Student faces college homophobia

“He said the school just wasn’t ready for this change, and I was the change that was going to happen.

When gay college sophomore CJ (name changed to protect his privacy) received a pseudo-apology from a campus bully last year, this was the excuse that accompanied it.

“He said it’s not that he or anyone had a problem with me personally, but just that they weren’t ready for someone like me,” he relayed.

The night before this exchange, the student had followed CJ around a Halloween dance, slinging antigay epithets.

During his first few months on campus at the suburban liberal-arts college, such words became commonplace.

“There was a frat on campus that just wasn’t very accepting of me being on campus, and I became very aware of that,” he said. “It’d just be the looks you get walking on campus, and you’d hear people whispering things, and I’d hear myself being talked about during class.”

To avoid intimidation, CJ often used private bathrooms in friends’ dorms and showered late at night in the women’s restroom, for which he was written up.

While working outdoors on a project with a fellow orientation leader at the beginning of his sophomore year, members of the football team jogged by and peppered him with taunts of “faggot” and “queer.”

“I really tried to not let it faze me,” he said. “I’m very confident in myself and I try to keep an optimistic outlook.”

That outlook was dashed, however, when the threats took on a new form.

From verbal to physical

In September, CJ and two female friends were walking through a dorm building when the friends stopped off at the room of two male freshmen.

CJ waited in the doorway but decided to leave when one of the residents, whom CJ said he believed was drinking alcohol, began bragging about his knife collection.

“I didn’t care that they were drinking, but it was a whole different story when he started talking about his knives. Weapons freak me out,” he said, and told his friend he wanted to leave.

When they got outside, CJ heard through the open window the male students using antigay slurs and approached the screen and asked them to repeat themselves.

“I heard it a few times, and I was like, ‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ and he said he didn’t say anything at first. His roommate started getting really riled up, and I was just like, ‘Relax, I just don’t want you to say that around me. Even if it’s not targeted toward me, it’s offensive.’ And the one boy took out one of his knives and held it up and slit the window screen and said something like, ‘Do you still want to know what I said?’ I saw a knife pointing at me and was just like, no, I’m not dealing with this, and backed up and walked away.”

A mother’s perspective

CJ’s mother, a caterer from Central Jersey, said she worried early on that he could face challenges because of his orientation.

His initial room assignment, which was summarily changed, was with seven football players in a renovated student center, and CJ’s mother said she and her husband watched as their son introduced himself to his new roommates, only to have several pull their hands back from him.

“He went there just wanting to be [CJ], not gay [CJ],” his mother said. “But it took 10 minutes before word must have spread, ‘Oh God, there’s a gay kid on campus.’”

The knife incident came just a few weeks before the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University student who lived near CJ’s family.

“You don’t even have to be a mom but basically have a pulse to have been affected by what happened with Tyler. That whole situation just really heightened my awareness about [CJ’s] safety or lack thereof, and I called him and he got really upset and basically told me that stuff like that happens to gay students all the time.”

She noticed a change in her son in the fall, but it wasn’t until her daughter visited CJ and he confided in her the knife threat that she understood what he was facing.

“When she came home and told us what went on, we hopped in the car and I thought, I’ll be damned, he’s coming home right now. And when I saw him, he wasn’t the boy I dropped off a few weeks earlier — his shoulders were hunched and he cried the whole way home. It broke my heart.”

School response

The 2,000-student private college has an antiharassment policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, and discrimination complaints are handled by its Bias Incident Response Team, formed after a 2008 internal diversity audit.

According to the college’s student handbook, brandishing weapons, defined elsewhere in the guide as including knives with a blade over 3 inches, is a type-one behavior violation, “considered of the utmost gravity,” and could result in expulsion.

CJ chose not to report the knife incident initially because he said he wanted to avoid any further trouble, but the student with the knife contacted his RA and said CJ was the one who’d slashed the window.

When he was contacted by administrators about the accusations, he told what happened from his own view, but no action was taken against the student at the time.

Once CJ’s family became aware of the incident, his mother scheduled meetings with administrators and demanded they confiscate the weapon.

“When I met with them, they’d known about the weapon for 10 days to two weeks. I asked them what happened to the kid, was he arrested, certainly expelled? And they just said, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean. Nothing’s happened,’” she said. “It blew me away. So I said, ‘I’m going to give you 24 hours, and you’re going to search his room.’”

CJ’s mother said school officials retrieved the knife, which had a 7- or 8-inch blade, from the student but told him he could have it back when he returned home for the holidays and not to bring it back to campus.

She said she heard second-hand that the student had to attend a few hours of sensitivity training, but administrators did not share any information with her family, since the school had found CJ’s complaint could not be substantiated.

