|K. Nicole Murtagh
Kelly Votolato also contributed to this article.
From their origins as a small, nameless group meeting in obscure rooms at ambiguous times for their own protection, gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) student groups at RIT have undergone quite a change. No longer do membership rosters need to be kept under lock and key; with a community of 300 or more proud members, there’s no denying their presence on campus.
Over the past three decades, GLBT student groups have experienced great growth. Last April 17,
you may have noticed a few members of these groups wordlessly gathering in locations around campus, handing out informational cards. Taking a day-long vow of silence, their actions were done in symbolic protest of the silencing of GLBT students and their supporters through bullying and harassment.
Now, the time for silence is over. Here is their story.
A Secret Society
Prior to the formation of any formal GLBT group on campus, there was a group of gay students that met privately. Mike D’Arcangelo,
director of the Center for Campus Life, describes, “They didn’t want to be recognized as a club because they were afraid at that point, in terms of retaliation ... So the director at that time kept a listing of them privately and made room reservations for them so they would have a place to meet.” D’Arcangelo believes that the group would probably convene in a small room at about 10 p.m. right before the buildings would close. “But because there were rosters that were required then, just like they are now, students didn’t want to put their names down.” As he
recalls, that file of involved students was literally kept under lock and key.
Eventually, the group decided that they did not want to be a secret organization. Calling themselves the Gay, Lesbians and Friends Student Organization (GLFSO), the group went before the Student Directorate board on October 11, 1983, asking for recognition as a Class II club. Although an unusually large number of people attended the meeting to express their concern, the board did not express any negative feedback. The proposal passed with only one abstention.
In the weeks that followed, GLFSO’s recognition was a topic of hot debate within the student body. Many spoke out against their recognition, declaring homosexuality to be a sickness
and/or an immorality. In a letter to the editor of Reporter, the former president of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship wrote, “In as far as the GLFSO intends to contribute to the moral degeneration of individuals and society as a whole by anesthetizing the consciences of gays and encouraging homosexual lifestyles, I must voice my vigorous opposition. Jesus Christ provided an alternative. Why not look into it?”
Life in the Brick Closet
Ignoring the harsh opposition, GLFSO continued their weekly meetings. The group discussed the difficulties of acceptance on conservative campuses such as RIT and noted that it was primarily due to a lack of support, organization, and a fear of losing job and co-op opportunities.
The group concluded that the best way to address this would be to sponsor educational activities that benefited the entire campus.
Despite their efforts, tensions on campus escalated. AIDS was on the rise and — although medical knowledge was limited — it was a well-known fact that the disease was most prevalent among gay and bisexual men. With a full 50 percent of all known AIDS cases located in New York State as of 1983, fear of GLBT individuals was very high at RIT. Following a forum on AIDS, an editorial piece in Reporter observed, “AIDS has brought homosexuality to the front page, forcing society to acknowledge it.”
In 1989, GLFSO became the Bisexual, Gay
and Lesbian Association
(BIGALA). Facing more discrimination than ever, GLBT students reported both verbal and physical abuse from fellow students. As a group,
BIGALA faced discrimination from the faculty and administration.
They found themselves being hassled and denied room reservations. On top of that, they were refused the right to advertise their meetings in designated display cases in the College Alumni Union (now the Student Alumni Union (SAU)), despite large portions of the display
cases being empty.
During this time, a group of anonymous students formed an organization with the specific intent of targeting GLBT students. They called themselves Students Against Fags Everywhere (SAFE). When BIGALA sponsored “Jeans Day,” SAFE ran a simultaneous counter-campaign,
ripping down BIGALA’s posters and replacing them with graphic,
derogatory posters of their own. The event prompted the RIT community to think about GLBT rights and to make a conscious decision about the GLBT community: Either to wear jeans on that day in a show of support for GLBT issues, or to not wear jeans, showing that they did not support GLBT issues. The group wanted to reveal to the campus that GLBT students do exist at RIT and that they are not ashamed of who they are.
|K. Nicole Murtagh
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Facing continued prejudice and discrimination, BIGALA’s membership hovered around 30 active student members for the next several years. Members of the group worked with faculty and staff on RIT’s Policy Council to include sexual orientation as a protected item under the school’s anti-discrimination policy. In winter of 1994, the first ever Ally Week was held at RIT, stressing a positive relationship between heterosexuals and the GLBT community. Members of PIERS (Peers Informing & Educating RIT Students) trained professors and certified their offices as “safe zones” on campus, places where GLBT students can comfortably talk about academic and social problems without fear of discrimination due to sexual orientation.
