As a queer freshman, I thought Harvard was paradise. Sure, the Queer Resource Center (QRC) then was in a dim basement staffed entirely by student volunteers. (I didn’t yet know that alumni—not the College—funded the space.) But that was already light years ahead of high school, where there weren’t even pamphlets with the word “gay.” I didn’t notice that proctors didn’t get much training on queer issues. That was because it had never occurred to me that I could talk to authority figures about coming out.
Fortunately for me, I didn’t notice these institutional deficiencies at first because my peers filled the void. But I was lucky to find a solid support network so quickly, made easier because I had already started coming out at age 13. Others may need more institutional support. When Harvard has a new, fully funded director and center of BGLTQ student life in Boylston Hall next year, the College will finally begin to catch up to peer universities like Princeton and Penn in BGLTQ resources. But even in the wake of such institutional progress, we can’t neglect the vital, overriding importance of treating each other well. Indeed, it was my friends, neighbors, mentors, and instructors who helped me feel comfortable (or uncomfortable) being queer and out in our daily interactions. In fact, in many ways, it was straight allies who made all the difference.
It takes allies to build or ruin a climate of understanding around BGLTQ issues, and subtle actions can often have the greatest impact. When I mentioned to my new freshman entryway-mates that my main extracurricular would be the Queer Students and Allies (QSA), they responded with encouraging smiles, and I felt much less anxious. When I showed up to my sociology class in a luscious wig and fishnet stockings, my professor led an engaging discussion about dressing in drag, and I felt empowered. Conversely, when I heard my whole dining hall table laughed at a series of homophobic jokes, I stared at my bowl of steel-cut oatmeal to avoid looking at their faces, and I felt dejected. As another op-ed attested several weeks ago, it’s still all-too-common to hear words like “faggot” on campus.
There are two major challenges with relying solely on a queer minority and institutional resources to combat homophobia and transphobia. First, we all spend most of our lives outside of queer circles and institutions, meeting people and trying activities from across campus. Second, those who need access to formal institutional resources most are the least likely to seek them out. Questioning students are understandably hesitant to visit the QRC or to join the QSA, because those groups are seen to be for queers only—the “and Allies” part of the QSA is more aspiration than reality. We’re simply not at the point where queer issues are everyone’s business.
So how do we make the well-being and happiness of the entire Harvard community—queer students included—everyone’s business? My roommate offers one example: If you see yourself as a straight ally, ask your friends. She has sought me out numerous times to ask about queer terminology, because she knows how important it is to stay smart on queer issues and terms. (Yes, it is offensive for you to say “tranny”. No, only those who tell me I’m condemned to fire and brimstone refer to my intrinsic sexual orientation as a “lifestyle.”) As a minimum, find out what mental and physical health resources exist so you can guide a friend. I only got help from mental health services because a friend convinced me of how helpful the therapists were.
Don’t let your knowledge and care go unnoticed—make sure people know you’re an ally. Much of my anxiety around being queer is around if, when, and how to share with someone, wondering about the reaction. Speak up against stereotypes and homophobic or transphobic jokes. Ask your queer colleagues at work how you can help as an ally. Grab a safe-space sign or a rainbow pin from the QRC. I met one of my (straight) best friends here prefrosh weekend when we talked about our pins!
Finally, strive to listen and be open. Queer communities don’t come in one color or shape; each student comes to grips with his or her sexuality in a different way, and each person has different concerns, desires, and experiences that make up his or her perspective. It’s a truism that Harvard is a community of people from many cultural, ideological, and socioeconomic backgrounds, but it applies here as well. Not all of us want same-sex marriage. Not all of us even vote Democrat—a gay student has been president of the Republican Club during two of my four years here.
The recent announcement of a new director and center for BGLTQ student life at Harvard was a watershed moment. We have come a long way from a century ago, when the University held an inquisition to expel gay students, and even from 2006, when after nine years of advocacy, the University finally added gender identity to the non-discrimination clause of its Handbook for Students. Many have labored to bring change and build institutional support for queer students and allies. But none of us live in silos. Queer students are athletes, musicians, volunteers, friends, and family. Like anyone else, respect, warmth, and understanding make all the difference in our lives, here and beyond Harvard.
Marco Chan ’11, a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator in Quincy House, was the Co-Chair of the Queer Students and Allies 2008-2011.
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