'Fine by Me' panel takes on gay issues on campus

In an effort to promote tolerance and awareness of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community on campus, Pride Alliance, Residence Life, the Center for Community and the Office of the Provost came together to present a "Gay? Fine By Me," panel discussion.

The Union Ballroom was nearly filled to capacity for the Feb. 27 event, and everyone in attendance received a free T-shirt labeled with the program's title and message.

"If we want to bring change to our campus, we have to first change our way of thinking," SA Director of Academic Affairs Diana Zuniga, a junior, said in introduction. A panel of five students, alumni and faculty spoke to this objective.

"I feel like having the different panel perspectives really helped to facilitate an education on issues people may not be familiar with" said junior Jill Rabinowitz.

The first member of the panel to speak, Dr. Robert Owens, is a distinguished teaching professor of communicative science and disorders who came out a few years into his career at Geneseo. He explained that while most in the GLBT community grow to become happy and confident adults, the process leading up to this growth is filled with struggle, including higher tendencies of depression, drug use and suicide.

"Educators ignore this issue at their own peril," he said, pointing out that a number of school shootings have been correlated with harassment over sexuality.

According to Owens, "What we need to do is provide support, provide love, provide understanding…This is everybody's issue," he said, "and that's what I want to leave you with."

Following Owens, Pride member Jesse Cutting, a senior, spoke about his own experience.

"Geneseo has been a great environment to nurture me into the strong, gay man I am today," he said.

But according to Cutting, the issue of intolerance remains present and widely ignored. Recalling a time when he was threatened at a bar for being gay, Cutting said it was the first time his, "feeling of safety was completely shattered."

Cutting believes that people forgetting about the problem is the biggest problem of all, and is hopeful that the shirts given at the program will bring it to attention.

Geneseo alumna Ceridwen Troy, came to the podium to read an article she wrote entitled, "How to kill a trans-person," which addressed multiple killings rooted in the intolerance of the transgender community. After sharing an emotional account of the fear, scorn, anger and violence inflicted on transgender individuals, Troy emphasized that, "It's very easy to kill someone who you don't view as human."

Professor Irene Belyakov followed to express why the GLBT community is so often associated with pride. After 17 years of marriage with her husband, Belyakov fell in love with and married a woman, with whom she has been together for the past 20 years.

Having risen above humiliation throughout her life, Belyakov said, "I am now giving my life to teaching my students never to be ashamed of who they are."

Coordinator of multicultural programs Fatima Johnson was the last on the panel to speak, sharing her perspective as an ally. "I have a coming-out process, as well," she said, expressing the initial urge to justify herself as a straight person on behalf of the community. "Once you commit to it, you commit yourself for the long haul."

Johnson encouraged everyone in attendance to validate all forms of gender expression, speak out against biased statements and jokes, and give visibility to the issues and concerns.

In that spirit, sophomore Trisha Davies, who helped to coordinate the event, encouraged the audience to wear their "Gay? Fine by Me" shirts every Thursday, on-campus and off.