Friday, November 12, 2010

LGBT Tragedies

In the aftermath of recent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teen suicides prompted by bullying, universities nationwide have stepped up efforts to prevent similar tragedies on their own campuses.

Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge Sept. 22 after his roommate broadcast his sexual encounter with another man on the Internet. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s friend Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy and cybersnooping and could face up to 5 years in prison if convicted.

Among ceremonies nationwide, candlelight vigils were organized (avoid passive voice) in Wisconsin and Michigan to honor the victims, like Clementi. At the University of Maryland, the Pride Alliance and 200 students, faculty and staffers also held a vigil earlier last month.

At the vigil, “we wanted to send a message of support to all students, especially those who may be struggling with harassment or feeling alone and depressed,” said Pride Alliance President Spencer Brennen. “The vigil consisted of two parts: a lighting of candles and reciting of poetry or other inspirational thoughts by attendees that they deemed appropriate,” he said.

“I wanted the event to be ¬heartfelt and thus didn't have a scheduled speaker, but wanted people to be moved to speak in response to such emotional circumstances,” he added.
Aside from the vigil, Pride Alliance organizes social events, movies, lecture series, films, activism and community service. “We constantly work to create a safe and welcoming environment on campus,” he said.

Another response to the suicides has been the university’s “The One Project,” a first-year experience program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally (LGBTQA) students in College Park. The group created videos on YouTube as part of a series called “It Gets Better,” where supporters speak about their own experiences with coming out and being bullied and inspire viewers to overcome these hurdles -- essentially how “it gets better.”

The project, which caught the attention of the National Orientation Directors Association, received the 2010 NODA Initiative Program Award in October.

“ I think [College Park] is a very supportive campus in general,” Brennen said. “I have very rarely come across any hostile behavior, but I think a lot of LGBT students are more conscious or worried about their safety than straight students.”
In fact, only one on-campus hate crime involving a student’s sexual orientation was reported at the university in 2009, according to Clery Act statistics, a compilation of campus crime statistics.

“It involved “malicious destruction of property,” said Capt. Marc Limansky, a spokesman for the university police. “A male [resident assistant] called in a report that someone ...wrote anti-homosexual remarks on the exterior of their door permanently on their dry erase board that said 'Welcome to the gay house,’ along with a drawing of a penis” he said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison also is working to combat issues of homosexual bullying and harassment.

About 350 people attended the university’s candlelight vigil on Oct. 20 as part of their ``Stop the Silence'' anti-bullying campaign, a forum where students, faculty and administrators shared their own experiences of bullying.

One-third of LGBTQ, or 33 percent, and transgender, 38 percent, of students, faculty and staff have considered leaving their institution due to the ``challenging'' climate, according to statistics reported by Campus Pride's 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.

“We wanted to honor those who have been impacted or who have committed suicide,” said Robin Matthies, interim director of the LGBT Campus Center.

Matthies believes that even though there aren’t statistics to show frequent hate crimes, some incidents go unreported. “There are housing incidents where people are bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said. “They’re more subtle but it doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact on our students.”

Next semester the school of education will host author James St. James, who wrote Freak Show, a novel that follows a gay student who is tormented and bullied.

“There will be book discussions on this so that the School of Education can work with students, who are going to be future teachers, on topics of sexual orientation discrimination,” she said.

At Michigan State University, the LGBT Resource Center also held a candlelight vigil last month (?) called “Make It Better: A Vigil to End Homophobia and Transphobia.” An estimated 225 people attended.

"We lit candles and had a moment of silence,” said Deanna Hurlbert, assistant director/LGBT Resource Center Liaison. “We also plan to increase depression and suicide training and outreach within the LBGT student leader community and staff of the LGBTRC,” she said.

Maryland is listed on the honor role of the Campus Climate Index, a Web site that rates colleges for their LGBT-friendliness, with a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars according to Luke Jensen, director of Maryland’s LGBT Equity. “But that doesn't mean there isn't still plenty of work to do here,'' he said.