By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
HOUGHTON – During the night of April 6, or perhaps during the dark early morning hours of April 7, hatred struck the campus of Michigan Technological University in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the form of chalk and poor handwriting. On April 7, students awakened to the last day of Pride Week to find between 35 and 45 violent threats against gays chalked on campus sidewalks and buildings.
While one student was not satisfied with the university’s response to the attack, a representative of Keweenaw Pride told BTL that most of the response has been “amazing.”
The anti-gay attack came just as the school was wrapping up a Pride Week that Keweenaw Pride President Marc Starnez, a Michigan Tech freshman, called “a major hit.” Starnez said that 700-750 people attended the Pride Week drag show alone.
Starnez told BTL that he first heard about the anti-gay graffiti at about 4 a.m. on April 7, and immediately went to the campus to see the attack for himself.
“A group of about four of us [went to campus] because we were all a little fearful of going down there by ourselves,” he said. “We were there until 5:30 or so taking pictures, and just kind of taking it all in.”
Starnez said that he heard reports of students coming out of their dorms in the wee hours to wash the hateful, violent messages away.
“The night that the chalkings were found, two individuals from Keweenaw Pride found individuals grabbing soap and water to clean them up,” Starnez said. “It was amazing.”
Later that day, Starnez said, roughly 200 people, including university President Glenn Mroz, posed in “gay? fine by me” T-shirts to cap off Pride Week.
In a forwarded email received by BTL on April 10, Ph.D candidate K. Alex Ilyasova claims that the university’s administration has “dropped the ball” regarding the incident.
“In any case, I and most of the queer kids and allies have felt that the university as a whole dropped the ball on this,” the email says. “There was no statement made, other than to the Pride organization at the picturing taking for “gay? fine by me” in the afternoon.”
Ilyasova continues, “I worry that this thing will be dropped or minimized as the days go by and that any outrage, sympathy, and call to action will be lessened by the dragging of the feet by the university president.”
Ilyasova did not return an email from BTL about the incident as of press time, and this reporter was unable to reach him by phone.
However, Starnez told BTL, “I think that they [the university’s administration] are doing rather well. I was impressed with their response thus far; showing support for the LGBT community and trying to find who has done this.”
University spokeswoman Marcia Goodrich told BTL that the university’s administration regards the incident as “unconscionable.” Goodrich told BTL that the school’s public safety office is conducting an investigation.
“At this point, we don’t know who did it,” she said. “It could be somebody who’s part of the university community or it might not.” If the offender is a student and is caught, he or she faces sanctions that could include expulsion, Goodrich said.
Goodrich told BTL that Michigan Tech has a policy that specifically prohibits “engaging in threats because of an individual’s sexual orientation.”
And while the offender might be a member of the off-campus community, Starnez, who works at the local Wal-Mart, told BTL that he hasn’t experienced discrimination from Houghton residents.
“I’ve had no problems dealing with any LGBT issues,” he said. “They seem like a community that does not want stuff like this occurring. They want just to live and let live.”
“It’s not uncommon for this [an anti-gay incident] to happen on college campuses” during or after a Pride event, said Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for the Triangle Foundation.
“We know for a fact that anti-gay vandalism and violence do accompany gay and lesbian visibility,” Kosofsky said. “It is a symptom of where we are in the movement. Every civil rights struggle has a period of time where societal pushback is the rule. And we are still in this incredibly hostile environment where violence and vandalism and discrimination occur regularly.”
Kosofsky added that “It is still not safe to be gay anywhere in the world. Whether we’re in San Francisco or in Houghton, Michigan, we always have to be conscious of our own safety and the risks of being queer.”
For his part, Starnez said that he plans to address the attack with education.
“[Our] response thus far is to educate people,” he said, “just to let them know that we are here and this stuff does occur.”
Starnez continued, “I personally have been a victim of a hate crime. I’ve been through situations like this before, and I know that the best way to deal with situations like this is just to talk to people.”
Despite a hateful intent, the person who scrawled the hate messages on Michigan Tech’s campus seems actually to have brought more allies out of the woodwork according to Dr. Les Cook, the vice president for student affairs. Cook said on April 10 that an additional 45 allies had signed up for the school’s “safe place” volunteer program since word of the graffiti began circulating on campus the morning of April 7.
“That’s amazing,” he said. “It really generated a lot of enthusiasm and got people to move forward with wanting to help out, provide support and show that they care.”
By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman