The Struggle for Acceptance

October 8th, 2007

Generation Y confronts homophobia

By Meagan Murray

Dave Lease was a freshman at Penn State when the scandal broke. The university’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, had just published an angry editorial by a former student government senator, Chris Kovalchick. He was responding to a Valentine’s Day article highlighting the LGBT student organization’s “Flaunt Your Sexuality Kiss-Out,” featuring gay couples kissing on the campus steps. Kovalchick wrote fiercely and sarcastically in his editorial, “There’s nothing I look forward to more than seeing a bunch of queers kissing in public. It definitely made my day. How about publishing pictures and stories about real people that actually matter for a change?” While Kovalchick had resigned from student government the previous November, such an outburst from a well-known figure on campus only heightened the public’s reaction.

Lease remembers the campus exploding in protest, but, frankly, wasn’t shocked by the published lashing. “There was definitely a stigma against gay people,” he said. “I remember being taken aback that people had other views and were so public about them.”
Being an openly gay student from the beginning, Lease said he didn’t reach his breaking point until one day in his English class when another student referred to AIDS as the “gay cancer” and offhandedly suggested that it wasn’t a problem in society. Laughing now, Lease recalls, “It was definitely the first time my inner bitch came out.”

The seriousness of the matter is that oppression toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has been present in our society for decades. The 80s only intensified an outspoken hostility toward the LGBT community as the media showcased the multitude of gay men suffering from HIV and AIDS.

But where does homophobia stem from? Many believe it’s rooted in religious intolerance for “sinful” sexual behavior. Others believe that social norms are rooted in evolutionary terms of reproduction and call for a heterosexual preference among our species. That said, the past few decades have seen an increase in LGBT activism as both members of the gay community and their allies work to spread understanding and campaign for equal rights. Our generation is at the helm of a new wave of acceptance of the LGBT community.

Or are we? According to findings reported by the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States, 41.7 percent of LGBT youths and those still questioning their sexuality do not feel safe in their schools. An estimated 86.7 percent report hearing homophobic remarks while at school – 36.6 percent of the LGBTQ youth state that these homophobic remarks are directed at them from faculty and staff. On the other end of the spectrum, 40 percent of high school students admit that they are prejudiced against homosexuals.

Caroline Varney is a senior gender studies and sociology major at Ithaca College. She is also the secretary of PRISM, one of several LGBT student organizations on campus. As both a member of the LGBT community and a student activist, Varney knows that trying to relate homophobia as a form of prejudice can be a difficult task.

”People don’t see inequality based on gender or sexual preference as being a form of discrimination. There are times when [the LGBT community is] not even seen as a minority, which can be both a positive and a negative, because you’re enclosing yourself within mainstream society, but at the same time people are trampling your rights, because your rights are not the same.”

Lease can relate. Now a senior journalism and sociology major at Ithaca College, he said that, while his classmates at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, N.J. were generally accepting when he came out, he felt isolated by the fact that there weren’t any youth groups or places in the area to meet other LGBT teens. “My life wasn’t by any means this tragedy,” he said. “But in that immediate point there was a lot of tension in my life with family and friends.”

Today, school education systems are encouraging more outreach programs to connect students with the LGBT community. Since its founding in 1990, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network has grown into a national organization that works with students and teachers in more than 3,000 public high schools across the United States.
Through their establishment of the Gay-Straight Alliances program and providing faculty-training conferences on the local and national scale, chapters of GLSEN are working nationwide to provide a safe and tolerant atmosphere for the LGBT student body.

Varney was one of the original members of her local gay-straight alliance program at Triton Regional High School in Byfield, Mass.

“I think being in the GSA in high school opened my eyes to the possibility of being gay at all,” she said. “Where I came from, it wasn’t exactly common, especially at that time. My junior and senior year of high school was the first time the idea even got implanted in my head at all, and I think that more than anything prompted me to look for a GLBT organization on campus.”

Erica Eaton is a social worker and GSA volunteer advisor for the GLSEN Rochester chapter. As an advisor to GSA meetings, she oversees an environment where LGBT students can interact and make friends with straight students they can relate to without fear of prejudice.

“Just from my observation, with GSA, the students figure out how to talk about their issues. They tend to learn how to become educators about their community.”

She related what happens when students don’t have an outlet to which they can go in search of acceptance. She continually hears stories of students faced with homophobic intolerance. “Kids say, ‘If you wouldn’t act so gay, this wouldn’t happen. Conform a little bit.’”

Levels of homophobia can vary from place to place, Eaton adds. “In general, in urban settings in upstate New York I think the homophobia is beyond rampant,” she said. “You can’t get through a day without hearing many homophobic slurs. And more often than not, they aren’t corrected by adults. They’re just swept under rug.”

According to Eaton, class and race are major factors in how tolerant a community is of homosexuality. When advocating support groups for the LGBT community, she said, it can turn into a “white, middle class conversation very quickly.”

But not all homosexual students fit into this category. “I work in an urban area that’s very impoverished,” Eaton said. “My kids are going to have a harder time than kids who live in the suburbs. There are intersections of homophobia and classism everywhere. To be ‘out’ at a young age when you have all of these other barriers is a challenge.”

