4/4/13

Reflections on Student Government

Last night, SB 65-70: The Religious Funding Exemption Bill (formerly The GLBT Funding Opt-Out Bill) passed the Texas A&M Student Senate with a vote of 35-28 or 33-30, depending whom you ask (an official tally hasn't been released). The vote came after nearly three hours of testimonies from students and student organizations, followed by debate among the senators. The crowd of students, faculty and community members who came to witness the hearing packed the Governance room and overflowed into the hall, an empty meeting room, and eventually a restaurant in the student center, where live streams had been set up. For background on the bill and a recap of last night's events, I'm going to refer you to people who have already done the legwork and research:

KBTX News coverage, with good background and links to the bill and a video of last night's proceedings.
The Eagle article, which ran on the front page above the fold this morning.

Now that you're up to speed, you might be wondering: why do I care about what goes on in the student government of a university I didn't even attend? If you're not from around here, you might not know that Bryan-College Station is routinely referred to as "Aggieland." What goes on at the university level affects our entire community's image and morale, up to and including on the national stage. More basically, in the words of MLK Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I was there last night to support the campus LGBT+ community. And in a very practical calculus, one has to realize that these student senators may well be actual senators one day, so we would do well to pay attention to their beginnings. The Aggie network is vast and powerful.

Now for my reactions. My initial feeling last night, upon driving onto campus and having to wait nearly 15 minutes to get into the parking garage next to the building where the hearing was being held, was hope. The place was packed with hundreds of people wearing LGBT-supportive buttons, t-shirts, etc. The energy in the space was incredible. While the livestream in the overflow space was choppy at best, we whooped and hollered for the articulate, powerful testimonies of student after student condemning the bill for its thinly veiled anti-LGBT motives. Only one student, a representative of Texas Aggie Conservatives, spoke in favor of the bill, to more muted applause. For a while there, I fully expected the bill not to pass.

Then the senators took the floor. Chris Woolsey, author of the bill and senator for the Northside caucus,  spoke about the need to protect the religious freedom of students and, in my opinion, did a lot of "mansplaining" about how this was actually really simple and everyone needed to just vote in favor of it and move on. The authors of the bill seemed confused about what the bill would actually accomplish -- they claimed that a process for opting out of student fees already existed, and their goal was simply to publicize it, but as one senator succinctly pointed out, "The bill doesn't, sort of, reflect the statements that you're saying." I wish I could have seen his name card over the poor quality live stream so I could high five him after. After a number of amendments, the text of the bill and the authors' words did eventually converge. There are still all kinds of problems with how this bill would be enacted: how exactly is it determined whether a student's wish to opt out constitutes a "serious moral objection"? Can atheists object on moral grounds even though it's the "Religious Funding Exemption Bill"? How would you ensure that students don't simply abuse the system to avoid paying fees?

Logistics aside, though, this bill does far more emotional harm than monetary damage to the LGBT community in particular. Several students and senators who spoke against the bill became emotional. When it was finally called to a vote, the girl calling the roll of senators had to choke out each name through tears. I can imagine how every "for" must have felt like a slap in the face. As the final tally was announced, many of those watching dissolved into tears.

During the debate, one senator asked, "Does this bill unite Texas A&M?" Unless you choose to ignore the evidence of your own eyes of the pain and rejection felt by so many members of the Aggie family, I don't see how you can in good conscience say "yes." The bill's authors were adamant that the new version did not specifically call out the GLBT community, but you can't walk back that first version -- we all saw it. We know what was in your hearts when you wrote it. We know why you couldn't name any other student fee that religious persons might wish to opt out of. We know that this bill is, at heart, about your need to publicly express, in a socially sanctioned way, your distaste for LGBT people. The GLBT Resource Center is not a lobby group. It is not evangelizing a cause. It provides support and resources (as the name implies) for a disenfranchised, marginalized group of students. The fact that they need services that you don't does not mean that you are in some way being discriminated against.

After the vote, a tearstained, dispirited group straggled over to Cain Hall, where we mingled on the patio out front, unsure of what to do and where to go. Then the lights came on and the director of the GLBT Resource Center unlocked the doors to let us in. That right there, in a nutshell, is what the center is for. To provide a safe space in times of distress. To be a place to go, to just be. And then we made a plan. The students are ready to speak out. In the words of one member of GLBT Aggies (which, for reference, is a student organization, unlike the GLBT Resource Center, which is not -- this has been a point of confusion for more than one reporter), "This was just a battle. We're going to win the war." We in the community will be here, cheering them on, helping as we can and reminding them that the Student Senate does not represent the attitude of everyone in this community.

Here are some ways you can help out:

  • If you live in the area or are a student at Texas A&M, write a Letter to the Editor of The Eagle explaining why you oppose the bill. Visible community support means everything to the students who are feeling so discouraged after last night's vote.
  • If you are a community member, join the email list for Pride Community Center, a local LGBT organization (of which I am a board member) working to support the Texas A&M LGBT community in this fight. We'll be sending out updates about what's going on in the student legislature and how you can help.
  • If you live anywhere in Texas, get informed about Texas Representative Zedler's amendment to SB1, which seeks to defund, among other things, campus GLBT Resource Centers because they "support, promote or encourage any behavior that would lead to high risk behavior for AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis B, or any sexually transmitted disease."
  • If you live anywhere at all, keep on keepin' on and fight for justice and equality everywhere!