(Photo by Nha Ha)
An elderly man not affiliated with Cal Poly disturbed the typical atmosphere of the University Union Plaza this past Tuesday by holding a sign reading, “Warning: Homosex is a God damned sin.”
The sign caused a stir of emotions among Cal Poly students. The reactions from students varied, though most were distraught by the vulgar language and the message behind the sign.
In response, the Cal Poly Pride Center set up a booth near the man to show its support for the LGBT community. Because the Pride Center is a state entity, it is not allowed to have a visual response, Pride Assistant Coordinator Adam Serafin said. However, representatives were allowed to be present at the scene to comfort the students affected. Some members were approached by Christian students, as well as members of Slo Cru, expressing their sympathy and apologizing on behalf of the man, Serafin said.
“Overall, students were kind of shaken up, a number of who belong to the LGBT community,” Serafin said. “The quick and strong response from Cal Poly members showed this is not in line with the Cal Poly community and how we honor and respect each other.”
Most students showed their support by apologizing and taking a rainbow ribbon from the pride booth, but a few students decided this was not a strong enough stance. They decided to protest the original sign by holding signs of their own.
One sign in particular drew a lot of attention. The sign read, “This guy is a douche,” and had an arrow pointing toward the man who was protesting against homosexuality.
The sign was written and held by psychology freshman Sodie Orr, who said his main intention was to lighten the mood.
“I wasn’t out there to put the guy down,” Orr said. “I was out there to make people smile who were seeing a very upsetting scene.”
Many people approached Orr and thanked him for being brave enough to do something about the situation, he said.
When he was at the scene, he received nothing but support from the people who approached him, and approximately 25 people took a picture with him or of him, Orr said. One of the students who took a photo posted it on the “Cal Poly SLO Class of 2016” Facebook page. It was only on here where people criticized Orr’s actions.
But out of the more than 150 comments, most of them supported his stance and the photo received more than 800 likes.
“I’m very glad I did what I did because it made a positive impact,” Orr said. “It’s unfortunate that people fail to look past the surface and realize that what I’m doing is combatting hate on my campus and home.”
Some, such as Slo Cru staff member Matt Melendrez, however, think combatting hate with more hate is not the right way to approach these situations.
“I feel like all of the signs were trying to provoke something,” Melendrez said. “The mood was so heavy that something like this didn’t help the situation.”
There were a few people trying to argue with the elderly man with the original sign: LGBT students who were offended and a lot of students from Christian organizations just praying, Melendrez said. There is a lot of misunderstanding on both ends of the spectrum and speech like this affects both sides, he said.
“His terminology was not loving or biblical,” Melendrez said. “And it’s things like this that end up hurting the LGBT community and misrepresenting the Christian community.”
Though saddened by the anger and overall hate that rose up, he was proud when a pride member approached him and said there were Christians and Slo Cru members who apologized to the Pride Center and took an ally pin, Melendrez said.
“I was really humbled and emotional seeing how Cru expressed their sadness,” Melendrez said. “I’ve seen a variety of hate instances on campus, but this is the first time I’ve seen support from Christian groups on such a large scale. We still have a lot of room to grow and there are opportunities to do so on the horizon.”
In addition to working for Slo Cru, Melendrez works as an Americore Member for the Center of Community Engagement for Student Life and Leadership, he said. After two years of working closely with other departments, and pride in particular, he has made close friends and colleagues with members of the LGBT community.
“I feel like I’ve really become more educated and have grown (in) my understanding for the hurt and pain the LGBT community has felt from Christians,” Melendrez said.
After realizing the amplitude of misunderstanding between the two communities, he approached the Pride Center to do an ally training with Slo Cru, Melendrez said. The conversations never got heated during the program and afterwards, the Pride Center was the group to come to Slo Cru to have another ally training.
Serafin describes the ally training programs as “training to equip straight allies to the LGBT community.” They teach terminology associated with homosexuality, for example, the difference between gender and sex and explain the differences between gender identity and gender preference, Serafin said. The program also discusses homophobia in general, and tries to help people have a better sense of understanding for the LGBT community.
After the ally programs, there was an increase in students visiting the Pride Center and events who were involved in Slo Cru, Serafin said.
The main impact from Tuesday’s events is not necessarily the support from the students, but the visibility of that support, he said. There was also visible support from other Christian groups on campus, such as InterVarsity and EPIC, who are also big LGBT allies.
“The response was not too different, but the support from the Christian community was more visual,” Serafin said. “We are now starting to build bridges instead of walls, and I think that is positive.”
Though some questioned why the elderly man, who was not affiliated with Cal Poly, was not prohibited from holding his sign or removed from campus, in general, the courts have been pretty adamant for support of free speech on campus, Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said.
The University Union is a place of free speech, Humphrey said. Cal Poly has the ability to regulate the time, place and manner of speech but not the content, Humphrey said. For example, if someone is being excessively loud near a classroom while it is in progress, the university has the right to make him or her stop. But it cannot discriminate based on the content of the speech itself.
“We try to give individuals ample opportunity to express their freedom of speech as long as it doesn’t disrupt the educational mission of the university,” Humphrey said. “We want to make sure we are promoting free speech and the exchange of ideas, even if these ideas are controversial.”