Later that year, the government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy came under intense scrutiny at RIT. The policy excluded openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military. Finding it to be in violation of RIT’s anti-discrimination policy, both Student Government (SG) and the Faculty Council supported a resolution that RIT notify the Department of Defense that the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) had five years to comply before facing suspension at RIT. (In the years that followed, however, RIT did not discontinue ROTC. The program is alive and well today, as is the prohibitive policy.)
Removing “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual” from the title, BIGALA was replaced by the Alternative Student Fellowship (ASF) in 1996. Although students noted that Rochester had a large gay community, they often described RIT as
“the brick closet.” Hoping to help others come out and to find acceptance at the institute, one of the big events that ASF promoted was National Coming Out Day on October 11.
D’Arcangelo recalls the stir on campus the first National Coming Out Day created. It occurred right around open house days. Members of ASF chalked slogans up and down the Quarter Mile, creating much controversy. “People would react to them ... People would bring out their own chalk and write comments — some which were supportive, some which were antagonistic, some which were phobic, some which were just questioning. It really became this whole dialogue.” After the week ended, however,
campus-wide discussion of GLBT issues died right back down again. Still, some impact must have been made; in the years immediately after ASF began recognizing National Coming Out day, club membership grew to over 100 members.
Two years later, during Gay Awareness Week, the group (now calling themselves the RIT Gay Alliance or RITGA) held a candlelight vigil for murder victim Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who had been targeted with hate crimes because he was gay. Despite bad weather conditions, students met in front of the SAU to honor Shepard’s memory and raise awareness in the community about attacks on the GLBT community. Three and a half hours after the ceremony ended, two students appeared on the evening news with disturbing information: Following the ceremony, members of the group received death threats. Some of the calls were from the dorms on campus.
Making clear RIT’s zero tolerance policy towards discrimination, 1999 was a turning point for diversity. Despite the continued social activism of student groups, D’Arcangelo notes that it was at this point that lasting progress really began to be made. Julie White, who was the director of the Women’s Center, received a grant to pursue her interest in gender issues. Discovering that the GLBT student population had very little formalized, institutional support, she began to reach out to them and created programs to benefit the GLBT community. It was her initial program of exercises that has turned into today’s Safe Zone training.
In 2003, a climate study was conducted at RIT. Even after all of the progress made, just under half of the student population reported that the campus was “non-homophobic.” About a third of students had a neutral response. The remaining one-fifth of the student body reported that they felt the campus had homophobic tendencies. D’Arcangelo explains, “What it showed was that the climate towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and issues were at the highest rate of phobia than all other areas.
More so than racism, more so than sexism, more so than phobia of disabled people. So what that says to me is it’s either not on people’s radar screens at all, or people are afraid to address it, or there’s some real active stuff that goes on out there on a low level. It could be very subtle.”
Troubled by the results, RIT began to take a closer look at the top three isolated populations: Women, Latino students, and GLBT students.
All three of these groups were given a representative on Student Government’s senate. Just this past year, the GLBT senator position ended and transitioned to representation through a Major Student Organization (MSO) called OUTspoken.
In addition, a GLBT Center was established in 2007. While the support available at the Women’s Center was a large step forward for the GLBT community, it still did not fully meet their needs. Gay men in particular were unhappy with having to go to the Women’s Center to have issues addressed. With the founding of the center, GLBT students finally had a permanent place on RIT’s campus.
Cory Gregory, a third year Electrical Engineering major and current president of OUTspoken, estimates the size of the GLBT population as follows, “Approximately 10 percent of people are GLB — not including the transgender — so at RIT, that would be approximately 1,650 people plus however many transgender students we have on campus.” It’s difficult to track exactly how many GLBT students there actually are but he notes that the number of students who are “out” has grown by leaps and bounds.
Currently, RITGA has over 300 members on their mailing list.
