Being Gay at SNHU
Posted on March 15, 2009
Pat and I finally saw Milk last night, the wonderful bio-pic about Harvey Milk. Sean Penn was stunningly good in the title role and most deservedly won the Best Actor Award at the Oscars. His work is a reminder of the transformative power of a great actor, the ability to fully assume a role and become the character. As much as I love the early work of DeNiro or Pacino, for years now they have been unable to transcend their own larger-than-life presence. No matter the roles they ostensibly play, you sit and know you are watching DeNiro and Pacino. Not so with Penn.
The film also reminded us of how recent is the civil rights effort around sexual orientation and the sad irony that just months ago Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, was passed in California. The battle over Proposition 6, an attempt to roll back anti-discrimination codes for gays, is a centerpiece of Milk and the event that propelled Harvey Milk to be the first openly gay candidate to win a major election (major in that context, anyway) in America. For all the progress of the last thirty years (Milk was assassinated in 1979), I fear that bigotry against gays and lesbians remains more widely accepted than it is for racism and misogyny.
Here is a simple test. Would two male students holding hands on campus draw any attention? Would two women sitting and kissing in front of Frost Hall draw stares? My guess is that they would and that most of the gay and lesbian members of our campus community would be uncomfortable in either scenario, while no heterosexual couple would give it second thought. I suspect the discomfort, and perhaps even danger, would be amplified if we shifted the setting to downtown Manchester.
I am not a psychologist, but I have a sense that people become most fulfilled when the external world allows them to live in a way that aligns with their internal sense of self, when the ways they live their lives feel most authentic. If a person operates with a strong desire to teach and nurture and be around young people, but for whatever reasons he or she becomes a stock broker, he or she is not likely to be happy until that inner set of needs finds alignment with work that feeds those needs. Finding one’s vocation is one matter, but imagine what happens when something as strong and fundamental as sexual orientation and love are suppressed by a world that won’t accept you as yourself.
The film captures both dynamics well: the societal oppression of the seventies and the inner toll it took. Suicide is a dark and lurking presence throughout the film.
I worry that our campus does not yet fully welcome its gay and lesbian members. My theory is that the issue is a lot less present for our students than some would fear. What I love about this generation of young people is that it seems so much less hung up on definitions of race and sexual orientation. I’m not naive about this and there is a strain of homophobia that continues to perist among some students and I think in athletic culture more generally. However, my guess is that there is greater discomfort among faculty and staff than among our students.
However, I wonder if our cultural norms have lagged behind our individual realities. If there was a way of testing this notion, would we find that SNHU’s culture is actually more accepting than it appears? If you go to https://www.snhu.edu/2379.asp you can find a list of faculty and staff who are part of our campus Safe Zones network, essentially a group of individuals who have declared their support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. It emerged 11 years ago from a Wellness Center effort called SNHU Outright, an initiative to begin a campus dialogue about sexual orientation. If we renewed the call for volunteers to be listed as Safe Zone members, I like to think that scores of our faculty and staff would join. Perhaps we ought to do so as that test of where our culture stands today.
When I arrived at SNHU I noted the Safe Zone stickers on office doors and was surprised that we still needed them in 2003. My hope is that the whole of the campus can be a Safe Zone and that we can finally drop the notion of Safety as a measure of acceptance. If that’s the best we can do we have a long way to go. Religious fundamentalists, social conservatives, and pure and simple bigotry carried the day in the Proposition 8 fight, but they should never exert influence on a university campus when they inhibit the free expression of people’s most essential rights and sense of being. Let’s declare ourselves an Enlightenment and Freedom Zone.