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Fighting for Gay Rights at B.C.

A Great Tailgate Scene Amid Struggle for Equality

(This story was published in 2006).

By: Todd Heustess

When I started writing about tailgating at different college football venues for Outsports, I knew it would be tremendous fun. I wish I could make a living writing these types of stories, traveling around the country meeting other college football fans. I hoped that my excitement and passion for the social atmosphere at college football games would interest sports fans and non-sports fans alike and if I was able to find a gay angle to the stories, so much the better.

What has really surprised and captivated me is a sense of change at campuses across the country. Whether it’s active and open gay alumni blending in seamlessly to the tailgate scenes, or gay and straight students tailgating together completely unburdened by labels and preconceived notions of sexuality, a gay fraternity totally integrated into their school’s social structure or students fighting discrimination and homophobia at their school, I’m realizing that there are small but significant changes happening on campuses across the country, positive changes for the GLBT community.

The setting at Boston College for football is picture-perfect, a tailgate postcard. On this cool, October evening in suburban Boston, excitement reigned on the idyllic BC campus, awash in the first colors of autumn, a dramatic contract with the stone buildings that made up so much of the campus architecture.

Cozy Alumni Stadium (seating capacity of 45,000) is situated in the middle of campus, surrounded by dorms and classroom buildings. There was excitement in the air for this Thursday night, nationally televised ACC showdown between Boston College and Virginia Tech on Oct. I was sitting in shared common “backyard” area of the Mods (short for Modular Housing) talking with gay and straight BC students about student life at BC. The lights of Alumni Stadium were easily visible from the picnic table I was sitting on, a five-minute walk from the Mods, the center of student tailgating at BC.

I was so intrigued and impressed by what the students were telling me and how easily the students who were members of the GLBT Leadership Council (GLS) were mixing with the throngs of other students who were hanging out and partying before the game. As with many of my recent on-campus experiences, I was struck by how old labels and perceptions of gay and straight seem so outdated, so irrelevant to the lives of today’s students who have consistently expressed surprise at my surprise at how easily openly gay students mix with non-gay students.

I was thinking about this when John Hellman, a Senior from Dallas and VP of GLS repeated what he had just said to me for emphasis. He was asking me, “Did know that Boston College was one of the most homophobic universities in the country according to the Princeton Review? We’ve consistently been in the Top 10 since I was here, though we did drop off last year.” John’s statement jolted me back to reality.

I looked around at the students from the GLS who had invited my friend Jay and me to join the tailgate party at the Mods, cooking out on their grills, dressed in their bright yellow “Boston College Super Fan” T-shirts, easily blending in to the raucous, high-spirited scene of hundreds of students partying before the big game. From my standpoint, nothing could be further from the reality I was seeing at the Mods. Gay and straight students (and some parents) were mingling together with no problems, no issues. Every time I expressed surprise at how uneventful it seemed to be to have all the students tailgating together, the students I was talking to expressed surprise at my surprise.

In my mind this was close to tailgate utopia, at least from a student perspective, because the tailgate scene at the Mods was pretty unique. On game days, entrance to the Mods is restricted to students, fans, family who are over 21 (you have to be a senior to live at the Mods because open containers are allowed within the Mods.) When John started talking about homophobia at BC all of a sudden there were many students joining our discussion, gay and straight students giving me anecdotes about how gay students at BC are made to feel like second class citizens. Apparently what I thought was “tailgate utopia” for students was a little more complicated.

The students from the GLS at BC that invited Jay and I to join their tailgate were instrumental in getting Boston College to add sexual orientation to the University nondiscrimination policy, a three-year battle with the school’s administration. Nick Salter, a senior, Truman Scholar, and member of the Student Senate was one of the leaders in the fight and was referred to consistently as a “hero” by the students I was chatting with at the Mods. Nick a soft-spoken, humble, and intense young man, stopped by for the tailgate party, responded very simply when I asked him about his role in advocating change at BC. He said, “It was the right thing to do. GLBT students should not feel like second-class citizens at their own school.”

Amanda Denes, a senior Communications major and the director of programming for GLS said that the fight for change was not over. She acknowledged that the students had won a major victory by getting the school to add sexual orientation to the official nondiscrimination policy but that the school countered by adding the following clause to the Policy: “Moreover it is the policy of Boston College, while reserving its lawful rights where appropriate to take actions designed to promote the Jesuit, Catholic principles that sustain its mission and heritage, to comply with all state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and in its educational programs on the basis of a person’s race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, marital or parental status, veteran status, or disability, and to comply with state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.”

