UConn Students to Hold Rally Against Hate Speech After Vandalism on LGBT Art Exhibit

Hundreds of UConn students plan to hold 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.

"The University of Connecticut is ready to speak OUT. The vandalism that took place nearly a month ago was the final straw for close to 500 students on campus and we will be heard," Michelle Ma, a representative for UConn Speak OUT wrote to NBC Connecticut. "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."

UConn police received reports March 6 of vandalism found on an art exhibit by non-student Philadelphia artist Rachelle Lee Smith, 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.

Smith's project, "Speaking OUT: Queer Youth In Focus" is 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."

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 people have replied they are coming so far on their Facebook page. The students seek to give the UConn community and its LGBT individuals a safe space to "inspire others to fight hate speech."

The students will occupy the theater room, room 331, in the student union starting 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. "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."

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