About two weeks ago, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds announced that the College would hire a full-time director of BGLTQ student life in addition to expanding existing BGLTQ resources on campus.
The decision came after an extensive review of the BGLTQ experience at Harvard, and we applaud Dean Hammonds for taking this long overdue step and hiring a director to oversee the diverse BGLTQ resources on campus. This new position promises to promote greater visibility and awareness of Harvard’s BGLTQ community and to cement the College’s commitment to these issues—both essential steps for creating an accepting environment on Harvard’s campus. Peer institutions like Stanford and Princeton, which both have full-time BGLTQ directors, have made tremendous progress organizing their resources, and we hope Harvard will be able to do the same.
At present, the BGLTQ resources and initiatives on campus are largely decentralized, lacking the coordination needed to bring a diverse community together. Despite the presence of eight different BGLTQ organizations on campus, almost three-quarters of BGLTQ-identified students did not report being active in such a group. However, close to half of the undergraduates consulted strongly believed that Harvard students would benefit from more BGLTQ-related events. This obvious discrepancy represents a significant potential for increased outreach and community building among BGLTQ students. Having a central figure to advise and coordinate student initiatives would facilitate this effort and lend a public face to many of these endeavors.
The College’s decision to appoint a public figure to direct BGLTQ student life is both an important symbolic gesture and course of action. Having a vocal figure to stand behind the BGLTQ community is a necessary step toward increasing the visibility of these issues on campus and providing students with a strong role model. In addition, by serving as a liaison between the administration and the students, a BGLTQ director can smooth communication issues and hasten progress on student initiatives.
Ideally however, some of the new director’s resources and efforts should extend beyond the BGLTQ community and serve to raise awareness among Harvard’s heterosexual student body. Recent tragedies such as the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi show that tremendous progress remains to be made in terms of bringing an understanding of these issues to the heterosexual community. In the student life survey, close to a third of BGLTQ students stated that they had avoided participating in an event or organization due to “a potential for heterosexist bias, harassment, and/or discrimination.” Such a disheartening fact indicates the importance of educating the heterosexual population on BGLTQ issues and creating an atmosphere that is not only tolerant but welcoming of gender diversity, even at the seemingly progressive Harvard.
The history of Harvard’s BGLTQ community has undoubtedly been filled with both tremendous challenges and successes. It is important to acknowledge that many of these efforts were led by small groups of outspoken individuals, such as the founders of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gay Students Association, one of the earliest organizations to address BGLTQ issues in 1971. While the College’s decision to appoint a public BGLTQ figure is an important validation of support for the BGLTQ movement, a great deal of credit should be given to the students, alumnae, and faculty members whose autonomous efforts have made these changes possible.
The decision to hire a BGLTQ director represents a socially responsible and moral action on the part of the College. As an institution that prides itself on welcoming diversity among its students, Harvard has an obligation to live up to this image and do what it can to foster inclusivity on its campus.
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