Today I woke up to the amazing news that Australia has officially legalized Same-Sex Marriage. I was ecstatic and very proud of Australia. This news could not have been a better breath of fresh air as in the U.S., LGBTQ+ cases are being discussed in the Supreme Court. It was also a breath of fresh air because I recently uncovered that my university has a homophobic past.
I discovered this because I recently gave a speech on why students should participate in Safe Zone training. Safe Zone training is a way for allies and even LGBTQ+ students to gain a deeper familiarity with LGBTQ+ vocabulary and inclusive practices. It also focuses on how to support the LGBTQ+ community and combat homophobia. Fortunately at my university, Safe Zone training is easily scheduled online. Safe Zone training here at UMW is also free for students and can be scheduled on an individual or organizational basis (e.g. clubs or sports teams).
In my speech, the reason I argued that students should participate in Safe Zone training is because of my university’s history of homophobia. I thought while researching for my speech I wouldn’t have much success turning up homophobic instances on my campus. However, I was shocked that I kept finding cases here at Mary Washington, including some very recent ones.
The first incident of homophobia at UMW I found while researching was in 1993. This incident was recorded in a commemoration of Donald Rallis by professor of Geography Stephen P. Hanna here at University of Mary Washington. Hanna recounts the arrival of Donald Rallis to UMW as a new professor. Donald was an openly gay man and before coming to UMW his friends “cautioned him against making this identity known.” Of course Donald disliked this and Bill Clinton’s whole “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the 90’s. Donald decided to write an op-ed in The Bullet, the old UMW newspaper, which led to a campus forum on homosexuality. Today Rallins’ bravery and forum is credited with UMW becoming more welcoming to LGBTQ+ students.
I thought maybe after this forum and op-ed in the paper, UMW would change and treat LGBTQ+ students and staff better, right? Wrong.
In 1994, University of Mary Washington (then called Mary Washington College) was mentioned in “The Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Students’ Guide to Colleges, Universities, and Graduate Schools” written by Jan-Mitchell Sherrill and Craig Hardesty. In this book they asked LGBTQ+ students at UMW how safe they feel on campus. In the book it states,
“Unanimously, students believe that homophobia is a serious problem on the campus.”
These students said that they were victims of hate crimes and that “Mary Washington College does nothing in response” to these crimes.
Again, my undying faith to my school made me wonder “Maybe it was just the 90’s, maybe that was just a bad time to be an LGBTQ+ student here. We’ve changed, right?”
Once more, the assumption was wrong.
In February of this year two students found a note that used homophobic language and had a swastika on it. The Blue and Gray, the UMW newspaper, reported that the note was boldly posted on the bulletin board in front of Madison Hall, UMW’s gender neutral housing. The school was slow to react and barely talked to any of the affected parties, specifically the Jewish Student Association and PRISM (People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities). These groups were left feeling unsafe on their own campus, a place that they consider home. Since this incident has occurred, more swastikas have been found including one a couple of weeks ago in Jefferson Hall.
It hurt to find an issue, that I may dare say is systemic, at a school I love. I expected UMW to be better, but it succumbed to the shortcomings that were (and are) prevalent. I believe that in these shortcomings lies an opportunity to change. We’re already seeing a promotion of change through UMW’s Safe Zone training, but we need more. We, as a UMW community, need to come together and talk about how we want to overcome this homophobic past and make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.