Sunday, November 25, 2007
NIKKI TJARKS and ISAAC CASTRO:
SDSU’s Queer Student Leaders Speak on Campus Controversies
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.
The inspiration for this article came on October 11, 2007, when San Diego State University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Student Union (LGBTSU) was holding their annual barbecue in connection with National Coming-Out Day. It was an extravaganza of free food, elaborate costumes (this year’s event was done with a pirate theme, a departure from the sexually risqué themes used for previous events) and a win-a-date auction. But there was a minor problem: for fear of disturbing students and teachers in night classes, LGBTSU was unable to use a P.A. system. As a result, Ben Cartwright, former LGBTSU president and current director of the Associated Students’ LGBT Resource Center, literally had to yell himself hoarse to make himself heard by the crowd of up to 150 students and supporters. They had been allowed to have a boom box at the back of the event, near the food tables — but even that had been a major concession, grudgingly granted by the school administration.
I couldn’t help but wonder if other groups on campus had to do their events under similar restrictions, and then and there I determined to interview the current leadership of the LGBTSU. I also wanted to give media exposure to Queer activists at SDSU other than Ben Cartwright, who did a lot to reinvigorate the organization but is no longer an undergraduate and therefore isn’t formally active with LGBTSU. Alas, the LGBTSU president, Isaac Castro, and secretary and acting vice-president, Nikki Tjarks (pronounced “sharks”), are so busy we couldn’t get together for an interview for another month — and by that time the issues we were going to talk about had changed significantly.
First, in September a demonstration for marriage equality for same-sex couples near campus had been harassed by anti-Queer students, at least one of whom threw an egg at the participants. Then, during the night after the barbecue, LGBTSU’s rainbow flag was stolen for the fourth time in five years. By November 14, an anti-Gay slur against fraternity/sorority coordinator Doug Case had been published in an independent student newspaper, the Koala, and the regularly scheduled Wednesday night LGBTSU meeting morphed into a town-hall meeting to coordinate an event and build a rally on campus, scheduled for Monday, December 3, noon to 3 p.m., at the Free Speech Steps on campus. See www.prideatstate.org for up-to-date information on this and other Queer events at SDSU.
Zenger’s finally met up with Castro and Tjarks in the campus’s Cross-Cultural Center after the big meeting on campus November 14. They talked about the alleged hate incidents and what they feel is the real grievance Queer students face at SDSU: an attitude from the administration that regards the Queer presence on campus as an embarrassing secret to be tolerated but not publicly acknowledged or supported.
Zenger’s: Could you start by telling briefly how you got involved in the LGBTSU?
Nikki Tjarks: I got involved at the beginning of my freshman year of college, two years, three years ago. I saw a sign for the Queer Orientation, and I decided that I would go. I went by myself, and ever since then I’ve been increasingly involved in the organization until recently, when I couldn’t get any more involved.
Isaac Castro: I started coming towards the end of my first semester, beginning of my second semester. I initially went because I felt that something was missing in my life. I wanted to seek more things out to see like what other things our campus had to offer. It was after the first semester that I started getting more involved. I got increasingly involved the same way as Nikki did, and now I’m here.
Zenger’s: My initial impetus for interviewing you was to discuss some of the roadblocks you’ve had with the college administration in putting on events, like at the Gay barbecue you couldn’t have any amplified sound. Could you tell me about some of the problems? And, to your knowledge, do other groups on campus have similar problems in getting their events sponsored, or do there seem to be ways in which the LGBTSU is singled out?
Tjarks: Other organizations also face most of the difficulties that we encounter. Other organizations are not allowed to have amplified sound unless certain conditions are met. Putting on the barbecue is very difficult because of the process you have to go through with food inspections and safety things that have to be taken care of. All the logistics that you have to organize as far as the room reservations and getting the actual event approved, once all of this other approval has taken place. But this isn’t something that other organizations don’t have to do.
Ours would be more difficult in that putting on something that you’re titling, “It’s O.K. to Drop the Soap,” or —
Castro: “Tan Your Buns.”
Tjarks: — is a lot more difficult to put on. We used that because it attracted the attention of the Gay community. This semester we tried something new, less controversial, because our barbecue is already so well established we feel we don’t need to make that extra ploy on sexuality. We’re also very interested in diversity issues and cultural issues, which is something that we don’t usually address in our organization.
We run into trouble when it comes to off-campus activities like the Pride Parade. On campus, the university has to support us to a certain degree. But not things like the Pride Parade or AIDS Walk.
Castro: There are other parades the campus does participate in.
Tjarks: The MLK Parade — the Martin Luther King parade —
Castro: There’s a double standard. They always get support.
Tjarks: The Cross-Cultural Center will sometimes go to certain organizations and ask if there’s something that they’re doing for that month, some kind of remembrance or heritage or history month. They’ll go and ask, “What is it that you’re doing? How can we help you? Are you going to be involved in this event, a familiar San Diego or perhaps nationwide event, and how can we help you do that?”
That rarely, if at all, happens for us. We usually get something in October because it’s National Coming-Out Month, and we always have our barbecue on the same day: National Coming-Out Day, October 11. People have come to know that, expect it, and therefore act upon it, but only to a certain degree. We didn’t receive any funding from the Cross-Cultural Center, though I don’t that that was any fault of their own. I love the Cross-Cultural Center. But things, for example, like the Pride Parade that takes place in July. It’s a huge event. It’s enormous. There are hundreds of thousands of people there.
Castro: The largest parade in San Diego.
Tjarks: We go as LGBTSU and represent, not LGBTSU, but San Diego State. We’re not representing the Gay community per se, but the university community. We march in the parade wearing red and black, we paint our cars, and we ask that university officials and representatives join us in this parade and provide us funding so we can decorate our floats with SDSU themes and Gay themes, and that we have some kind of like backing and support from the university.
But very rarely do we get that. We have to pull teeth to get an important person in the hierarchy to show up and sit in our floats. We don’t ask them to walk. We don’t ask them to do anything. All they have to do is show up, sit down and look like they’re having a good time. It’s very hard even to get that kind of support from the university. And funding for it is really difficult. I think this past year we were able to get $150 in store credit from the bookstore, and a couple of flats of water from the Aztec Shops.
Castro: What support we do get, is only because in those departments there are LGBT people working there. So when we go ask them for stuff, we get at least some sort of support from them, which helps.
Tjarks: Right, and they make an extra effort to help us out because they realize what we’re facing. And things like the Martin Luther King parade in San Diego, a much smaller parade, gets much more funding. University officials always attend this parade. I don’t see how that’s fair, and I believe — correct me if I’m wrong — it happens in December.
Tjarks: January? So people aren’t even around. Most of the time they’re on campus break.
Castro: In years past, when we proposed that the campus take on the Pride Parade, there was a concern like, “Oh, it’s not during school session.” But they give much support to the MLK Parade, and that parade is not during school session either. This year they started helping out more, and next year they decided to take it on. But we’ll see exactly what gets done.
Tjarks: And we’ve got nothing to compare it to as far as AIDS Walk goes. But AIDS Walk is a huge thing for our entire campus, actually.
Castro: It’s for everyone.
Tjarks: LGBTSU takes a special interest in it, but I know that other underrepresented student organizations on campus also do, like A. B. Samahan, which is the Filipino organization on campus; and APSA, the Asian-Pacific Student Association. Again, anything that we do throughout the community, on average, is done as members of SDSU, not LGBTSU, mainly because we’re doing LGBT-issue events and they know that. But we represent a larger campus, and LGBTSU realizes that, so we recruit other members. And we’re still not receiving support. I think one of the stipulations with AIDS Walk this year — we did get some funding from the university, but they had some interesting stipulations.
Castro: I wrote a proposal for them saying how they could help fund our registration fee, which is $35 [per person] this year .They asked, “How many people are going to be registering with you guys?” I told them that I wasn’t sure how many people were going to register with me, because it depended on how many slots, how many people we could pay for. So in the end they gave us registration for 25 people, and they gave it to us really late. It was two weeks prior to the walk. By then most people already have most of their walkers signed up. They’re just looking for donations now. So it was really hard going out and finding people who hadn’t signed with groups already, but in the end we got 25 people. That was great.
Tjarks: And didn’t they stipulate that they had to be from other departments? It couldn’t be just LGBT. It could be anyone.
Castro: Which was fine with us, because we just wanted to walk as SDSU, and we wanted to invite everyone from our campus to go. And another concern was that it’s hard to get representation out there, because like a lot of campuses, they’ll donate stuff to them. Mesa College gets T-shirts donated from the college that say, “Mesa College AIDS Walk.” We wear whatever SDSU T-shirts we get. We don’t get specialized AIDS Walk shirts. They weren’t going to fund that this year.
Zenger’s: I’d like you guys to take me through the chronology of some of the recent events that were discussed tonight. A lot of these things I hadn’t heard about. I heard about the flag being stolen. Just today I saw Ben [Cartwright]’s e-mail about the piece in the Koala. I hadn’t hears about having eggs thrown at you during the marriage equality demonstration.
Tjarks: I think the throwing of eggs at supporters of Gay marriage was the first known, tangible hate incident we can document this semester. That was early on in the semester.
Castro: I think it was September 15 or 16, I don’t remember. I’m sorry if I get the date wrong, but that’s about the time. The second one was the flag, which happened between October 10 and 11, during that nighttime, because they’re not sure exactly what time it was stolen. It falls over a two-day period. And the last one was the article about Doug Case, whom we work with and we know very well. So he’s part of our community.
There are other things that have happened, too. Some stuff that’s been reported that people don’t even know about, like with the sorority group that we have on our campus, because they deal with a lot of issues being a proactive Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and allied sorority.When they need halls, fraternities are told to go through one doorway and sororities are told to go through the other doorway. The sorority with the Queer-active women, which is called Gamma Ro Lambda, were told they can go through any door that they wanted.
Some people could thing that it’s a good thing, but they felt, “We’re a sorority. We’re going to go through the sorority door. It shouldn’t make a difference which door we go through.” They also get name-called when they’re sitting there, stuff like, “Oh, I hope I don’t have to go and sit beside the Lesbians,” and such.
Zenger’s: Were you two actually at the demonstration where eggs were thrown?
Castro: I wanted to be, but I was at work. I wasn’t even expecting the eggs to be thrown, because we’ve done little demonstrations like this before, with other groups.
Tjarks: None of us were expecting eggs to be thrown!
Castro: I don’t think anyone expects eggs outside. Supporters went with posters and everything, and then the people across the street, there’s an apartment across the street. They could see what was going on, so they made their own little posters to retaliate against the rally. That was fine. They have the right to rally about whatever issues they want, too. After a while, I guess, they escalated. They went back inside their apartments and came back with eggs. People were actually hit with eggs.
Zenger’s: Did you make any kind of report on that to campus security, and what happened?
Castro: Yes, we did. The next day there was a report sent to Chief (John) Browning, and he responded quickly. From there, there was an exchange of e-mails and such, because I think the issue happened with the police officer that they saw there. They went up to him, and someone had a poster that was for Gay marriage or something, and someone told me that he chuckled and drove off.
Zenger’s: So the next thing, the theft of the flag, there was a reference at the meeting to the flag being torn, but that’s not correct, was it? It was just stolen. And Ben Cartwright had told me the last time this happened that the flag had been stolen four times in the last five years.
Tjarks: That was correct. I can only speak about the current one and the one that happened in 2006. We just noticed one day that it wasn’t up. I was going to collect it from Meeting Services, the people that put it up. I discovered that they didn’t have it, and we didn’t have it, and therefore it was stolen. We searched throughout Meeting Services to see if we could locate it, and if it had just been misplaced somewhere, and it was nowhere to be found.
A rally was established the following week, and we had a ton of people here to support us in that. I believe it was two days later that it was returned. Someone anonymously turned it in to the information desk just outside Meeting Services. We never found out who took it. As far as we know, no damage had been done to it. And it was returned in fine condition, but we just found out that it was gone one day and got a little pissed about it. And then it was returned. We were going to kind of going through that same system. It was the same process of discovering it this past time.
Castro: We had the rally planned for this month, but then the fires occurred in San Diego, and so we felt it wasn’t right for us to rally against someone stealing our flag when something so tragic had just hit our county. So we had to push it back.
Tjarks: Right, and then this incident with Doug Case happened before we could ever get the rally back on its feet. So now it’s almost like a conjoined effort against everything, every hatred against LGBT people at SDSU.
Zenger’s: How did you guys find out about the incident with Doug? Do you pick up the Koala regularly and just happen to see his name in it?
Tjarks: I don’t know when we first picked it up, because I refuse to touch the paper. It was Adriana here in the Cross-Cultural Center that first showed me this particular blurb, article, whatever you want to call it. She shoved the paper in my face and said, “Read this.” I said, “No, I don’t want to touch that. I hate that thing.” She said, “No, you really need to read this.” So I read it, and that’s how it came to my attention. And then I spread the word to everyone else that I knew, and everyone that read it also spread the word to everyone else they knew.
Zenger’s: From what I read at the meeting, it seems like the Koala people are equal-opportunity offenders. There were some quite nasty things on that page about allegedly promiscuous straight women and that kind of stuff. But what really separated it for me was that Doug was the only person mentioned by name.
Tjarks: I asked the lawyer who spoke tonight [law professor and Gay & Lesbian Times columnist Rob DeKoven], I had originally thought that was slander. Mentioning a specific name, not a group of “people” and not an individual person identified by some sort of alias, but an actual, legal name. I had taken that for slander, and that that was against all Constitutional guarantees.
But the lawyer pointed out to me that it’s not slander, it’s a threat. I thought that was really interesting. There’s no direct threat in the article made towards Doug himself, but rather his poodle. And then some other really derogatory things were said. I don’t read the Koala frequently, but on the occasions when I have picked it up, it’s the first time that I have seen a name mentioned specifically, an individual person. And I find that horrendous.
Zenger’s: All in all, not just the specific instances we’ve been discussing, what’s the climate at SDSU towards Queer students?
Tjarks: I have problems saying that I don’t face discrimination. But I refuse to spend time with people that I don’t feel are of that quality or level of person that I want to interact with. For me, that constitutes open-mindedness and acceptance on all levels. So I won’t surround myself with people that don’t fall into that category. And I think that because of that, I don’t face any specific kind of discrimination.
In fact, most people are accepting and encouraging of my own sexual orientation. And I don’t find that the atmosphere is ever, like, way too heavy-handed. But then, we have a lot of religious advocates that come to school and either hand out Bibles or —
Castro: — pray for me.
Tjarks: Pray for me. I had someone today, in fact, ask me if there was a way he could pray for me today, with a knowing look in his eye that said, “You’re a dyke. How can I help you?” I’m still kind of shocked by things like that. But I don’t have a problem walking through the heart of campus, holding my girlfriend’s hand. I’m very, very open, and I’ll talk to anyone about my sexual orientation that wants to listen to it, because I’m very into educating and making people aware that homosexuality is out there, it exists, and it’s O.K.
Castro: For me, I try to do the same things as Nikki. I try to surround myself with people I know accept me. No one wants more drama in their life. But it seems, if you look at society, you think of LGBT people and the first thing that comes to mind is Gay men, usually because they’re more pronounced and out there. It seems that on certain levels, people are more accepting of Lesbians than they are of [male] Gays.
Tjarks: I agree. Being a Lesbian, I don’t have a problem walking through campus holding my girlfriend’s hand. But never in my history at San Diego State have I seen two Gay men holding hands walking down the street.
Castro: I would be scared. When I had a boyfriend, we would hold hands, but as soon as we saw someone, our hands weren’t touching.
Tjarks: I think that’s the way it is for a lot of Gay men at SDSU, because of all the Gay men in LGBTSU I’m aware of, I have never once seen them on campus holding a significant other’s hand. I think it’s a lot more accepting for women, and I believe it has to do with the Greek atmosphere here, and that whole idea of women together, because our campus is dominated by Greek life.
Castro: I work on campus, too. I work at the bookstore, and when I started working there it was interesting because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if there were any other LGBT people there, so when I started to work there I was more quiet and hesitant, cautious about what I said. I didn’t want to be outed, because I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be taken.
Since I work on campus, the people there know because I go to school with them, too. It’s not like I just leave work at work and school at school. But eventually I felt comfortable enough to come out, and most of my co-workers are fine with it. I still hear certain things, when they don’t realize I’m around, that shock me. I’ll hear things like, “Oh, you know, why you’re Gay,” and little jokes like that. They’re just joking, but I know they wouldn’t have said it if they knew I was around.
One time I was helping someone. It was during rush season, and the lines were really long because everybody was buying their books. Someone came up to my register from outside the bookstore, when there was a line, and he asked me, “Oh, do you sell parking permits?” And I said, “Yeah. You can go to the end of the line, and then I can ring you up at the registers.”
He wanted me to let him cut in front of the line. He said, “Oh, come on, no one’s looking.” And I said, “I’m sorry, sir. You’re going to have to get in line. It’s not fair for everyone that’s been waiting.” Then, as he walked by, he turned and said something like, “Oh, come on, don’t be a faggot.” I couldn’t do anything because he was walking away. I really felt like telling him something like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t stop being a faggot because I really am a faggot. I’m Gay.”
Zenger’s: One thing you’ve mentioned is that nobody from high up in the administration turned up for tonight’s meeting. Do you think that’s part of this pattern you’ve been talking about?
Tjarks: Yes, in short. I have nothing else to say about this. I am so fed up with hierarchy. It’s just — they’re just not representing or taking into account the LGBT community. I feel like we’re this dirty little secret that they just shove under the rug and try not to let people really know, stop or think about.
Castro: When you compare our campus to UCSD, UCSD is very proud to have an LGBT community there. They promote it on their application. One of the questions is, “Are you Gay,” so you can identify yourself as Gay or Lesbian, and such. And I don’t know all the stuff they have there, but here that’s not on our applications. UCSD promotes their LGBT Resource Center astronomically, and they have the largest one in the nation right now.
Our campus does not do that. When they’re promoting stuff on our campus, LGBT is not one of them. Which is sad, because it is a very big thing to promote, because showing that you are LGBT-friendly is a very big step in any institution.
Tjarks: I feel like we’re disproportionately unsupported. The various Asian organizations, the Black organizations, the Mexican organizations: I feel like they get so much more support from so many university avenues, whether that be the hierarchy or various departments on campus, etc., etc.
I feel like the only actual on-campus support that we ever receive as LGBT is through Counseling and Psych Services, and what does that say about us? They’re the only people that are consistently there for us and show faculty or staff representation at our meetings, or regularly in our offices. They’re the only kind of adult communication that we have, other than with Adriana in the CCC. And she, by the way, is a vital part of LGBTSU.
Castro: Our campus really promotes cultural diversity, and I always tell people that if our campus could only support one thing, I hope they would support LGBT issues, because that’s one thing that encompasses every cultural diversity and any backgrond.
Tjarks: Exactly. We’re not talking about white Gays or Black Gays.
Castro: Everything. And we don’t just limit our issues to just LGBT stuff. We attend events of other groups. One thing we do is we always go to the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which is not promoted as being just an LGBT film festival. Yes, they have a Queer segment, but we go so far because we think it’s a great foundation that brings cultural diversity to San Diego, and so we go show our support there.
Tjarks: Right. We encourage our members to go to other organizations and events.
Castro: If they come from an Asian background, we’ll tell them, “There’s an Asian-Pacific Islander Student Association [APSA] on campus, and I’m a friend of the president. You may be interested in maybe seeking them out too, and not just limit yourself to our organization.”
Tjarks: Not even joining other organizations, but just going to their events. APSA puts on an amazing fashion/talent show. A. B. Samahan puts on another wonderful cultural event. And we encourage our members to go to that. So it’s not just about Gay things. We want them to go to other organizations and seek out other issues that they can get passionate about.
Castro: Yes, because we alone can’t cover everyone’s background. It’s impossible to focus on every single person’s cultural background. We do our best, and that’s why we depend on other organizations. When they put on events, we say, “Oh, what do you need help with? How can we show you guys support?” We’re not limiting ourselves just to work with other LGBT people. We want everyone to work with us. That makes it easier, too, when their organizations seek us out. They ask, “Can you speak with us, to some of our members, about LGBT stuff, because we don’t think they know enough about that, those issues.”