Zach Kosinski is graduate coordinator for LGBTQ outreach in UMBC Student Life.
Last month I sent an email promoting an upcoming SafeZone workshop to a UMBC listserv for student organization leaders. SafeZone is a program that works to educate and prepare folks on campus to make UMBC a more welcoming, supportive place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. My UMBC position involves me in conversations about matters pertaining to LGBTQ people all the time, so I did not view my message as particularly remarkable or noteworthy.
But the message prompted a response that caught me off guard. A UMBC alumn replied to the entire list, expressing frustration at having received a communication relating to LGBTQ people. Citing their religious convictions, the alum condemned the SafeZone program and objected to UMBC using the listserv to support, or even acknowledge, LGBTQ members of our campus community. (I’m using “their” as a gender-neutral, third-person pronoun here, a usage which is becoming more and more common and established).
After reading the reply, I tried to see the world through this alum’s eyes, and to imagine what they were thinking, how they were feeling, and what experiences at UMBC and in life had brought them to think and feel the way they did. I thought about the need to support the alum’s basic right to hold and express their beliefs, notwithstanding my strong disagreement with them and UMBC’s clear nondiscrimination policy. They needed a place to express their beliefs, a place where their beliefs would be respected, a place where they would be supported to express them in the first place. I also tried to imagine what all the students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, and others on the list were thinking, and how they were feeling, when they read the alum’s reply. LGBTQ students have shared some powerful and disturbing experiences with me: experiences no person should have to suffer. LGBTQ people at UMBC need support from a campus community that acknowledges and values them for who they are.
It took me a lot of reflection before my frustration dissipated and I saw the common ground that could become a foundation for healing and growth. We all need support, in one way or another. If I only work to support LGBTQ people at UMBC, but neglect to support those who need to voice sometimes unpopular or controversial beliefs, I do a disservice to my campus. If I do more to support students’ right to express beliefs, perhaps they will choose to express them in more constructive ways than venting to a listserv. If I continue to support building a more affirming campus with the SafeZone program, perhaps folks of all beliefs will feel empowered to discuss them, and leave conversations still able to respect participants with very different perspectives as people: whole, valuable, multidimensional people our campus community would not be the same without.
This is a commitment that I am taking a stand to make: to support all of us, equally and without preference. I challenge others to do the same, for in the end, UMBC is what we make it. If we do not support each other, the whole campus community will be diminished.
Contact the author, Zach Kosinski, at email@example.com.