CJ’s mother said the family filed a report with the local police, but her son decided not to press charges.

Intervention by Mazzoni

CJ’s family sought assistance from the Mazzoni Center’s Legal Services Department, and staffers met with the family and administrators to discuss the issue.

Amara Chaudhry, director of the department, said the school’s rejection of CJ’s claim of antigay violence is worrisome.

“They knew there was a knife involved and they can’t deny that because they initially said [CJ] was the one who had done the damage and they eventually confiscated the knife,” Chaudhry said. “Even though they were aware there was a knife involved and there were allegations that there were homophobic epithets being used, to find that there was no threat of violence or evidence of LGBT animus seems very suspicious to me.”

After follow-up discussions with the family and Mazzoni Center, CJ said the school offered to send him to the National Conference on LGBT Equality in Minneapolis in February but, days before, rescinded the offer because of finances.

He said that while he believes administrators are eager to quash homophobia on campus, they’re not doing it effectively.

“Their intentions were there but it wasn’t executed how it should have been. I think they’re trying but their attempts are borderline failure. It seems like their thought process now is, let’s just forget about it, no one got hurt so let’s just not make a big deal out of this.”

Confronting an epidemic

LGBT college association Campus Pride found in a 2010 report that 23 percent of LGBQ study participants faced harassment on their college campuses, compared with 12 percent of heterosexual counterparts.

While the gay teen suicides last fall highlighted antigay classroom harassment, Carrie Jacobs, executive director of The Attic Youth Center, noted that many people incorrectly assume that bullying has subsided by the time youth reach college.

“I don’t know why people think bullying doesn’t go on in colleges,” Jacobs said. “We have bullies in high school and then a lot of them are going on to college, so some of them are going to continue that same behavior.”

Earlier this year, lawmakers from New Jersey introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Act in Congress, which would require anti-bullying policies at colleges.

Bob Schoenberg, executive director of University of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Center, said progress has been made in terms of raising awareness about college-level bullying, although students unfortunately need to be prepared for anything.

“I think there’s been considerable discussion on many college campuses about ways to prohibit bullying, to avoid bullying and how to appropriately sanction those who engage in bullying. But homophobia can rear its ugly head even on a college campus that’s largely progressive and accepting.”

Jacobs said that, just like at the high-school level, bullying in college needs a multifaceted approach that seeks to create a campuswide sentiment of acceptance.

“It’s really about the climate that you set in terms of inclusiveness — which often requires training for administration, teachers and students,” she said, noting that institutions cannot rely on the fact that they ban anti-LGBT harassment on paper. “Policies are great, but we need people to work on changing practices. If you have a good policy but you don’t practice, it then it doesn’t mean anything.”

Schoenberg agreed, saying the most crucial piece of anti-bullying measures is strict enforcement.

“To have a policy that is empty and doesn’t have teeth is I think even more problematic than not having a policy at all.”

Moving forward

As the semester comes to a close, CJ said he’s hoping to transfer schools in the fall.

While he said he’s been heartened by the support from his close circle of friends on campus, his history with the school makes him uncertain of the future.

“I’m just afraid of what’s going to happen to spark the next person to get angry and come after me. In the back of my mind I’m just thinking, what if something went wrong, what if someone gets riled up and wants to fight me or come after me,” he said. “I think there are only four openly gay students on campus, including me, but I’m sure there are many more who are closeted because they’re afraid of the outcomes of coming out at this college.”

As far as the school is concerned, Chaudhry said the family is still unsure how they’re going to proceed.

“We can’t understand how they came to the conclusion. Unfortunately, the only way we can force them to open up the file — so that we can see for ourselves how they came to their conclusion — would be for us to file a lawsuit and request this information through the discovery process,” she said. “I would hope the college wouldn’t want things to get that far, but we cannot allow colleges and universities to think it’s OK to fail to protect LGBT students and to fail to offer them the same degree of safety and protection offered to other students.”

CJ said his past two years at the college have forced him to confront some harsh realities about homophobia and bigotry.

Those lessons hit close to home for him last fall on Spirit Day, when LGBTs and allies were encouraged to show solidarity for the LGBT youth who’d taken their lives after facing bullying.

“I cried that entire day. I actually called out of work and just stayed in and was so upset thinking about how someone could go the extra mile to try to degrade someone or make them feel like garbage about themselves, to the point where they kill themselves,” he said. “Coming off that, the fact that my school wouldn’t go the extra mile or take risks to make me safe just said a lot to me. I think the world’s eyes are really just starting to open to the effects of bullying.”