Inclusivity begins at home: race, gender, and sexual orientation at YDS
Following last year’s all-school conversation on racial justice, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity have come to the foreground as part of a three-year cycle dealing with power, privilege, and inequality in the YDS community.
Student Council President Chris Washnock ’14 M.A.R. describes the new school-wide initiative.
"We’re involved in a multiyear effort called 'Community Matters’ that seeks to ask difficult questions about our own areas for improvement as a divinity school community and as a partner with our neighbors in New Haven."
Working on community, recognizing priviledge
Charles Graves '15 M.Div.
In his third year on the Diversity Committee, Angel Collie ’14 M.Div. thinks that efforts to build a more inclusive society, including issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, often called "SOGI" issues, indeed begin at home.
"Some people at YDS feel like their voices are somehow less valuable than others’. We work hard at intentional community, but we’re still products of the society in which we live. We still need to work on what it means to be privileged."
Collie also serves as co-leader of the Coalition for LGBTQIA students, which organizes social and awareness-raising events, such as the annual "Coming Out Day" student panel. The Coalition has also successfully advocated for institutional changes at YDS, including designated gender-neutral restroom facilities. In the coming months the Diversity Committee will partner with the Coalition to support programs that include a Marquand Chapel service and a Trans101 seminar. The partnership between the Diversity Committee and the Coalition reflect the Committee’s intention to highlight ongoing inclusivity activities and conversations in student groups and other forums.
Coalition co-leader, Dana Capasso ’14 M.Div., notes that YDS has a particular responsibility to educate students about racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.
"Since YDS seeks to prepare future leaders of the academic, religious, and secular spheres, it is critical that we have within our curriculum space where we can explore various 'isms’ and work to dispel myths and challenge stereotypes that often follow them. "
Chloë Starr, assistant professor of Asian Christianity and theology and chair of the Diversity Committee, agrees.
"People are hurt by different judgments made on them because of sexuality or gender identity—it’s a pastoral issue. We need to allow students to bring in questions that are slightly sub-surface, open up vulnerabilities."
In addition to facilitating events that prompt interactions around these questions, Starr says that Dean Sterling has charged the Diversity Committee with monitoring the school's efforts to diversify faculty and students and serving as advocates for inclusivity. He has also requested the development of a 10-year diversity plan to ensure an ongoing focus on privilege and marginalization. As Starr notes, "we need to continue conversations, but [also] focus in on the institutional climate."
Race always part of the conversation
Charles Graves ’15 M.Div. is optimistic about the potential for school-wide conversations on SOGI, in part because of YDS’s unique position as an ecumenical, open and affirming divinity school.
"I have a number of friends who have denominations that haven’t moved as far on LGBT issues as they would hope, and there aren’t that many places for them to go...In that regard, I think we’re doing well on LGBT issues."
But as part of that discussion, Graves hopes that there is also space for all voices to be heard, including straight students and others who might be unsure of their place in the conversation. He also emphasizes that issues of race shouldn’t be overlooked.
"If you’re going to have the conversation on sexual orientation and gender identity as a continuation of the conversation on race, you have to make sure that one or the other doesn’t get trampled on."
Herron Gaston ’14 M.Div. agrees. An active participant in last year’s all-school conversation on race and a vocal advocate for attention to racial injustice in the US penal system, Gaston celebrates the attempt to make connections between separate yet related forms of discrimination. He recognizes the "double minority" status experienced based on racial or ethnic and SOGI identities; however, he worries about the danger of conflating related but distinct expressions of discrimination.
"I think it's easy for some members in this community to not see the intrinsic link between race and gender identity issues, and focus primary on the latter…the reality is that [some students] don’t necessarily fit into the dominant LGBTQ movement."
An intersectional approach
Nicole Benevenia '14 M.A.R.
Nicole Benevenia '15 M.A.R. joins Gaston in stressing the need for a truly intersectional approach to inclusivity conversations. She hopes for "a general awareness of the way that minority groups are often pitted against each other, and awareness of how violent that can be in a community."
As a queer woman, Benevenia is grateful for the institutional and personal support she has received in her first semester at YDS. She also notes that, as someone who benefits from racial and class privileges, she understands the uneasiness and resistance that honest, self-reflective conversations about power and marginality can occasion.
"I’m the most uncomfortable having these conversations when I’m the person with the privilege…I don’t think that we should pretend that this is an easy task. There’s sweat and tears and blood that will come out of this if it’s done honestly, and in the right way."
Maeba Jonas ’14 M.Div. and co-leader of the YDS Women Seminarians group, thinks that YDS is ready for the challenge.
"I think this school is more than capable of having a fruitful and forward-thinking discussion about these issues, while including voices and opinions from all sides. It’s time we started creating new scripts and gaining new tools about SOGI issues for today’s audience and for the YDS community."