By Will Allison, published October 21, 1988
On campuses today, the major source of homophobic prejudice is no longer governmental or religious institutions--it is the students themselves. Despite the administration's efforts, campus life for gay students at CWRU is not untouched by this wave of peer bigotry.
The clash between homophobes and gay students often occurs in university housing. Many homophobes have considered the prospect of "getting stuck" with a gay roommate. Gay students have similar worries about anti-gay living partners. Students in university housing have little choice in the matter, though.
"Sexual preference is not a variable we consider," said Donald Kamalsky, director of University Housing and Residence Life. "Legally I don't think we can make assignments based on sexual preference."
Kamalsky said homophobia is a reason for room change requests "occasionally, but if the question is do we keep statistics on why people request room changes, the answer is no."
Such complaints are unlikely to receive special consideration. "With any roommate conflict we're going to address first and foremost as to how we can resolve the conflict," stated Kamalsky. "Learning to accept differences among people is part of the roommate experience."
This policy is in keeping with a statement issued by the American College Health Association in 1986. The report stated that people with AIDS "do not pose a health risk to other students or employees in the academic setting."
Homophobia is among the problems that University Housing addresses in the training of resident directors and resident assistants.
Kamalsky said that this training includes "role playing, values clarification around issues of prejudice, and helping them (RA's, RD's) understand what issues are around."
University Counseling Services also deals with the issue of homophobia. Director Jes Sellers estimates that roughly twenty victims of homophobia are counseled by the University annually.
Sellers had been working with one student for about a year who was coming to terms with his homosexuality.
Then a series of letters appeared in The Observer in the fall of 1987, condemning homosexuality and the gay lifestyle. This outbreak of homophobia brought back a loss of this student's self-esteem. Said Sellers, "That was very painful to see that one would be so vulnerable to the attacks of a prejudiced person."
As a result of this and other instances of prejudice (a racist cartoon in The Observer; allegedly racially motivated confrontations at the Spot) the University created "Speaking Out Against Prejudice" forums.
Patrick Deese, associate dean of students, served as chairman for the Committee on Prejudice in 1987-88. The forums were designed to increase awareness of prejudice and make strides toward its reduction. "We are prepared to prosecute anyone who harasses gay students," said Deese. "We're prepared to make sure gays enjoy the same rights everyone else enjoys."
In the last year, three to four cases involving homophobic harassment have been brought to Deese's attention. He pointed out that these were disciplinary cases, however, and not official grievances. Deese also noted that some of these incidents were born of completely different problems, and homophobia entered the picture only at the name calling stage.
As the only openly gay staff or faculty member, Jerry Bores, assist. ant controller for Student Accounts Receivables and Student Loans, has gained a keen insight on the state of homophobia at CWRU.
"For faculty and staff at Case Western Reserve the reality is that, in general, the atmosphere here is very open and accepting," said Bores. "I have seen no overt hostility to anyone who is gay or lesbian.., there are lots of gay and lesbian staff and faculty members (at CWRU). People feel that this is a very conservative institution and that there may be a problem if someone were to come out. In twelve years, I have seen no evidence to support this.
"Students are a different story," said Bores as he compared their attitude to that of the faculty and staff.
Bores sees three primary attitudes among students toward gays on campus. "The majority of the people don't care one way or the other. Then there are some students who are very supportive. Finally there are other students, generally in groups, specifically Greeks, who have a problem with gay people."
Said Deese, "All fraternities I've dealt with have been very hesitant to pledge students they thought were gay beforehand."
Fraternities generally don't have specific policies regarding gay students, but sexual orientation is definitely a consideration.
"I would never pledge a gay person in my fraternity," said one CWRU fraternity president.
The vice president of another fraternity said, "Realistically it (sexual orientation) is taken into account when we give bids, but no one comes out and says it."
Sellers offered a perspective on these groups. He said the most prejudiced groups tend to be well defined, exclusive social groups, such as religious groups and Greek organizations.
"These groups tend to thrive on similarities," said Sellers. "If they are not careful, they will begin to decrease their tolerance and appreciation of diversity."
Perhaps the students who are most adversely affected by homophobia are the gay and lesbian members of such social organizations. Sellers said such students generally hide their sexual orientation and "are more cautious, tending to assimilate to the social norm. This has a harmful effect on how a person sees himself or herself."
Sellers explained that people have a social self and a personal self. "When these selves are disparate, social and psychological distress results. It's really hard for a lesbian to be 'out' in a sorority or for a gay man to be 'out' in a fraternity...The college atmosphere needs to be conducive to learning about oneself as well as learning about physics."
The Lesbian Gay Student Union, founded in 1978, provides a setting for such exploration of one's sexual self at CWRU. "The goal of the LGSU is to create an opportunity to meet other people who don't consider sexual orientation a barrier," said President Greg Davis. "The LGSU also acts to inform students of political and social issues that affect the gay community... We offer a support network for gays and lesbians on campus."
Despite the efforts of the administration and gay and lesbian students, it is unlikely that homophobia will ever completely disappear at CWRU.
Sellers summed up his approach on how progress can be made toward this goal: "If I had a prescription for people who are afraid of homosexuals, it would be that they must first realize it is an irrational fear, and that the best way to combat irrational fear is to learn more about what you fear."