Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Vanderbilt over the rainbow

It's Pride time again at Vanderbilt University. There's a little controversy over the number of rainbow flags flying over the Greek houses on campus. The questions seem to center around what the flag means. For example, is it political?

Nevertheless, some members of the Greek community on campus worry that although though they agree with Lambda's agenda, it is unfair to ask houses to fly a flag supporting what some see as a political cause.

"It was expressed in our chapter that Greek organizations shouldn't have to make political statements, and it's unfair that if we choose not to fly the flag, we are seen as bigots," said senior A.J. Axelrod, a fraternity member. "I don't really buy that, but it was a concern expressed in our house."

An editorial questioned whether there was undue pressure to fly the flags:

Several members of the Greek community expressed concern over oblique social pressure, asserting that not flying the flag was equivocated to being bigoted. They felt that the flag was a political statement, and forcing a majority of their chapter to vote on that statement was inappropriate. The fact that pressure existed, however subtly, is unacceptable.

OK, one thing at a time. Let's start with the issue of pressure and then we'll come back to the Pride flag itself.

Thank goodness the poor, defenseless straight student majority on campus has the Hustler editorial page to defend them against the gays going around asking people to fly a flag. What will they ask for next? Equal dining privileges? It's entirely too much pressure. Give me a break! It doesn't even scratch the surface of what GLBT students face in terms of pressure on campus.

Now back to the flag...I'm not a fan of the Pride flag. But the most vocal, visible element of our community around the country does like it. So I deal with it. Is it political? In a very broad sense, yes, it is. It means liberation to some, acceptance to others. But it doesn't have anything to do with any specific political question, candidate, legislation, or court decision. I don't know why it is that any time something GLBT comes up, some people automatically read it as political. If flying the rainbow flag is the new threshold for political activism, then there are a hell of a lot more activists than I thought. It strikes me now as more cultural than political. So to fly a rainbow flag doesn't tell me whether you support marriage equality, civil unions, polyamory, getting rid of marriage altogether or that you just happen to like rainbows...or, gulp, GLBT folks.


Christian Grantham said...

Even as a gay guy, someone who has worked at HRC in Washington D.C. and spent years as an activist, I think it's just down right weird asking or demanding anyone fly rainbow flags, much less fraternity houses.

Chris Sanders said...

Yes, I think I might have picked a different thing to ask them to do, but then again I showed my hand in not liking the flag. I have to give it to Klint, though. He persuaded several to do it. It would great if that effort translates into a safer environment for GLBT students on campus.

Diezba said...

Actually, instead of making Vanderbilt safer for GLBT students, this situation has actually created backlash against the gay community.

There are a lot of people who do believe -- whether correctly or not -- that the pride flag is a political symbol. Vanderbilt's administration is notoriously "progressive," while its students are generally not.

And while you're right to point that the peer pressure in society in general against GLBT people is great, at Vanderbilt, that is not the case.

Last year, there was the "We Are Vanderbilt" campaign that sought to mitigate the reaction to abuse of a gay student; each year, Lambda hosts a drag show for freshmen to come out of the closet; and the University just implemented a GLBTQSI office that's administratively on the same level of the organization chart as the office of student-athletics (i.e., Dep't of Athletics).

At Vanderbilt, the pressure is strongly against those who are not in favor of gay marriage or the host of other issues you raised. The Hustler board's point was not that it's okay to be bigoted, but that fraternities and sororities -- organizations that do not take political stances -- should not fly inherently political symbols.

Imagine if one of the fraternities had decided to fly a Confederate flag instead?

Chris Sanders said...

It will be interesting to see. But your remark indicates that the backlash has begun. Does that mean that there have been specific incidents? I would think those would be newsworthy.

Chris Sanders said...

By the way, I've just heard that some of the flags were stolen, even from one of the fraternity houses and the house replaced it.

I've heard other flags were taken.

Diezba said...

I have heard similar reports -- those types of incidents, I think we could agree, would represent some of the backlash of which I spoke.

At the same time, while there has fortunately been no violence (that I know of), there has certainly been a great deal of animosity stirred up toward GLBT students in general, and Lambda in particular.

This just seems like a bad idea: generally, at Vanderbilt, most students take a libertarian approach to issues like this -- rather than being foaming-at-the-mouth bigots, the students just don't care.

This type of action, however, that inserts a controversial topic like this into Greek life (remember: some 60% of VU women are Greek; around 39-40% of men are Greek -- we're talking about half the student body) does nothing but call negative attention to GLBT groups.

In a way, it's becoming a pattern at Vanderbilt: the only time that GLBT students get attention on campus is when there is something negative associated with it (e.g., the violence last year, the controversy about the flags this year).

While no one should be expected to be silent about who they perceive themselves to be or their self-identity, it seems to me that Lambda is hurting their own cause (unless they're willing to use the "no such thing as bad publicity" line).