Queering Campuses Prompts Reflection, Reform for Universities
Note: The following guest post comes to us courtesy of Jacob Bell, a junior at the University of Maryland pursuing a dual degree in journalism and general biology. He currently works as the staff writer and web content manager for Student Voice and is a general assignment reporter for the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, The Diamondback. Jacob is also the features chair of “Stories Beneath the Shell,” which is an online multimedia publication. You can learn more about Jacob by connecting with him through LinkedIn or following him on Twitter, @realjacobbell.
The word ‘queer’ can mean many things. It can be a noun or an adjective, derogatory or empowering, a reference to gender and sexual identity or a departure from normalcy. It can also be a verb. “To queer something,” according to Dr. Charlie Glickman, a sexuality educator of nearly 25 years, “is to take a look at its foundations and question them.”
For Alex Borsa, a junior molecular biophysics and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major at Yale University, it is the verb form of queer which matters most. As the president of the university’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Student Cooperative, which serves as the umbrella organization for all of Yale’s LGBTQ groups, Borsa works to increase visibility of queer and marginalized students and make the campus a safer, more inclusive environment.
Borsa achieves these goals, in part, through his participation with IvyQ, an annual, inter-Ivy League LGBTQ conference that attracts 300 to 500 attendees. The conference advocates social organization, political activism and community building among LGBTQ students and groups.
“It is the only time that students are in such a large space comprised of almost only LGBTQ people,” Borsa said. “Being at a social event with 500 queer people is something most people don’t get to experience, [and] does a lot to change people. It was probably the single most transformative process I’ve been to in my college experience.”
Yale hosted the 2013 installment of the IvyQ conference, which has made its way to a different Ivy League school each year since its inception in 2010. Borsa served as a volunteer coordinator for the event, and assisted former Yale conference chair Hilary O’Connell with event production. In spite of a blizzard that struck New Haven, Connecticut, the same weekend as the conference, the Yale IvyQ team was able to deliver an event true to the mission of IvyQ, according to Borsa.
The 2013 conference offered light entertainment, such as dances, lunches and group breakout sessions, as well as 30 to 40 formal colloquiums and workshops from a series of students and guest speakers about topics including gender activism, asexuality, and the meaning of the LGBTQ community now versus in previous decades.
“These are always going to be issues,” Rebby Kern, the media communications and programs manager for Campus Pride, the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to making higher education more LGBT-friendly, said. “But if we can come to a place where we can talk about these issues … in a safe environment, I feel we’ve done our job as far as a movement.”
The conference also prompts discussion on issues, such as class, privilege, mental health, race and racism, that are present across many colleges and universities and affect marginalized groups related to or outside of the LGBT spectrum.
These discussions play a large role in IvyQ’s ability to “queer the campus,” or “challenge, question and deconstruct the status quo,” of the host school, Borsa said.
And as the number and diversity of the voices contributing to the conversation increases, so does the pressure on higher education to improve existing systems.
“I think student voice means not being afraid to challenge large institutions, even the administration itself, on how we think Yale should be bettered,” Borsa added.
In April, Yale held a weekend-long mental health and wellness event to address complaints from students and groups like IvyQ regarding the slow response times and lack of information coming from its Mental Health and Counseling Department, which 22 percent of the student body visits at least once per year, according to a 2011 report.
In the same month, Yale also held Take Back the Night, an event where students shared sexual experiences through speeches, poetry and song to raise awareness about sexual violence and community respect.
“For me personally, the idea of institutional commitment is the big thing,” D. Andrew Porter, a summer fellow at Campus Pride, said. “ [As a movement], we’re not just talking about LGBTQ students, and that’s causing campuses to look at all students who fall under that big umbrella word, ‘diversity.’”
The next IvyQ conference will be held in the fall of 2014 at Dartmouth College, which has received news coverage and student criticism in the past year concerning the school’s handling of homophobia, racism and sexism both on campus and in Dartmouth Greek life. In February, students presented the Freedom Budget, a sweeping reform that enumerated more than 70 actions the college could take that would help confront and diminish discrimination.
The school’s president, Philip J. Hanlon, and then interim provost, Martin Wybourne, released a statement in the wake of the Freedom Budget outlining steps the administration planned to take to address the students’ suggestions, such as allocating millions of dollars to hire and attract a more diverse campus faculty, and expanding a university program that supports minority groups in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
By April, however, student dissatisfaction was not quelled and resulted in protests outside the president’s office and the administration building.
For Nathen Huang, a senior psychology major at Columbia University and leader of Columbia’s IvyQ organization, Dartmouth’s hosting of the conference comes at an opportune time, one in which the school’s administration is primed to listen to the voices of campus students.
“Student voice is the opportunity to offer insights to improve the community or build new relationships that have never been explored before,” Huang said. “Even if not every one who goes to IvyQ comes from the activist community, there are also people who [are involved in other ways], and they’re able to express their own ideas and opinions.”
Going forward, Borsa, Huang and fellow IvyQ members want to increase access to the conference through additional funding so more people can contribute to the discussion. They also hope the organization continues to spark conversation between university officials and students about how to better educational environments.
“It’s important for everyone to think of these things,” Borsa said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be on the front lines of everything, but it does mean that it’s important to think about how social factors shape your everyday life. IvyQ challenges people to see things in a different way.”
(Dartmouth’s Office of Pluralism and Leadership did not respond to Student Voice’s request for comment before this story’s publication).