May 112010
 

By Alexandra Sieh

Collegian Special Report

Alexandra Kumor, a sophomore biology major holds a sign on the corner of College Avenue and Laurel Street on Saturday, March 6 in support of Freedom to Marry Day.

As he entered the room, the blank eyes of a scarecrow seemed to stare at Tommy Crews as it hung limply on the fence in the Edwards dorm room.

With the words of Matthew Shepard’s tragic story written on the walls of the room, the crude portrayal of Shepard’s last day stood as a powerful reminder of the consequences of discrimination.

And as an openly gay student, Crews was more affected than others, explaining the story of the crime to those in his group, remembering the day 11 years before when Shepard died in Fort Collins after being beaten to death for being gay.

Tommy Crews, seen here outside Summit Hall where he is a resident assistant, is openly gay and an outspoken member of the GLBT community at CSU. He is just one member of a large and highly underrepresented community that is not easily quantifiable.

A part of a new resident assistant training exercise, the room was just one of many on that day right before fall semester last year in what is called the Tunnel of Oppression, a project designed to teach incoming RAs about diversity and the harsh consequences of discrimination.

From those rooms centered on the GLBT community to those with stark images of the Holocaust, religious wars and terrorism, the scenes showed the worst side of discrimination and oppression, the hate crimes that have resulted from a lack of understanding.

For one day, Edwards Hall was transformed into a portrayal of prejudice, with “all of diversity in one building,” as Crews said, and blatant illustrations of hate toward each of those minorities and oppressed groups.

As he entered each GLBT-centered room, eyes would flash to Crews, his staff members searching for his reaction in hopes of understanding how they should act, hoping to mirror what he felt as a gay man.

“You looked around, and you could tell who was being affected the most because eyes would go to that person,” Crews said.

“You walked in, and it just hit you.”

And that is exactly what the project was meant to do.

Staring at images of battered women, those trapped in relationships that are abusive or dangerous, Crews said he remembered being overwhelmed by the scene.

“It really hit me hard because it made me realize how hard it was for women to get away from those situations,” he said.

As he read the statistics on the number of women who can’t escape those relationships, or those who do but return afterward, Crews realized how intense those situations could be.

“It affected me so much because it was so scary.”

At the end of the hall, with those rooms’ brutal images swirling in their minds, the RAs stood in the last room filled with bright lights and terms of love and acceptance, a hope for the future that can only come after those images of hate are erased.

Crews said the bright hopefulness in that room was one of the most difficult things in the tunnel to process.

“By the end of it, three-quarters of my staff were crying,” he said. “You just had to keep moving through, and it brought you down, further down to a greater level of understanding by the end.”

Despite the intensity, however, Crews said it was this kind of event that every student should be exposed to, especially in college.

“I definitely think it was necessary because I know it sucks to hear about this, and I know it’s depressing, but you need to hear about it anyway. You need to hear about it,” he said.

And with the creation of the new vice president of diversity position, many hope this conversation of diversity will only get louder and more inclusive.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Foula Dimopoulos, the director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center at CSU, about the new position.

“It has the potential to have some teeth,” she said, “because it’s such a high-ranking position. … I hope it … has the ability to make institutional change and advocate on an institutional level.”

And as the director of an organization for a group that is hard to quantify with numbers and statistics, one that is sometimes overlooked in discussions about diversity, she hopes the new position will offer “one single entry point that can coordinate many entry points for students, staff, faculty and community members around diverse identities and pursue it on campus.”

It is clear that changing the definition of diversity on campus is not a change that will happen overnight.

But with renewed focus on the issue of diversity, Dimopoulos and others hope there will be more progress in the future, not only in the obvious coordination of efforts, but in a change in CSU’s culture, accepting all pieces of diversity and understanding the different identities that people can have.

Defining self

A communications professor at CSU since 1997, Eric Aoki is a man with many different “diversities.”

Raised Catholic by a Buddhist father in a social class different from the one he works in now, Aoki understands the complexity of a person’s identity.

Japanese and Mexican in heritage, but also a “proud U.S. American,” he has spent his life talking about his diversity and the differences in how he perceives the world compared to others.

But his “visible identities” are not the only ones he identifies with. For Aoki, he must also negotiate how his invisible role, his “GLBT status and the orientation of being a gay man” factors into his diversity.

Unlike his racial ethnicity, his GLBT identity was one he could hide, and until Shepard’s death in 1998, it was one he hadn’t yet negotiated into his life at CSU.

But when Shepard was murdered, he found he was faced, as many other GLBT people were, with the responsibility to come out to those around him and begin their involvement in raising awareness for the GLBT community.

“That was one of the things that I hit the walls with in the classroom. I was encouraged my whole life to talk about all of my diversities,” he said. “So I hit that threshold being in my diversity classes and talking about everyone of those variables except the fact that I was gay because I hadn’t yet figured out how to integrate that into my diversity.”

But it has now become a piece of his persona that he preserves in the classroom and in his social life, continuing his work in “diversifying the diversity component,” he said.

For Aoki, it is important that each piece of a person’s diversity is represented, especially when some of those identities, like GLBT status, are invisible.

“I define diversity as a fact, not necessarily as good or bad,” he said.

As Dimopoulos defined it, “diversity is a culmination not only of our similarities but also the ways in which we are different.”

