by Joseph Jaafari
LGBT students and advocates try and make York College a safe haven, but with resistance
Forty-five years ago, a group of “sissy boys and men in dresses” fought back against powers much stronger than them. Barricading themselves in a little bar in the East Village off Christopher Street, the Stonewall Inn riots became ground zero for the modern gay-rights movement.
For the members of York’s Straight and Gay Alliance (SaGA), Stonewall is far-removed by four generations, but the same feelings of frustrations and craving acceptance is still there. In this small group, that craving is satiated – but only within those walls, some feel.
“There are people in this school, unfortunately, who aren’t very tolerant or not tolerant at all,” said SAGA member Amy McLeod. “It’s really hard to find somewhere that you can just sit and relate.”
And she’s right.
Faculty advisor and Professor Timothy Corkery of the Fine Arts department was shocked at the amount of students on York’s campus seeking anonymity, fearing what their other classmates would say or do to them.
“It’s hard to hear students walking into my office and say ‘I can’t tell you who I am, I can’t even come to SaGA yet’,” said Corkery.
“This is supposed to be a safe place,” said SaGA President Rosalind Casillas. ”We’re here to talk. We’re here to listen.”
During a recent meeting in their club room in the Academic Core building 1C02, the students sat around eating pizza and talking about the importance of SaGA’s presence for gay students on campus, the group was avoiding the most important question: how can a group of gay men and women ever be safe in South Jamaica, where being gay is not something most are willing to broadcast? And how can they be treated equally in a school whose students come from religious and ethnic backgrounds which are traditionally considered intolerant toward the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community?
Most of the students in SaGA are hesitant to speak about their experiences on campus, including former President of SaGA and now Student Senator Leanord Angelo San Miguel.
San Miguel recounted his freshman year at York College, when a math professor, notorious for his tough grading, muttered the word “faggot” in class. San Miguel said he never came forward because he didn’t want to risk his grade.
When Jason Collins came out last year as the first openly gay pro-basketball player, a student last semester overheard a large group in the cafeteria use the word “fag” to describe beating up a guy in a locker room “checking them out,” he said.
“It’s so hard to hear that word,” said Vice President Madelyn Guerva. Students openly acknowledged the comparison to calling a person of color a “nigger” to calling a homosexual a “faggot.”
“It absolutely is the same thing,” said Professor Scott Scheidlower, another faculty advisor for the club. To illustrate his point, Scheidlower related a story about a student who used to dress flamboyantly before he was walking from class down 160th Street when someone threatened him saying, “I’m going to kill you, faggot!”
“He butches it up now,” said Sheidlower. And the group is obviously distraught by that. Many of them nodded solemnly, each of them looking back into what they’ve individually experienced on campus.
“People always say ‘when did you choose to be gay?’” said Casillas.
Sheidlower jumped in, “You know how to respond back to that? You ask them when they chose to be straight.”
SaGA most recently put on a dance in the Physical Education building with a number of students and staff in attendance.
“I was honestly surprised at the amount of people who came,” said Corkery. “And it was a lot of people’s first times going as being openly gay or bisexual or transgender.”
York College is the last senior college of CUNY that put in place a SaGA. Medgar Evars once had a SaGA but has since not continued the club, according to Corkery. SaGA members are currently working on marching in the Queens Gay Pride march along with the Manhattan Gay Pride March independently from the CUNY groups. Both marches take place in June.