CARISSA FALCONE ’19, Special to The Denisonian — In 2011, Courtney Bentley wrote, printed and delivered an invaluable piece of research and several intentional, actionable solutions to the gaps in student experience for bisexual, lesbian and gay students to various administrators on campus. Like she mentioned in our interview, she “wanted ownership over supporting these students in an intentional way”; I enter the final section of this invaluable research project with similar goals in mind. I, like Courtney, think the campus has resources available to “do something to address, prevent, or react to this compulsory heterosexuality,” alongside the multitude of other disparities effecting ‘students of difference.’ The fact that I am writing this paper merely eight years after Courtney’s was delivered – that violence, tokenization, misunderstanding, and misgendering of queer folx on campus is still rampant – speaks to the immediacy and urgency of our situation.
It is ironic, the nature of this section of the work… in the analysis of students’ lived experiences, we discussed the numerous occasions queer folx are required to act as educators and guides…we discussed how the individualistic student-leader expectations on campus put a stressful load of responsibility on students to produce ideas for the advancement of the school. I am fulfilling both of those energy-draining, knowledge-giving functions by writing this section; I present some ideas for actionable change on campus for queer folx by queer folx:
1. Responsibility of administration to alter policy concerning ‘official’ student gender pronouns: by ‘official’, I mean identifiers used on my.denison, at Whistler, on Student IDs, etc. For one, listing gender ID instead of sex ID on my.denison would be more gender-affirming for folx who conceive of their sex and gender as related but in no way similar (including but not limited to transsexual students, transgender students, non-binary students like the ones centered in this research). Initiatives to address gender/name changes on the administrative levels have been taken up this past year by the Center for Gender and Sexuality’s Kim Creasap and Jeremy Torres. Together, they are working on a process for stress-free name/pronoun/gender change.
2. Power and justice conversations among faculty: Courtney and I touched on this in our conversation…
Courtney: “I think your question is such a good one, like should faculty, should the people who work here be trained? And I… I think the answer is yes, for sure, in an ideal world. Like, absolutely. But I think it’s less about… I think that in my ideal world the training isn’t just about queerness. I think it’s like more training about otherness and power dynamics. Because the faculty person has inherent power. Because they’re giving grades that accelerate the student’s ability to graduate and get jobs after, you know and with that power comes responsibility and the responsibility should be to create a safe space for all students and all people. And that is not just a conversation about gender and sexuality or race, it’s a conversation about how does one in power relate to others. And power can exist on like so many different planes and layers. My hesitation with… should there be a genderqueer or sexuality training is, how many other million pieces of training need to be instituted? Because when we institute that, then we do have to institute all of them.”
Carissa: “Right, so that’s where it comes to instead of just focusing on the specific… the specificities of just race or just queerness in the classroom, but power dynamics in general within those social learning spaces.”
Although Courtney and I both agreed that different people needed different affirmations in social learning spaces, we also decided that splitting up the conversations based on social position would be counter-productive. To affirm students disadvantaged by power relations[, there can and should be a collective responsibility by faculty members to foster equitable power relations in the classroom. But collective, generative conversations are just the start of this process. Collective action is the next step.
Courtney: “I am so rooted in… What are we actually going to do? Like what is the action that comes from any of these conversations and, a training around sexuality feels limiting to me… or gender, because it’s just such a, it’s such a slice of a larger pie.”
Carissa: “Yeah, it’s putting a band-aid on a problem that needs like, surgery.”
Courtney: “Yeah, or really just like, ground up revision. Yeah. And that’s not, like, just Denison, that is the world.”
The author realizes that the systematic power imbalances affecting students of difference on Denison’s campus are not isolated issues. To echo Courtney’s last point – the world, modern global interconnected society, is caught up in a parasitic neoliberal, the neocolonial capitalistic rat race. But this bleak reality does not imply that we should give up on efforts to change or destroy systems of inequality on campus – in fact, the author’s intense motivation to promote change in part stems from the pervasiveness of painful systematic inequalities. And if students can learn how to promote equality-based social justice actions, conversations, and policy while at a small university, they would be all the more prepared to implement similar changes in the larger world. I, for one, am sick of this neoliberal institution preparing us to barely survive in a bleak reality instead of encouraging us to imagine alternative realities and manifest them.
A part of imagining alternative realities begins with promoting reflexive practices in each individual while simultaneously create space and time for students to do self-reflexive work and practice empathy.[
3. Difference among queer faculty! Faculty interviews pointed to the fact that Denison has become a more safe, welcoming workplace for queer folx over the past 10-15 years, despite some personal, social, and institutional obstacles. But Denison’s queer faculty/staff members (and the surrounding Granville queer community) are relatively homonormative. Most are married with family to care for, go to church, are white and mid-to-upper-middle class, and many are cisgendered. To my knowledge, there is only one gender queer faculty member on campus. That does not mean that other gender queer or trans folx do not exist in the staff or in/around Granville, but it does mean they are not visible to other genderqueer folx (like me), for any number of possible reasons. The lack of gender queer advisors and mentors on this campus has significantly impacted my well-being academically, mentally, and emotionally as a Denison student.
4. We need more than one ‘queer centered’ group! Courtney said this in 2011, and now we have Spectrum. But as the amount of queer, lesbian, trans, and gay students increases, so will the differences among them. When speaking with some queer Denison alumni this past March at the 30th year anniversary, I was shocked at how few queer-identified students were on campus during the 1980s, 1990s, and even in the first decade of the 21st century. But the existence of just one queer group made sense in those years; without a critical mass, there probably was not much difference between the LGBT-identified students at those times. But the times, they have been a changin’! And the difference among queer folx on campus today is more intricate and persistent than it was fifteen, eight, or even five years ago!
5. Please stop asking students to identify institutional problems and solutions! Here is where the Denison institution has really failed students; when problem-solving, admin often makes two big mistakes. Either they a. ignore and bypass student needs/opinions to enforce policy they have created or they b. make it the responsibility of the students to both identify the problems on campus (usually while ignoring how systems of power enforce those problems) and then imagine possible solutions. This is unacceptable. On top of all of the other work and responsibilities students have, we cannot take on administrative tasks such as these. The administration must recognize the power imbalances built into the very structure of the institution and come up with solutions and alternatives to those imbalances, then offer those solutions and alternatives to students to consider. All students should have a chance to respond to or vote on these solutions, and/or to offer new solutions if they are not pleased with the given ideas. Once decided, it is the administration’s job to actionize those collectively-decided upon solutions.
6. More counselors of color / queer-identified therapists: the ratio between the number of students and therapists available on this campus is unacceptable; beyond that, the lack of diversity represented in Whistler staff across race, nationality, language, gender, sexuality, etc. create inadequate and sometimes detrimental therapy services.
7. Restorative justice / sexual assault: The author is living at an intense period in Denison’s existence. On Tuesday, April 30th, the Denison Student Government Association (DCGA) suspended its’ rules and constitution. This is the first step towards rebellion, towards alternatives, towards voicing our dissatisfaction with the current Powers That Be. Students are fed up and divided amongst themselves because of the systematic oppression pressing down on us, isolating us from one another – some students are waking up to the reality of larger systemic inequalities. Some have known for years, some are just discovering this truth, some are still in denial for various reasons… but we are waking up. The spark my peers and I are lighting now is just beginning to burn. I am excited for us to burn down the old systems and be reborn into alternative, collaborative, equality-based realities.
Carissa Falcone ’19 is a women’s and gender studies major with a concentration in queer studies from Pittsburgh, PA.