LGBT community demands safe space
What started as a group of people marching down College Avenue quickly grew to a crowd of more than 20 people lying outside the entrance of the Rutgers Student Center.
"We're here. We're queer. We want safety in our homes," they said in unison.
The chant reflected their greater purpose of calling attention to the need for gender-neutral, queer friendly spaces on campus, an issue brought to light by the recent death of University first-year student Tyler Clementi.
"Two core students have committed suicide now in a year at Rutgers," said Robert O'Brien, Department of Anthropology assistant instructor. "This tragedy makes it very clear why such a space is necessary."
School of Arts and Sciences first-year student Dharun Ravi and Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy first-year student Molly Wei were arrested Tuesday for illegally placing a camera in Clementi's room and transmitting a sexual encounter.
A number of University students have met with Residence Life this past year requesting safe spaces for queer students, only to be rejected, O'Brien said.
"People are afraid to leave their rooms, and if you're not even safe in your own room, what on earth are you going to do?" said Aaron Lee, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
But the issue extends past the protest, and efforts for safe spaces have already been made at places on campus like Demarest Hall on the College Avenue campus.
"[Demarest is] actively trying to become an LGBT safe space so that members of the … LGBTQ community can live in a space where they're accepted and can become a part of the university community without worrying about bias and intimidation," said Jordan Gochman, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
Gochman said it is important that safe spaces are established so people can feel safe at the University without having to deal with confusion and sometimes intimidation.
"People should have a right to feel safe at this university and this is a good step in the right direction," Gochman said. "Before transitioning straight into a regular dorm environment, they should be able to live in a place where other people are very open minded and very able to accept things quickly."
However, not all students at the University agree with their efforts.
"Any time I keep hearing the word safe space I keep thinking if you take a group of people who want to be recognized and not fear for themselves and put them in a house or an area or building by themselves as a safe house," said Ehud Cohen, a School of Engineering junior. "It sounds like segregation."
Cohen said he understands the positive side their cause, but feels there should be more reform and learning and not a push to separate.
O'Brien and his students originally convened in the Douglass Campus Center and eventually joined members from Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Rutgers University and the LGBT community at Voorhees Mall on the College Avenue campus.
Together they walked toward the Rutgers Student Center chanting, "Civility without safety, over our queer bodies."
Despite the crowd of spectators they attracted at their destination, some viewers were insulted by their actions.
A group of students from Davidson Hall on Busch campus, where Clementi lived, rebuked the protest, arguing that the University community should mourn over Clementi's death.
The students refused to comment.
The idea for the rally began yesterday during O'Brien's class, "Sexuality and Eroticism in the Global Perspective."
A student in his class was a member of a Gay-Straight Alliance at Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, the school where Ravi and Wei graduated, O'Brien said. The student expressed her sense of failure to him.
"I started to comfort her and really couldn't focus on class," O'Brien said. "So we had a really good class discussion about this and then I said ‘What do you think about rallying tonight?'"
Their reasoning behind rallying last night is that the protest fell in line with the inauguration of Project Civility, a University campaign to promote civil behavior on campus.
"We need to point out that civility requires acknowledgment of oppressions and inequalities that many people walk though their days not experiencing," O'Brien said. "We are rejecting the notion of civility without safety and putting our bodies on the line to do so."
He said people of different orientations and races face uncivil circumstances in their daily lives.
"Papering over those issues with talk of being more civil toward one another is a really great public relations campaign and is really terrible public policy," O'Brien said.
He decided that it would be good to hold a "die-in," a form of protest where protestors pretend to be dead.
"[It's] like ‘love-in,' only representing the tragic and unnecessary deaths that are on Rutgers University's hands because they haven't provided the space," O'Brien said.
Though O'Brien acknowledges there has been social advancement for queer people since he was in 1985, society has not yet fully accepted the LGBT community as a whole.
"I know particularly that some of the transgender students that I have spoken to think it's probably more like 1965 than 1985 in terms of acceptance for them," O'Brien said.
If a heterosexual encounter were recorded, O'Brien said public reaction to the tragedy would have been much different.
"We live in a sexist society that would make judgments about that woman, when she didn't know she was being taped," O'Brien said. "They might even high-five the guy who might feel nothing but shame and remorse that this happened and its an act of violation."
Regardless of the orientation, the act is visual rape perpetrated on both parties, O'Brien said.
"The fact that it was two young queer men simply compounds the problems that would have been had it been a heterosexual couple," O'Brien said.
Although female co-Chair of BiGLARU Ronni Auld has never felt unsafe on campus, she said the LGBT community needed to show their support.
"The problem is Rutgers is so diverse that we sometimes forget about people who might not feel like they are accepted," said Auld, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. "That's one thing we need to work on."
By making themselves visible at the rally, the LGBT community would be able to show those who are in the closet or unsure of their sexuality that they have a place to go, Auld said.
School of Arts and Sciences junior Kevin Miller, a protester, said what happened was an invasion of privacy and related it to his own experience as a first-year in college.
"I wouldn't say that the two people could have possibly imagined that he would have killed himself, but that doesn't excuse it at all," Miller said. "If their intentions weren't for him to kill himself, they were to humiliate him. He clearly thought that death was a better option than the humiliation."
— Neil P. Kypers contributed to the story.