Varney agrees, adding that the same barriers exist in rural areas. “Growing up in a tiny, rural high school where you’re one of only three gay people in the entire school, do you want to tack on being racially diverse as well as economically diverse on top of that?” she said. “There are a lot of different issues that I think high-school age students deal with that college students don’t have to.

“In most cases, you choose where you go to college; you choose the atmosphere you put yourself in,” she continued. “In high school, especially in a public high school, you don’t get that choice. You’re going to your city’s school, and that’s it.”

At Ithaca College, Varney says, diversity - racially, economically and spiritually - is welcomed in the LGBT community. As part of their activism on campus, PRISM will be co-sponsoring events with the African Latino Society and other student organizations. However, this doesn’t mean that she hasn’t faced prejudice in the past.

“I’ve had people try and counsel me through a religious perspective,” said Varney. “If you really think about their intent, they’re not doing it to harm or be malicious about anything. They’re doing this because their beliefs tell them that this would be right; they’re doing it ‘because they care’ – even if it’s not necessarily what you’d like to hear.”

Lauren Olson is a senior at Gordon College, a Christian college in Wenham, Mass., where homosexuality is not widely accepted.

“In general on campus I would say that [homosexuality] is viewed as a sin, but not as a sin any bigger than anything else, such as gambling or stealing,” Olson said. “With all those things you should seek help and accountability to not sin anymore.”

Still, homosexuality is not as big a taboo as it has been in the past. “I think there is a much bigger openness and acceptance of homosexuality and that people are more comfortable with it,” Olson said.

Today more religious colleges and universities are accepting the LGBT community onto their campuses for a chance at dialogue with both students and faculty. The Soulforce Equality Ride has brought their bus tour to more than 50 Christian campuses on the East and West coasts of the United States.

Soulforce, Inc. is a non-profit organization based in Lynchburg, Va. Co-founded by partners Rev. Dr. Mel White and Gary Nixon in 1998, Soulforce sends primarily young adult representatives of the LGBT community onto campuses to engage religious students in discussion through large panel sessions, coffee house talks and one-on-one conversations.

Their goal is to challenge homophobia’s hold on religious youth and to establish an understanding and tolerance for homosexuality within the religious campus community.
West Coast Equality Ride co-director Haven Herrin has worked for Soulforce for more than two years. “We still run into very essentialist notions of gender,” she said. “[At Soulforce] we challenge students on their notions of gender. How important is gender when talking about principals of kindness, love and truth – all these things that Christianity is trying to promote?”

The Soulforce Equality Ride completed their second annual national bus tour in 2007. By fall 2008, they plan to expand their college tours to Baptist, Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish and black colleges and universities.

Last March, the Soulforce West Coast bus ride visited Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Until their visit, the BYU Honor Code prohibited any form of homosexual behavior, explicit or implicit, as well as advocating homosexuality. School officials were able to investigate and prosecute any students they felt violated the honor code.

“Their policy was very draconian,” said Herrin. “It was based on a lot of fear, a lot of unknowns.”

Soulforce activists spent two days on campus at BYU, holding conferences and discussions with school officials and students. As a result, the BYU Honor Code redefined its stance toward homosexuality:

“Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings of attraction and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards…One’s stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

While the changes made to the honor code aren’t what Herrin would ideally hope for, she still acknowledges the improvement. “I see some of the most conservative areas of this country,” she said. “I’ve seen 1,000 young adults down on their knees, screaming and praying, and what they hear when they are this emotionally raw is that gay people are bad.” BYU’s policy change showed her that a more progressive mentality toward homosexuality could exist in the religious community.

In April 2007, the Soulforce East Coast bus tour came through Gordon College. Students seemed open to discussing the topic of homosexuality, said one student, who requested to remain anonymous, in an email. After Soulforce had visited, a small student base even suggested the possibility of a gay-straight alliance on campus, she said, but the idea died out a few weeks later.

“Through presenting beliefs contradictory to the Bible – saying that people can be both Christians and practicing homosexuals – [Soulforce] made students critically question their beliefs,” the Gordon student said. “I personally appreciated their visit, because I was able to establish a more concrete understanding of my beliefs.” She concluded that Soulforce did not change her beliefs on homosexuality as a sin.

But organizations such as PRISM, GLSEN and Soulforce believe that this is a step in the right direction; their aim is not to force conformity, but to build tolerance for the LGBT community and make homophobia a thing of the past.

“I’m an eternal optimist, but I wouldn’t say that this generation is going to get it on the whole,” said Herrin. She credits the hard work and dedication of activists and support groups, both in the high school and collegiate education systems, with changing society’s notions of homosexuality. With more and more people advocating for LGBT rights and awareness, the opportunity for education and acceptance is now available for those looking for it.

“Four years later I’m graduating college, and like to think of myself as a more educated person than when I went in,” said Lease.

Let’s hope we can say the same for the rest of our generation.

Meagan Murray is a senior journalism major who drinks her LGB-Tea with a squeeze of lemon, no milk. Email her at mmurray1[at]ithaca.edu.

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