As more students have come out, GLBT issues have enjoyed higher visibility on campus than ever. Currently, there are three main organizations that serve the GLBT community: RITGA, OUTspoken, and the GLBT Center. Spectrum,
the Deaf GLBT student organization that formed several years ago from Deaf GLO, has disbanded and is currently in a period
David Yip, a fourth year Mechanical and Electrical Engineering student and current president of RITGA says, “All of the organizations [the GLBT Center, OUTspoken,
and RITGA] try their best to work together.
We have certain goals: Education, advocacy, and I guess you can say, somewhat celebration.” As relatively new organizations, the three groups have a lot of work to do in establishing their relationships with each other so that they won’t be continually stepping on each other’s toes. In the past year, says Yip, each organization has chosen a unique foothold: The GLBT Center focuses on education and support; OUTspoken focuses on advocacy and awareness; and RITGA focuses on the social aspect and celebration within the community.
|K. Nicole Murtagh
When Gregory first approached RITGA about creating an MSO, the group was somewhat opposed to the idea, fearful that it would split the community into smaller groups. Now that OUTspoken is established, however, the organizations work together and support each other. As an MSO, OUTspoken has access to a larger budget and is better able to reach the RIT community. He notes, “Even though people might be open [to GLBT people],
it doesn’t mean that they’re educated about it. That’s what we’re working on now.”
A Generation Raised on Will and Grace
“My guess is that the last 10 to 15 years, I sense college students,
especially, are more accepting of these issues,” says D’Arcangelo. “I joke that it’s a generation that was raised on Will and Grace. There’s not the shock value anymore. It’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s possible, that’s acceptable. I saw that on TV.’”
Much progress has been made over the past few decades.
Formerly adversarial groups now show their support for the GLBT community. For example, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship participated in a lock-in with RITGA last quarter. Still,
not everyone is as supportive. Two years ago, in the weeks leading up to RITGA’s spring drag show, someone defaced one of the posters with an explicit comment. Yet upon noticing the comment, someone in the RIT community — RITGA’s members still don’t know who —
immediately took action. They cut out the word and replaced that section of the poster.
They then reported the incident and a sample of the paint was taken. It ended up being matched to some spray paint used on rocks.
Yip says, “Just the fact that they went through all this trouble and realizing that it was such a big thing for our community was very important to us. The way that was handled and taken down really quickly, I think a lot of people just saw that and were like ‘Oh, wow, it’s fine and cool to be around here’. I think we’ve always been supportive, it’s just showing more now.”
Jack Gold, a third year Graphic Design major and female to male (FTM) transgendered member of RITGA, shares, “There’s kind of the little things — people throwing around “gay” as an insult or whatever — but nothing personal.” People sometimes have difficulty remembering which pronouns to use when referring to him, but, in general, he has found RIT to be a very supportive environment. In the future, he would like to see greater awareness and education about transgendered people. Explains Gold, “Thing is, GLB are all sexual orientations; transgender is a gender identity. So you can be transgendered and straight; you can be transgendered and gay; you can be transgendered and bi. We tend to get lumped together because we all sort of transgressed a gender boundary in one way or another. But it’s not the same.”
Looking to the Future
D’Arcangelo, Yip, Gregory and Gold all agree that there is much room for growth and improvement in the years to come. Top items on their wish lists include: Mandatory safe zone training for all employees, a top-down statement of intent to specifically serve the GLBT population at RIT, a set of programs targeted to serve students who are not yet out and don’t feel comfortable going to the GLBT Center, greater participation from GLBT students in the three student organizations, the inclusion of “transgender” options on official RIT forms, optional consideration of sexual orientation by RIT when roommates are assigned for on-campus housing, the addition of more gender neutral bathrooms and housing arrangements on campus, and, in general, a greater amount of awareness and education regarding GLBT issues.
As a final note, Yip adds, “I think it’s important to know that we, like everybody else, are just people. We have the same desires and have the same rights and have the same feelings. Like any other group that has rallied and come together for their rights — women, African Americans, Asians — I think that recently it’s just become our time to shine and kind of be in the light. We are definitely open to helping, to educate, and sharing our community with anyone that’s interested to learn.”
be an ally
Don’t make assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Speak out against all anti-gay jokes or statements. Even the seemingly innocuous statement of “That’s so gay” is harmful.
