Shifting Perceptions Series Explores CMC Campus Climate in Ath Lectures

“I hear that a lot of people avoid [Claremont McKenna College] (CMC) as much as possible; [they] will avoid going through CMC’s campus,” one student said, referring to a perception toward CMC held by some students at the 5Cs who don’t identify as heterosexual.

“They’ll take the long route instead of the shortcut because of the attention they think they’ll get,” another student added.

This perception that a hyper masculine and heteronormative culture exists at CMC was the motivation for an ongoing speakers series, “Shifting Perceptions: Celebrating the Spectrum of Leadership,” which has brought several speakers to CMC’s Athenaeum this fall to foster dialogue about the school’s campus climate and to celebrate non-heterosexual individuals in leadership positions, according to the series’s website.

The series, which was organized by a group of CMC students, is a year-long project that will feature female and non-heterosexual speakers who are leaders in their fields. The most recent speaker, openly gay President and Chief Operating Officer of the Golden State Warriors Rick Welts, spoke at the Athenaeum on Monday, Oct. 24, about his experience in the sports industry.

When asked about CMC’s campus climate, CMC students had various responses.

Caitlin Feeney CMC ’12 is a member of the 7C Queer Resource Center (QRC), which provides support and programming for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and allied (LGBTQQIA) community across the campuses. She said certain CMC events, such as Thursday Night Club (TNC), can be uncomfortable for non-heterosexual students.

“Some CMC events, I think, are uncomfortable for some queer and questioning people because of the language that’s used [and the] behavior that’s seen,” Feeney said. “A lot of times just that heteornormative vibe that I get from CMC, [the] ignorant uses of ‘gay’ or ‘fag’—[it] turns [people] off.”

CMC Resident Assistant Greg Zahner CMC ’12, one of the organizers of the Shifting Perceptions series, recognized the existence of heteronormative attitudes on campus, but insisted that this attitude is not representative of the entire CMC community.

“I think CMC has been unfairly characterized as not a very diverse campus,” he said. “I have not found it particularly difficult to be gay at CMC. Most people at CMC don’t really care [about your sexual orientation].”

“What CMC [students] care about is how you define yourself based on what you do,” Zahner added. “They don’t care who your parents are, how well-connected they are… CMC students are more focused on what you’ve done and what you contribute to the campus,” he said.

Zahner said he felt that the perception that CMC’s campus climate is not welcoming to non-heterosexual individuals has reinforced that image by dissuading non-heterosexual individuals from coming out.

“[For] the people I know who are gay and have not come out, it’s hard for them to come out here, because of the perception that CMC is an impossible place to be gay,” Zahner said. “I don’t think that reflects the reality anymore. It’s a perception that CMC is partly responsible for, but other schools are responsible for as well.”

CMC Associate Professor of Literature Audrey Bilger, who specializes in Women’s Studies, said she has had positive experiences with CMC’s campus climate.

“I was at a dinner for LGBT students and allies sponsored by the Dean of Students Office earlier this semester, and I was heartened to see a large turnout from students who identified as supportive allies,” she said. “My hope is that we will continue to see the growth of a more welcoming climate at CMC.”

Zahner agreed with Bilger’s assessment that CMC’s campus climate has improved, and he highlighted the role of the Athenaeum in promoting a more accepting community at CMC.

“This series really recognizes the evolution of CMC,” he said. “Rather than putting the emphasis on what school is particularly homophobic or sexist, I think we just need to recognize that there are universal issues that we all face and we just need to look at how we can address them and move forward and have conversations about them.”

Feeney also favored a more conscious rhetoric on CMC’s campus that would encourage constructive criticism but would avoid perpetuating long-held misconceptions.

“If you hear students talking about how CMC is a more opposed campus than others, it may intimidate you and convince you not to come out,” she said. “I think that the rhetoric needs to be more about CMC’s improvements and CMC’s continued attempt for outreach and support.”

Jessica Valenzuela PO ’12 acknowledged CMC’s efforts in facilitating discussion about its campus climate, but she warned of further work still ahead.

“Bringing speakers to campus won’t change the campus climate,” she said. “I hope students take advantage of the opportunity by attending and participating in the conversation because that’s what’s going to change things in the end.”

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