I have been organizing at New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology for the past three years. I have learned many lessons, but the most important I took with me is the importance of spaces. No matter who you are, all of us desire places where we feel welcome — and that comes with a host of complexities. Who hosts this space? Where is it located? How long has it existed? What is its history?
When it comes to universities, their duty is to hold inclusive spaces for students to learn and grow. Statues and buildings named after historically prejudiced figures call into question that goal. If a college wants to be inclusive of all people, why glorify these individuals? Why give them space? A common argument is that they tell the reality of the past, and that infrastructure alone cannot influence systemic racism or homophobia.
But what if this space is newly built, and named after someone harming people in real time?
The construction of the Gianforte Academic Center — aptly named after alumnus Greg Gianforte — was announced to the Stevens community in December 2016. Greg Gianforte is an ‘83 alumnus from Stevens Institute of Technology, and is the current governor of Montana. Throughout his history as a politician, Gianforte has donated over millions of dollars to anti-LGBTQ groups and has passed harmful legislation targeting the LGBTQ community. A few months after Stevens’ announcement, Gianforte made national news by tackling a reporter during a press conference in May 2017. Outrage from our campus followed suit.
In June 2017, due to the response, Stevens’s board of trustees created a committee to “Consider the Naming of Gianforte Academic Center.” After three months of deliberation, the board stated that it would change the name from the “Gianforte Academic Center” to the “Gianforte Family Academic Center.”
Yes, that actually happened. But that also isn’t the current issue.
Despite the naming, Gianforte pulled his promised $10 million donation in 2019 — a donation given on the condition that a building be named after him. In doing so, the university revealed that the entire complex would now be called “Gateway Academic Center,” and the north building would be named “Gianforte Family Hall” in light of a donation by him in 2012. This particular donation, however, had no stipulation tied to it.
So, in summary, Stevens had no obligation to name any infrastructure after Greg Gianforte.
But they did it anyway. Three times.
I spent the latter half of 2019 planning a protest with a fellow organizer for the building’s opening. The protest’s purpose was to highlight this as Stevens’s “last straw” in a series of actions harming its queer students. We crafted a proposal that highlighted their past concerning issues like their refusal to follow a city ordinance around gender-neutral bathrooms, leaving our Diversity Education office unstaffed for more than a year, and campus police’s violent shutdown of a large-scale campus drag event I held earlier that year.
During the protest, we called on the university president to exit the opening ceremony and accept the proposal on students’ behalf. He never did, and has not acknowledged that anything took place that night.
This feeling of invisibility is the story for a lot of underrepresented students here.
When I stepped foot on campus my freshman year, it was an utter culture shock. Not only did I have to adjust to life being one of the few Black people on campus, I also had to adjust to being recently out. There’s only one queer organization on our campus, and they aren’t particularly welcoming to people of color. I’ve recently formed a small community of queer, trans students of color through a group chat — there is a total of 12 people. Our numbers make it that much harder to advocate for ourselves in situations like Gianforte-gate. We’re not only being ignored. By naming a building after someone with immense hatred for us, we’re actively being dismissed and harmed.
It is now 2021, and a wave of anti-trans bills have swept the nation — including in Montana. These bills come to Gianforte’s desk fresh off of three anti-abortion bills he’s recently signed and the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which could empower people to freely discriminate against LGBTQ people in court.
At the same time, these anti-trans bills — particularly, the trans sports ban — have also reached Stevens’s residing state of New Jersey. No commitments have been made to protect any of our trans athletes.
If Stevens sits by and watches as their building’s honorific pass an act harming transgender people, then I can only say that they continue to value brick and mortar more than queer experience.
I tell this story not only to shed light on my university and Gianforte’s actions, but to let queer youth know that we have to fight for our spaces. Despite what’s said or done, it all boils down to whether you feel valued where you are.
Call out your school and hold them accountable to their statements of inclusion. If your school hails it is safe for everyone, let them know how you feel. Let them know how your community feels. Have these conversations, and don’t let them go by unspoken.
That being said — to Greg Gianforte, hear me when I say that your hatred has no space on my campus.
Students at Stevens are asking for support in another push to have Gianforte’s name removed from Gianforte Family Hall and, ultimately, the Gateway Academic Complex. You can pledge your support by signing the petition here.
Nasir Anthony Montalvo is a graduating senior at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ and a GLAAD Media Institute Alumni.