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Thursday, April 6, 2006 09:30 pm

Culture wars

A clash of gays and conservatives makes for interesting times at UIS

At 7 in the morning of Oct. 11, Daniel McCarthy stood in front of University Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois at Springfield, holding a piece of chalk. It was National Coming Out Day. As members of SASSI — Students Against Sexual Stereotypes and Inequalities — McCarthy and fellow members Renee Rathjen, Julian Borgas, Matthew McQuillian, and Chris Wyant — wanted to let everybody know. Rathjen wrapped lampposts in rainbow ribbons, and the group covered campus sidewalks with chalk Valentine hearts and gay-pride slogans: Yup, still gay. Have you hugged your gay today? It was totally in your face, McCarthy says, and he loved it. Overnight, a pair of art students thought that it would be funny to leave messages announcing a fictional “National Straight Day”: Be straight. It’s great. One of the art-student jokesters, who asked that his name not be used, says that they meant no harm. What they couldn’t have known was that with already high tensions between the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/questioning — or GLBTQ — student community and the Society of Conservative Students, the campus was a
powder keg.
For whatever reason, these two groups — the gays and the conservatives — have been feistier this term than in years past, and they’ve butted heads. The beef has spilled over into just about every aspect of campus life. SASSI blamed the conservative group for the “Straight Day” prank and stepped up its chalking effort: God made me in His perfect image. It was His intent to make me gay. For SCS, bringing the Lord’s name into it crossed the line. They decided to throw a “Support Traditional Marriage” rally in response to National Coming Out Day; to promote their event, they chalked, too: Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with
womankind: it is abomination. Leviticus 18:22.
SASSI struck back: Traditional marriage = Men beating their wives. Penis + Vagina ≠ Marriage. Kaboom.
Before arriving at UIS as a freshman last fall, SASSI’s Rathjen knew that she was gay. By age 15, she’d already come out in her hometown of Colona, near the Quad Cities. McCarthy, who hails from Mount Olive, about an hour’s drive south of Springfield, wasn’t sure about his sexuality when he came to UIS as a freshman in 2004. “I thought I’d be able to explore who I am, but when I got here, I found it was a different story,” McCarthy says. Housing officials interview each incoming student at a summer orientation session. They then use the information to pair roommates. McCarthy — who didn’t start the coming-out process until spring 2005 — says that he was coupled with a flamboyantly gay student. “People were, like, ‘How can you stand living with a fag — aren’t you scared you’ll get raped?’ ” he recalls. In 2001, UIS launched its Capital Scholars program, offering a limited number of classes to 100 select first- and second-year students. Before then, there was no four-year baccalaureate for lower-division students, nor any traditional freshmen and sophomores enrolled there. As Capital Scholars, students would take many of the same classes, and, for the first time at UIS, freshmen and sophomores would live together on campus in the school’s brand-new Lincoln Residence Hall. Because UIS recruited heavily from Sangamon and surrounding rural counties, some believe, the school inevitably attracted a more culturally conservative group of first-year students. With the largest and perhaps most diverse group of freshmen to ever enroll at the school, many students have had to deal with issues and lifestyles they had previously never encountered, says John Ringle, UIS’s director of housing and residential life. Nor were university administrators prepared — for such conflicts as the chalk wars or for what would happen when the shenanigans inevitably spilled over into dorm life. Take Travis Genenbacher, who lives in Lincoln Residence Hall and says that he’s often been made to feel uncomfortable there. During the time of the chalk wars, he says, his next-door neighbor told him, in so many words, that the Bible says that God hates gays. He reported the incident to his resident assistant, who tried to mediate the dispute with the two students. Genenbacher subsequently moved to a different floor. Despite the intervention, Genenbacher and other gay students say that conservative RAs are part of the problem. In fact, gay residents of Lincoln Residence Hall characterize several of the RAs as the “God squad.” Universities hire RAs to keep the peace, lend an ear, let residents into their rooms when they’re locked out, and maintain stereo volumes at reasonable levels. Even though they’re selected from the school’s best and brightest students and undergo rigorous training, the RAs, too, are wet behind the ears. Because most college students feel like fish out of water, training kids who are still searching for their own identities to deal with kids going though the same thing seems like a fool’s mission. Ringle puts it bluntly: “It’s 18-year-olds dealing with 18-year-olds.” When problems arose, he says, it took everyone by surprise, and he chalks it up to a campus going through growing pains. Mae Noll, director of the Lincoln Residence Hall, says that RAs are recruited from a diverse cross-section of student groups, including athletes and ethnic organizations, and undergo training that teaches them to “respond as an RA.” In other words, they’re taught to leave their personal views (including religious beliefs) out of their work. But, she adds, diverse doesn’t necessarily mean problem-free. Kyle Simpson, a sophomore from the Quad Cities and president of UIS Democrats, just started working as an RA in Lincoln Residence Hall this semester. “I’m religious, but I don’t pull my religion into this,” Simpson says. The chalk wars, along with RA diversity and sensitivity training, he says, heightened his sense of awareness of how hurtful something such as saying that something is “gay,” meaning undesirable, could be to someone. But when it comes down to it, the question is whether the RA training is enough to trump an RA’s core beliefs. “I’m not sure how you control for religious beliefs people brought to campus after holding them for 18 years,” Ringle says. “You can’t change someone’s religious upbringing unless they want to change their religious upbringing.”
