Teach-In on Homophobia
On October 13th, 2010, from 4:30-8 p.m. in the College Center at Crozier-Williams 1941 Room, the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Gender and Women's Studies Department organized a teach-in to respond to the recent suicides and violence in the gay community. Over two hundred faculty, staff, and students participated. For follow-up conversations, workshops, and outreach, please get in touch with us. The evening was powerful — and left much work to be done. See the poster from the event.
Video excerpts from the teach-in:
- Jen Manion, Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center
- Claudia Highbaugh, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life
- David Kyuman Kim, Professor of Religious Studies
- Currie Huntington '11, Student Coordinator at the LGBTQ Center
Remarks to open the teach-in: Jen Manion, Director
The recent string of suicides by gay teenagers has drawn national attention to issues of cyberbullying, old-fashioned schoolyard bullying, the power of the anti-gay rhetoric regularly preached by talk-show pundits, politicians, and religious leaders, the complicity of parents, educators, and other adults who fail to support, defend, and protect LGBTQ youth, the role of new technology in shaping how people interact with each other, particularly our sense of public and private, and finally, the shear utter lack of support and resources for LGBTQ youth, who are coming out at younger ages than ever before. The fact that so many teenagers face such severe harassment and feel so isolated that they are deciding to take their own lives raises the very real and troubling question of how far we have come as a society in recognizing the humanity, dignity, and worth of LGBTQ people. The answer — loud and clear — is not far enough.
Raymond Chase hung himself in his residence hall room on Wednesday, September 29, 2010, on the campus of Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Thirteen year-old Seth Walsh from Bakersfield, CA, died on September 28th after spending nine days on life support. He hung himself from a tree in his backyard. Asher Brown, also 13, was an eighth-grader at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, Texas. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His mother and stepfather said that Asher had endured constant harassment from other students at his middle school. Billy Lucas, 15, a student at Greensburg Community High School in Greensburg, Indiana, was found dead in a barn at his grandmother's home after he hung himself. His friend and classmate Nick Hughes said that he had been tormented for years with accusations of being gay. Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, jumped to his death after his roommate secretly filmed Tyler during a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. Unbeknownst to Tyler, the encounter was streamed live on the Internet.*
For many people, myself included, the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Tyler Clementi were particularly disturbing. I attended graduate school at Rutgers University and was active in working to make the campus a welcoming, supportive, and respectful environment for LGBTQ people. Rutgers actually has one of the oldest LGBTQ student offices in the country, run for nearly 20 years by Dr. Cheryl Clarke, a formidable and prolific African-American lesbian feminist poet, scholar, and organizer who provided the first training workshop for queer student leaders at here at Connecticut College when the LGBTQ Center opened in the spring of 2007.
The suicides of these teenagers — and Tyler’s in particular — marked not only the tragic and premature death of young people but challenges those of us who are dedicated to the advancement of the rights, dignity, and equality of LGBTQ people to face to limits of our effectiveness. I spent days on the phone and emailing with my Rutgers family, my colleagues from other colleges and universities doing LGBTQ advocacy work, and my personal circle of queer friends talking about what it all meant — why it was happening—what we could do. We are so passionate, so organized, and so strong. We stand on the side of truth, love, and humanity; on the right side of justice—on the right side of history. And it is still not enough to dismantle a system as powerful and institutionally sustained as heterosexism. It is a crisis. We don’t have to look far for evidence. The list of suicides and beatings of LGBTQ people in recent months has exploded — everyday I open my email there is news of another suicide or attack that was “left off” the list being circulated. The high-profile deaths of mostly white gay men have received significant media attention — much like the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard eleven years ago. Transgender rights groups have offered harrowing statistics about the level of violence trans people face. The National Coalition for Trans Equality reports an attempted suicide rate among trans people of 41%, which is twenty-five times the national average. Pictures of a trans woman beaten bloody in the gay neighborhood of my beloved Philadelphia circulated a few weeks ago. Reports of anti-queer violence are up—patrons in New York City’s famous Stonewall Inn, the bar famously known as the home of the LGBT liberation movement, were attacked; incidents of passing taunts and anti-gay slurs on the streets are being documented in record numbers. The horrific kidnapping and torture of several gay men in the Bronx last weekend was reported and updated continuously in the New York media market. NYC gubernatorial candidate Carol Paladino’s now notorious remarks (which I can’t even bare to repeat — I can’t take it anymore — the sound of hate about us) made the evening news nationwide — but even if they hadn’t, everyone would still know about them. Dare I admit that in addition to reading the New York Times, the Nation, some blogs, and listening to NPR and the BBC, that I get much of my news from Facebook? Two hundred of my closest friends lead me right to the stories they found the most exciting, alarming or important. Tyler posted his suicide announcement to his Facebook page. Other students “come out” to friends and family. Facebook and other social media platforms circulate personal revelations and major news at lightening speed. Right-wing anti-gay forces use this very same media to promote hatred, violence and lies. At this moment in American history the call for violence against Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community is getting louder. Sometimes this call is only thinly veiled. In his eloquent essay published in this week’s Nation, Richard Kim called for us to hold adults accountable for the anti-gay ideas they preach rather than scape-goating young bullies who are simply acting out what they have been taught. Bigotry is, after all, learned.
I decided to organize a teach-in because I am so devastated and so angry. I couldn’t bear to host a vigil so people could take an hour out of their busy days to hear about the struggles of LGBTQ people and maybe shed a tear or two, only to go back to their regularly scheduled lives, without learning anything new or doing anything to make things different — to make things better — right now.
I have always believed in the power of ideas — in the strong interconnected relationship between the work of an academic — teaching, research, and writing — and the work of an activist — educating, advocating and empowering. In the classroom, I often challenge students to “flip the script” and ask questions differently. The question we should be asking is not why are these kids killing themselves but why do most of us not? What are the conditions that nurture and support queer kids? How do we get stronger? The question is not why do some women look like men and why do some men act like girls but why are you so attached to outdated roles for men and women? Why are you so threatened by people who challenge them? What can you do to support them? Why does this campus tolerate the Red Cross Blood Drive that openly and categorically discriminates against gay men? Today, in this student center, one of our gay male students was asked to donate blood and he said, “I’m not allowed.” When the same person asked me, I pointed out that the ban on gay men donating blood was a discriminatory policy to which he replied, “Have a nice day.” No, there is nothing nice about discrimination, nothing nice about this day. It is not enough to say you are an ally, to have a few gay friends, to be friendly with your gay colleagues, to love your queer kids "anyway." We need more — our lives, and your lives, too, depend on it. We need you to love your kids because they are gender-queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans, and fabulous; to understand the power of institutional homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism; to assume some of the burden of being queer — to take responsibility, to step up — and take action. To "make it better," but what does that even mean — to make it better? Today, while we’re here together, at least let's try to be real with each other. We need you to be real.
*Information about the teenagers and the circumstances of their suicides was collected from a statement issued by the Consortium of LGBT Professionals in Higher Education.
LGBTQ Resource Center
Jen Manion, Director
270 Mohegan Avenue
New London, CT 0632