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Ten years ago, in response to student activism, Harvard created the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Three years later, after student demands, it inaugurated the modern Harvard College Women’s Center. Most recently, just two years ago, Harvard funded the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, also in response to organized student outcry. Today, these offices all do important work on campus, filling gaps in student life programming and representation that were undoubtedly felt keenly before. However, they also force students to address a difficult question: How much of feminist and queer work on campus can be done from within the institution?
Historically, Harvard students have organized in multifarious ways around queer issues on campus. The Queer Resource Center is a student-run safe and useful space for queer students. Gay, Lesbian, or Whatever interrogates the intersection of queer and of color identities; BAGELS, a group that I’m part of, interrogates the intersection of queer and Jewish identities. Queer Students and Allies traditionally organizes queer-friendly dance parties as well as political campaigns on and off-campus. The Trans Task Force addresses issues for trans* students, faculty, and staff. Informal coalitions of students regularly gather to address such issues as the return of ROTC to Harvard and its implication for the queer community, or the inappropriate nature of the former freshman-year sexual assault training, “Sex Signals.” These groups all banded together three years ago to demand that the University provide more resources for queer students, a call that resulted in the creation of an Office of BGLTQ Student Life in spring of 2012.
In the past year, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life (which students have started calling the Quoffice) has filled an important space on campus by organizing mixers, open houses, and panel discussions for students, and trainings and discussion spaces for student leaders and University administrators. Before the Office of BGLTQ Student Life instituted jobs for interns each semester, I don’t think there was any regular student employment doing work around queer issues on campus. And perhaps most fundamentally, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life presents itself to the Harvard community as a part of the administration open to addressing concerns about queer life on campus, a first place to turn to for students and workers who encounter problems with University Health Services, lack of gender-neutral housing options, or other forms of discrimination.
The Office of BGLTQ Student Life is strong because it is an institutional part of Harvard, a division of the Office of Student Life with regular funding, space, and a seat at the table in administrative discussions. But it is also weak because it is an institutional part of Harvard. As a queer student, I would feel uncomfortable if the only voice for queer student life came from the Harvard administration.
Feminists on campus have had to negotiate the boundaries between institutionally sanctioned and grassroots feminist organizing for years. The Harvard College Women’s Center provides a funding source for student organizations doing programming around gender, a safe space in Harvard Yard for people of all genders to drink free coffee and pick up condoms, and some programming during Women’s Week and throughout the year about women’s and gender issues on campus. But it is up to student groups like the International Women’s Rights Collective, Manifesta Magazine, and the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign to critique the University’s sexual assault policy, to look at issues faced by women workers on campus, to speak out against final clubs, and, perhaps most importantly, to provide a space for feminist students to learn that grassroots organizing can successfully make change.
Similarly, the existence of an Office of BGLTQ Student Life should not negate the importance of student organizing and advocacy around queer issues on campus. In fact, it may even make student organizing easier: The QSA now need not worry about organizing the queer student meet-and-greets that are important to creating first-year community, and can instead focus its energies on grassroots queer political work and campaigning.
The Office of BGLTQ Student Life can only do so much in a year—but it can also only do so much to challenge the power structure and norms of a University. The QSA, GLOW, BAGELS, TTF, and the QRC must not become simply the student arm of the Quoffice. This is not to say that they’ve all done so—but if my experience is at all representative, queer student groups are grappling with this question, whether implicitly or explicitly. Of course, this problem is not unique to the queer community: When Harvard responds to student calls for a Latina/o student center, Latina/o student groups may face the same conundrum. But I think the boundary between institution and bottom-up organizing is especially salient for the queer community: After all, queer politics is a politics of critique.
Harvard’s queer community certainly benefits from an institutional voice. But the creation of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life requires queer students and student groups to negotiate their relationship to the Office and to Harvard. I’d like to ask my fellow queer students to think critically about how we can appreciate the Quoffice for the work it does, and ensure that it’s not the be-all-end-all of queer organizing on campus.
Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays. Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.
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