February 18, 2008
An alma mater behind the curve
Posted by: Chris
My feelings about my college alma mater, Vanderbilt University, run from love to frustration, if not hate. I had an incredible college experience, both in terms of education and figuring out who I am as a person. My initial attraction was the school's reputation as "the Harvard of the South," and I was eager to return to my native region after an abrupt family move from Memphis to Cincinnati during my junior year of high school.
Ironically, the conservative Southern atmosphere at Vanderbilt -- don't call Vanderbilt "Vandy," you wouldn't call Harvard "Harvy" -- wound up unleashing the activist and journalist in me, and I haven't really recovered since. Even as a conservative Republican from a few hours down the highway, I was surprised my first year by the overt, lazy racism of many of these wealthy, educated students. I helped start an organization called the Racial Environment Project that lobbied for an increased number of minority students and a better racial climate on campus.
It spilled over into my budding journalism career. Like many of my closeted "best little boys in the world," I channeled my repressed sexuality into my studies and extracurricular life. I managed to become editor of the student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler (we had the name first), as a sophomore and made covering racial issues a priority.
At the time, my commitment to a better relations between white and black students seemed purely intellectual, but several liberal professors aware of my politics (and religious background) asked me a number of times whether there might be some other motivation. They were as clueless as I was about the connection I see as clear as day today. Even though I was struggling with my sexuality at the time, I identified with the way black students often felt alienated by the macho Southern culture of the campus.
The closest I came to doing anything about my sexual orientation -- I never acted on it -- was to ask one of those liberal professors for help. I was so nervous -- this was 1986 -- I only got as far as saying I had a problem with girls. "Look," he said in response. "I can see you're really struggling with something, so let me give you the name of someone to talk to. He's a counselor and a great guy; he would have been a priest but he quit the seminary because of all the gays there." Gee, thanks…
Gay life was completely nonexistent, at least on the surface. The year after I graduated, a group formed and advertised in the Hustler classifieds, but to attend a meeting you had to send a letter to a P.O. Box to learn the location and times. Things were that bad.
I was president of the Racial Environment Project my senior, and someone suggested at a meeting that we extend our mission to include gay issues. Panicked, I pointed out that the group's name and mission were limited to racial issues, and I changed the subject as quickly as possible. I still feel a twinge of guilt thinking back about that moment.
If all this seems a bit prehistoric, even for the 1980s, it was. Vanderbilt has always been behind the curve on social progress. It was only in my junior year, after a huge campus debate, that a traditionally white sorority inducted a black girl for the first time. The Princeton Review has consistently ranked Vanderbilt as among the most homophobic schools in the country.
All of this is background for the debate at Vanderbilt now about whether to add "gender identity" to the university's nondiscrimination policy. I'm not sure exactly when "sexual orientation" was added, but I believe it was well into the '90s. I remember the objection of the school's administration was that "sexual orientation" was too ill-defined and could include a whole range of sexual fetishes.
A first year law student could answer that concern by simply defining "sexual orientation" to include "heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual," but no matter. It was too much for the school's Board of Trustees to swallow.
Now the issue is transgender, and you can imagine the uphill battle facing the proposal. Of course adding transgender protections raises a different set of issues, and they have defined gender identity in a broad way, to include "anyone who does not conform to stereotypical gender norms." But the debate ultimately isn't a substantive one, it's merely a matter of pulling (not pushing) Vanderbilt into the 21st century.
Or, as the first female president of the school's alumni association once said to me about the Board of Trustees, "It usually takes a few good funerals for progress to come to Vanderbilt."
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