This post was written by Lana Mason, Processing Student Assistant. Lana has an Associate of Arts degree in Fine Arts from Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is currently studying Art History at George Mason University. Lana is the recipient of the University Libraries Student Assistant Scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year.
You can read Part 1 of this blog series here.
The 1990s saw continued homophobic attitudes and discrimination, as well as an ongoing stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS victims. However, there also began to develop a concerted push towards acceptance and support of LGBTQ people. George Mason University (GMU) experienced both sides of this dynamic, with endeavors to be more supportive of its LGBTQ students amidst discrimination and administrative conflicts.
In the early 90s, GMU continued its efforts to provide educational information about HIV/AIDS. The tragedy of the epidemic (which had been ongoing for a decade at this point) was captured by GMU’s Theatre of the First Amendment in its dramatic reading of “Faces: A Living Newspaper on AIDS” in February 1990. The performance featured “the latest statistics and information about AIDS. . . reading from scripts which included recent headlines and stories gleaned from area newspapers and magazines.”[i] The performance was intended to be eye-opening for its viewers, to provide education about the illness to students in a frank and informative way.
In 1993, GMU moved from simply promoting education on HIV/AIDS to encouraging tolerance towards its LGBTQ students. To promote this civility, the school distributed an anti-homophobia pamphlet as part of its “Stop, Look and Learn” campaign to eliminate identity-based discrimination. The pamphlet, entitled “STOP Sexual Orientation Discrimination and Harassment” was intended to “[instruct] students how to avoid both intentionally and unintentionally discriminating against others based on their sexual orientation.”[ii] Earl G. Ingram, the then-GMU vice president and university equity officer, stated that “’the idea behind the pamphlet was to create within the George Mason University community a community of civility, and to provide all members of the community with an equal measure of protection of their basic rights.”[iii] In a similar vein, GMU dormitories were declared “Hate Free Zones” with that November promoted as a “Hate Free Month” in an effort to increase tolerance for diversity.
The pamphlet was released a year after a string of targeted harassment against gay students, including a burglary of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Student Association, threatening phone calls and messages to gay students, and a group of non-students who “attended the (Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Student Association’s] meetings and [harassed] members to the point that they felt threatened.”[iv]
Despite an administrative push for tolerance, GMU continued to experience recurring homophobic incidents on its campus. In 1996, a spate of homophobic graffiti was placed on dormitory doors, and gay students were subjected to homophobic sexual harassment. One such incident involved “a lesbian student [heckled] by puerile males who taunted, then threatened her and finally subjected her to a humiliating display of indecent exposures. Alleging that a firearm was brandished, the student left campus lodging. . . no action has been taken concerning the accused harassers.”[v]
These hostile incidents, combined with the desire of some students and staff to continue to push for that “community of civility,” led to the proposal for the establishment of an LGBT Resource Center, the plans for which were approved by school administrators in May 1996. The center was designed to offer support services provided by a dedicated counselor, and to act as a location for social events, an access point for information and research, and to provide an emotional safe space for LGBTQ students.
The LGBT Resource Center and its attendant counselor position quickly became a major issue of contention between the school’s Board of Visitors and Mason faculty, students, and staff. In September 1996, the Board voted to block the establishment of the center, citing fiscal concerns. Rector Marvin R. Murray also suggested that creation of the center might appear to condone sodomy, which was illegal in Virginia at the time.[vi] The board’s decision to block the center and counselor position was also unprecedented as in standard practice board actions were limited to “items with a fiscal impact of more than $250,000.”[vii] GMU President Alan Merten expressed concerns at the board’s attempt to break with that precedent and worked to develop an acceptable compromise on the issue.
The board opposed the compromise measure proposed by Merten that October that would have eliminated the plans for the creation of the LGBT center itself but still would have provided the funding necessary for a counselor for LGBT students. The board again cited fiscal concerns as a roadblock in the creation of such a center, concerned with setting a precedent of favoring special interest groups through services.
In early November 1996, the student government of GMU “planned to ask the Virginia governor George F. Allen to reprimand or remove school Rector Marvin R. Murray because he [opposed] support for a support center for campus homosexuals.”[viii] Students and faculty members hosted a rally on November 18 to protest the Board’s decision to halt funding. On November 21, the Board finally passed another compromise measure to allow center’s proposed operations to be performed by the Office of Minority Student Services without any additional funding. However, on December 5, the Student Senate passed a vote of no confidence in Rector Marvin R. Murray because of his opposition to fund LGBT support center. The Faculty Senate and Student Senate, who had both recommended funding the LGBT Resource Center, condemned the board’s actions, expressing concerns that the board was micromanaging the university and undermining Merten in his early presidency. Despite the negative feedback, Murray retained his position. Though the LGBT Resource Center did not come into being at this time, the strong show of support for increased resources for and acceptance of LGBTQ students at GMU set an important precedent for future endeavors.
Mason today is considered to be very LGBTQ-friendly. The school offers a variety of resources, clubs, and feedback programs designed to continue making the campus more welcoming to students of diverse gender and sexual identities. Some examples of such programs include the LGBTQ Resources Center (established in 2002), the LGBTQ Campus Climate Task Force (established in 2011), as well as clubs and student groups for LGBTQ students to connect with each other. As long as Mason continues to foster the acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, as well as other diverse groups, the university will continue to be regarded as a renowned institution of higher learning and attract students from all walks of life.
[i] “GMU Hosts Bittersweet AIDS Reading,” February 15, 1990, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 72.1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[ii] “GMU Leaflet Urges Tolerance of Homosexuals,” December 14, 1993, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 91.5, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[iii] Same as above.
[iv] “Sensitivity or ‘Mind Control’?,” December 27, 1993, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 91.5, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[v] “GMU’s Gay/Lesbian Center’s Mission: Offer a Safe Space,” November 20, 1996, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 110.1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[vi] “GMU Split Over Gay Counseling Center,” November 21, 1996, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 110.1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[vii] “GMU Board Faces Mounting Criticism,” December 18, 1996, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 110.5, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[viii] “GMU Students Plan Push for Gay Center,” November 30, 1996, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 110.1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
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