by Jesse Evans
Picture this: You’re new to Hetero University, and you’ve known for some time that there was a chance you wouldn’t fit in. You’ve got a boyfriend, but every once in a while you wonder if maybe those strong feelings you have for some of the women you meet aren’t more than you “clicking” with them on a platonic level. You’d like to find some place to explore these feelings, if only in conversation, but those gay groups are for, well…gay people. And you’re definitely not one of them. Besides, as a Chicano student you really don’t feel comfortable in those all-white groups.
Or this: You went to Hetero University as a self-proclaimed straight student, but you sure wish the other straight students didn’t feel the need to invoke queerphobia in order to make themselves feel more straight. You’d love to do something about it, but everyone knows that the “straight” in the Queer/Straight Alliance is just for closet cases. Besides, that’s for queer people, what would they think about a straight person in the group?
So you’ve started a brand new Queer/Straight Alliance, or maybe you’ve been running one for some time, and you want to make sure that your group is as accommodating as possible. Maybe you’ve noticed a slump in membership, or perhaps there is a suspicious homogeneity among your ranks. Do the two hypothetical students described above show up at your events and meetings? If not, you may be dealing with inclusion issues. Creating a group that feels safe for everyone is no easy task, but fear not, this series of articles will lead you through a few things that you can do to help work your way towards a truly safe space.
Tip #1: Make An Identification-Free Space
Questioning students are often pointed to the local Queer/Straight Alliance for help, but how comfortable are they going to feel if they are immediately asked to identify as something in order to be welcomed? Most of us take this identification for granted. It is always important to remember, however, that not everyone feels liberated by disclosure, and that questions about sexual orientation or gender identity can alienate people who would otherwise be amazing additions to your group. This can, and often does, affect straight-identified students as well. Many already feel like outsiders at Queer/Straight Alliance events, as though they are trespassing in another group’s territory. Having to immediately come out as straight before they’ve had a chance to really get to know anyone may compound this feeling. In order to deal with these situations, some queer/straight alliances have implemented rules against asking members about their gender identity or sexual orientation. Students are, of course, free to divulge such information if they so chose, but no one ever feels as though they are required to do so. This eliminates a lot of the anxiety that questioning students have about attending events, and it also helps queer allies feel no different than the queer students. In one Queer/Straight Alliance, the rule became so well practiced that it was often months of working with some students before members had any clue about their identification. In fact, they had officers whose identifications club leaders still don’t know. As an unintended, and often very welcomed, side effect, this rule also helps stifle the “meat market” feel that groups often develop. Since one can never be certain what someone’s orientation is, they tend not to come to events looking for hookups. Instead, they come looking for community; which is precisely what a group should provide.
Tip #2: Don’t Forget About Students of Color
Addressing the needs of students of color is incredibly important for every Queer/Straight Alliance. Even if you’ve created a space that people of all sexual identifications (or non-identifications) are comfortable with, you still need to address the issue of racism and the isolation students of color often feel in campus queer communities. If you look around the room and notice that most of the people have roughly the same skin tone and ethnic identity, it may be a good indicator that you haven’t adequately dealt with these issues. If your school is fortunate enough to have student of color groups (particularly queer-oriented ones), send your members to make contact with these other groups. Host joint events with them and be sure to publicize well. It’s an opportunity for both groups to learn from each other, and it is a great way to make those with intersecting identities feel comfortable. If you don’t have access to these groups, or if they’re not particularly receptive, put on your own events that focus on the diversity within the queer and allied community. Host panels, bring in speakers, and hold culturally aware social events (Cinco De Mayo, for instance) that make it clear to the rest of campus that your group is working to create safe spaces for everyone.
Tip #3: Avoid Physical Spaces Not Equally Welcoming To All Students
After all, if you can’t get people in the door, how can you support them? Finding space to meet on campus can often be a very daunting task, particularly if your school has a lot of administrative red tape or limited resources. Many groups immediately fall back on queer community centers to get easy access to meeting areas and event locations. Unfortunately, the act of walking into the campus Queer Resource Center (decked out in rainbow flags for all to see) may be a bit too much for a questioning student or a new straight ally to bear. And, of course, the semi-closeted to fully closeted queer-identified student certainly isn’t going to be in any rush to take this kind of risk. The truth of the matter is that what is safe for the out and proud organizers of queer/straight alliances may not be safe for the rest of the constituency. Although your campus Queer Resource Center or Diversity Office may be a beautiful and accommodating space in many regards, it could be a landmine of membership woes for your group.
Tip #4: Avoid Overly Public Spaces
Dorm lounges and high-traffick areas are also important to avoid. These places may not be overtly queer in their design, but anyone with any reservations about being seen will be certain to stay far, far away. We often used rooms in community centers like the Women’s Community Center or the Chicano Community Center, which also had the added function of making our students of color and female students feel included. Renting out rooms in the campus student center (especially those near the backs of hallways that likely wouldn’t see any traffic not intended for our events) was also an effective strategy. Finding neutral spaces that won’t intimidate closeted, questioning, and/or straight-identified students can be key in ensuring that you are attracting a diverse group of people who truly need your help and whose help you truly need.
It’s not always easy, but as you can see, addressing the issues questioning, straight-identified, and student of color members can be fulfilling and can ultimately be vital to the survival of your group. It is no secret that the groups that have worked the hardest at inclusion are the ones that have tended to last the longest and have had the most well attended events. If you want the ability to make a positive impact on as many students as possible, then outreach to these communities is a necessity. Good luck with implementation and be on the lookout for part two of this series on making Hetero University seem a little more comfortable for everyone.
Source: Jesse Evans, Campus Pride, 2005.