BY GLENN EISENBERG
Last semester was an undeniably exciting one for activists at the College of New Jersey. We organized a panel on healthcare reform, took sixty students to Washington DC for a 200,000 person march for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) equality, hosted discussions on the War in Afghanistan, counter-demonstrated homophobic street preachers, and organized many other events.
However, some activists on campus have begun to feel cast aside by some of their more radical classmates—who have, intentionally or not, belittled the efforts of their peers.
This is best exemplified by a certain attitude towards TCNJ’s LGBT group, PRISM. A narrative has formed in a portion of the activist scene at TCNJ that PRISM does not involve itself with activism but is merely a “social group” or “safe-space for LGBT students”—which is “necessary” but inadequate. While it is true that PRISM does serve these functions, to suggest that they are not involved in activism is disingenuous.
Last semester, PRISM brought representatives from Garden State Equality, the primary organization fighting for marriage equality in New Jersey, to their meetings to discuss how to get involved. PRISM has hosted phone-banks to contact supporters, led legislative post-carding and letter writing efforts, educated members on LGBT rights issues at meetings, and worked with Students for Equality, the LGBT rights organizing group on campus.
Students for Equality is a necessary group in that PRISM cannot do everything, as Heather Lemley, PRISM President acknowledges. However, this does not mean that PRISM has not been involved in activism.
In addition to PRISM leading their own activism efforts with Garden State Equality, they have assisted Students for Equality—supporting Sherry Wolf’s lecture “Sexuality and Socialism,” advertising for the National Equality March, and including both events in their successful “Queer Awareness Month.” PRISM also, cautiously, endorsed the Rally for Marriage Equality on December 5th.
Additionally, the dichotomy of “social group” and activism is flawed. PRISM’s social aspect is inherently political. Many freshmen come to TCNJ closeted. PRISM can allow these students to feel comfortable coming out. This is an obvious benefit but it can also be considered activism.
PRISM’s events have, as Lemley says, “change[d] the climate at TCNJ to be more celebrative and accepting of its LGBT community.” In addition to legislative goals, a large part of activism is changing attitudes and social perceptions.
A lack of equal legal rights, a very worthwhile cause to fight for, is clearly a form of oppression. However, it would seem that even more damaging are social attitudes that make it uncomfortable for one to be oneself. Social change does not come from laws alone. PRISM events like the Coming Out Monologues open the eyes of many students and promote a more understanding culture.
As Lemley says, “Political movement can’t grow out of a community that doesn’t care or even know that these issues exist.” PRISM helps in allowing this to happen.
PRISM also hopes to expand its activism in the future. Their recent election included the new position of “Activism Chair.” Lemley says that, in the future, PRISM hopes to pursue gender neutral housing on campus, fight for marriage equality on a national level, send a group of students to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s “Creating Change” conference in Texas in February, and assist in LGBT rights activism in Pennsylvania—a state that does not have as progressive of discrimination laws as New Jersey.
In addition to PRISM, the College Democrats have also fallen under overt criticism from some of the radical activists on campus. College Democrats have been accused of lacking any real left-wing movement and lacking sensitivity to social issues. This criticism is baseless.
Additionally, some have claimed that there is a proverbial fissure dividing the College Democrats into real activists and Party loyalists that do nothing but campaign. This caricature is not representative of the actual club. The large majority of the members and executive board are involved in both issue-based activism and campaigning.
Say what you will about the Democratic Party but it is undeniable that the College Democrats have been involved in the vast majority of any left-wing political happenings on campus, since its resurrection two years ago.
Last semester alone, College Democrats hosted a panel discussion on health-care, brought Congressman Rush Holt to campus for a TCNJ town-hall meeting, led campaign efforts for the Corzine campaign, and helped in organizing for the National Equality March and Rally for Marriage Equality.
Whether or not campaigning for a candidate is a worthy form of activism is a topic for another article. However, the facts remain true that College Democrats have inspired classmates through their activism efforts.
College Democrats plan on continuing activism efforts this semester and hope to pursue getting a piece of legislation changed.
These criticisms are worth addressing because of their potential effect on the activism scene at TCNJ. They beg the question: What is activism?
Both Heather Lemley and Brian Block, President of College Democrats, feel as if this criticism comes largely from the perception that their activism is not the proper brand of activism, in the opinions of the radical activists on campus who have a demonstration centered activism strategy.
These narratives have caused a minute but noticeable drop in attendance in College Democrats. In the case of PRISM, Lemley, when discussing her group, said, “We have lost political activism we would otherwise have.”
This limits the diversity of activist strategies on campus—an element that is essential in any successful movement.