College can be liberating. These are the years when many young people leave home to examine new ideas and explore new surroundings. In the process, they might begin to discover who they are.
For those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual, this time especially can be fraught with challenges, not the least of them being harassment.
Kate Schumacher, a 21-year-old lesbian from Sumter and senior at the College of Charleston, says she has been screamed at by boys on campus. Once she was walking along on campus with a straight friend, Lindsey Breitwieser, when a group of young men hurled epithets.
It made Schumacher feel terrible and scared, she said. And it gave Breitwieser a clear sense of the dehumanization involved in expressions of hate. “Gay bashing affects allies,” Breitwieser said.
Since the problem affects many of her friends and colleagues, Schumacher decided to share her concerns with College of Charleston officials. She submitted a complaint to the dean of students, Jeri Cabot, and wrote a letter to President George Benson.
“In the few months I have spent as a senior, I have experienced more bigotry, hateful treatment, and harassment than I have in my previous three years here,” she wrote in a March 30 letter. “There are countless times I have felt fearful and unsafe on our campus. I wish I could tell you that these occurrences are mine, and mine alone. Sadly, however, many other College of Charleston students — people I deeply care about — have shared similar stories again and again.”
Cabot said the school has beefed up its ability to respond to such concerns, but needs specific information — names, incident location, license plate numbers or other identifying information — to launch investigations.
Beck Schillizzi, a 21-year-old senior from Greer who identifies as queer and transgender, said she once was almost knocked off her bike by a car, its occupants teasing her.
“Nice suspenders, faggot!” one of them shouted as the car bore down on her.
“Oh, it's a girl! It's a tranny!” another exclaimed.
Cameron Schulten, a 23-year-old senior from Charleston who identifies himself as queer, has endured demeaning insults, he said. A couple of months ago, walking down St. Philip Street, two boys in a car demanded to know why he dressed like a girl.
On another occasion, Schulten said he was with his then-boyfriend at Coming and Cannon streets when a group of male students called him a faggot.
He fumed and considered retaliating. He reached for a rock but ultimately chose not to throw it. It would have only made matters worse, he said.
Kneena Raheja, a 20-year-old senior from the Upstate who identifies as transgender, once was almost abducted near campus, she said. “Just get in the car,” some strange young men demanded of her and her friends, repeatedly, until one of the boys recognized Schulten and the driver sped away.
Raheja's been followed by boys in cars, targeted by rock throwers and confronted by a customer at a shop who called her ugly to her face, she said.
Schillizzi said being transgender is considered by many a disorder that requires correcting. “When really it's a gift!” Raheja quickly retorted. “We have existed forever.”
The students each noted that the College of Charleston has made an effort to adapt its policies and procedures to a changing social environment that increasingly acknowledges the rights of members of the LGBT community. Schumacher said she was glad to be able to submit a complaint and get the ear of Cabot. The problem comes after the complaint is filed, she said.
“There are no responsive policies,” Schumacher said. “The dean offered options but nothing structured.”
So as a campus activist and student director of the Gender Resource Center Task Force, she has been working with colleagues and school officials to devise formal rules of conduct and response.
“Safe Zone” training, offered by the Multicultural Center, is aimed at educating students, faculty and staff about LGBT issues. It holds regular meetings that draw between a half-dozen and perhaps 30 at a time, Cabot said.
If a victim of harassment can provide specifics, then the school will launch an investigation, she said. Students have been moved from one residence hall to another, some have been charged with misconduct, a few have been suspended for inappropriate behaviors and some have been ordered to apologize and get counseling.
When specifics are lacking, the complaint is registered, and “we beef up messages of inclusiveness” and share information with Safe Zone organizers and participants, Cabot said.
“We see more frequently that people will intercede (to defend their peers), but not as much as we hope,” Cabot said. “How do we get young adults to check other young adults to not feel that somehow they will be singled out if they stand up for somebody?”
Arriving freshmen are introduced quickly to Safe Zone information and campus diversity issues, and they go through a role-playing exercise during orientation, she said.
In short, she said, the College of Charleston's policies are strong. “It's the culture. I think we need work on that front.”
Alison Piepmeier, director of the college's Women's and Gender Studies Program, said the Safe Zone initiative is part of the school's broad effort to support students who identify as other than straight.
“When I first got here (seven years ago), people were careful,” Piepmeier said of LGBT students. “Now they are identifying themselves as people who deserve to be in this community.”
But full acceptance is not yet fully realized, she added. “There is still lots of homophobic hostility,” but less and less cowering and fear.
The college's strategic plan, supported by the president and approved by the Board of Trustees, includes LGBT outreach and initiatives, such as the resource center, gender-neutral bathrooms and other accommodations, Piepmeier said.
“I really think we're at this moment of exciting potential,” she said. “There are more students on campus who are visibly, articulately out. Our gay-straight alliance is very active.”
And a growing number of students who identify as queer, intersex or transgender — “people who don't fit into categories as they are constructed” — are speaking out in class and informally about their sexual identity.
“The fact that that's happening on this campus, in South Carolina, is huge,” Piepmeier said. “That's a real change.”
Once, when Schillizzi was confronted by a young man demanding to know whether she was a boy or a girl, she replied as truthfully as she could.
“Neither,” she said. The man pushed her into a wall.
She said she didn't report the incident because she wasn't sure she'd be able to recognize the culprit, and, anyway, “I didn't think anything would be done.”
Raheja said those who are more “aesthetically subversive” likely will be viewed as a curiosity or an object to be stared at by those insensitive to the dynamics of sexual identity and motivated by a sense of entitlement granted to members of a dominant class.
“If you're a nonconformist, you're a point of ridicule,” she said. And this results in “a sense of danger you can't shake.”
“It's really terroristic in that sense,” added Schulten.
“As if you're supposed to feel you kind of deserve it,” Raheja concluded.
And this leads to pervasive concerns about safety. “I have to be on my guard,” Raheja said. “I can't give people the benefit of the doubt because that would be sacrificing my safety. ... What really makes a space safe for me is having people around me who have the capacity to understand.”
Raheja, Schulten, Schillizzi and Schumacher said they appreciate the college's efforts to reach out to the LBGT community on campus, but outreach and training alone are not sufficient. More must be done in the classroom, Raheja said. Faculty and staff must be armed with tools they can use to change attitudes and behaviors.
Schillizzi, who looked very feminine when she first arrived on campus, said harassment was just as troublesome then as it is now, though it was motivated by different purposes. As a feminine girl, she said, she often was the subject of ogling and unwanted advances, as if young men expected her to be sexually available to them. As someone who now appears gender-neutral, she said she has become a different kind of object — an object of suspicion and derision.
Schumacher wondered why it is always the victims who are expected to advocate change. Raheja took the question further.
“My duty to educate anybody is harmful,” she said.
The victim who tries to change the mind of her opponent rather than work to embolden her allies is misdirecting her energies, she said.