Taking a close look at the LGBTQA community on campus
National Coming Out day was celebrated on Oct.11, a day dedicated to gay pride and the LGBT community. That celebration came approximately three weeks after a Rutgers University freshman student, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after his roommate posted a video of him online having intimate relations with another man.Swift reaction arose from the Rutgers University incident, including many schools implementing anti-bullying and harassment programs. DePaul, which boasts of a diverse student population and initiatives on campus in response to world events, reacted in a different way.
"Whatever the world is fighting about shows up on a campus too," said Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., President of DePaul University. "The U.S. is in a transition place of incorporating gay and lesbian people."
Fr. Holtschneider believes it is DePaul's job to take outside energy over the homosexuality debate and bring it to the level of the university- an intelligent thoughtful conversation as well as civil.
Fr. Holtschneider said with a grin that while St. Vincent de Paul never dealt with the gay issue, he did deal with people on the margins.
And thus, at DePaul, we have developed a "culture of empathy" based on the saint's teachings.
Fr. Holtschneider said that as a community we ask, "Who is not being treated well and what can we do to help?"
"This is a pretty welcoming place for gay lesbian bisexual transgender [people]," Fr. Holtschneider said.
DePaul students collaborated with people across Chicago to put together the candlelight vigil on Friday, Oct. 8, and, of all the places in the city it could have been hosted, the location chosen was DePaul's quad.
"I organized the vigil for Tyler Clementi and the other students because I felt it was such a tragedy, and a preventable one at that," said sophomore philosophy student Jeremy Kauffman. "I was hoping that students would realize how much of an impact hateful words can have, and realize that everything we do or say in our society has consequences. It is the society we live in that pushed these kids towards suicide, so through the vigil I hope that students see that it is their civil and moral duty to stand up against hate where they see it, so that we don't have to hear more stories about innocent kids taking their own lives."
In Fr. Holtschneider's mind it would never have been a question; of course the vigil would be welcome on DePaul's campus. "I was proud when all these groups were deciding on a place to do it and they said let's do it at DePaul," Fr. Holtschneider said. "We chose that moment to reinforce our values."
In the letter that Jim Doyle, the Vice President for Student Affairs, sent to students and staff, he states, "As a Vincentian institution, DePaul has a strong commitment to honoring the dignity of each and every person. We affirm that every student should have the right to a safe campus climate void of intimidation and harassment in which all can learn, grow and flourish."
"People should take this as a wakeup call," said Joe Marnen, co-president of the student organization Spectrum. "Bullying, especially of LGBTQA youth, has become an epidemic in this country." Spectrum is the social LGBTQA group on campus.
Marnen said that no one has the right to torture another, and that the bullying of someone because of their sexuality is as silly as bullying them for the color of his or her hair.
"I can't speak for lesbians, bi, transgender, or queer students because I'm only gay, but in terms of being gay, it is a relatively good environment," Kauffman said. "When I consider other schools or my high school and compare it to the attitudes at DePaul I realize how progressive DePaul can be in terms of accepting it. The only problem is it's hard to determine whether it's DePaul that's accepting, or the people who I chose to surround myself with. I'm sure there are homophobes at DePaul because there are homophobes everywhere. It might just be that I haven't had too much contact with them yet."
Fr. Holtschneider attributes DePaul's accepting climate of sexual diversity to a variety of sources including student initiatives that have helped define and bring to light the community at DePaul and past and present faculty.
In 2003, a student ran a survey to help clarify who exactly was part of the DePaul community and to point to the fact that DePaul needed to have services for this community.
According to the survey parameters, "the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center Survey was a 33-point questionnaire designed to assess the overall campus climate of DePaul University in terms of its tolerance towards LGBT students, faculty, and staff. It was also designed specifically to measure the level of support felt at DePaul for the LGBT community and to measure the level of awareness of support services, resources, and information that DePaul provides to its LGBT population and to the broader community." In the original survey, 995 were completed and 9.2 percent of the students surveyed identified as LGBT. There was a second survey done in 2004 of 362 students that estimated the number of LGBT at 19.2 percent.
"That survey became a little bit of a roadmap for programming," Fr. Holtschneider said. One such addition was the office of LGBTQA Student Services developed by a committee in 2003 in response to addressing the needs of this community.
Another such group credited with DePaul's acceptance of the LGBT community was gay faculty in the 90s who wanted to make DePaul a welcoming place. They started by being open out about their sexuality. "I give these faculty a lot of credit," Fr. Holtschneider said.
As a publicly professed lesbian, Dr. Beth Kelly of the women's and gender studies program knows first hand how accepting DePaul is of its staff.