The GLS students see the mention of “Jesuit, Catholic principles” as a potential loophole and are still working to change it. Amanda did say that things were getting better at BC for GLBT students and that the administration was not overtly or outwardly homophobic. It’s just that they didn’t appear to be concerned with GLBT issues on campus and were not supportive of GLBT student initiatives and organizations.

She said that the faculty was very supportive and that the student body, with the exception of a few isolated incidents, did not appear to her to be that homophobic. She pointed out that when the policy was put to a student vote, more than 84% of the students voted to add sexual orientation to the policy. Amanda said that she felt that there was a lot of pressure on BC to be a “model Catholic University” and that makes it awkward for the school to be too supportive of GLBT issues at the school. I asked Amanda what she does when she’s not out changing the world. She laughed and said that in addition to her work with GLS, she loves sports (she played volleyball in high school) and tutors athletes in communications as part of a work-study program. Her tutoring of athletes at BC has made her even more of a fan of BC athletics since many of the football and basketball players are friends of hers. She said that football was her favorite sport at BC because she loves how it brings everyone together.

Tyler Thompson, a senior majoring in English and chief of staff of the GLS is a straight ally of the group and got involved after attending a student rally against the Policy in 2003. Tyler is a big football fan and loves the energy of BC games. He’s just as passionate about fighting for the rights of the gay students at BC. When I asked him what motivates him regarding gay rights he said, “I want to see my friends and people at BC happy. I have a lot of gay friends and the policies and attitude of the administration towards gay students felt like blatant injustice.”

I asked Tyler if his friends or family give him grief for being so involved in gay causes and fighting for the rights of gay students at BC. Tyler said his friends at BC don’t but that some of his buddies back home in New Jersey give him a hard time and ask a lot of questions but that he didn’t care, that it was the right thing to do, that it was exciting to be part of change at BC. He said that things were getting better at BC, that if the Princeton Review ranking of the most homophobic schools was held again today, that BC would improve. Tyler said it would probably still be in the top 15 or 20 based on what he perceived as lack of concern with GLBT issues by the administration and Board of Trustees but that things were better than when he and his friends were freshmen, for sure.

Talking about the climate of homophobia at BC and how these students were fighting it made the actual game seems somewhat irrelevant. I was way more interested in talking to them about how they are affecting change at BC than going to the game, but the game beckoned and I agreed to follow up with them later. BC won the game against the Hokies, 22-3. The Super Fan student section was especially energetic this night as one of their own, kicker Steve Aponavicius, who last year was cheering with his buddies in the stands, kicked for the first time in a football game, making two extra points and two field goals. I was stuck in a very quite Tech section with my friend Jay (a Hokie fan and grad) and after the game we rejoined the kids at the Mods for the post-game celebrations. The mix at the Mods after the game was pretty much the same, equal parts guys and girls, the 15-20 GLS students mixing easily with all their straight counterparts. None of the non-GLS students I talked to seemed to care that I was writing a story for gay sports site. They just thought it was cool that a freelance writer from LA was there to write about the game and the tailgate scene.

In the days after my visit to BC I kept thinking how the bright, motivated personable GLS students we were interacting with were destined for great things. John McDargh, a professor of theology at BC and the faculty advisor to the GLS said I was lucky to have met them, that I interacted with the “best and brightest” at BC. He said that the GLS students I met had made significant changes at BC that they had really made the climate at BC less homophobic and more accepting.

I asked John why they weren’t satisfied, why they still are still fighting for change. He said that the students have a different perspective because they want to be proud of their school and this brings out emotions. He also acknowledged that to their generation instances of homophobia and discrimination were in contradiction to how they see the world, that it surprised them because they were used to it and they believe strongly that it is not right that they can affect change. I agreed with John that these students are changing things more than they realize and that they all have exceptionally bright futures. They are definitely Boston College Super Fans whether it's cheering for their Eagles or fighting social injustice at their school.

Author's note: Boston College appeared on the Princeton Review’s annual “Alternative Lifestyle’s Not an Alternative List” each year from 2000-2004 with a ranking ranging from No. 2 to No. 15. In 2005 the school did not appear on the list. In 2006 the school returned to the list with a No. 5 ranking. The 2007 list does not include BC.