Welcoming Gays at MIT
Institute Celebrates Coming Out WeekBy Katharyn Jeffreys
MIT is a place where lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered members of the community are now not only accepted, they are welcome. The LBGT Issues Group, a part of the Office of Residential Life and Student Life Programs, recently contacted 6,000 faculty and staff members at MIT, encouraging them to support LBGT students. Included in the mailing were cards showing the new LBGT Issues Group logo and the statement “you are welcome here.” The recipients were asked to post the cards in their offices, and in doing so would demonstrate their understanding and support. The ‘safe space’ program is currently in place at several other universities, as well as at AT&T.
“I am tired of being ‘tolerated.’” said Professor of Literature Stephen Tapscott. “I used to go to those gay student welcome meetings, and they were happily defensive that we weren’t going to get beat up. Over the last few years I have felt more than tolerated. I’ve been welcomed. That’s a good step.”
The Issues Group also publishes the Lavender Guide, a comprehensive pamphlet (available online at <http://web.mit.edu/lgbt>) which has information about queer-friendly restaurants, clubs, MIT groups and queer-studies classes, and many health, social and emotional support resources around the area. Additionally, the group assists LBGTpeople by “providing a mechanism for us to expand as a community,” said Ricky Gresh, Coordinator, Residential Programs.
The group was founded five years ago to work with the many specialized LBGT groups on campus. “The baseline where we started was to let the student groups know there was someone interested in advising them.” said Gresh. The group also works to increase communication between the many organizations and to improve coordination of their support and education efforts. Gresh said this unity is necessary, especially in times of crisis, such as following the deaths of MIT student Michael P. Manley ’02 and a Boston-area transgendered individual last year.
MIT provides support
The MIT administration has, in recent history, been very supportive the of LBGT community. For example, health benefits are provided through MIT medical for same-sex partners, a service not offered at many universities or health insurance companies.
Many specialized groups on campus provide support and education. GABLES (Gay, Bisexual, and Lesbian Employees and Supporters) is geared towards for faculty and staff, GaMIT (Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and friends at MIT) and FAQS (Friendly Alliance of Queers and Straights) towards students. Graduate students can look to the Graduate Student Coffeehouse, and Sloan students are served by Sloan LGBT. BGALA (Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alums) exists to aid alumni.
The coffee house hosts speakers and shows films, GABLES members meet for lunch, Jeremy D. Sher ’99 found the GaMIT coming out support group especially helpful when he was coming out to his parents.
The MIT policy of non-discrimination includes sexual orientation, and harassment is not tolerated. There are two notable exceptions to this policy: participants in the ROTC program and transgendered individuals
Appended to the Non-Discrimination Policy is the statement: “The ROTC programs located on the MIT campus are operated under Department of Defense policies and regulations, and do not comply fully with MIT’s policy of nondiscrimination with regard to sexual orientation. On the recommendation of the faculty, MIT is working to develop a modified on-campus ROTC program open to all MIT students.” This protest began in 1990, and has continued throughout the decade. Students have been dismissed from the program because of their sexual orientation. James D. Cain, Assistant Professor of Literature, cites this discrimination as one reason students may be hesitant to be openly gay, as they “risk being financially impaired” if their benefits are revoked.
Additionally, “MIT’s nondiscrimination policy mentions ‘sexual orientation’ but fails to mention ‘gender identity,’” said Bassam G. Kassab G, French house graduate resident tutor and former president of the Graduate Student Coffee House. “A nondiscrimination statement based on gender identity doesn’t only protect pre-operational and post-operational trangendered people but it also protects any straight, gay or bisexual man or woman who chooses to dress, talk, or walk, in a way nonconforming to the prevailing social standards.”
Community accepting of LGBT members
The campus climate is generally accepting of LGBT people. Thomas F. de Frantz, Assistant Professor of Music and Theater Arts said people have “a seriousness about personal issues and privacy issues” at MIT, but he emphasizes that “there is a tension at MIT because there are so many committed religious groups that are opposed to homosexuality.”
Brenda Cotto-Escalera, Associate Professor of Music & Theater Arts says of the LGBT community: “There is much more visibility than when I got here six years ago.” This ever-changing nature of the LBGT community is also visible in the active population itself. Cotto-Escalera teaches a queer-identity freshman seminar with de Franz which last year was entirely male, and this year consists of only females.
Students who have come out have found their peers to be generally accepting of their decision. Certain living groups have even designated themselves as LGBT friendly in the “Living Pink” residence guide, available online at <http://web.mit.edu/lbgt/www/ pink-guide.html>. Sher, a former Next house resident, was concerned about coming out somewhere which was “not the sort of place with rainbow flags everywhere” (Next House is one of many living groups not included in the Living Pink guide). However he found no drawbacks to coming out. “I got all positive responses. Everybody was very supportive. But it was difficult to do, because I didn’t know what to expect.”
Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures Edward Baron Turk attributes this willingness to accept others to the general character of MIT community members. “The MIT student body is made up in large part of people who have a good idea of who they are. They tend to be individualists. People like that tend to be more accepting of difference in themselves and others.”
Institute has changed with the times
MIT as not always been as understanding of LGBT issues. In the fall of 1971 the Student Homophile League were not permitted to hold a gay mixer on campus. Dean for Student Affairs, Dan Nyhart explained his decision to deny the mixer. “He stated he was worried about the possibilities of seduction at a mixer such as that proposed and cited the ‘observable unhappiness that homosexuality brings to many persons.’” [“GA stalls vote on gay rights” September 25, 1970] Nyhart was also reported as calling homosexuality a disease, a statement he later apologized, “saying that the word referred only to what he called ‘compulsive’ homosexuality and adding that he would prefer the word ‘aberration.’”
MIT became more open as homosexuality grew more acceptable in society, eventually bringing the Institute to its progressive position today. However Turk feels that “the goals of full justice and equality have not been reached.”
Gresh agrees, asserting that “there is a long way to go. Over the past year I have heard of incidents in the dorms or graffiti in bathrooms. So there is still education to do.”