September 10, 2002

LGBT Center Fights To End Heterosexism

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To some, a rainbow flag would seem to be the last thing they would expect to see on a trek across the Agriculture Quad. But, if you look up to the third floor of Caldwell Hall, you can’t miss the multi-colored flag that hangs proudly out of the building’s window.

The flag marks the home of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center.

According to center’s website, its mission is to, “coordinate the efforts of the entire Cornell University community to ensure the inclusion of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and to eliminate heterosexism and gender identity oppression.”

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays students can come into the center to hang out, talk to a staff member, ask questions, grab pamphlets on sexuality, safe sex and local resources, get free safer sex supplies and buttons or even take out movies or books from the center’s own library.

“We think it’s the responsibility of the Cornell Library system to provide the common stuff. So, we have a lot of things that other centers might not spend their money on. For example, we have comic books and lesbian pulp fiction,” the Interim Office Manager, Mel Halberstadt said of the center’s library.

The center itself is a comfortable place with rainbow pillows on most of the chairs and on the couch. Huge posters that say “Family is Relative” and advertise the television show “Queer as Folk” hang on the walls.

“It’s a really good time to hang out in here. Students hang out for hours and hours at a time here,” Halberstadt said.

According to the center’s co-ordinator, Gwendolyn Dean, the center’s biggest challenge is a, “general tendency not to want to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity and silence isn’t particularly affirmative.”

Christopher Dial ’04, the co-president of OUTreach, a support group for gay men, agreed.

“I think the majority of the heterosexual community actively avoids sexual minority issues. If a white person stands on a corner with a sign that says, ‘I support black rights,’ no one’s going to say ‘I think deep down you’re black.’ But, if a straight person stands on a corner with a sign that says, ‘I support LGBT rights,’ then people will immediately question his or her sexuality,” he said.

“I can understand not wanting to be misidentified because I don’t like being labeled as straight because I’m not,” he added.

To overcome this problem, the center tries to run various programs.

This semester, Out in the World, the center’s support group for graduate students will put together a Miss/Mister Drag Pageant.

“Hopefully Cornell will host the first ever Miss and Mister Ivy League, which would happen in the spring,” Halberstadt said.

The center is also hosting their annual leadership retreat and a coffee house every Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. in the center.

“It’s important to be able to model how to talk relatively casually about sexual orientation and gender identity. We do lots of programs so that, in a more passive way, people are aware that there is an LGBT community,” Dean said.

Some students agreed that the center is important but feel detached from its mission.

“I don’t think the resource center is psychologically accessible to people. I don’t feel like it addresses the needs of people who are at the beginning stages of coming out,” one student who wished to remain anonymous said.

However, the center does have resources for those students who may not be as comfortable with their sexualities, according to Halberstadt.

“If someone doesn’t feel comfortable coming into the center, we can chat over Instant Messenger or on e-mail or on the phone. As long as they’re willing to take a small step, we can usually do a lot to accommodate their personal comfort level,” she said.

Originally, the center was a compromise between students and the administration.

“It was a solution when some students and other members of the LGBT community were interested in getting a living and learning center. The resource center was what they were offered instead,” Dean explained.

While she admits that she is biased, she added that she feels the resource center is more effective than a living and learning center because it is able to, “have a larger impact on the campus. Having it be residential would affect a small number of students,” she said.

Some find the center to be an unwelcoming place and wonder how exactly it affects most students.

“I wonder if [the LGBT resource center] isn’t the same as some other organizations that are open to anyone so they can get funding but they’re not really inviting,” said Risley Residential Advisor (R.A.) Genger Charles ’04.

“Now that I’m an R.A. I can show up to anything and say I’m there for a program but as a regular student I wouldn’t go there,” she said.

Orlando Soria ’04 feels unwelcome in the center as well.

“I think you feel like you need a reason to go there, you don’t just want to show up,” he said.

Perhaps because students may feel intimidated by the office, the center also attempts to reach outside of its own four-walled office.

“One of the biggest strengths of this center as opposed to other campuses is that our coordinator, Gwendolyn, has a really good global perspective. Racism, classism, homophobia and sexism all perpetuate each other. There is nothing that is not a gay issue,” Halberstadt said.

Therefore, last semester the center ran a Marlon Briggs movie series that was co-sponsored with the Multi-cultural Living and Learning Unit. They worked with the Latino Studies Program to bring speakers from New York City. During Women’s History Month, the center joined with the Women’s Resource Center to create posters of notable women to be displayed on TCAT buses throughout March.

“Collaboration is really important. LGBT people are everywhere, so running everything separately is kind of silly,” Dean said.

Dial applauds the center’s philosophy.

“I fully believe that equal rights for sexual minorities will not be attained until women are viewed equal to men,” he said.

But, Charles argued that when she tried to program with the center, they proved to be uncooperative.

Last semester Risley ran a weekly program where students would get together and watch MTV’s The Real World.

“I wanted someone to come speak about depictions of LGBT people in the media. The Real World seemed like a good start because there’s always ‘a gay,’ and this time the lesbian was psycho. They were supposed to get back to me after I called them but the program didn’t happen because I wasn’t contacted. They seem to like Risley a lot, but they’d rather work with us on their terms. I don’t want to deal with them anymore because I don’t like to deal with bureaucracy that’s not going to deal well with me,” she said.

Soria also has problems with the structure of the center itself.

“As a gay male, I just don’t identify with transgendered people. I think it’s a completely different situation. I feel that just because you understand same-sex desire doesn’t mean you’re going to understand the idea that someone feels they were intended to be a different gender,” a student said.

Dial, however, feels differently about the place of the T in LGBT.

“The needs [of sexual minorities and gender minorities] are similar enough that division is not healthy between the two,” he said.

As for how effective th
e center has been in its mission to, “eliminate heterosexism and gender identity oppression,” Dial said, “Ithaca has a vibrant LGBT community but I think Cornell has big shoes to fill to reach that.”

Dean added that how much homophobia a student will face is, “uneven.”

“It depends on where you are and who you know,” Dean said.

Isaac Spencer ’04, who frequently visits the center, said, “Personally, I’ve never experienced any bias. Maybe that’s because I can pass as a straight person if I want to.”

Halberstadt agreed that homophobia varies.

“A student who is openly LGBT will have an incredible support network. A student who is not as comfortable will feel more isolated and may experience more homophobia with out a support network,” she said.

Dean believes that while many students may not understand what the center does, the Cornell community is supportive.

“Our funding line was made permanent at end of last year, which we feel is a very supportive move on the part of the University,” she said.

She added that, “our budget is very small. We’re better off than some places, though. Some [resource centers] are kept on incredible shoe strings. I know of one school where the director had to fund-raise for her whole budget, including her salary.”

“Only University of Pennsylvania has a more extensive center,” Dean said.

Archived article by Freda Ready