Avoid stereotyping and make it clear to others that stereotypes don’t represent the entire GLBT community.
Talk about GLBT issues and let people know that you are in support of the GLBT community.
Use the words “gay” and “lesbian” instead of “homosexual.” Most gays and lesbians do not identify with or use the word “homosexual” to describe themselves.
Keep an eye out for heterosexism — the belief that heterosexuality is or should be the only acceptable sexual orientation — and point it out to others when you see it. Many do not realize when they are being heterosexist.
Be aware of the word choices you are making and use inclusive language. Ask “Are you seeing someone?” instead of “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Educate yourself on GLBT issues and history. The GLBT center on campus is an excellent resource for educational material, gay publications and programs for allies.
Don’t assume that a friend is sexually interested in you simply because they’ve disclosed their sexual orientation to you.
When talking to GLBT people, be respectful and use common sense. The same rules of polite conversation apply. Asking someone about the gory details of their sex lives, for example, is generally not appropriate in casual conversation.
Use pronouns that match a person’s chosen gender — for example, if a male-born person identifies as female, refer to that person as “she.”
Treat partners of GLBT friends in the same way that you would treat a straight friend’s partner.
GLBT History at RIT
Prior to 1983 GLBT students exist on campus, but very few are out. Although small groups meet in private to discuss their issues, no RIT-recognized student groups exist.
October 11, 1983 Gays, Lesbians and Friends Student Organization (GLFSO) goes before the Student Directorate board asking for recognition as a Class II club. The proposal passes, but the decision is hotly debated within the student body. Many speak out against the group, declaring that homosexuality is a sickness and/or an immorality.
1983 Fear of AIDS is widespread. Student Health Services co-sponsors a satellite conference on the subject. An editorial piece in Reporter observes, “AIDS has brought homosexuality to the front page, forcing society to acknowledge it.”
1985 GLFSO holds an open forum to discuss what it is like being gay on a conservative campus such as RIT, and how to be accepted by friends and family. The group concludes that most of the rejection comes out of fear and ignorance, and resolves to sponsor educational programming on campus.
1989 Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Association (BIGALA) is founded, replacing GLFSO. The group is refused the right to advertise their meetings in RIT's display cases and has difficulty getting a room on campus to hold their meetings.
1989 BIGALA sponsors “Jeans Day,” a day prompting the RIT community to think about GLBT rights and to make a conscious decision: to either wear jeans and show their support or not. A group of anonymous students calling themselves Students Against Fags Everywhere (SAFE) runs a simultaneous counter-campaign, ripping down BIGALA's posters and replacing them with graphic, derogatory posters of their own.
1993 Perette Barella, a male to female (MTF) transsexual student, becomes involved in a struggle with RIT over whether or not she would be allowed access to the women's facilities on campus.
1993 First annual Rochester Lesbian & Gay Film & Video Festival, sponsored by the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley.
1994 The government's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy comes under intense scrutiny at RIT. Forums are held, with Student Government and the Faculty Council supporting a resolution that RIT notify the Department of Defense that this practice is inconsistent with RIT's policies, and that the Reserve Officers Training Corps has five years to comply before facing suspension.
1994 The first ALLY week at RIT is sponsored by Peers Informing & Educating RIT Students (P.I.E.R.S.). The program sets up RIT's first “safe zones” for gay students.
1995 The first annual student drag show is held.
1996 BIGALA is replaced by the Alternative Student Fellowship (ASF). There are 25 to 30 active members, who describe RIT as “a pretty mellow campus to show who you are.”
1998 A vigil is held for Matthew Shepard. Two students from ASF receive death threats in regard to their prominence in the RIT community.
1998 RITGA formed.
2002 DeafGLOW, the Deaf Gay and Lesbians of the West, becomes active again at RIT. Original date of establishment unknown.
2003 In a climate study of RIT, just under half of the student population believe that the campus is non-homophobic. About a third of students have a neutral response. The remaining one-fifth of the student body believes that the campus had homophobic tendencies.
2003 DeafGLOW becomes known as Spectrum.
2007 The GLBT center at RIT is established.
2008 Spectrum becomes inactive.
2008 The GLBT senator position ends; OUTspoken is formed and recognized as a major student organization (MSO).