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Can Harvard Combat Homophobia?

By Alice E. M. Underwood, Crimson Staff Writer

Several alleged hate crimes targeting LGBT individuals on campus have called into question the level of tolerance at Harvard—generally touted as a liberal haven accepting of people of all identities and backgrounds—and the administration’s ability to adequately address these issues.

Noting the lack of institutional resources for LGBT affiliates, Harvard Queer Students and Allies Co-Chair Emma Q. Wang ’12 says that it is important for the University not to fall into complacency when it comes to ensuring a welcoming environment for LGBT people.

“While the general sentiment is that Harvard is a safe and liberal place, that sort of mindset can lend itself to apathy and lack of concern for engaging in LGBT activism,” Wang says, adding that the relative comfort of Harvard makes it easy to disregard the everyday reality of homophobia.

While presidents at many universities have sent letters or exhibited other signs of support, Harvard does not even have a funded resource center or paid staff dedicated to the LGBT community on campus, according to Wang.

“If Harvard is going to get positive attention for being a leading institution for academic study, it also needs to be forthcoming in information in order to conduct itself as a role model institution,” she says.

Sam J. Bakkila ’11-’12 agrees that this rift in communication has made it more difficult for the LGBT community to confront homophobia.

“People are forgetting that hate crimes really do make people feel vulnerable and targeted, and what the response has to do is make that targeted population feel comfortable and safe again,” he says.

Increased resources on campus would better equip the University when responding to LGBT hate crimes, Bakkila says. He hopes that increased awareness of homophobic acts at Harvard will lead to wider critical discussion of the implicit homophobia that the LGBT community faces on a daily basis.

A SEMESTER OF ANXIETY

A series of LGBT youth suicides in the fall brought LGBT issues to the public eye nationwide—and even on a liberal campus like Harvard, recent incidents have highlighted the persisting discrimination.

In late November, 36 LGBT-related books in Lamont Library were damaged with what was presumed to be urine, and the incident was subsequently investigated as a hate crime because of the books’ subject matter.

Though it was revealed on Monday that the damage had actually been the result of an accident and not a hate crime, the incident nevertheless struck a chord with the LGBT community.

Much earlier in the semester, a student was pursued by three men, allegedly not Harvard affiliates, who taunted him with names like “fag” and “queer.” While he was not harmed, the incident disconcerted members and allies of the LGBT community.

About a month later in October, a student from the Graduate School of Design returned to his room one evening to find the words “kill the fag” scrawled across his door in large black letters. Though a HUPD report was not released to the Harvard community, residents of the dorm—informed of the event by building administrators—were shocked that the incident took place within student housing.

“A dorm is a community where everyone is supposed to feel safe, and with that one act, someone undermined months of building a community,” says Drew H. Coyne, a Harvard School of Education student who lives in the dorm and adds that it was the least likely place he would have expected to encounter homophobia.

“This might be a call to arms for Harvard to centralize resources so LGBT students don’t feel ostracized and alone,” Coyne adds.

Prior to these events, the College had been planning to form a BGLTQ Working Group, and the announcement of its creation in October came at an opportune moment, given the national spotlight on the discrimination faced by LGBT individuals, according to Wang.

“The national landscape and the two alleged hate crimes reported at Harvard during the first month of school intensified awareness of the lack of infrastructure the College has in addressing LGBTQ issues,” Wang says.

ADMINISTRATIVE RESPONSE

While the LGBT community notes that these recent incidents highlight the need for greater resources at Harvard, the administration and Harvard University Police Department say they worked to the best of their abilities to address each of these problems.

According to Kevin Bryant, HUPD’s diversity and community liaison, the police department uses the Massachusetts General Law on Interference with Civil Rights to investigate acts of bias, including those targeting LGBT individuals.

“Awareness of diversity is very, very important,” Bryant writes in an e-mail. “HUPD is committed to serving every member of our diverse community.”

He says that HUPD has diversity training sessions during which officers are invited to examine how their own cultural identity affects their relationships with others.

According to Laura Snowdon, dean of students at the Graduate School of Design, the community at Harvard is generally accepting of people of different identities, and the recent incidents do not represent the norm.

“I’m glad to say there haven’t been many cases like this at our school,” says Snowden, who helped the victim of the homophobic graffiti find alternate housing.

“We have zero tolerance for any hostile behavior toward any student or any group of students because of their identity or perceived identity.”

Assistant Dean of Student Life Susan B. Marine, who often serves as the informal point person for members of the LGBT community who do not know where to turn, says that the recent incidents belie a generally positive community setting.

“Events like these crystallize the opinions of people who feel that Harvard is not an accepting place and negates the positive things that are going on,” says Marine, who is also director of the Harvard College Women’s Center. “I’m convinced we have strong and robust community.”

Marine adds that the BGLTQ Working Group is currently working to examine the student perspectives obtained from the open forums held in each of the upperclass Houses and in the Yard over the past few weeks.

“We’re very much in the process right now of meeting and taking in all the information,” she says, anticipating that the group will move into the stage of organizing its thoughts into concrete action next semester to prepare a recommendation to be submitted to the College Dean in March.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS OR GENUINE CONCERN?

The vulnerability heightened by the recent crimes on campus was particularly pronounced for queer students of color, according to Miguel Garcia ’12, who started the group GLOW specifically for this reason early in the semester.

Garcia says that this group was much needed, as queer students of color often face additional marginalization due to belonging to multiple minority groups. He says that he is aware of individuals who have attempted suicide because of their struggles with their intersecting identities.

“All queer people and all people of color have different stories, so it can be hard to quantify oppression and struggles,” he says. “It’s hard for queer people of color to prioritize their experience based on layers of intersectionalities, as those intersectionalities can create complications in their everyday interactions.”

Garcia also collaborated with the Latino Men’s Collective, the Black Men’s Forum, and other cultural groups, and elicited letters of apology from the boards of these groups for having formerly contributed to discriminatory practices against their LGBT membership. He continues to work with these groups and others to ensure inclusive practices.

“It’s important to me that not only is this a gesture for political correctness, but a genuine concern for the inclusion of queer people within their cultural groups, and recognizing queer identity as part of that culture,” he says.

SOLUTION SPACE

Wang echoes Garcia’s sentiment that change ought to be based not on the desire to be politically correct, but on authentic aspirations to positive change. She says that she and other members of Harvard’s LGBT community have been frustrated at not receiving consistent and clear information from the College on problems involving the LGBT community, as well as how such incidents are being investigated on an administrative level.

“It should not be the responsibility of the student or student groups to search for particulars and clarifications, as this system leads to confused, incomplete information,” she says.

Wang, who participates in the BGLTQ Working Group, says that its creation comes at a good time and the LGBT community appreciates the work it is undertaking. But the current lack of resources has hit the LGBT community hard this semester, she says.

“Moving into solution space comes only with acknowledgement of the problems, and it is my hope that Harvard has the bravery to build where it is weak, and foster acceptance for people of all identities,” Wang says.

History and Literature Lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, who has been a vocal advocate of LGBT issues on campus, says he hopes that the problems encountered by LGBT individuals over the past semester can be used for positive change.

“Whenever homophobic incidents occur, we must come together as a community, find our allies, and redouble our collective efforts to eradicate any hatred, fear, or ignorance about LGBT people,” McCarthy writes in an e-mail.

“Ironically, instances of discrimination and violence can have a galvanizing effect on people of goodwill who are moved to act in the face of injustice,” he adds.

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at aeunderw@fas.harvard.edu.

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