At noon on February 18 the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Friends (LGBTF) club clashed with
security during an SGA approved kiss-in event. The event, which took place in the Student Center, followed a tradition of non-violent awareness-raising actions and was intended to spark discussion of gay issues both on and off campus.
During the event, gay couples kissed as whistles were blown and affirmations were shouted.
The first kiss sparked an immediate response from students congregated in the cafeteria. Many cheered and applauded, while others made disapproving remarks or left the room.
Security officers arrived and informed the kiss-in participants that they were blocking access to the cafeteria and that the whistles sounded like a fire alarm. As reported in the Voice’s exclusive online article “LBGTF and security clash over kiss-in,” the LBGTF stopped blowing their whistles and moved out of the way, then continued kissing.
At this point, several eye-witnesses observed that security guards began pulling the kissing couples apart.
“He didn’t say ‘excuse me, please move.’ Nothing. He basically just started pulling us apart. When I saw him touch Sarah (my girlfriend), I told him he better not touch her or me. He said, ‘I can do what I want, watch me,’ And started pulling us apart again.” Said Francesca Scirocco, President of LGBTF and kiss-in participant.
A heated debated between security personnel and LGBTF members ensued (click here to listen to audio recordings).
According to Professor Alex Defazio, advisor to the LGBTF club, Jose Fernandez, Executive Director of Compliance stated that the school has the right to place restrictions on student expression and that political demonstrations must be approved.
In an interview with the Voice Fernandez said, “No school wil
l allow students to do as they wish without approval. That’s common sense. That’s not just true of Mercer; it’s true of all schools.”
The kiss-in itself lasted five to ten minutes, but the argument went on for about twice that long. The three security officers involved were Officers Anthony Mancino, Thomas Rice and John Scheid.
Since the event took place, several meetings have taken place. One meeting was conducted with LGBTF club officers met with Mercer administrators including Executive Dean of Student Affairs Dr. Diane Campbell and Director of College Safety Bryon Marshall.
At this meeting, administrators focussed on ideas for making LGBT students safter. Among other ideas the suggested that security officers could walk LGBT students to their cars at certain hours. LGBTF members suggested that perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to increase sensitivity training for school faculty, staff and administrators.
During the meeting Dean Campbell said: “I always thought that Mercer was a very gay-friendly campus. I always thought that, and that’s because of the people who have always been here.” She went on to say, “I have not seen or heard or had any issues in a very long time, no grievances, no security reports, none of that. So that’s why, when you say the awareness needs to be raised, I was thinking this is a very aware campus. And we’ve been through several exercises in order to make it that way.”
While representatives of the LGBTF say they were gratified by the administrations propositions to make the campus safer, they were frustrated by the fact that the administration would not address what they viewed as the inappropriate behavior of the security guards at the kiss-in itself.
The LGBTF had hoped to explain their grievances and receive an apology. Marshall explained that harassment reports could be filed but the meeting was not intended to address the kiss-in.
Dean Campbell said of the kiss-in, “The event was staged. We see what all the issues are. We come to this table to resolve those issues, but you still want to make the event the issue. We don’t want to make the event the issue. We want to make the resolutions the issues; that we are coming to the table to resolve at this point. I don’t think there is anything we can resolve by going back to the event.”
The LGBTF was also frustrated by the fact that the administration continually cast the kiss-in as a disruption and downplayed its value in terms of raising community awareness.
Dean Campbell responded by saying, “I don’t care what student group goes down into the cafeteria and does the same thing that this group did. I’m still going to see it as a disruption if there are whistles blowing and kissing and what you determined as public display of affection. Its not appropriate for this environment.”
Towards the end of the meeting, Marshall said, “I read the newspaper…I know the incident was disruptive as I was here when it happened. I don’t sit here and tell you that everything that the security officers did was right. I wouldn’t sit here and just throw that kind of paint over a situation. I wont say it was wrong either.”
The Student Government Association (SGA) also held a meeting with LGBTF members and noted that they had not understood what the event was going to involve.
“We never hold controversial events; this was a controversial event. We could have informed security and told them about the situation so they wouldn’t think ‘What the hell is going on’” said Nick Bella, Public Relations Officer on the SGA executive board. The LGBTF notes that security was the party that made the situation contentious.
Currently the LGBTF club has been in contact with both the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter and with and Lambda Legal Defense. Scirocco says she hopes that one of the groups will help the LGBTF and will make it possible for another kiss-in to be held with the full support of the school, something Dean Campbell has maintained will not be allowed.