LGBTQ+ pride is more visible in some spaces than others. At most American colleges, for instance, pride is celebrated and non-straight, non-cisgender people are treated as equals. However, LGBTQ+ acceptance is not universal.
On Monday, two religious zealots visited SRU’s Quad to broadcast their beliefs. They held a long list of people for whom “hell awaits,” including “party animals,” “Catholics” and “homosexuals.” Students responded with counter-protests; no one seemed to completely agree with the list.
Despite this, the belief that LGBTQ+ people are disturbed, inappropriate or simply bad is still around.
Cindy LaCom is the director of the gender studies department at SRU, as well as a professor in the department of nonprofit management, empowerment and diversity studies. This is their 30th year at the university.
LaCom identifies as straight and “primarily cisgender.” However, they use they/them pronouns because they believe gendered language reinforces “a binary that doesn’t have to exist.”
LaCom grew up near San Francisco, in a one-of-a-kind environment for LGBTQ+ people. They had openly gay friends in the 70s, when most people had no choice but to stay in the closet—and their sexual orientations were widely accepted.
“I was already very, very involved in LGBTQ issues as an ally,” LaCom said. “And then when I went to college and then grad school in Eugene [Oregon] … I was, at that point, very politically involved in a number of different issues. One of them was LGBTQ issues.
“That was probably when I … recognized how easily rights that I think I had taken for granted could be repealed or threatened.”
They named several cultural turning points that advanced LGBTQ rights, including the Stonewall riot, the AIDS crisis, the legalization of same-sex marriage and the transgender rights movement.
LaCom and their partner moved from the West Coast to New Castle, Pennsylvania, thirty years ago, and the culture shock was immediate. They described an incident at a county fair, two weeks after moving to the area.
“They had a dunking booth,” they said. “There was a girl, probably 13 or 14, and a boy, probably from her high school, who was trying to dunk her. He kept throwing these beanbags and missing, and she screamed out, ‘come on! What are you, a [homophobic slur]?’
“Peter and I both were like ‘oh my god,’ and we looked around. No reaction whatsoever. People were laughing. And I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not sure we’re gonna be okay here.’ That was a radical indicator of how different it was.”
There were other, similar incidents within their first few years at SRU.
“[Within] my first three years of teaching, I was in a college writing class. We were talking about [gay rights] and one of my students raised her hand and said, ‘I don’t really mind gay couples, I just don’t like the public displays of affection.’”
LaCom asked if she meant on campus or in her hometown; her response was “both.” LaCom and the student turned out to live in the same town.
“I said, ‘I’ve never seen a public display of affection on our campus by a same-sex couple,’” LaCom said. “‘I live in New Castle and I’ve never seen anybody [do it] there.’”
Although the student had never seen same-sex couples display affection either, she was so opposed to the idea that she felt the need to talk about it.
LaCom listed multiple examples of discrimination, in public and in private, on campus within the last decade. However, they have seen a shift within the same period of time.
“There is a more intersectional understanding of LGBTQI+, which has been a huge change,” LaCom said. “If we don’t understand homophobia in the most intersectional context, we’re not doing a good job of battling homophobia.”
Current students, who haven’t had LaCom’s decades of experience fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, had more optimistic stories to tell about acceptance.
Natalie Smith, the president of RockOUT, and Matthew Broznick, who holds executive board positions in RockOUT and TRANSaction, came from relatively accepting environments. However, there were moments of conflict.
“I live in Allegheny County over the summer,” Broznick said. “My neighborhood is really split down the middle [in terms of politics]. … I never felt unsafe about it. But I wanted to do a pride flag a couple of years ago for June, and both my parents didn’t want to do it. Not because they were against it, because they were worried it was going to get vandalized.”
Smith lives in Slippery Rock during the summer. Although she feels safe expressing her sexuality on campus, the surrounding town is a different story.
“I felt myself feeling like I couldn’t be very public with my sexuality outside of campus, but on campus, I would say it’s super inclusive,” Smith said. “I think Slippery Rock University does a great job of picking … the right majority of students. I’ve felt very accepted here.”
RockOUT was holding a game night when the protestors showed up on campus. Vice President Katie Shope passed by them and took pictures to show the other members.
“Almost all of RockOUT was like, ‘let’s go down to the quad instead of having a game night,” Smith said. “Seeing what these two guys were promoting was difficult, and I’m sure it was very triggering for a lot of people passing by. But it was almost a feeling of pride … whenever everybody decided ‘no, let’s go down there.’
“[They] made it feel like RockOUT wasn’t just a club for fun and games. It’s really a group full of people who are willing to advocate for ourselves, each other and the community in general.”
She also spoke on the importance of inclusion.
“Even if you have a moderate view, I think it’s just about not disregarding other people’s feelings,” Smith said. “When [beliefs] get to an extreme, I think, is when it gets a little crazy. … If we have these opposing views and we can come together and talk about them in a peaceful way, where we’re hearing and understanding each other.
“I think hatred breeds when we don’t really listen to each other,” she continued. “As a campus, if you’re encouraging students to learn and broaden their minds, you can’t not include them or not accept them at the same time.”
As a professor, LaCom tries to challenge prejudice on campus through intersectional, LGBTQ+ programming in classes and organizations.
“I think today’s students are much smarter about enacting resistance to [the protestors’] message,” they said after being told about students’ counter-protests. Efforts included same-sex kisses, inclusive chants and a few genuine questions about the protestors’ rhetoric.
“It makes me happy to hear that that kind of resistance was being practiced. That’s wonderful.”
LaCom is less enthusiastic about the efforts of administrators.
“In 2020, PASSHE presidents – and William Behre was one of them – signed statements declaring their universities actively anti-racist,” they said. “I would advocate that they fund gender and queer studies directors and programs at PASSHE schools, and create the same kind of budget … If our administration fails to resource gender and LGBTQ studies, they are ethically failing women and queer students, faculty, staff and admin on our campus.”
“You’re the hope,” they continued. “I really believe our students are the hope.
“If you look at acceptance of homosexuality, generationally, your generation is the most open, the most accepting, the most supportive. And I’d like to see in 20 years, if we were to do this interview again, to see if that’s gotten even better.”