Oct. 6, 1998: Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year-old gay man and a student at the University of Wyoming, is brutally beaten by two of his peers and left to die by the side of a highway. Though the incident finally starts a national discussion on the horrific hate crimes committed against members of the gay community, it also brings to light the latent and often pervasive culture of homophobia spread across middle America.
Ten years later, how far have we come?
Kathy Byrnes, associate vice president for Student Life, hopes that the University proves it has indeed come far.
Byrnes is the faculty head of Villanova’s Gay-Straight Coalition, an organization on campus that aims to foster understanding and acceptance between homosexual and heterosexual students on campus.
“The GSC is essential to this University,” says senior Brigid Black, a third-year member of the GSC Steering Committee. “Whereas offensive slang [phrases] like ‘that’s so gay’ can be frequently heard around campus, GSC is living proof that there are people here who are open-minded toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and will not tolerate homophobia. We strive to create a more accepting Villanova.”
Rev. Chris Drennan, O.S.A., and Rev. Joe Calderone, O.S.A., are both involved in the GSC as well, demonstrating the literal involvement of Villanova’s Augstinian heritage in the community.
“It’s important that we see the presence of gay students and that they are acknowledged,” Calderone says. “People should feel welcome being who they are. We’re aiming to educate the campus and be more inclusive; comments like ‘that’s so gay’ and common things like that are derogatory.”
The GSC will once again raise the question of how far America – and Villanova in particular – has come in accepting of members of the gay community over the decade since Shepard’s death by screening “The Laramie Project” on Nov. 18. An award-winning film, “The Laramie Project” explores the aftermath of Shepard’s murder. The GSC will show the film at 7 p.m. in Driscoll Hall, with a discussion to follow.
“We’re hoping to raise awareness about hate crimes, which doubled last year,” Jon Seipp, a sophomore and one-year GSC member, says. “It hasn’t gone away, and it’s really more of an issue than ever.”
The organization also hosts several events throughout the year that are open to any interested members of the Villanova community.
“It’s a pretty open group,” Erin Puck, a senior and two-year member says. “We learn from everyone. The goal of the leaders is to help people participate, get things moving and inform people. From there, we hope it starts a discussion, and 99 percent of the time it does.”
The most prominent of these events is the Day of Silence in April, an event held across the country when straight, gay and bisexual students alike choose not to speak for 24 hours in support of those for whom it is not safe to be out as gay.
Villanova’s event, however, is different.
“Typically, the event is a day where friends and allies are silent to stand in solidarity,” Byrnes says. “At our school, students have not wanted to be silent. They’ve decided it’s better to talk about issues.”
Instead, students wear shirts that advertise their involvement in the event and are open to discussing issues facing LGBT students in contemporary society.
“Last year was definitely our most successful event,” Black says. “We had around 150 GSC members, RAs, [Diversity Peer Educators] and other allies wearing the shirts. We also co-sponsored a panel about being gay at Villanova with Dr. Bernard Gallagher for his Social Psychiatry class.”
Fall is also an important time of year for the organization, as members reach out to incoming freshmen and transfer students to publicize the support available.
“Every year, I get a handful of e-mails from incoming students and their parents,” Byrnes says. “They want to know what the environment is like.”
The Gay-Straight Coalition puts a brochure in each packet for incoming students, making sure its services are widely known in case a new freshman or transfer is looking for support. The group also hosts a table at the Activities Forum, where students of all classes can learn more about the organization and sign up to get e-mails about events.
“We’re not usually on the NewsWire,” Byrnes says, referring to the fact that GSC events are rarely advertised on Villanova’s daily student mailing. “Most of our communication goes through e-mail lists. For those looking for information, we do publicize, but most of our recruiting and advertising occurs at the beginning of the year. Students are always welcome to bring friends; we have a lot of events that are good for everybody.”
Byrnes also mentions that it’s not only LGBT students joining the organization.
“I’ve found that most of the people in the Gay-Straight Coalition are not actually gay themselves,” she says. “Instead, there are a lot of straight students with siblings or friends who are gay, and they’re seeking to be supportive of those loved ones.”
