Hundreds of UConn students attended a rally on campus Tuesday in response to hateful vandalism found on an art exhibit featuring the faces and voices of young people in the LGBTQ community last month, according to students organizing an event to stand against discrimination and hate speech and promote acceptance.
Vandalism found on an art exhibit "Speaking OUT: Queer Youth In Focus" by non-student Philadelphia artist Rachelle Lee Smith was reported on March 6, according to the UConn Daily Campus. Drawings, some phallic, were scrawled on the exhibit photos featuring queer individuals speaking out about their experiences and a vandal wrote in the guest book, "god hates the gays," as shown in photos from the artist published in phillymag.com.
The vandalism, which happened a floor away from the Rainbow Center, was the "final straw" for students of the UConn Speak OUT initiative.
"The University of Connecticut is ready to speak OUT," Michelle Ma, a representative for UConn Speak OUT, wrote to NBC Connecticut on Monday. "Despite being listed time and time again among the top 100 gay-friendly universities, discrimination is still a harsh reality for students of many different gender alignments and sexuality. Every day, small acts of hate threaten their safety and silence them from being open about their experiences."
The artist wrote to NBC Connecticut that she "felt really sad for the students on campus who had their safe space jeapardized" so close to the Rainbow Center.
"I encourage any dialogue and conversation that this act of vandalism encourages. The event was upsetting on many levels from disrespect of artwork to cowardice and hatred. It is an unfortunate reminder of why I do the work I do and why places like the Rainbow Center at UConn exists," Smith said. "But the silver lining is that the community has responded and been responding and uniting together. They are not being silenced and they are speaking out together as one community."
She couldn't attend the rally, but provided the students with a statement so she contribute and said she wish she could have been there.
"Although this specific vandalism happened to my work, it really happened to all of us. It was one act of cowardice immature hate, but this is just one example of the many prejudice, fearful, and hateful acts that happen regularly on campuses and around our country.The response and the unity shown by students, staff, and faculty at UConn has been the exact opposite of the vandalizer. Together we are stronger and more powerful," Smith said in the statement. "I wish the the artwork was not drawn on. I wish that the person did not mis-quote god, and hide his/her hatred behind god. I hope for a day when that does not happen.
but because it did, we get to come together as a community regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, size, etc and create the dialogue needed to express that we are all equal and we will not be silent.... we will continue to Speak OUT!"
She continued to say in the statement that she would love to see the campaign reach mainstream media and spread to campuses nationwide.
"I think what you are doing is very powerful," she wrote to the students in the statement. "Keep up the good work and thank you for reminding us that, while we still have work to do, it's looking bright and positive and united."
UConn President Susan Herbst and Fleurette King, director of the Rainbow Center at UConn, said that they stand behind the students in making the campus welcoming to all.
“UConn takes great pride in its LGBTQ community, as we take pride in all of our students, and we strive every day to ensure our campuses are safe and welcoming for every member of our diverse community," Herbst and King said in a joint statement Tuesday. "That effort is in constant motion, and our work is never truly finished. Today, we join all those speaking out in support of our amazing students and our shared vision for our university.”
UConn Speak OUT organizers launched a social media photo campaign with the social media hashtag #UConnSpeakOUT to raise awareness about the rally and at least 500 replied on the group's Facebook page to say they wuold attend. The students seek to give the UConn community and its LGBT individuals a safe space to "inspire others to fight hate speech."
The vandalism that sparked the movement was found on Smith's art exhibit, "Speaking OUT: Queer Youth In Focus," a "collaboration photographic essay" between her as a photographer and activist and "a diverse group of LGBTQ youth to share experiences" with the hope of highlighting "the myriad differences and commonalities of queer identity" to "spread knowledge and understanding," according to Smith's Facebook page about the project.
"To the untrained eye, this seems like an isolated incident and went largely unpublicized," Ma said. "However for students who saw themselves reflected in the art, this was just another blow for acceptance."
The students occupied the theater room in the student union at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday to hear poets, speakers and campus authority figures speak about related subjects.
"This institution claims to be 'friendly' and yet so many students feel threatened here," Ma said Monday. "Even worse, hate speech is not a phenomenon that is limited to Storrs. This is an injustice and we are going to speak OUT about it."
UConn learned of the incident on March 6, according to school spokesperson Stephanie Reitz.
"The police investigation remains active, and we’re encouraging anyone with information to report it to UConn Police. It’s very important to us that everyone at the University, particularly in the LGBTQ community, know that we are taking this incident extremely seriously," Reitz said.
"We’re committed to campuses that are free of this kind of intolerance and bias, and hope people will come forward with any information that can help us locate the person or people responsible and hold them accountable."