For Andy Stoll, the executive director of the Lambda Community Center in Fort Collins, it is that embracing of all identities that is important.

“I think that because it is an invisible characteristic of most people, it makes it easier for GLBT folks to be successful, but to be successful without keeping their full identity with them,” he said.

As a leader in Lambda, a center for those in the GLBT community in Fort Collins at large, Stoll has had the opportunity to work with students and Fort Collins residents alike to not only come out but to fully identify with their GLBT status.

Advocating for people to “navigate your own safety,” Stoll has found that Fort Collins, while limited in its diversity, has been a community where GLBT people can find that needed safety.

Careful to distinguish between tolerance and acceptance, Stoll said tolerance has grown, but acceptance is still on its way.
“We’re still not to the point where things are embraced or nurturing of diversity,” he said, “but yes, certainly, tolerance has grown.”

And that is a trend that also applies to CSU.

Moving toward acceptance

A “white tower” in Fort Collins, as Joe Howard describes, CSU isn’t known for its diversity.

An openly gay student on campus, Howard says diversity is something that “people bring to the table.”

Whether it is their racial identity, their gender or their sexual orientation, a person’s diversity is what they bring with them “from their own walks through life.”

And to Howard, CSU has done well in turning its attention to highlighting these diversities on campus.

But Aoki can remember a time at CSU when there wasn’t as much tolerance and acceptance for the GLBT community.

Around for what he described as the “infamous chalkings on the square,” he remembers walking across the Lory Student Center Plaza each morning for his cup of coffee and facing a myriad of “pejoratives” on the sidewalk, written in discrimination against the GLBT community.

As a communications teacher, Aoki saw those responsible using the excuse of free speech as a defense for their actions. But from an emotional standpoint, “one we often forget to think about,” in considering these actions, he said, he found it more difficult to face.

“It’s hard to be on a campus where day to day, week to week, you would see this negative projection of derogatory statements about GLBT individuals in the courtyard,” he said.

And while such blatant actions haven’t occurred in years since, he said he still notices the tampering of GLBT signs, pejorative statements in bathrooms, and other acts of “homophobic discourse” from the CSU community.

“It’s still around,” he said, but with the help of the GLBT Resource Center on campus as well as other organizations focused on awareness and activism, they have been much more scarce.

Since she began her job as director of the GLBT Resource Center nearly four years ago, Dimopoulos has seen improvement on campus toward understanding for the GLBT community.

“There’s been a push from the ground up to broaden campus’ definition of diversity, to broaden the horizon, to encompass not only sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, but also ability, veteran status, geography,” she said, which has helped to “highlight those ways in which people are diverse.”

And it is this push for understanding that most GLBT community members and allies hope will happen in the future.

As he stood on the stage of the Freedom to Marry Day rally in March, Blane Harding, an adviser in the College of Liberal Arts, spoke about the inequity behind the discrimination of GLBT people.

“Everyone is impacted when one group is denied their rights,” he said to a cheering crowd, and he hoped that, in the future, the “social justice” of the issue would be understood.

And he isn’t the only one who felt that way.

Acting against the status quo

For Mac Simon, social justice isn’t just an idea, it’s a personal mission.

A self-proclaimed “queer trans-man,” Simon has lived for the past year in transition, shifting out of his gender-born role as a woman into a lifestyle that suits him better, as a transgender male.

And for the past semester, he has been a member of Soulforce Equality Ride, a program that takes adult activists across the nation to Christian colleges and universities that have policies that discriminate against GLBT issues.

For his trip, Simon traveled to 16 universities throughout the semester with 24 other activists, all anxious and willing to speak out about GLBT rights and issues in hopes of “ending religious oppression through nonviolence and direct action.”

And for the senior social work major, this experience is one that has helped him share his story in hopes of helping other GLBT students to find comfort in their home at their university.

The goal is to engage students, faculty and administrators in a dialogue, Simon said, in order to create safe spaces for students to “be open about their identity without fearing getting kicked out of school.”

And on this trip, Simon saw firsthand how harmful discrimination, especially from religious organizations, can be for students.

“Being on Equality Ride right now, I have a pretty detailed perspective of just how damaging the hate speech that is being preached from pulpits worldwide is to GLBT people,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Many of my friends have tried to end their own life because of the lack of affirming messages they’re hearing from the church.”

Because of this and other prejudices, Simon is now dedicated to advocacy, speaking out on issues that he believes in, especially within the GLBT community.

“I’ve become really outspoken about a lot of causes that I’ve always felt passionate about but have never had the tools or the voice to speak out about them,” he said. “… I am not an issue. I am not a political cause. I am a human being who deserves equality on all fronts.”

For Dimopoulos and others, the future holds possibility for the GLBT community.

While she hopes for practical improvements to the office she runs, her hopes are that in the future, the office won’t exist, not from a lack of resources, but from a lack of necessity.

“That’s ultimately my goal,” she said, to have a level of acceptance that allows the office to focus on other things outside of awareness.

Howard said CSU is already much safer for GLBT students, “not necessarily because there are more queer people, but because there are a lot of allies.”

But there’s always more to do, Dimopoulos said.

“Diversity is rarely ever stagnant,” she said, and there will always be room for improvement.

Design Editor Alexandra Sieh can be reached at design@collegian.com.

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