This community where students can meet and discuss issues regardless of their sexual orientation is just what the GSC aims to foster. The organization’s mission statement asserts that it hopes to create an environment where students do not fall prey to stereotypes about their sexuality or gender, where their sexual orientation is accepted, where they can participate in discussions of sexual orientation and where they will find support, all within the context of an Augustinian, Roman Catholic University.
The fact that Villanova is Catholic does create confusion among students and faculty alike. Commonly held misconceptions include the ideas that the Church damns gay individuals, that gay people are not allowed to receive communion and that they are excommunicated.
The GSC’s Web site has a special section specifically geared toward setting the record straight. The page explains that the Church believes homosexuality is not a choice and therefore is not a sin. Regardless of sexual orientation, sexual activity outside the context of marriage and without allowance for procreation is sinful, and because homosexual activity does not allow for the possibility of children, it is considered a sin as well.
Byrnes points out that this is an issue for many gay students.
“I realize that that’s sort of rough,” she says. “It’s hard when straight people can get married and have kids and that’s all OK, but LGBT [students] don’t get that same chance.”
The issue of gay marriage has garnered much media attention in the past few weeks with the passage of Proposition 8 in California on Nov. 4. Proposition 8 proposed defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, eliminating the right for gay couples to get married in the state, which the California Supreme Court had recognized as a fundamental right on May 15.
Many Villanova students have reacted to this new barrier against gay marriage.
“It probably will come up in the meeting,” Puck says. “I’m a little upset about it, but that’s me. It definitely will be a topic after the movie.”
Puck also mentions that before the election, the group held meetings to discuss the presidential candidates and their views on LGBT issues.
“We’re disappointed,” Seipp says. “Arnold Schwarzenegger said in an interview that it’s not over, and I’ve heard that the Supreme Court might overturn it, so we’re still hopeful.”
“I’ve lived in Southern California, and lots of my friends from there are angry,” Drennan says. “There was funding for advertisements by the Mormon Church in the final days of the election for Proposition 8, and there’s a lot of anger against them and the people who promoted it.”
Byrnes also points out that religious background is a huge reason that students often choose not to come out to certain groups in their life.
“[Last year,] we had a speaker on campus who is a gay alumni,” she says. “He acknowledged that there are some homophobic attitudes out there, especially as a Catholic.”
However, more often than not, the issue of coming out has more to do with acceptance from loved ones than anything else. Students will sometimes come out to their circle of friends but not their parents, fearing rejection or disappointment.
“Some students are out at home and not at school, but a lot of the time it’s the other way around,” she says. “By the time people reach college, they’re figuring out who they are and who to tell, and the family versus friends argument becomes a huge issue.”
Villanova is notable for its support of gay students on an academic level, as well. A class has been taught specifically regarding homosexual issues in contemporary society, though the course has not been offered for several years, as the professor who taught it retired.
“We’d love to have a similar program, but it’s all in relation to availability,” Byrnes says. “We need a faculty member who is qualified and informed about the issues at hand.”
The University also publicizes the Jonathan Lax Scholarship, a fund for gay men from or attending school in the Philadelphia area for up to $20,000.
Students struggling with the idea that they may be gay also can find a less public resource in OASIS, a confidential student-led support group that provides information and a chance to discuss issues that may come up. Calderone leads the group.
“It’s important to have the GSC and OASIS in a Catholic community like Villanova because it talks about inclusivity,” Calderone says. “It’s well-received and helps with sensitivities reacting to a minority group on campus.”
“OASIS is really a safe haven for LGBT students who prefer a more intimate setting to talk about anything going on in their personal lives,” Black says. “For that reason, it’s really more of a social networking group than a traditional ‘support group.’ It’s a comfort in itself for LGBT students to simply learn that they are not alone at Villanova.”
Though information is often subtly publicized, Byrnes says she wants students to know that support exists for gay and straight students alike. The overall goal of the GSC – to provide support and understanding for LGBT students and their loved ones – is evident at the various events the organization stages each semester, and word of mouth does a lot of the talking for them.
“You often won’t notice it if you’re not looking for it,” Byrnes says. “But those who need information or help, know it’s there.”