Editor in Chief
When issues arise within a community, one of two results can occur. The problem can be ignored and avoided until it slowly fades away – or gets worse – or it can be openly discussed while actively searching for solutions. For the Springfield College community, it is time to make that choice.
On Monday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. Dr. Dan Zukergood hosted a LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) discussion panel in his Foundations of Multicultural Education class. The panel included members of the LGBTQ community, including three transgendered male to female individuals, one of their partners, two self-identified lesbians, an androgynous gay man and another gay man, Sean [last name omitted upon request].
The purpose of the Q-and-A panel was to discuss a variety of topics ranging from discovering one’s identity, to experiencing discrimination, to relational and many other pertinent issues. For the past 18 years, Zukergood has been hosting this panel (among others) two to four times per year because of the effect it has on his students.
“The end result of that class would always be, ‘Wow. They’re just like us. They [are] not the monsters we thought they were,’” Zukergood said. “They have the same problems that we [heterosexuals] have living life with one extra problem that we don’t have, and that’s that we don’t get picked on because of our sexual orientation.”
At the conclusion of the class, the panel members were given meal tickets and headed over to Cheney Dining Hall. Their entrance began what was the start of a disturbing incident, as detailed by Sean, a panel member who wrote to Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs David Braverman following the experience.
According to Sean, as the group walked through Cheney they “experienced some of the most upsetting discrimination I have seen.” Sean went on to say that many students and even some ARAMARK workers “pointed, stared, blatantly laughed at them and made extremely disturbing comments within ear shot.” Comments included such disparaging phrases as “the freaks” and “f***ing faggots.”
Sean’s letter was passed around at a meeting held shortly after by the Gay-Straight Alliance in response to the incident. His words struck a chord for many, describing Springfield’s campus culture as one of “hyper masculinity, machismo, and repulsion of difference.”
“My first response was I was nauseous, like a kick in the stomach,” Zukergood said.
Pride Alliance Secretary Erica Cadavid had a similar reaction. The graduate student actually served on the panel in the past with this same group, who she called the “sweetest people.”
“I was so mad that I was crying,” Cadavid said. “On Ally Day we give out 500 shirts that say, ‘I’m an Ally.’ My initial reaction was, out of all the people in Cheney, you’re going to tell me that not one of those people received a shirt that day?”
The larger-scale problem is that these comments did not come from an isolated group of misguided individuals. Cheney was packed that night, and Sean expressed that these negative comments came from a number of sources. It would be shortsighted to try and pinpoint exactly who made comments, because the fact that very few people stood up for the verbally assaulted group is just as damaging. It is evident that there is a more important cultural issue on campus due to ignorance and insensitivity, whether unintentional or not.
“What we’re going through right now with transgender people is [similar to what] we’ve gone through with gay people, and that is that there’s this fear of the unknown, or…it’s the fear of what we think we know,” Zukergood said.
The issue of how to treat people who do not fit into “traditional” gender stereotypes is not limited to Springfield College. It is a much broader world issue, but to think that Springfield is exempt or above mistreating people, even if it is unintentional by some, is simply incorrect. This incident shows that there is a very real problem with the environment on campus that must be addressed.
“I don’t think there’s any excuse for anybody to be mean, but I think that we all need more education about this whole issue of gender identity,” Director of Academic Advising Judy Hartling said.
Springfield College’s mission is to educate students in spirit, mind and body for leadership in service to humanity. In most aspects, the college’s residents fully achieve that mission. It is one of the reasons that prospective students are attracted to the institution.
“We say it’s known for breeding leadership and welcoming others, and everything that didn’t happen that day is what I love and have felt up until that point about this campus,” Cadavid said. “I just couldn’t imagine something like this happening on a campus where we preach leadership.”
Where is that leadership when it comes to this issue? As a community, do we need to turn the microscope inward and analyze what is happening on-campus in order to change the world around us?
“It’s definitely something that this campus needs to be more aware of if there is ever going to be a more diverse population because I know some people, hearing that, wouldn’t ever want to come back,” Pride Alliance Vice President Jenna Cutler said.
The best way to combat ignorance and insensitivity and create a real change is through education and discussion. By learning about the LGBTQ community, people can become more aware and think twice before making hurtful comments.
“One of our 10 goals for the college is diversity,” Braverman said. “If you look at the mission of the college, the education of the whole person in spirit, mind and body for leadership in service to humanity, we’re not talking about some of humanity, we’re talking about all of humanity. If you’re going to serve humanity, you’ve got to understand humanity.”
Zukergood’s panel in his Multicultural course is one of the ways that the college is already educating individuals.
“I would say about 90 percent of the [students] say it was [one of] the best courses they ever took. More importantly, about 75 percent of them say that everybody at Springfield College should take the course because it changed their lives,” Zukergood said. “The things that changed their lives the most are the panels.
“The great part about the panels is that the [students] completely reverse in their minds what their previous thoughts were. It’s a life changer.”
Both the Gay-Straight Alliance club and Braverman hosted meetings following the incident to discuss how to address the problem on campus. The overwhelming consensus was that the college needed to implement ways to get people talking and learning about the LGBTQ community so that a similar incident does not occur again. Stereotypes cannot be broken through avoidance and silence. Honest and open discussion is the only way to begin a process of progressive and positive change.
Some of the ideas that were suggested included expanding Zukergood’s panel into a larger event that goes beyond the classroom. The multicultural model that he uses in his class – awareness, knowledge, skills, action – is something that could benefit the entire campus. Groups such as athletic teams, student clubs and even residence halls could be used to spread the message of acceptance and understanding.
Other ideas that were presented included joining the “It Gets Better Project” to use the college’s website to share video testimonials to spread awareness. Encouraging more groups to partake in Safe Zone training and using New Student Orientation to immediately address the type of welcoming community that this campus should be about are other ways to further increase education.
Ultimately, it all comes back to a choice. As a community, Springfield College can either avoid the issue or tackle it head on.
“I think in the past it was something that was avoided,” Cadavid said. “I think we now have the opportunity coming from this to shine a light on it. It’s up on a pedestal now. We need to do something, otherwise it’s just going to happen again.”
So, what defines a college community? The initial incident cannot be undone. But the way this college community chooses to respond? That is still to be decided.
“We’re not just going to let it go. This is going to be the springboard for us to actually do something really good here,” Zukergood said. “I promised Sean that it would [get better]. It will.”
Joe Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org