Emerson should up its LGBTQ-friendliness with new cultural center

by Beacon Staff • November 17, 2011

strongTau Zaman/strong

The summer after my term as LGBTQ Commissioner in the Student Government Association, I was ecstatic to learn that Emerson College jumped to  number one in the Princeton Review’s ranking of most LGBTQ-friendly colleges. I was proud of the progress we’d made as an institution, and felt that I was contributing to it through my work as an resident assistant and as vice president of SGA the following year.

I was less excited upon discovering that another year later, Emerson dropped to number three. This seemed to bother no one but me. People’s response to this news: we ought to celebrate how other colleges are becoming more accepting of LGBTQ students, and furthermore this news is not necessarily an indicator of how we as an institution are slipping in our efforts to help them.

The truth is, we are slipping. Every moment that we don’t look for new ways to improve the quality of life for LGBTQ students at Emerson, we perpetuate the culture of complacency that’s held us back from making so many advancements for them.

I think one of the biggest steps we ought to take is establishing a staffed LGBTQ center as a resource for students. An initiative calling for this passed in SGA more than a year ago. I’ve only really seen one argument in opposition to it: The Cultural Center we already have should suffice, and we ought to just make better use of it. I don’t think this is valid, as the argument conflates racial identity as a culture with sexual/gender identity as a culture, which, while perhaps inter-influential, are two distinct spheres of identity.

We already have a Center for Spiritual Life separate from the Cultural Center, because we recognize that religion/spirituality is its own distinct experience. Those students are not at all segregated for being religious; they just use another space. And, we already have an LGBTQ Commissioner on SGA distinct from the Multicultural Commissioner, because we recognize that they represent two separate aspects of student life.

We’d all benefit from more communal spaces on campus. An LGBTQ center would serve as a place for students to host programming, hold forums to explore the depths of issues facing their generation, and just socialize/unwind in a space that celebrates one aspect of who they are — much as the Cultural Center and Center for Spiritual Life do.

But the center is only one step. The larger issue we must address is our resistance to helping LGBTQ students, as a result of thinking they already have all they need. “But Emerson is gay-friendly; every space is a safe space here,” I’m told when discussing safe-space programs, or polling people on the prospect of an LGBTQ learning community as a housing option.

Emerson is not the perfect haven for LGBTQ students. Even here I’ve heard hate speech in passing; even here I’ve had students confide in me that they’re terrified of coming out of the closet; even here I’ve met with transgender constituents who feel that their college is only LGB-friendly.

Let me make this clear: I love Emerson. When I got here, I was blown away by how people here were so much more tolerant, educated, and worldly than the people I knew from my hometown of Cranston, R.I., which suffers from stifling homogeneity. I think perhaps a lot of new students felt this way too, and threw themselves into Emerson’s big gay welcoming arms with a sigh of relief as a long-awaited feeling of belonging washed over them.

But this feeling — seductive, and validating — can be dangerous. It blinds us to the long road we have ahead of us to finding real equality and justice. Our welcoming environment constructs a narrative with premature closure: I was a kid growing up in X, but felt like an outcast because of Y or Z, but then I came to Emerson and everything was resolved. This narrative is harmful because it cements a lazy mentality.

It’s tough to bring up this topic without sounding ungrateful of how truly wonderful Emerson is in comparison to other less-friendly colleges. But, I’ve seen too many students brush past other advocates for great causes on campus, because we’re all too busy to help, because we all think we’re progressive enough, because someone else can take up the cause. This is the mentality we’ve adopted for anyone who dares talk about social justice, who brings up topics that are uncomfortable but urgent, who forces us to reevaluate our status quo to see if we can better serve those we overlook due to our privilege.

I’m saying this as a wake-up call to all of us at Emerson. The next time we slip further down in the rankings of LGBTQ-friendly colleges, while others climb their way up, it won’t be because others just “got on our level.” It’ll be because they’re establishing the spaces and resources we don’t have, combating the silent prejudices we don’t acknowledge, and asking themselves what more they can do, while we boast about how much we already do. It’ll be because they’re innovating, while we’re resting on our laurels.

emTau Zaman is a junior political communication major and the executive vice president of the Student Government Association. Zaman can be reached at tauseef_zaman@emerson.edu/em