Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heads and Tales

I’d like to share a story from my college days. I’ve never written about what follows before this moment because the memories of it are frustrating. No long living in the state of my birth, I’ve been hearing the stories of others who went to colleges far more liberal than my own. They have at times made me jealous. When it comes to a matter of basic resources, I’ve recognized how shortchanged I was. And this doesn’t just pertain to me.

This is the case for others who felt passed over, taken for granted, or made to feel unimportant. In particular, I always feel envious of those who had the ability to take part in specific groups, groups designed to build strength and community around a common identity. With many, the infrastructure had long been in place. Accordingly, others saw a need and filled this need appropriately.

Gay/Straight Student Alliance, or GSSA as it was often called, was supposed to be an outlet for LGBTQ students and a way to partner with heterosexual allies. Unfortunately, it was badly advertised by the university and suffered from exceptionally poor leadership. The group was led by an enthusiastic, openly queer faculty member, who lamentably did not have the necessary skills to be much more than a cheerleader. In an ideal world, groups like these would not be strictly social events. They would also focus on substantive issues pertinent to the LGBT community. Without this guidance, an exclusionary attitude sprang up that gave birth to cliques. No one greeted me upon my arrival, though I was rather vigorously appraised for my value in physical attraction.

The group became an impromptu dating service and sometimes a service for other needs. One of my good friends in college was an out lesbian, and she never found much value in GSSA, either. In her words, “I felt like a piece of meat on the market.” Know that in sharing this aspect of the group, I am not saying that gay men are hormonal beasts marking time for their next sexual conquest. That’s a stereotype I have no desire to perpetuate. But what I am saying is that any gathering with an open-ended, non-directed, rambling focus is going to eventually resemble a party. It’s college. That’s just part of the deal. It would happen with heterosexual students, too.

One rather massive side observation is this. As is the case in other cultural aspects, gay men comprised the majority of the membership and the leadership roles. We may make assumptions about their inherent masculinity, but all who are socialized as men benefit from male privilege. Women in attendance, regardless of sexual orientation, were also in short supply. We may make any number of conclusions from that data if we wish.

Before I criticize this group too harshly, there are other substantial pieces to this problem. The university administration was at best, apathetic, or at worst, dismissive to the needs of queer students. When I was a student, a non-discrimination policy which pertained to hiring practices and same-sex partner benefits was still being debated. It took years to be formally adopted, this after significant effort on the part of a few very committed people, which is normally how such reforms are eventually enacted.

But in those days, that policy was still on the table. In a conservative state, those who identified as LGBT did so, and still do so very quietly. Closeted faculty members would never agree to lead such a group, fearing guilt by association. And few people, regardless of sexual orientation, understood the need for LGBT student outreach. It has taken a rash of suicides for the lightbulb to go off in many corners.

When I was a student, an LGBT center had been recently proposed, but it since the groundbreaking ceremony was not even in the planning stages, one had to make do with what we had. The faculty advisor kept a wealth of knowledge in book, DVD, and magazine form in large file cabinets in her office. Someday they would be found on shelves, but for now, that was the best that could be done. I contributed four or five books to the collection, and somewhere still I’m sure a sticker inside each of them thanks me for doing so. A friend of mine who now is a professor in a usually red state does much the same thing to store Feminist resources. When any group or academic focus is a low priority, these sorts of things have to suffice.

I realize my story is not unusual. Universities and colleges in conservative parts of the country are often unlikely to have queer studies or women’s studies majors, to say nothing of courses. LGBT students are some of the most vulnerable. They, as we finally have realized, are often the most likely to feel alone and misunderstood. Being deprived of the community they need should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. But even in more liberal locales, the courses of study noted above are the first to be cut in times of budgetary famine.

I think that knowledge is empowering, but classroom study must be coupled with a sense of real kinship. I can read about bisexuality all I like, but until I speak with someone who shares my feelings, it will always be something of an abstraction. In all of our energetic passions, righteous indignation, and thunderous pronouncements, we must view ourselves as part of a much greater cooperative spirit. But neither can this begin nor end with us. We require assistance from collective unity.

We have two ends with a common link,
With one we sit, with one we think,
Success depends on what we use –
Heads we win, tails we lose.


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