Have you ever thought of a great comeback to a one-liner the next day? Or a great comment to wrap up a funny story… just too late? Seinfeld fans may remember George Castanza’s ultimate “jerk store” comment; he spent an entire episode thinking of the best comeback to follow up an insult. Too often, witty answers and poignant responses often elude us during the most important and critical moments of conversation. However, if you are prepared, using a short quip can, in fact, turn into a very teachable moment.
“Does it matter?” is a short comeback – a question – but when used correctly, can be a powerful stance on GLBT equality issues. I only realized “does it matter” after interacting with several male residents during my third year as a residence director.
I arrived back to my residence hall one evening to find a group of males in the hallway. I knew this group well; in fact, my apartment shared a wall with their typical hangout. Also present was the RA of the wing. Although typically well-behaved students, I was immediately intrigued by their hastened quietness. Smiles came across their faces and their embarrassment was evident as I asked about the gathering. As I learned, the group was conducting an unofficial survey on the all-male floor, and I was asked to participate.
“Joe,” the student started, while a few giggled. “If you were given $1000, would you ever hook up with another guy?” In those brief seconds, my residence life training raced through my head. How do I respond to these first-year students with a powerful comment, derived from my diversity education while applying student development theory?
At that moment, I wasn’t so much concerned about what their reaction would be to my answer, but rather, for the other male residents whom they would ask the question. For it was obvious these men were making the assumption about every person’s sexual identity on the floor, including my own. In fact, they didn’t even know how I identified myself in terms of sexual orientation.
The need to be liked, fit in, and have a comfortable living experience at college is often very crucial to a student’s success. How students’ answered this question could very well have threatened their comfort zone. Their floor mates, whether they identified as straight, bi-sexual, transgender or gay, may not have felt comfortable expressing their true answer to this group. Those future respondents needed to feel comfortable and so I needed to make this a teachable moment by challenging their thoughts and perceptions of GLBT issues within our residence hall.
Although the question may have seemed innocent enough to the students, I realized the impact I could make with these young men by what I would say next. All in three seconds, with eyes glued on me, including one pair of eyes of a RA that I supervised, I answered with three simple, non-judgmental, and indistinguishable words: “Does it matter?”
They expected a simple answer. Yes or No. What they received was much more in-depth than, perhaps, they were prepared to handle. Wanting the answer without an education, their initial reaction was one of frustration. Simply answering with, “Does it matter?” and walking away would not have been enough. They needed to understand the purpose of my short, absolute response and then derive their own reactions. As a Residence Director, this was easy to do; the students saw me as an authority figure, even an educator. The challenge becomes for peers to use the phrase and then foster a meaningful follow-up conversation.
As we stood in the hallway, I asked the men to consider the sensitivity and personal nature of their question. Further, I requested them to consider their individual floor mates’ sexuality before proceeding, and whether or not their question would make a bi-sexual or gay student feel uncomfortable. As I spoke, one student bluntly asked whether I was gay or straight. Again, the three-word comeback reaffirmed that my answer should not affect their view of me as their Residence Director – or as a person. The men dispersed at that time, but I later learned they started their survey again with folks whom they “knew” were straight.
I was asked to answer this “survey” as a fellow male, regardless of my sexual orientation. I was simply an added bonus as the group intended to survey the remaining floor-mates. Think about it – if they could get “the RD” to answer a personal question about sex, they might be able to build a tight relationship with me. Perhaps it was the idea of putting me on the spot; or perhaps they were trying to impress me. Whatever rationale prompted them to ask me the question; they soon realized that they would not get a straight answer from me.
Reflecting back on the situation, I wondered if the GLBT students living in my residence hall community felt directly or indirectly supported. If there were GLBT residents in my building, it was my job to ensure they felt supported as a member of the broader community. In turn, Resident Assistants should ask themselves: How am I making GLBT students feel supported on my wing?
As residence life professionals, we attempt to teach students and build upon their classroom knowledge. The residence halls are a natural location for students to learn from out-of-classroom experiences. Learning, however, continues beyond the classroom and even the campus as the next story illustrates.
I am a huge advocate for studying abroad. I think that every student should take the opportunity to study in a foreign country. In residence life, as student affairs professionals, we are advocates of educating outside of the classroom, for so much learning and student development takes place during these crucial moments after the class bell rings. So too, does such learning take place studying abroad. It did, for me, and I want to share with you my experience that helped me ‘grow up’ and become more understanding of GLBT issues. Out of respect for all parties involved, I have changed the names of the participants, but I assure you the experience is entirely true.
I never considered myself ‘sheltered’ while I was growing up, yet when I went to college I met so many different people…so many people with unique religions, languages, and customs than I was certainly accustomed to. After my sophomore year in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad, which allowed me to meet even more people from all over the world. One of these individuals was Mark. Mark was a few years older than me, and openly gay. He and I developed a friendship, but I was very careful not to spend too much time alone with Mark for fear of what other people might say about me. Would people think that Mark and I were dating? Would they assume I was gay, as well? Mark never mentioned it to me, but I could tell that he noticed my anxiety whenever we were alone together. Hindsight is always 20/20. However, looking back on my experience, I wish I had spoken with Mark about my anxieties. My fear of being labeled ‘gay’ put up an invisible roadblock in our friendship that was completely naïve and unnecessary.
As the weeks went on, I began to meet more and more people. One day, during lunch, Jonathon – another friend – and I were dialoguing about significant others that were waiting for us back home. I shared with him that I had a girlfriend, the fact that she was finishing up college, etc… Jonathon shared with me that he, too, had a significant other waiting for him back home. I learned Jonathon was also in a long distance relationship, sharing “he is a computer programmer at a small, private company.” I asked Jonathon what ‘her’ name was, and Jonathon pointed out that he didn’t say ‘she,’ but rather, ‘he.’ Jonathon said, “See Matthew, I’m just like Mark. You just didn’t know that I am gay. But now that you know, does it really matter?” Jonathon could have gotten very angry at my ‘narrow’ response. Instead, he created an extremely important teachable moment for me.
This powerful experience helped me realize that there was probably many people with whom I interacted that were gay, and I just didn’t know it. And although I was certainly not being malicious or actively making hateful remarks, there were many times that I would often ‘go along with the crowd’ by laughing at insensitive jokes or alienating someone because of their sexual identity. I was afraid to speak up, and I think a lot of our students often feel the same way. My awkwardness was speaking volumes.
Simply put, I wanted to fit in. Don’t we all, especially with new groups of friends? At the same time, I was fearful of the label. If I stood up for GLBT issues, people would think I was gay and I did not want that. I would rather fit in than stand up for a group of people who often times simply need to feel supported. “If I only had a witty retort, or some powerful statement to make…” But peer pressure is tough, and for many years I was unable to be the ally that was necessary for many of our GLBT students. When I returned to college, because of this experience, I became a very outspoken ally for GLBT issues. Naturally, students often asked, “Are you gay?” This time, I was prepared. My response had become, “Does it matter?”
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Why is the sexual identify of another so important to society? People cannot and should not be defined by one piece of a very complex puzzle that makes them unique. So why do many in society label people ‘different’ if they know a person’s sexual identity to be anything but heterosexual?
Hopefully sharing our stories with you has added insight into how to interact with your students when it comes to GLBT issues. Although having the perfect comeback may feel great, sharing a powerful and educational one-liner is empowering. It is important for each of us to find ways to make teachable moments for our residents surrounding GLBT issues.
Submitted by Matthew R. Shupp, Assistant Director of Student Life and Student Programming at Community College of Philadelphia, & Joseph Russo, Assistant Director of Residential Living and Residence Director at Drexel University