By Curt Yeomans
Lance Mealer explained to a fellow Clayton State University student that many gay students, like himself, believe hate crimes are an attempt by some groups to silence gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals.
Mealer, a sophomore from Stockbridge, and vice president of Clayton State's Gay-Straight Alliance, told the other student that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are going to respond Thursday by silencing themselves in protest.
The Gay-Straight Alliance will partner with a group of history students to sponsor Clayton State's first Day of Silence event. Silence stations will be set up at five locations across CSU's campus.
These stations will be areas where no talking is allowed, Mealer said. He also said students who participate will be asked to not talk to anyone else, or use text messages or their e-mail, FaceBook, MySpace or Twitter accounts through the rest of the day.
"It's because of the Matthew Shepards and the Lance Kings, who were silenced for being who they are," Mealer said to the student.
The Day of Silence will last from 7 a.m., to 4 p.m. In an unrelated affair, the CSU Theater group will perform "The Laramie Project," which focuses on the 1998 murder of openly-gay college student, Matthew Shepherd, on Friday, Saturday, and April 23 and 24, at 8 p.m., in the CSU Theater. Admission is $5 per person.
Out of the closet at CSU
Christine Smith, the director of Clayton State's Counseling and Psychological Services office, and a sponsor of the Gay-Straight Alliance, said she and her staff often encounter students who are in the process of coming out of the closet. "We definitely do have students in various stages of coming out, or dealing with their sexual identity," Smith said. "It's difficult sometimes. As with all students, they are at a stage of life where they're in the process of discovering who they are."
Mealer, and Gay-Straight Alliance President Holly Shelton-Dixon, said they have encountered limited instances of discrimination on campus. Shelton-Dixon said university officials have never turned them down when they ask for help. Shelton-Dixon also said the group has not faced discrimination from religious groups at the university, "although they have not offered to sponsor events with us."
There have been instances in which members of the Gay-Straight Alliance have felt they were the targets of discrimination, however. Mealer said there was an incident at the university's health fair last fall, in which a student approached the club's table and told him gay people were not welcome at the school. "That's why we're doing the Day of Silence, to show people we are welcome here," Mealer said.
Overall, however, several heterosexual students, who are not members of the group, said they were not bothered by the idea of being in a classroom or a social setting with a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender student. "I say 'More power to you,'" said Jerale Irving, a sophomore from Fayetteville.
Naomi Dixon (not related to Holly Shelton-Dixon), a freshman from Morrow, said even though she is straight, "if someone else wants to [be a homosexual], then who am I to stop them?"
Joshua Reynolds, a senior from Stockbridge, who is one of the history students working with the Gay-Straight Alliance on the Day of Silence, said there is still "awkwardness" between some straight and gay students, but he hopes the student body will be able to overcome it as time goes on. "I've gotten to a place where I don't see a distinction between one person or another," said Reynolds. "I see there is no reason why that faction of society should be treated any different than any other faction."
The national scene
On the national stage, groups like Campus Pride have been created to offer support and resources to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students at colleges and universities across the United States.
Shane Windmeyer, the executive director and co-founder of Campus Pride, said his organization, and the Q Research Institute for Higher Education, are conducting a national survey to determine what gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender college students, staff, faculty and administrators feel it is like to be out of the closet on a college campus.
He said one reason many people do not come out is a fear of being the victim of a hate crime. He said an April 4 incident at the University of Virginia, in which an 18-year old student and a friend were attacked while walking across campus, is an example of what gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students still have to deal with in college. On Tuesday, the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress reported that UVA officials believe the attack was motivated by the perception that the students were gay or bisexual.
Building tolerance at Clayton State
In addition to the establishment of the Gay-Straight Alliance and the first Day of Silence, another recent step at CSU is the establishment of "Safe Zones" around campus. The zones are areas where faculty and staff have put up a sticker, usually on their office door, which indicates the location is a place where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students can feel safe to talk about their problems.
"We've heard reports throughout the nation about anti-gay discrimination, and this is a way to let a student, who may be gay or lesbian, know he or she is welcome at Clayton State," Mealer said.
On the Net:
Clayton State Gay-Straight Alliance: http://studentorg.clayton.edu/gssa/
Day of Silence: http://www.dayofsilence.org/