Supporting Sexual and Gender Diversity on College Campuses: Why Speaking Out Is Important

New Paltz is fortunate to be a diverse community—a campus where diversity along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability and religion is understood as the mark of a vibrant, democratic institution of higher learning.  Celebration of and respect for diversity are among our core values and in our interactions with colleagues and students, we honor and act upon these values.

As lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) faculty and staff, the campus climate regarding sexual orientation has personal significance for us.  And here again, we value our institution’s progressive stance on sexual and gender identities which don’t fit neatly into our society’s dominant cultural categories.  The college, for example, includes “sexual orientation” in its official non-discrimination policy; it provides health insurance and other benefits for domestic partners; and it has gender neutral bathrooms for transgender members of our community.  These policies and practices have contributed, in our view, to a campus environment where explicit homophobia is rare and, when it appears, not tolerated.

These laudable aspects of the college notwithstanding, we recently find ourselves deeply concerned.  The backdrop for our concern is the national discussion about recent suicides by young gay-identified students in the United States.  Less than two weeks ago, Rutgers undergraduate Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after public humiliation linked to his homosexuality.  This horrific episode–the fourth nationally publicized gay teen suicide in September–serves as a tragic reminder that some LGBTQ youth, even on progressive college campuses, continue to feel shame and despair around their sexuality due to a climate of intolerance.  This is shocking and painful for us, and we ache for Tyler’s family and friends.  Even as this tragedy is grieved, violent attacks against young gay males have been reported, including in the metropolitan New York area.

We cannot help but observe that this tragedy has taken place during a national moment in which a mean-spirited rhetoric of intolerance has been on the rise.  Here in our own state, this rhetoric has found a popular voice.  Last week, for example, the prepared comments of New York state gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, included the statements “I don’t want [children] brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option – it isn’t,” and that there is “nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual.”  Much as we would like to dismiss Paladino (who later backtracked on his comments) as a fringe voice, he remains a viable candidate, and similarly homophobic candidates have appeared around the country.  (Perhaps most notoriously, Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell recently proposed on ABC News that homosexuality is “an identity disorder”—despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association have considered homosexuality to be a normal variation of human sexuality for nearly four decades). That ignorant, hateful comments like these have gained momentum in 2010 suggests to us that LGBTQ young people, paradoxically, inhabit a world of both growing respect and growing hostility towards sexual diversity.

While we take some comfort in the hope that a suicide like Tyler Clementi’s could never happen at New Paltz, we are troubled by the silence over this tragedy here on our own campus.  Our concern reflects our firm conviction–proven all too clearly at Rutgers -that gay-positive policy alone doesn’t ensure a campus in which gay people feel affirmed and safe.  In such times as these, the voices of the students, staff, faculty, administration and broader community need to sound loud a clear message of support, respect and dialogue.  Silence is not an option when hate speech, bullying and discrimination are aimed at vulnerable members of our larger community.

We are heartened by the wellspring of vigils, petitions and grassroots activism that have emerged nationally around the recent suicides.  As shining examples of some new and longstanding initiatives and resources, check out the “It Gets Better” project, The Trevor Project/Suicide Prevention Resources, Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network and Campus Pride.

We begin here to break the silence with a message to any student or member of the SUNY/New Paltz community who is experiencing the fear, loneliness or discrimination that sometimes comes with being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender or questioning–any sexual identity that falls outside mainstream heterosexuality. You are indeed in a caring community and there are many gay and straight people here who support you unequivocally.

Karl Bryant, Women’s Studies and Sociology Departments
David Cavallaro, Art Department
Mary Beth Collier, Academic Advising
Giordana Grossi, Psychology Department
Morgan Gwenwald, Sojourner Truth Library
Benjamin Junge, Department of Anthropology
Amy Kesselman, Women’s Studies Program
Steve Kitsakos, Department of Theatre Arts
Rachel Mattson, Department of Secondary Education
Emily Puthoff, Art Department/Sculpture Program
Peri Rainbow, Women’s Studies Program
Carlton Rounds, Center for International Programs
Purnima Schachter, International Studies
Jason Wrench, Department of Communication & Media
Nicholas Wright, English Department

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