Although I’m not seeking a theme house next year, as president of Common Ground (and as a queer and a feminist), I very disturbed by what has happened in the last week in regards to theme housing. But I do not believe that the decisions made were motivated by sexism, homophobia or anti-feminism—just plain old, non-discriminatory ignorance and bias that is still inexcusable, in my opinion.
I have been working closely with the group of students applying for the Q&A (Queers and Allies) house. We have had extensive conversations about the importance of this house, and how it differs from the club. All of that information appeared in their application materials, which, of course, the Senators had not read before they made their biased decision.
For the record: Common Ground does meet in a house called the Human Rights Center, which is not a space where any students can legally live. Around eight students total (one per club) have keys to the building, which means it is not an open space. The HRC taskforce is trying to create open hours in the evenings where one HRC president is on duty, and anyone can come to study or hang out. Unfortunately, that means that the HRC is an official safe space for queers and allies a total of five hours a week (one hour during Common Ground’s meeting, and four hours if a Common Ground officer is “on duty” one night.) One night a week with only one Common Ground representative and a bunch of other random people hanging out: does that sound like an open safe space that could realistically create positive, queer-friendly change on our campus?
The other major difference between the club and the house is the matter of social issues. Common Ground focuses on activism and education oriented events. It’s neither appropriate nor feasible for us to host parties on the weekend, dinners, movie nights, and other such events that theme houses have the opportunity to do. Without a living space, and with an official club affiliation, there’s no way that we could represent queer interests in Knox’s very heteronormative social/party culture. Common Ground’s events are only special, isolated incidents paid for by a club budget. They are not an everyday part of our residential culture. This means that the average Knox student’s exposure to queer culture also occurs on specially scheduled intervals.
We want being queer to be as normal and as accepted as possible. We want to build a community of allies, and show Knox students that queer issues impact everyone. This can only truly happen by integrating queer culture into our residential community, not by giving us a distlist and relegating us to five hours a week in an unlivable space at the far end of campus.
Above all, I want to make clear how messed up this entire process is, regardless of the alleged issues of discrimination. The fact that Senate creates a committee to look over the applications and make decisions as objectively as possible (with the help of Craig Southern), and then they completely disregarded those recommendations in favor of their own biased, misguided, uninformed opinions just disgusts me. I’m also really frustrated that I have not been permitted to represent Common Ground’s perspective. The relationship between the club and the house is a concern, but I have been told that I cannot attend the meetings with the ad-hoc committee. To me this means that Senate has preconceived notions that they are not willing to examine fairly, and that is my major issue here.
The second issue here that I see is that Senate does not seem to value the theme house option as a way to create real, meaningful cultural spaces and dialogue. Allowing a bunch of friends to live together and do fun things is not the best use of this wonderful opportunity. Senate thinks that creating a cultural space will exclude the rest of campus, when what we are trying to do is bridge that gap. Common Ground did this last week with Scott Turner Schofield—we connected someone representing an extreme minority with over 350 people on campus, and they learned a lot from him. This sort of engagement is the only way that we as a campus (and as a larger society) can address the intersectionality of cultural oppression and ultimately move past it.
“Cultural” doesn’t have to mean an ethnicity group or a marginalized portion of society. I define culture as any community of people who share a passion and identity. Cultures are not meant to be exclusive—the best of them try to include others and help us realize that we’re not as different as we think. Why can’t we see more of that in our theme houses?