At the same time the chalk wars were going on, another of SCS’s marketing campaigns was also raising eyebrows — and the blood pressure of some students and administrators who had to deal with the fallout. For its “Pie the Conservative” fundraiser, SCS littered the campus with fliers designed to get students riled up enough to shell out dough to hurl baked goods at their favorite, or least-favorite, right-wing student: The Chicago Bears should be renamed the Chicago Apaches — they both lost really bad. Why not go to war for oil? Feminism is the radical notion that feminists are women. I am a gun-carrying Confederate sympathizer. Liberal: The English word for coward. Guns don’t kill people. Abortion clinics do. Don’t confuse racism with a racial element in the disaster. A disclaimer on the handbill read: “The ‘Pie the Conservative’ event is meant to be sarcastic and humorous.” Shannon Carter, a senior communications major and vice president of Sankofa, UIS’s black student union, says that she was offended by the SCS fliers, which she calls racist. “That was some of the most hateful [expletive], and I’m from the South Side of Chicago — so I ain’t no punk,” Carter says. On Nov. 8 — the day of the traditional-marriage rally — Chancellor Richard Ringeisen dispatched a campus-wide missive telling everybody to chill out. Ringeisen’s letter seemed to do the trick. The chalkings ceased, and SCS called off the controversial fundraiser. “In an attempt to be humorous, we probably went too far,” says Michael Tosh, who was SCS president at the time and now serves as the chairman of the group’s anti-abortion committee. The “Support Traditional Marriage” rally drew about 120 people for a speech by Peter LaBarbera, head of the Illinois Family Institute, an organization that describes its purpose as “championing and reaffirming Biblical morals.” Homosexuality is unnatural, LaBarbera told the audience, citing a book written on gay sex in the early 1990s. Most of LaBarbera’s audience was unsympathetic, and when McCarthy shouted from his seat, “When I get an erection, it feels pretty natural to me,” he was greeted with prolonged applause.
Gay students feel that they must wrestle with prejudice at UIS, but conservatives say that they often feel like a beleaguered minority. For espousing his conservative views, former SCS president Tosh says, he’s been called “Nazi,” “fascist,” and even “faggot” — “and that was before [SCS] did anything majorly controversial.” Tosh and the group’s current president, Jeffrey Isbell, say that SCS’s focus is more about morality than about politics or religion. “Killing the unborn is wrong — we shouldn’t be doing that,” says freshman Isbell, who missed out on the chalk wars while he was in Virginia campaigning on behalf of Jerry Kilgore, the commonwealth’s attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate. Students agree that SCS, with 10 to 15 members — small by any standard — is a little wheel that squeaks loudly, holding half-a-dozen events each year. Just as the traditional-marriage rally was a direct response to National Coming Out Day, Tosh says, most SCS functions are retaliatory. For instance, the organization recently launched a campaign to stop “fruiticide” and “veggicide,” with the goal of poking fun at the campus branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. SCS even extended an invitation to PETA members to participate in its anti-abortion-themed “Life Week” event at the end of April. This, they say, came after PETA put up posters likening human consumption of pork to Christ’s crucifixion. By Isbell’s calculation — he actually did the math — 93 percent of the group’s anti-PETA fliers were torn down the first day they went up. Rathjen says that the members of SCS go out of their way to mock causes others believe in. SCS leaders say that they’re just trying to stir up debate and defend conservative ideology. Tosh admits that he and his fellow members know exactly which buttons to push and sometimes are just playing the role of extreme right-wingers to get a rise out of folks. “We don’t protest every event,” Isbell says. “We pick the best ones.” Besides, says Tosh, “We’re not going to be a punching bag for everybody. People think we’re gun-toting rednecks. “We get a negative stereotype.”
