A More Welcoming Place

Beyond the Silence was written by Ellen H. Brown for CWRU Magazine's Summer 2002 issue. The full article is also available in PDF format.

For readability, this article uses "gay" synonymously with "gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT)."

It's 1:30 on an April afternoon, and Glenn Nicholls has just returned to his office after breaking bread with incoming President Edward Hundert and a group of CWRU students. During the informal luncheon, explains the vice-president for student affairs, an officer from Spectrum talked about what the University could do to make the campus more welcoming for GLBT students. The student, he says, described the environment as "pretty good" but claimed it would be friendlier if GLBT students were provided with a safe space and a liaison. The response of President Hundert "was very affirming, just as you'd expect," says Mr. Nicholls.

While Mr. Nicholls concedes that the campus isn't especially "gay friendly," he insists that it isn't a hostile place, either, pointing to the University's anti-discrimination policy and domestic partner benefits as signposts of its support. Still, Mr. Nicholls says that CWRU could listen more attentively to students' concerns. "It makes sense," he says, to assign a liaison from his staff to help GLBT students. And it makes sense to create a Safe Zone program, which would serve as a reminder of the University's support, he adds. In programs at some colleges and universities, faculty, staff, and students are trained to offer support to GLBT students. Given the concerns raised by students and the recommendations of the CWRU President's Commission on Undergraduate Education and Life, he believes both of these notions merit an examination this academic year.

Mr. Nicholls notes that a number of staff members in student affairs have already placed "safe space" posters on their doors, announcing that it's a safe place to talk about a variety of topics, including homosexuality. But a Safe Zone program would be more comprehensive.

On a similar note, Mr. Nicholls and Mayo Bulloch (GRS '80, education) support the idea of establishing a place on campus that would provide staff, programming, and advocacy for GLBT students. "It's a group that's isolated and could benefit from having a place" where they could congregate, says Ms. Bulloch, director of educational enhancement programs at CWRU.

She admits that it's difficult to teach students to accept differences in other people "without seeming preachy and turning people off." But she believes it's a crucial endeavor, and one that needs to begin when students come together at freshmen orientation. Orientation, she says, also allows CWRU to discuss academic freedom and freedom of speech.

A campaign called Share the Vision, launched in 1990, has also played an important role in educating students, according to Ms. Bulloch, chair of the Share the Vision committee. Originally part of an orientation program introducing students to values embraced by the University, such as diversity and mutual respect, Share the Vision works toward building a humane campus community.

Four years ago, the committee began sponsoring programs throughout the school year, as well as during orientation. One such event, a candlelight vigil in memory of Matthew Shepard, was fueled by a nationwide reaction to the brutal murder of the gay college student in Wyoming. The turnout for the vigil was high. "People talked very personally about how they had been touched by his death," says Ms. Bulloch. "I think because he [Matthew] was their age, it really captured the spirit of the student body." In recent years, the committee has planned other GLBT-related events, including a forum focusing on law, religion, and homosexuality.

The residence halls provide another venue for discussing sensitive topics, according to Sue Nickel-Schindewolf, associate director for residence life. The Office of Housing and Residence Life does its best, she says, to integrate GLBT-related perspectives into programs. Sometimes, though, those discussions take another shape, she notes, referring to a recent incident in which students defaced a poster with hateful speech, some homophobic. Oftentimes, the residence hall assembles students to discuss such matters. "You can't necessarily change people's ideas," she says, "but we have a responsibility to challenge hateful speech."

As for the hateful chalkings that appear on the pavement, Mr. Nicholls says, "We try to get someone out there to remove them as quickly as possible." But, he adds, the University is also obligated to protect free speech, even if that speech is hateful. And striking that balance, he concedes, can be difficult.