Tim Schroer, associate dean of Community Life and Diversity and the director of Buntrock Commons, organized the meeting. The purpose was to educate the attendees about common GLBT terms, to explain the role of an Ally and to provide an open forum for questions or suggestions regarding the current state of gay-straight relations at St. Olaf.
"We want campus to be a safe place for all students and we want this hour to be a safe space too," Schroer said at the start of the meeting. "There are no silly questions."
Schroer began by defining common terms and phrases like "transgender" and "coming out" and also explained symbols of GLBT acceptance like the pink triangle, which is used by St. Olaf to designate a "safe space" for students, staff and faculty to talk about GLBT-related issues. He then defined the term Ally, using words from the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that works for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights.
"An Ally is any non-lesbian, non-gay, anti-homophobic and anti-heterosexist person who serves as an advocate for the GLBT community," Schroer said. Schroer also said that an Ally does not have to be trained, but it helps to know what to be familiar the issues by which you could be confronted.
"For quite a while GLOW! (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever!) has done the safe-space concept," Schroer said. "There are a lot of people with these [pink triangles] on their doors, but if someone actually came in to talk, they wouldn't know what to say."
Family Studies Department Chair George Holt and Steve O'Neill, a psychologist and director of the St. Olaf Counseling Center, also spoke.
"I've dealt with a lot of these issues in the past because of the class on human sexuality that I teach," Holt said, "and my role as an Ally has changed significantly people are connecting really quickly, and coming out earlier."
Holt said that St. Olaf and other institutions with small Ally program have delayed the coming out process in the past. The discovery process, which can happen any time, was happening much later for St. Olaf students than for the rest of the population many students weren't coming out until graduate school.
Now, Holt said, St. Olaf is more supportive, and 40 percent of GLBT people nationwide are coming out during college. The process is longer than it once was, typically taking from four to four and a half years, but there is, according to Holt, "far less guilt, fear and anxiety" than there used to be.
"Actually, I find more coming in now that say something like, 'I'm straight and I have a gay roommate' or 'I like a guy or a girl but they're gay and I'm not," Holt said. "A lot of them are bringing attitudes and thoughts that I think come from this being a college of the church. They've got Christian baggage ideas of condemnation and sinfulness. I find myself talking with homophobic students, and I think that it needs to be made clear that we will talk with them too. How do you express homophobic anger and frustration if its not politically correct to speak out? Then you get things like chalking and notes under peoples doors."
Although the role of an Ally has changed, ONeill said, the coming out process is extremely difficult and students need a support network that they can trust. The pink triangle, symbolizing that one is an Ally, helps with that, and can be used to achieve other things as well.
"It sends a broader image and statement to straight students," he said. "It sends a message to them about how open or liberal I might be regarding other issues as well."
Holt agreed and said that it sends a similar message conveying the type of environment that parents, faculty and staff can expect.
"I want my colleagues to see it and I want interviewees to see it and say, hey this may be an environment I want to be in," Holt said. "I want parents to see it and recognize that these are issues or concerns that we as a college of the church are interested in."
After the meeting, which was open to all students, faculty and staff but was only attended by about 30 people, attendees talked about ideas for improving gay-straight relations. This is partly in response to past anti-gay chalking incidents and even, according to English Professor Joan Hepburn, violent assaults on GLBT students.
"Never a semester goes by," Holt said, "without someone contemplating leaving St. Olaf because of harassment based on his or her sexuality."
A more formal Ally program, an educational forum for homophobic people and a public list of Allies were some of the suggestions made.