On National Coming Out Day, pamphlets, condoms, and rainbow-hued Skittles adorned SASSI’s gay-awareness information table at Food Emporium, the school’s main dining facility. At lunchtime, members of the Christian Student Fellowship sat at a table in front of the SASSI booth, discussing homosexuality with students. The next day, word got back to Gretchen Magruder, who heads the group informally with her husband, Todd, that Christian students had staged a protest in front of the gay-awareness table. Magruder says she wanted names — but, it turns out, hers was one of them. “I felt horribly that that would be interpreted that way,” she says. With all the chalking going on, Magruder says, some students found her having lunch and asked her opinion — she calls herself a minister, advisor, and healer — about what God thinks about gays. “[The discussion] was civil,” she says. By all accounts, the Christian Student Fellowship is one of UIS’s most popular student organizations. When the group meets on Friday nights, there may be 60 people in attendance, Magruder says. She recognizes that animosity exists between the GLBTQ student community and her group, which catches heat from the some of the activities of SCS, whose former leader, Tosh, is also active in Magruder’s group. However, Magruder says that SCS isn’t an extension of her organization, and Tosh agrees that a large divide yawns between the groups. Magruder says the Christian organization didn’t take a position on the chalking, to the annoyance of some members who felt that the group should have been more gung-ho about opposing SASSI. But the Christian students, Magruder says, want no part in bashing individuals. Instead, they just want to follow Jesus Christ, who, she adds, “never bashed anyone but religious leaders who were jerks. “I always make sure what I’m doing represents Christ,” she says. “Certainly writing rude messages in chalk doesn’t represent Christ.”
Retired public policy professor Ron Sakolsky was the faculty advisor for the first gay student organization at Sangamon State University in the late 1980s. “The campus climate was so homophobic and hostile that the queer members of the faculty and staff were pretty closeted in those days,” says Sakolsky, now living in British Columbia, via e-mail. Pat Langley, the current advisor to the gay students’ group, says little has changed. Langley, who teaches Sexual Orientation and Public Policy, a course she has nicknamed “Gay 101,” says that she’s been telling the administration for a long time that something needs to be done to address concerns of the campus’ gay population, members of which she has counseled in some capacity for the 20 years that she’s taught at the school. “That’s just my vibe,” she says. “There’s a lot of expertise [on GLBTQ issues] here, and they don’t always tap it. There’s GLBTQ staff and faculty all over this campus.” Ringle, the housing director, disagrees that the administration dragged its feet, noting that as soon as administrators became aware of the climate in the dorms, RAs were convened for an afternoon-long conflict-resolution and diversity-training exercise. Furthermore, they instituted the “Safe Zone” program, in which select RAs can become “safe allies” by undergoing three phases of training — the first is required of all RAs — and placing signs on their doors letting GLBTQ students know they can go there to talk. Plus, Ringle says, officials bent over backward to recruit a more diverse RA applicant pool for the next school year, a third of which was people of color. McCarthy, one of the applicants, notes that the interview process was diversity-focused. Applicants, he says, were given Play-Doh and asked to create their idea of diversity. “I made a little rainbow dude,” he says. McCarthy was subsequently offered the job. Langley says that one possible reason change came about as quickly as it did is that today’s GLBTQ college students are among the generation known as Millennials (sometimes called echo boomers) and therefore approach the world differently. “They just expect to be treated equally, and they’re not going anywhere,” Langley says. “People’s fight for freedom and justice is like a steamroller — it moves slowly, but it never stops moving forward. “As more people come out of the closet, it puts a human face on [gay issues], and it’s not ever going to go back.”
Before the current semester got under way, SASSI members changed the organization’s name to the Queer-Straight Alliance. Although Rathjen admits that the name change caused some discord within the group — SASSI’s founders were reluctant to give up their baby — those discussions helped them communicate better with one another. “The word ‘queer’ is still sometimes thought of as a pejorative word, but we’ve reclaimed it. An organization is larger than a name,” Rathjen says. “What’s more stereotypical than ‘sassy,’ anyway? We’re sassy,” McCarthy says, with a slight twist of his neck. Sankofa’s Carter, who is also a member of QSA, spearheaded the push to form a coalition of progressive student organizations, called the “We Believe Campaign.”
The five member organizations — QSA, Sankofa, the Women’s Issues Caucus, Students Allied for a Greener Earth, and the UIS Democrats — attend weekend retreats together, invite faculty speakers, and ascribe to six core statements of belief in equality.  Meanwhile, QSA hopes some of that good will translate into support for their third annual “alternative prom,” which is in the works. They’re planning for 80 people to show up, including students from area high schools. There’ll be the usual accoutrements of a prom — a disc jockey, perhaps a fog or bubble machine, a strobe light, decorations. There also will be nominations for prom king and queen. Unlike a traditional prom, it won’t matter whether a traditional male-and-female couple, two females, two males, or two individuals of indeterminate gender are elected. Everything appears to be on schedule, McCarthy says, though he just recently realized that there might be a tiny problem with the date of the event, which falls on Friday, April 14. It’s Good Friday — the day, according to tradition, that Jesus died. “Whoops,” McCarthy says. “I’m not concerned, but ‘whoops’ anyway.”
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