Michael Morris is a history senior. His views expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
In response to Pride Month, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld LGBTQ+ rights in employment, Cal Poly’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion sent an email to students that aimed to celebrate the Supreme Court decision. In spite of the good intentions, the email was flawed in that it inaccurately represented California’s LGBTQ+ past. The message claimed that:
“California, the CSUs, and Cal Poly have a long history of barring these forms of employment discrimination. In 1979 California became one of the first states to bar discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in public employment. In 1992 the state extended those protections to both public and private employment, and in 2003 the law was again broadened to include protections for trans- and gender non-conforming workers.”
This statement upholds a false narrative that California and Cal Poly have long supported queer individuals, and worked to uphold LGBTQ+ rights. As an undergraduate history student, I spent my spring quarter researching and writing about the queer history of San Luis Obispo, and my findings directly contradict the narrative portrayed in this email.
Through my research I found that from 1972-1976, the first openly gay club at Cal Poly, the Gay Student Union (GSU), faced years of legal battles in order to become a chartered club on campus. The university administration actively attempted to prevent the establishment of the GSU, and President Robert E. Kennedy exhausted all of his legal options before reluctantly approving the club. At one point, President Kennedy even made an analogy that compared the GSU to the KKK.
After the GSU was established, the club faced frequent harassment for years to come. During the late 1970s at least two small explosives went off during GSU meetings, their flyers were ripped down, and the club was heckled by fellow students during meetings and after setting up booths on campus. Likely due to this antagonism, the club changed their philosophy to “Brotherhood and support, rather than activism,” in 1980. In 1983, a GSU meeting was evacuated due to a bomb threat. Throughout the 1980s, GSU members stopped using their last names in newspaper articles out of fear of discrimination. Finally, throughout the seventies and eighties there were frequent letters to the editor spoke out against homosexuality; occasional speakers on Cal Poly’s campus did the same.
In terms of public legislation, in 1978, Proposition 6 on California’s ballot would have barred queer teachers, and any teacher that advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, from teaching in public schools. Even though the bill was not passed, 41.6% of voters supported it. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Defense upheld LGBTQ+ discrimination in the ROTC. Instead of terminating their contract with the ROTC, Cal Poly’s academic senate voted to amend a CSU policy that prevented discrimination in the ROTC so that the organization could remain on campus. Additionally, although the State of California made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexuality in 1992, San Luis Obispo had denied an identical piece of legislation a few months prior to California’s decision. Further, the legislation did not prevent the kind of public harassment faced by organizations such as the GSU, and likely did not entirely prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sexuality.
As demonstrated, California, San Luis Obispo, and Cal Poly have a long history of discrimination against queer populations. To simply say that “California, the CSUs, and Cal Poly have a long history of barring these forms of employment discrimination” completely overlooks the realities that queer populations have faced in the past.
Cal Poly’s email recognizes the recent Supreme Court ruling as a “watershed moment in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.” However, without providing students with foundational knowledge about historical LGBTQ discrimination, it is impossible for students to understand the significance of this recent ruling.
If the California Polytechnic State University of San Luis Obispo does seek to be a true ally and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, I think it is imperative that multiple actions are taken. For one, the university needs to recognize its own history of discrimination, and the wrongdoings committed by past administrations. Further, Cal Poly must do more to educate their students about the United States’ long history of discrimination. It can no longer just be liberal arts students who are required to take courses that cover such information.
After recent protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, an email from Cal Poly’s Office of the President referred students to works that discuss racism in the United States. I would contend that the University needs to go beyond recommending that students become self-educated about contemporary social issues, and use their power as an institution to educate their students themselves. In creating the future generations of America’s educated engineering, architecture, math, science, business, and agricultural professionals, current students should all be required to take at least one course that covers the history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, indigenous peoples, and black and brown bodies in the United States.
Cal Poly’s responses to the recent accomplishments of activists have claimed support of marginalized groups, but reveal no tangible action to back up such sentiments. It is important that Cal Poly acknowledged the Supreme Court victory, and recommended readings for students, but without concrete action, there is no real progress being made at the university level. It is important that Cal Poly programs and professors use language of inclusivity and recognize pronouns, but without educating their students about why doing so is important in the first place, does it really achieve all that much? I hope that Cal Poly sees this letter, I hope they respond, and I hope they take actual steps towards better educating their students. It is time for our university to move beyond surface level efforts at inclusivity.