On the Road With Laramie
BY Advocate Contributors
January 18 2011 4:50 PM ET
It’s true, as one character in Laramie: 10 Years Later says: “This could have happened anywhere.” It could have happened in State College. This is not to say that State College feels unusually homophobic to me. I feel safe here. It’s simply to say that feeling safe and being safe are two very different things. In spite of a lot of hard work that is clearly going on at this university to address these issues, whether young gay people are safe here is hard to gauge. Whether they feel safe is a little easier to uncover.
Patricia Koch invites me to visit her bio-behavioral health class. It is a general education credit, so the class is probably a representative cross section of the university’s population. The class has about 120 students. The atmosphere is cordial, tense, maybe embarrassed. I feel like there is definitely some baggage among some of these students about homosexuality. I try to act the comfortably out adult. I think I pull it off, but I am nervous too. High school and college-age kids were who most harassed me for my difference. I bring my own baggage as well.
I ask, “How many of you don’t like or don’t feel comfortable with gay people?” No one raises their hand. Then I ask, “How many of you that are gay would be comfortable identifying yourselves as gay right now in this class?” Not a single student raises their hand. It is hard to gauge whether people feel completely free to voice their homophobia here. But whether or not they are really OK with queer people, their gay and lesbian peers don’t feel safe being out. That’s the point here.
The main aim of antigay hate crimes like the one committed against Matthew Shepard, and the main aim of the gay baiting that the media has suddenly decided is newsworthy, is to create an environment where gay people don’t feel safe being ourselves. Sadly, even if most folks are tolerant, it only takes a few haters and a system of apathetic administrators (or legislators) to make a campus (or a town) feel unsafe.
It’s hard for me to read the group, but really, what is the cost to me even if I do misread them? I will be moving along to Cedar Falls, Iow,a in two days. I won’t have to deal with the repercussions of being out on this campus. Tyler Clementi, Justin Aaberg, Asher Brown, and so many other young students who have taken their lives in recent months were not free to head off to a new town. They had to live with those repercussions day to day. For many, these repercussions have proved too much to live with. Whether it's overt or covert, homophobia continues to kill young people in our schools.
After my work on campus, I am feeling cynical. It’s not that Penn State feels like such a horrible environment. It’s just that — like most places — it just doesn’t feel safe enough. Even as I see the vast efforts made here at Penn State by many students and teachers to support the queer community and queer causes on campus, my hope is flagging in the face of a wall of general disinterest that feels very familiar.