvious reason, the message is clear: research in "marginal" fields like lesbian and gay studies is unwelcome.
Transgenderism. While Harvard's non-discrimination policy covers race, gender and sexual orientation, among other categories, officials refuse to extend this provision to gender identity. Transgendered people should not have to fear potential discrimination in housing or from other students.
Closeted students. Contact, an anonymous support group for students dealing with their sexuality, was evicted from Adams House last month on extremely short notice after 14 years there. Contact's rough treatment underscores the difficulty that students in the closet face on a seemingly liberal campus.
What's striking is that these goals are relevant to everyone--call it the "gay-straight agenda." All men, not just gay men, would benefit from improved shuttle service. Faculty diversity is a concern shared by racial and ethnic organizations as well as queer ones. And many of the leaders in the fight for transgender protections and closeted students, whether in the Undergraduate Council, Contact or in the BGLTSA itself, are heterosexual.
Massachusetts is one of the most progressive states in the nation on gay rights, thanks to gay leaders like Rep. Barney E. Frank '61-62 and straight ones like former Gov. William F. Weld '66. One of the most encouraging trends here is the growth of gay-straight alliances in high schools. In dozens of schools throughout the state, students of all sexual orientations are working together to lobby their schools and educate their peers. These alliances are the wave of the future.
Why do these straight high school students care? Why should straight Harvard students care? Because virtually everyone has a gay roommate, cousin, neighbor or professor who may not suffer blatant discrimination, but whose life is constrained in dozens of ways by subtle anti-gay attitudes, including in many cases the inability to come out of the closet.
Those attitudes also affect straight people directly. Homophobia is usually aimed not just at people who are gay, but at those who appear gay. Straight men and women are limited in their choices for fear of seeming out of step with what's normal, just like gays and lesbians.
So what can straight people do? It doesn't take a grand gesture or an overwhelming commitment. Write a letter. Raise the issue in a setting where it doesn't normally appear. Vote for pro-gay candidates. Come to a BGLTSA event. And most important of all, examine your own unconscious attitudes and biases.
In the struggle for gay civil rights, cooperation and coalition have become essential, and apathy--gay and straight--is the greatest problem. So as Queer Harvard Month begins, don't be deceived by the name--this is a time for everyone to get involved.
Adam A. Sofen '01, a Crimson editor, will be co-chair of the BGLTSA next year. He is a resident of Straus Hall.
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