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Vandalism and Gender

Adams Tower

This past month, there were two repeated acts of vandalism on a gender-neutral bathroom sign in Adams House. In a sign depicting male, non-binary, and female figures on a gender neutral bathroom, the female icon was colored in with black marker. After the sign was vandalized the first time, it was quickly cleansed; nevertheless, it was vandalized a second time within the month.

The incident reminds us that Harvard is not defined by the action of one individual but by the efforts of students and administrators to respond to the vandalism. Harvard should promote the interpersonal discussions of gender in order to create a supportive environment for the BGLTQ community, especially in light of the attacks they face.

The vandalism of the bathroom sign brings back a personally troubling experience for me. My high school experienced racist graffiti on our bathroom walls in 2016. The message, painted on the backdrop of the crimson-colored bathroom stall door, contained hate speech and slurs targeting African Americans.

I had not been targeted before for being an Asian-American student at my school, or at least, I had not experienced the degree of hatred or specificity that this vandalism symbolized. But the racist incident made me feel anxious to go to school. To my disgust, the student who vandalized the stall continued to attend to my school after a few months of temporary suspension. Although maintenance cleansed the bathroom of the graffitti, erasing the black block letters did not diminish the student’s clear intention to inflict pain upon fellow students.

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This incident continues to remind me today that our actions affect those around us through what we say and how we say it. Heavy repercussions could not completely undo the damage wrought by hate speech and vandalism.

Harvard, specifically Adams House, responded to the incident by hosting internal House discussion, surveying the students, and planning to collaborate with the Office of BGLTQ Student Life to “offer resources for students.” Their apt response to the incident should be applauded. But, the University should have responded more broadly by promoting a supportive environment for the entire campus. Coming to college, students should have the opportunity to safely explore their gender identities. Through honest conversations with — not attacks against — other students, our community can develop a mutual understanding of what gender means to each individual. Given that gender is widely considered to be a social construct (implying its fluid definition), understanding identity better can lead to a more truthful and fulfilling relationship to one’s own gender.

Students in the BGLTQ community continue to be marginalized. We cannot tolerate targeting on the underlying basis of exclusion due to the integrality of gender in one’s identity. With students from various walks of life, we must look to understand one another with the intention to find strength in our differences. Basing our actions with understanding amplifies our efforts towards inclusion in a subtle yet irreplaceable way. The BGLTQ community are welcome at Harvard and should be treated so.

Harvard should host University-wide discussions on gender and identity for students. I encourage the University to allow students to express their views honestly and openly discuss the nuances in how our understandings of gender. One of the important purposes of secondary education is to prepare students to face diverse thoughts and equip us with the tools needed to effectively communicate with those who hold opposing opinions. The discussions should be supervised by a willing medium (administrator or student) with the focus on stirring thought rather than coming to direct conclusions. Specific pubbing efforts reaching out to everyone including those formerly without experience in the BGLTQ community.

This method of reflection requires intense introspection while discussing gender and gender identity with our peers. Yet, open, community-driven discussions, supported by Harvard administrators and the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, surrounding the integral role that gender plays in each of our lives can advance a nuanced understanding of gender and quell the phenomenon of frustrated outbursts. These discussions can help make Harvard a safer, more welcoming campus environment for the BGLTQ community.

Christopher Kwon ’22, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Massachusetts Hall.

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