Students at Mercer County Community College were prepared for possible heckling from fellow students during a planned LGBT demonstration last month, but they didn’t anticipate the negative reaction they say they received from the school’s security guards.
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Friends Club at the West Windsor, N.J., college staged a Kiss-In — a demonstration in which same-sex couples kiss in a public venue to heighten visibility of the community — Feb. 18, but participants contend they were met with verbal and physical resistance from security officers and a school staff member.
There were about 200 students in the college’s cafeteria shortly after noon, when a dozen same-sex couples, most of whom were accompanied by a “watcher” to ensure their safety, spread out throughout the room. One student yelled for the couples to begin kissing, while several other LGBTF members blew kazoo-like whistles during the approximately 60-second kiss.
Alex DeFazio, LGBTF advisor and an English and theater professor at MCCC, said security officers approached him and club leaders after the kiss and instructed him that the group couldn’t use the whistles — a mandate the members complied with.
One security officer, however, reportedly engaged in a verbal confrontation with a club member and allegedly told the student to “shut the fuck up, asshole.”
The students then proceeded to the food-purchasing area, where they commenced another 30-second kiss. DeFazio said during this time, a cafeteria staffer approached a male couple, pulled them apart and told them to take their affection elsewhere.
“He really forcefully separated them by applying his hand to their collarbones,” DeFazio said.
The group then headed proceeded back into the cafeteria for one final kiss, during which, according to club member Caitlyn Nixon, 18, she and her girlfriend had food thrown at them by fellow students.
DeFazio said there were four security officers — of the 14 the college employs — present at the time but none took any action to stop the students from throwing food or shouting homophobic slurs, or intervened when one student punched a member of one of the couples in the arm, leaving a bruise.
The guards told the LGBTF members to disperse and reportedly began pulling several couples forcibly apart, and DeFazio instructed the students to return to their meeting room to regroup.
DeFazio said when questioned about their reaction, the guards claimed the students had been blocking a hallway; according to professor, however, a club member had easily moved a chair through the group during the demonstation.
Nixon said one of the guards — reportedly the same one who cursed at one of the members earlier in the event — insulted the club members and made physical contact with her.
“We were asking what we did wrong, and the one guy told us we were acting like animals and like we were in high school. When I was talking to him, I was talking with my hands, and he reached out and pushed my hands down,” she said. “He was telling us how we were making out and groping each other, but we weren’t; it was just a simple kiss.”
The school’s handbook prohibits “obscene behavior, which includes indecent exposure or the display of sexual behavior that would reasonably be offensive to others.”
DeFazio and club representatives met with members of the college’s administration after the event, and the students asked if security would have separated heterosexual couples who were kissing. Nixon said the answer was “probably.”
She noted, however, that heterosexual couples frequently engage in public displays of affection in the cafeteria, and that she witnessed one couple having intercourse in the room several weeks ago.
Saveria Symons, coordinator of the school’s Public Information Services, said administrators have met several times with LGBTF members over the past few weeks and are interested in continuing the dialogue.
“As the college does with all students who have concerns about issues of campus life, we are taking these concerns seriously, listening attentively and striving to improve communications throughout our college,” Symons said.
She added the school is conducting a “thorough investigation” of the incident, including into the conduct of the students, faculty and staff present at the time and, if any wrongdoing is determined, “repercussions will be determined based on the behavior.”
The school maintains a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation, although Nixon asserted that the campus atmosphere isn’t always friendly to same-sex couples.
“I wouldn’t say the school is all homophobes, but people do give dirty looks if I’m holding my girlfriend’s hand and we hear lots of comments, so we thought something like this would open people’s eyes about what we go through just for daily life,” she said.
DeFazio said he’s been in touch with LGBT-advocacy group Lambda Legal and that the club is considering taking legal action against the school.
“We want the college to respond in a way that is appropriate to what happened. Not only an apology, but they need to commit to some kind of ongoing diversity training for faculty, staff and students.”
Symons said all new hires at the school undergo sexual-harassment training, and the college has brought in speakers on diversity topics, an avenue she said the school is interested in pursuing further.
Despite the conflict, DeFazio said the Kiss-In was successful in that it heightened awareness of and discussion about LGBT issues.
“The students are really encouraging exactly the kind of critical thinking that we want our students to be involved with,” he said. “I’m very proud of how they’ve been conducting themselves through this.”
While there were a lot of negative reactions on the part of her fellow students, Nixon said the couples did hear some cheering and applause during the event and have continued to see support from the student community, which she said she’s also eager to see from the administration.
“When I was getting ready to leave after the Kiss-In, several people came up to me and said, ‘I respect what you did, it took a lot of balls going out there, and I support you 100 percent.’ I want the school to realize that we can’t be treated differently just because we’re gays and lesbians.”