This post first appeared on the Harvard Sexual Literacy Project column on November 9, 2017.
Sheehan D. Scarborough, Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life ("SDS"): Thanks for joining us for week 2 of 3 in our (the BGLTQ Office’s) guest post series. Just as we did last week, we’re lighting a candle to both acknowledge and center those who have experienced harm.
Undergraduate Intern in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life ("BJG"): So, last week we talked about the context of queer communities and relationships and how that plays a role in how harm is experienced. As part of that, we explored some of the factors that might impact how individuals within the queer community access resources - factors such as outness or the size of the community. This week, why don’t we dig a little deeper into that and think more about how this affects someone within the queer community after they’ve experienced harm.
SDS: I think it’s so important to recognize that sexual assault can be an incredibly isolating experience. As we mentioned last week, shame, fear of retaliation, one’s degree of outness, and concerns about whether you can trust people to believe your story can all lead a person not to share what they’ve experienced. I’m reminded of the many people in the television and movie industry who’ve recently spoken out about their own experiences of assault, some going back as far as decades. That’s a long time to hold on to that pain. As difficult as it has been to hear these stories of sexual assault, it’s encouraging to see that people are using this opportunity to call for systemic change. Part of changing the culture around sexual assault and harassment means working to destigmatize the experience of harm.
BJG: It’s important for queer people to receive affirmation and acknowledgement of their experiences of harm. This goes hand-in-hand with the affirmation of the people and relationships that reflect a wide variety affections, intimacies, identities, and orientations. In short, to affirm and acknowledge harm, we must also affirm and acknowledge the people experiencing that harm.
SDS: That’s really well said, BJG. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of systems, such as homophobia and transphobia, that lead queer people to not feel accepted or affirmed. Can you speak to some of that, in your experience as a student?
BJG: Sure. The lack of education about gender diversity, the struggle to find all-gender bathrooms, the required gendering of first-year housing, assumptions that people will make about a person’s sexuality, and the ways gender and sexuality are included and not included in curriculums can all make queer students feel excluded and powerless on campus. To solve these structural problems, it’s not enough for individuals to just not be openly homophobic or transphobic. The default on campus and in society in general is homophobia and transphobia, so those outside of the queer community must put in extra effort to oppose those defaults and create an inclusive space. In addition, queer students’ experiences within the Harvard queer community may not always be the most affirming. Is the queer community accepting and diverse? What intersections of identities are represented at queer events? How can we avoid forming exclusive cliques within the community?
SDS: You’re so right. While we as a Harvard community strive to be inclusive and affirming of all genders and sexualities, there are reminders that we still have a long way to go. Part of our work in the BGLTQ Office is to educate the campus (staff, students, and faculty) about gender and sexual diversity, and to create space for building community across the various identities that we hold as queer people. But this is only part of the work. It’s also important to have people who are easily accessible and available when students want to speak with someone who they feel will understand their specific experience as a queer person. In regard to sexual assault, all of the staff and interns in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life are trained to be able to serve as a confidential resource. And every house and yard has its own BGLTQ Tutor or Proctor to serve as a local resource for queer students. While BGLTQ Tutors and Proctors don’t have confidentiality training, they are a great source of support and advice, and can help connect students with other resources on campus.
BJG: I’m actually on staff for Contact Peer Counseling, and we’re confidential undergraduates trained to listen to and understand the experiences of queer students on campus and provide information on additional resources. Queer Harvard students who have experienced harm are welcome to visit Contact or call us during our drop-in hours. Some students may also want to turn to their queer peers, such as friends or classmates, for support. For students who don’t want to access official campus resources, queer peers can be their first point of contact for getting support.
SDS: And let’s not forget that there are other great resources that aren’t queer-specific, but which are definitely queer-friendly and queer knowledgeable, such as our friends and colleagues at OSAPR; Emily Miller, the College’s Title IX Coordinator; the Bureau of Study Counsel; and Response Peer Counseling. This isn’t an exhaustive list! You can learn about these and other resources in the links we’ve provided below.
BJG: We hope that this has been a helpful start to a conversation about the aftermath of harm and how queer students who’ve experienced harm can access resources on campus for support in the aftermath of a sexual assault. We hope you’ll join us again next week when we’ll explore the ripple effect that sexual assault has on members of a small community.
Sheehan Scarborough, Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life
BJG, Undergraduate Intern ("Quintern") in the Office of BGLTQ Student Life