Adam Pulver | Unintended Consequences

Each year that I have been at Tufts, the same debate has occurred in one form or another on campus. An activist group makes irreverent chalkings, said chalkings are deemed offensive/profane/abusive/improper, chalkings are erased and debated, and there are no consequences because of the protections of free speech and vagueness of any behavior codes provided by the University.

So, last week, was anyone on campus surprised by the “profane” chalkings all over campus in support of Coming Out Day? Or even by the erasure of some of these chalkings and following hubbub? But what was surprisingly unclear was Dean of Students Bruce Reitman’s measure of profanity, in that the random pattern by which chalkings were erased seemed to focus more on the subversiveness of the messages, not their profane content.

The chalkings were not done by one individual. While individual chalkings which may have crossed the invisible “line of propriety” may have been done by one person, the style, tone, and content of chalkings varied all over campus. It could be argued that nearly all were profane or offensive, but isn’t that the point?

Coming Out Day is a day of celebration. But it is also a day of social activism. While many can celebrate being “out” in the liberal, tolerant atmosphere of Tufts University, there are many all over the world who cannot. In fact, there are many students at Tufts who are struggling to admit their own sexuality to themselves and others. Even some students who you and I may label as “out” because of their activities on-campus may be completely closeted to their families, prospective employers, or professors.

Social activism is offensive by definition. It is offensive to the dominant viewpoint it is attempting to change. If activists fail to offend anyone with their message, then there is probably no need for the activism. The chalkings on the night of Coming Out Day do not exist merely to inform people of a rally the next day, but rather to affect change in the way people on campus think about sexuality and those who identify differently.

By blanketing the campus in references to homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism ranging from the absurd “Queer bikes” to the more real “Proud to be a rug muncher,” chalkers aim to desensitize people to different sexualities. And most students on campus recognize that, as they laughed at chalkings on Wednesday morning.

The chalking deemed most “profane” by Reitman and others on campus was located outside of Bendetson Hall, home of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Admissions is often the ‘target’ of social activism on this campus, and rightfully so. From the Tufts Students Against Discrimination (TSAD) sit-in takeover of Bendetson in fall 2000 to last spring’s actions of the Student Labor Action Movement at April Open House, students know that Admissions is the public face of Tufts University. The Office of Admissions determines what aspects of Tufts to present to future students, shaping the future of our school.

Unfortunately, the individuals who work in the Office of Admissions do not necessarily represent the ideals and values of the greater Tufts community. Though many are no more than a few years older than the undergraduate population, most did not attend Tufts and thus have little vested interest in the Tufts community, except a professional one. Therefore, only the least controversial, most superficial, PR-friendly version of Tufts is presented to prospective students, a system which has only increased since the retirement of Dean David Cuttino and subsequent appointment of Dean Lee Coffin.

I do not expect, nor do I desire, any clarification on “profanity” at Tufts. The more specific we get in our restrictions of speech, the narrower we make the intellectual debate and conversation at Tufts. However, I gather that what is “profane” outside Bendetson may be held to a different standard than profanity anywhere else on-campus.

So what was the offending chalking? According to Reitman, the chalking said, “A lot of gays work in Admissions.” Is this statement true? Yes, which certainly does make a difference, particularly since it is common knowledge to any of the hundreds of students who volunteer or work in the office, as well as numerous students who dealt with the office before enrolling at Tufts. Would this count as profanity in most peoples’ eyes? No. In fact, several openly LGBT staff members have commented that they do not understand what the big deal was. Did it ‘out’ specific individuals? No. In the context of all the other chalkings on campus, did this chalking stand out at all to the majority of passersby? Again, no.

Some argue that one’s sexuality is a private matter, protected by sexual harassment policies. In serving as the public representatives of the University, individuals lose some of their privacy. But no individual was targeted by this chalking and no normative judgment was passed on homosexuality or even on the Admissions Office as a whole.

If the chalking had said, “Catholics work here” or “Whites work here”, would any one have shouted “profanity”? Religion and race are considered just as protected in the workplace and at the University as sexuality, but society is much less open to non-heterosexual identities. If anything, the reaction to the chalking in front of Admissions proves how necessary it was. The concept that labeling gay people as gay is profane goes against the key theme of Coming Out Day: pride.

Fortunately, many faculty and staff members acknowledge how great an impact they can have on students struggling with their sexuality and lead lives out and proud, thought it may be more difficult than the alternative. These adult role models are far more representative of the values of our University than those who aim to keep “profanity” at bay.

Adam Pulver is a senior majoring in community health and political science. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]