Is Rider Gay-Friendly?

This story was revised on March 5, 2013, to include the clarification that appears at the end.

By Katie Zeck

American drag queen Manila Luzon, best known for her runner-up spot on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, was the highlight of Spectrum Pride Alliance’s annual variety show last semester. Equipped with songs, jokes and an assortment of costumes, Luzon’s act made for a night of fun and campus bonding as many groups and organizations took part in the show. But such acceptance of Rider’s gay community was not always present in Lawrenceville.

In the 1980s, there was no group designated for gay or lesbian students, no place for students questioning their sexuality to find comfort and support, and no place for a gay student to confide in others experiencing similar problems at Rider. Today, about 30 students actively participate in the newly named Spectrum Pride Alliance and the organization has more of a presence on campus than ever before.

“I want members of Spectrum and anyone who may be struggling with his or her sexuality to feel comfortable enough on campus to be open — with themselves and with others,” said junior elementary education and psychology major Patrick Callahan, Spectrum’s current president.

The Spectrum Pride Alliance’s current mission is to bring together the campus community to discuss and shed light on issues surrounding homosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism and those who are questioning their sexuality. It also aims to provide any student with a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere in which to express his or her thoughts and feelings.
In the national scene, gay rights and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) community have also made great strides. In January, President Obama was the first president in the history of the United States to mention the fair treatment of LGBTQ individuals in his inauguration speech. The Boy Scouts of America announced in January plans to consider an end to its long-standing policy of banning gay scouts and scout leaders. On the state level, the Garden State Equality and the Human Rights Campaign just this week unveiled plans to form a broad coalition of LGBTQ, civil rights, labor, progressive and faith organizations. The coalition will work to earn support for marriage equality and anti-bullying efforts in schools.

Westminster Choir College, many feel, has been exceptionally accepting and supportive of the LGBTQ community over the years. See “Climate is warm” on page 5.

On the Lawrenceville campus, the Spectrum Pride Alliance has developed and undergone many changes within the past decade.

“When I was a student here in 1990 there were meetings in a staff member’s office for students struggling with their sexuality, but it had to be kept under the radar,” said Mike Rutkowski, the grants manager of the university and current adviser of the Spectrum Pride Alliance.
In 1994, RiderFLAG, standing for Friends of Lesbians and Gays, was created as an organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students, students questioning their sexual identity and their student allies. At that time, the club had a total of about six members — mostly consisting of its executive board.
Dr. Gerald Klein, a management professor, was the adviser of RiderFLAG from 1996 until 2003.

According to Klein, RiderFLAG began after a presentation was made at a 1994 Writing
Across the Curriculum-sponsored seminar titled “Get to Know Your Students.” The presentation brought up the issue that gay Rider students felt unwelcome on campus. These students would meet in secret in order to hide their sexuality and avoid the risk of being targeted or bullied by other students.

“They didn’t feel comfortable on campus,” Klein said. “Rider was not a very ‘out’ place. Once I saw the presentation, I knew this should not be happening. Students should not be punished for their sexual differences.”

From these thoughts, RiderFLAG was created. Looking back, Klein recalls that there were bumps in the road during the club’s first few years.

“One of our presidents was pushed down from behind at night and called a faggot, hurtful messages were written on dorm room doors of our members and fliers advertising the club’s meetings were torn down,” he said. “I even felt that my office or car could be vandalized, but it was important enough to take that risk.”

Gina Oxley, who was a male known as Eugene while a student at Rider from 1998 to 2002, felt that transgenders were also not as welcome on campus during this time.

“If you were transgender or transcurious people looked at that like you were really freaky,” Oxley said. “People would say they would support you, but you could tell they didn’t want to. That’s what I got from most organizations and things like that. It was hard for people to swallow. People didn’t know enough about it.”

While a student, Oxley was not comfortable with her sexuality.

“I wasn’t out mostly because of family issues, but I also thought I would lose respect from my professors if I came out and that would hurt my career,” she said. “Looking back now, it might have been OK, but it was still a big fear I had.”

Oxley added that she noticed a trend at Rider between the different majors.

“The community at that time was broken down into people that were very business-related and very art-related,” she said. “And so, in departments like communication, English and the arts, there were a lot more people supportive of you than if you majored in business or science.”
Oxley has since fully completed her transformation into a woman and feels much more comfortable with her sexuality. She now lives in Florida as a curriculum developer and e-learning trainer.

“When the year 2000 hit, everyone opened up to transgenderism,” she said. “The turn of the century allowed for new progress. Everyone had a lot more information about transgender people and ultimately discovered that there were way more gay people around.”

Klein also said that over the preceding decade, Rider became a more open and supportive university, and the club began to enhance its activity on campus.

RiderFLAG went on to sponsor and organize the first on-campus National Coming Out Day and later created a fuller collection of gay and lesbian literature in Moore library. The group also hosted debates on gay and lesbian-related legislation.

With so much new activity surrounding the club, Rider was rated by the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition publication, Campus Community Guide, as one of the leading universities in the state in terms of having an environment supportive of sexual diversity.

Over time, the term “gay-straight alliance” began to appear as a name for clubs with the common goal to assist LGBTQ students in high schools and colleges. Because of the name’s popularity, RiderFLAG became the Gay-Straight Alliance in the spring of 2005, a year after Rutkowski was named adviser of the organization.

According to Rutkowski, the club recently changed its name again because of a shift in the LGBTQ community.

“At first it was always the gay community,” he said. “Then it became the gay/lesbian community, or lesbian/gay depending on who you talked to. As a club, we felt we were sending the message that we were focusing on who was gay and who was straight, which was not true. As a society, we now have more and more people who are transgender, who are curious about sexuality or who simply don’t know what gender they’re attracted to. We needed to give these students a space to be who they are.”

For this reason, the Gay-Straight Alliance officially became the Rider Spectrum Pride Alliance in September 2012. The club wanted to reinforce the idea that everyone and anyone was welcome and invited.

Rutkowski, who has been openly gay all the years he has been working at Rider, said that the club is a combination of “serious nights and fun nights.”

“Education and advocacy is a lot of what we’re about,” Rutkowski said. “We interact with TCNJ, Princeton and other colleges. We also attend conferences to learn about other groups for gay students on college campuses. But on some nights we also watch movies and just talk. No one has to disclose what they are or aren’t. I couldn’t tell you the sexual orientation of half our members, and I don’t need to know. Even when we’re sharing stories, no one is forced to talk.”

According to Rutkowski, other campus clubs and organizations have been more willing than ever to work with Spectrum. A variety of groups will soon be participating in “Gaypril,” a month of activities directed to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community.
Callahan is Spectrum’s current president. He said that he is proud of what the organization stands for and the work it has done so far this year.

“I first got involved with the club right at the start of my freshman year,” he said. “I was only out to a few close friends when I first started college, but I thought [the organization’s meetings] had a really nice environment and group of people. I was still mostly closeted, but I knew that going to those meetings would be good for me, so I continued.”

Since becoming president, Callahan has pushed for a more active Rider Ally Program. The volunteer program, which has been on campus for three years, creates visible allies, support and resources for the LGBTQ community.

“At the end of the day, I have so much love for this organization and this campus,” Callahan said.
Contact this writer at zeckk@theridernews.com.

This story was revised March 5, 2013, to include the following clarification:

The story “Is Rider Gay-Friendly?” on Feb. 22 misidentified the sponsor
of the 1994 seminar “Getting to Know Your Students.” It was the Writing
Across the Curriculum program, not the English Department.

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