"If someone had told me 30 years ago that in 2010 I would be tenured and promoted to a professor as a publicly professed Lesbian at the country's largest Catholic university, I would not have believed them," Kelly said. "I love the university and I think I have given back a great deal of my time and effort as a result. While I have not experienced a lot of homophobia and sexism personally, that's not to say that both are absent from this campus, and it's not to say that we don't have a lot of work to do before we fully live up to our mission. I would like to see DePaul a safe and welcoming place for all students, faculty and staff, but we are not there yet."
Assistant Dean of Students Anissa Jones thinks that people at DePaul have been extremely accepting of the LGBTQA community on campus. "The people who work here walk the talk and create a space for people to be who they are," she said.
The LGBT office is in the process of hiring a new director. While this position was once filled by a graduate student, it will now be filled by a part-time professional, and Jones sees that as a step in the right direction.
Making it a full time position, like it is on some University campuses, is the ideal situation in Jones's opinion so that there can be a liaison in contact with the LGBT community constantly. "DePaul is behind on that," Jones said. She attributed the lack of a full-time position to the budget and the prioritizing of needs of the whole campus.
Jones said that communication with student groups during this time of transition in the office has been rocky and that some students have been out of the loop.
"The position has been open since this June. I have a problem with the Dean of Students taking their time doing this," said Stephanie DeLacy, DePaul senior and president of Student Health Advocates, an organization that works closely with the LGBTQ community on campus. "I'm glad they're talking about it but I'm not holding my breath." As for where she would refer someone who needed support or guidance she said, "I would refer them to Howard Brown and Center on Halsted, anywhere but DePaul as of right now."
Brittany Polin, a sophomore management student getting her minor in LGBTQ studies, is the undergraduate student assistant in the Office of LGBTQA student services. She said she applied for the job in the office because her hometown in Kentucky didn't have LGBTQ support when she needed it.
Polin came out her sophomore year of high school to her mother and then when she came to DePaul she felt comfortable to start coming out as gay to new people. "It was a new start for me," she said. "I could finally be myself."
While she has never personally felt harassment on DePaul's campus her job is to help people who are feeling uncomfortable. "I am more worried about other people because I haven't been affected by hate at DePaul," Polin said.
Polin said it took the recent tragedy at Rutgers to make people stop and look at DePaul's campus. "The LGBT issues haven't been taken a look at until the recent suicide and gay people may need a little more protection," she said. "Up until then it was just 'oh, we have gay people on the campus.'"
While DePaul may seem to be a welcoming and open place, even Jones says hateful comments still happen and other faculty agree.
"I sense that there is more homophobia on campus than many people wish to acknowledge, and I know that immature young people sometimes do incredibly thoughtless things-so I fear that unless the University becomes more proactive, we risk situations similar to what happened at Rutgers last month. I would hate to see such a tragedy at DePaul," Kelly said.
Despite the feeling that there are hate crimes on campus, according to the DePaul Public Safety's 2010 Safety and Security Information and Fire safety report, there were no hate crimes reported on DePaul's campus in 2009. There was one in the Lincoln Park public area that was characterized by sexual orientation. The same was also true of 2008 and 2007.
"I've known other students to have been harassed with gay bashing and graffiti on their walls in the dorm rooms. I haven't known anyone to get violent. But I do know of people who made suicide attempts and things like that," DeLacy said.
DePaul has three student organizations that are active in supporting the LGBTQ community on campus. SAGA is the Students for the Advancement of Gender Awareness and has worked on projects such as the gender neutral bathroom campaign.
Act Out is the LGBTQA non-violent activist group that hosts discussion based events and the annual drag show. Spectrum is the LBGTQA social group that plans community building and educational events.
"Lots of people would be happy to have one and your university has three," Fr. Holtschneider said.
One of the many goals of these three organizations is to open up a dialogue in the larger DePaul community. "Last year, Act-Out did a religion series," said DePaul senior and co-president of Act-Out Katie Weiss. "We brought in Hillel and Cafe Catholique to speak to members about how religion and spirituality could be a beautiful part of their lives. Students who had had poor experiences with religion previously saw a different side of the story. I think being able to dialogue and show that there are support systems even in places like religion where we don't usually expect them is a really important aspect of encouraging students like myself."
While the groups on campus do help to build a community individual students have different experiences and perceptions on what it's like to be gay on campus.
"I would say gay men are more comfortable than women who identify as lesbian or bisexual, because there are so many gay men on DePaul's faculty and because society is so accepting of gay men," DeLacy said.
So where does DePaul go from here?
"There is a lot that needs to be done to make DePaul a truly safe campus, but it's impressive how far it has come compared to others," Weiss said. "We should be looking at what else we can do and not what has been done in the past.
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