April 22, 2008

LGBT Advocacy: A 40 Year Tradition Continues

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In 1968, Cornell students created the Student Homophile League, making Cornell the second university in the country to have a gay student organization. In the past 40 years, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender activism at Cornell has continued to evolve and support the LGBT community.
An exhibit in Olin Library titled “Queer Cornell: LGBT student activism, 1968-2008” opened on April 11. It displays quarter cards, flyers and pictures chronicling LGBT activism on campus since the SHL was created in 1968.
“A lot of it looks familiar. It all looks like something I would have done,” said Cassy Griff ’11, a student staffer at the LGBT resource center. “The quarter cards that they had and the posters that they put up kind of look the same. They were a little less sophisticated, but had the same bend — to get students aware of what is happening in their community.”
The exhibit will stay up through Reunion ’08, when alumni who were students in 1968 and onwards and were around to see the progression of LGBT activism will come back to campus.
“I always thought that the gay organizations were something that was relatively new to Cornell and the Ivy League,” said Olivia Tai, president of MOSAIC for queer and same-gender loving People of Color. “Seeing [the exhibit] really inspires me. It was cool seeing that Gaypril had a really big legacy at Cornell.”
Cornell’s LGBT community coordinates Gaypril annually to raise community awareness through a series of cultural and educational programs. The concept of Gaypril started in 1971, but occurred in May and was called May Gay.
Some other changes that have occurred over the past 40 years include the broadening of the numbers of LGBT organizations on campus.
“When I was a first year student in 1999, Haven didn’t exist,” said Sarah Doherty ’03, office manager at the LGBT resource center. “Organized student activity has blossomed in the past 10 years. I think there have been upswings and downswings in terms of organized student activity and now our community is better funded, has more resources, and is more a part of Cornell.”
Haven is the umbrella organization for most of the LGBT groups on campus, and was established five years ago. The LGBT resource center is located in Caldwell Hall and was opened 14 years ago.
According to Doherty, the LGBT community is now doing more social activities in order to establish that they have a presence, and make sure that there is a welcoming space.
“There is now a greater diversity in terms of what the student organizations explicitly work on, and Cornell is more welcoming,” Doherty said.
According to Tai, when LGBT activism started on campus, the biggest efforts were directed at combating open homophobia, but now activism is directed at combating the more subtle forms of homophobia, where people claim to be liberal and accepting of the LGBT community but in reality are biased against it.
“I think that what everyone knows about LGBT activism is that it’s usually extremely provocative and seems to hinge upon shock values,” said Tai. “I think that they should realize that we use other ways of promoting awareness such as through educational programs outside of academic classes and holding forums, just making sure that these issues are being actively discussed.”
LGBT activism at Cornell has always supported active discussion of pertinent topics. In 1969 the SHL brought prominent LGBT activist Barbara Gittings to campus. 350 students attended her lecture, which was called “A Lesbian Speaks for Herself.”
According to Tai, one of the things that the LGBT community in general is calling for is for more people to be active. There is a stigma in the LGBT community at Cornell and across the United States that people who are openly gay and comfortable feel like they don’t need to be part of the community.
“People are ignorant of hate crimes because they are dissociating themselves from the larger movement and do not realize how much it affects them as individuals,” Tai said.
Tai added that activism is still much needed at Cornell because the community needs to become aware of new issues such as heterosexism, which is the institutionalization of straightness as being normal, and it is assumed that everyone wants to be in a monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationship.