Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Over 500 Attend SDSU “Rally Against Hate”

Case, Weber Appearances Highlight Event


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: A few of the audience members at the rally, Doug Case, Dr. Steven Weber

Over 500 people, mostly students at San Diego State University (SDSU), crowded onto the so-called “Free-Speech Steps” in front of the SDSU Aztec Center December 3 at noon for a “Rally Against Hate” sponsored by the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Student Union (LGBTSU). Called in response to various hate incidents directed at Queer students and staff members in the previous three months — an egg-throwing against a demonstration for same-sex marriage equality, the theft (for the fourth time in five years) of the LGBTSU’s rainbow flag, and an attack letter against openly Gay fraternity coordinator Doug Case in a student paper called The Koala — the rally hit its emotional high points from two speakers’ presentations.

One was Doug Case, who had missed the November 14 town-hall meeting on campus because of a schedule conflict. On December 3 he attended the rally and brought along his poodle, Angel, whom the anonymous writer of the Koala letter had threatened to “drop-kick.” The other was SDSU president Steven Weber, whose presence and strongly-worded speech stood in sharp contrast to the failure of any representative of the higher levels of the campus’s administrative hierarchy to attend the November 14 meeting. Case, a tall but normally uncharismatic man and far from the “flamboyant” or “flaming fag” he was described as in Koala, attracted rock star-style energy as he appeared and spoke. So did Angel, whom many of the rally attendees went up afterwards to pet as a gesture of solidarity towards both the dog and Case himself.

“The letter-writer in Koala chose to remain anonymous, which shows his courage; and he threatened to harm Angel, which shows his character,” Case said. “Angel and I will not be intimidated by an anonymous character. The publisher of Koala indicated that the purpose [of publishing the letter] was humor. Targeting someone because of sexual orientation, race, disability, gender or citizenship status is simply not funny. When I first read the letter, my initial reaction was to ignore it and not give the writer the attention he wanted. But not to respond would have been to give the idea that it’s O.K. to use hate speech against any community.”

Noting that the letter-writer in Koala signed his missive “The Greek Community,” Case thanked “the real Greek community” — the fraternity and sorority leaders who came out in support of him and said emphatically that the letter targeting him did not represent them. “Silence is the voice of complicity and the ally of hatred,” Case said. “When Ben [Cartwright, director of the SDSU LGBT Resource Center and former LGBTSU president] organized this rally, I agreed to participate and wanted to make it clear this rally is not only against hatred based on sexual orientation but against all experiences of hatred in the SDSU community.”

Case recalled receiving a letter of support from a fraternity president who’d been inspired by a poster hanging on Case’s office wall. The poster contains the famous catechism by Pastor Martin Niemöller, a priest in Germany when the Nazis took over, about how the Nazis first came for the Communists, the Jews and the trade unionists, and he didn’t speak up because he was none of those things, “and then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me.” During the rally, Case received a proclamation in support from three fraternity presidents.

“The fraternity president who wrote the letter said he’d seen that quote many times, but when he first read the Koala letter his first instinct was to do nothing,” Case recalled. “Then he read that quote on my office wall and decided to speak up. I challenge you to speak up whenever you hear a racist joke or a homophobic slur. … I believe that if each one of us here at SDSU speaks out against injustice, hatred and intolerance, we can build a ripple effect that will eradicate hatred from our campus.”

President Weber — whose appearance surprised many at SDSU who are unused to members of the campus hierarchy coming out so intensely on behalf of equality for the campus’s Queer students, faculty and staff — made, if anything, an even stronger speech than Case did. “The question you need to ask your friends is why weren’t they here, too,” he began — a rhetorical device he used several times during his talk. “Universities have bigots, too,” he continued. “They are not insulated from humanity’s embarrassments. But universities are the best tool ever invented to rise above these hatreds. That’s why this rally is so important, and I’m so glad you’re here.

According to President Weber, the university’s mission is “human growth and development” — not just for its students as individuals but for the human community as a whole. “Progress has been driven time and time again by broadening and welcoming others in the human community,” he said. “This country was founded in the belief that only free, white, land-owning males were fully human. We have broadened that quite a lot, and our society has become better for it. But that fight will go on for a very long time. Bigots will always be with us. It’s not someone else’s job to confront them; it’s our job. So ask your friends why they weren’t here today.”

“We’re tired of dealing with oppression,” said Alan Acevedo, vice-president of Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego — whose president, Brandon Shawn Tate, was MC’ing the rally. “Have you ever had to wonder what would be safe to wear and how to walk across campus without being called a name? I’m sure you’ve heard about the hate incidents on campus, and I want you to yell out if you think this is acceptable. SDSU is a hate-free zone.“

Dr. Edith Benka, chair of the University Senate — the organization within the administrative structure that represents faculty — called the large attendance at the rally “a testament to the strength of our community and its commitment to diversity and the educational mission. I do not believe SDSU is a homophobic campus, but a few individuals [here] are. But we should not let them overshadow our institution.” Dr. Benka said that a minor in LGBT [Queer] studies, “created by dedicated faculty,” is currently going through the aproval process. She also recalled an incident in which she was teaching a class in Queer history, the discussion was about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting Queers in the U.S. military, “and one student was against the policy but wouldn’t criticize it because her father was in the military and supported it.”

Ayari Aguayo of the Gamma Rho Lambda (GRO) sorority described it as “a Queer-based social sorority and part of the Greek system” — and, by example, a challenge to the bigoted attitudes of the Koala letter-writer and the arrogance of his claim to represent “The Greek Community.” After describing her group’s struggle against both the stigma attached to sororities in general and the belief of many Queer women students that all sororities are straight, despite which at least 40 people have come forward and joined, Aguayo said, “This rally against hate is not just for the Queer community. It’s for anyone who feels oppressed. Please stand up against hate.”

Christina Larez, chair of SDSU’s chapter of the Latino/a student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicano de Aztlán), expressed similar sentiments when she said, “The administration needs to hear that we’re against all forms of hate. MEChA has been on this campus 40 years and we stand up for the Queer community. Society tells us there’s only one form of beauty, and it’s important to us to say that’s not true, we are all beautiful.“ Larez said the large crowd at the rally “is really good to see, but the struggle does not stop today. We must take this message to our families and communities because that’s the only way we’re going to stop hate.”

“I’m glad that the president was here today,” said Crystal Brandon, a student involved in both GRO and MEChA. But she devoted most of her talk — the final one at the rally — to a complaint about the campus policy restricting the use of amplified sound at outdoor events in order to avoid interfering with classes. “When did we decide to restrict free speech?” Brandon said. “I’m sorry the people in the back couldn’t hear. This is about more than just a childish letter in a bigoted paper. We need to fight the hate with a revolution of love and try to make people a little more conscious.”

“I would like to challenge everyone here to be invincible, to realize your dreams and work towards them every day, living an authentic life,” said female-to-male Transgender student Ed San Filippo. “Last Tuesday I was in a large retail store, and I was escorted out of the men’s room by security. I called for a manager. I didn’t want to make a political point. I just wanted to use the bathroom, but within five minutes I was able to educate at least five people about my reality as a Transgender person.”

Dorothy Emmett, vice-president of external affairs for the Associated Students at University of California, San Diego (UCSD), said, “We are ashamed that these hate words came out of the UCSD Koala.“ (Actually, they didn’t, but two years earlier a similar bit of anti-Queer hate speech had been published in UCSD’s version of the Koala.) “We need to change our mind sets,” Emmett said, asking students to support a social-justice issue removed from hatred or anti-Queer prejudice: a labor dispute between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and UCSD over pay and working conditions for service workers at UCSD’s hospitals.

Other speakers were representatives of programs at SDSU that target hateful or prejudicial actions by members of the campus community, and seek to reach out to their victims and offer support. Dr. Tayna Stark of the Cross-Cultural Center said her program’s job is to make sure the university “provides all students, student organizations and cultural groups a safe environment to learn from each other. The Cross-C ultural Center advocates for the underserved and underrepresented students. We cover sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity and other categories. If you or someone you know has been the target of a hateful act, please report it immediately to the campus administration and police.”

Women’s studies professor Dr. Susan Cayliff came to promote “a Safe Zone for LGBT students, faculty, administrators and our allies.” While she was unclear about what a “Safe Zone” would be and whether it would involve an actual physical location on campus, she said other universities throughout the U.S. have already instituted them. “We want to create a campus environment that is more than just a livable place for LGBT students,” she explained. We want to offer information in classrooms, counseling and student services. We want to provide evidence of support to LGBT people and their allies, and assist LGBTQ members of SDSU to achieve their academic and work goals.”

“Every time I hear about hate speech, I get angry,” said Dr. Ann Donovan of the University Committee on Diversity, Equity and Advocacy. “There are a few things the Diversity Committee can do. We will try to work through the University Senate to make a few changes. This university is committed to a mission of pride in its diversity and furthering social justice on campus. We also have an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, and we will try to get it amended to include gender identity and expression so it will cover Transgender people as well.”

One demand that had been a prominent feature of the November 14 meeting that wasn’t brought up at the rally was the demand of LGBTSU and other Queers on campus for a university-funded LGBT Resource Center on campus. (The current one is a tiny room within Aztec Center and the Associated Students, not the school itself, funds it and pays Ben Cartwright to run it.) This demand had been publicly criticized by a number of people in San Diego’s Queer community, including returning SDSU student and sometime LGBTSU activist Keith Ramsey, as unnecessary and motivated only by envy that UCSD recently dedicated an entire building on campus to its LGBT Resource Center. Various speakers at the November 14 meeting had demanded a similar LGBT Resource Center for SDSU — as had Doug Case in the letter he wrote to be read at that meeting — but the December 3 rally featured no such call.