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Students raise concerns about ISU's response to anti-LGBTQIA+ incidents

Zoey Irving, a freshman, demonstrates support for LGBTQIA+ students alongside another student on Tuesday, October 18, 2022.
Erik Dedo
ISU freshman Zoey Irving demonstrates support for LGBTQIA+ students alongside another student on Tuesday, October 18, 2022.

Illinois State University student Jakai Martin has spent the past several days fiercely advocating for the university's LGBTQIA+ students — a mission the junior sociology major recently took public not solely out of passion, but out of a need for more inclusion on campus.

"I'm a regular student, like everyone else," Martin said. "I didn't plan to be assaulted and then an advocate (against) hate crimes. Like, I still have projects due."

But Martin said that's exactly what happened to them over the homecoming weekend.

At an off-campus event Oct. 15, Martin said they were in line to go to the bathroom with a friend when Martin decided to ask the person in front of them, another ISU student, if he was wearing a fedora. Martin said the student dropped a slur at him, twice, and "a verbal altercation occurred."

"It resulted in me saying that I'm going to defend myself. He turned around, like he was going to walk away, and then he punched me in the face," Martin told WGLT. "The punch was whatever it was, a physical assault, but it was more a representation of someone ... thinking they can assault someone in broad daylight."

The allegation marks at least the third homophobic act perpetuated by ISU students in recent weeks: In late September, members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity graffitied slurs onto the signs of two other Greek houses on-campus.

Martin's story, when put into the context of both how universities respond to alleged hate crimes and those other, recent homophobic incidents at ISU, reveal a disconnect between the lived experiences of students and how administrative systems respond to those experiences.

'We're doing what we can to be respectful of the ... systems and policies everyone agreed to'

Following the graffiti incidents in early October, Associate Dean of Students Michelle Whited said ISU was investigating possible code violations and individual discipline of the students involved. From an administrative level, nothing else was said publicly — until Monday, two days after Martin said they were slurred at and assaulted by another student.

That afternoon, the office of President Terri Goss Kinzy sent out an email titled, "President Kinzy shares an important message." The email included a video in which Kinzy said she wanted to "encourage everyone to take stock and carve out time to take care of yourself and those around you."

"Taking stock also means recommitting to our core values at Illinois State," Kinzy continued. "In recent weeks, people have reached out to express concern, fears and anger in response to anti-LGBTQIA+ comments and actions. Let me be clear: These behaviors are the antithesis of the core values of this university. I challenge anyone who feels the need to commit vandalism or direct malicious and hateful comments to others to question whether their actions fit within the framework of respect we all deserve."

In the eyes of some students, the message fell short.

"To me, it was just a very sad response. It gave the vibe that she was just reading off a teleprompter and wasn't really caring," said ISU junior and ISU Pride officer Joey Fenton. "They were almost like secretly trying to put it out there and make a statement."

Added Martin: "She mentioned the queer community one time in her 1:53 video. It was very lackluster, she was very vague and she didn't address the fact that students are being victimized and hate-crimed."

Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson told WGLT that has a purpose.

"What's important is that the investigation is still ongoing. These, whatever group and/or individuals, are going through a process right now and while that is taking place, to designate where within the (Student) Conduct Code this falls is not under the purview of folks like Dr. Kinzy or myself at this point," Johnson said. "We have a Conduct office. We have to go through our process."

That process will likely take weeks as investigators try to work with all parties involved. The Normal Police Department is conducting its own investigation into the matter, as well, following Martin reporting the incident to it earlier this week.

Martin said they understand the investigation is still underway, but wished the university would have been more proactive in condemning homophobia and hate crimes in general.

"There is nothing protecting me from another event happening, even on campus, because the university hasn't identified the steps they're taking to (investigate) those individuals," Martin said. "I would have loved to see something where the university identified what actions would be taken if any individuals overstep boundaries and assault students."

'People are starting to realize queer people are not safe here'

With some students dissatisfied with the video and with heavy engagement coming to posts from Martin and others on Instagram saying "Queer Students Are Not Safe At Illinois State University, Kinzy agreed to meet with members of ISU Pride during an executive meeting Thursday evening, along with Johnson.

"Whenever we got done, we kind of were all like mad and annoyed," said Fenton, who was present at the meeting as an officer. "When it came to the video, we asked why it took so long ... She said the video had a lot of thought go into it, that they worked hard, they didn't want to be rude to anyone. I'm like, 'You may be the only person who thinks that it was thoughtful.'"

Mike Hendricks, an assistant professor in ISU's Department of Politics and Government, said it was undergraduate students who filled him in on the general dissatisfaction with administrative response to both the graffiti and alleged hate crime Oct. 15.

"I think the students just want a more sincere and empathetic message coming from the top: 'We don't tolerate this, we've got your back. ISU is a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community.' From what I gathered yesterday in my class, they didn't really get that from the video that was released," Hendricks said. "You could see that many of the students in my class (Thursday) were hurting."

Fenton said that while "the Jakai Martin assault ... has really shot this whole movement up," the goal for concerned students and supportive staff is to create a more inclusive university campus, one where students know what they can do if they need help — and one where the university will provide that help.

"I brought up people's stories where they messaged me about how they were attacked and the university did nothing. They said they could not help them. Multiple people have said they actually left the university because they feel unsafe," Fenton said. "I hope that clicked."

Statistically, at least from the data provided by the Illinois State University Police Department's 2021 Cleary Report, ISU as a whole appears safe from hate crimes: Zero were reported last year.

But not all incidents of bias, prejudice or hate rise to the criminal level, which is where university investigations come in.

However, ISU administrators said a Freedom of Information Act request would be necessary to determine how many incidents of bias — homophobic, racist or otherwise — were reported to its Student Conduct or Inclusive Community Response Team in the past school year; that data was not made available by deadline for this article.

Nationally, the most recent data available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Crime Data Explorer reports that in 2020, there were "8,263 criminal incidents and 11,129 related offenses motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity."

That data is in part collected via submissions by law enforcement agencies who participate in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program and comes with caveats — one being that "the actual number" of hate crimes is likely higher, due to "victims’ reluctance to report such incidents or ignorance of how to do so."

Of all those reported incidents, less than 5% were from college campuses. An agency publication notes any action of bias or hate can "create an atmosphere of fear and anger that undermines the educational mission" and that condemnation from authorities is necessary to curb further incidents.

Direct condemnation, or at least a more heavy-handed version of it, is what Martin said is missing from the administration's response to recent homophobic incidents.

"I think that as more events are occurring, people are starting to realize queer people are not safe here," Martin said. "What is to stop the person who attacked me, or anyone who is familiar with what I am doing, from continuing to ostracize and disconnect the queer community from the student body here?"

'What I am asking for is not new'

Following the release of Kinzy's video Monday, ISU students began to further organize in support of LGBTQIA+ peers. On Tuesday, three students stood with signs near Bone Student Center, demonstrating their support through positive messaging.

"I was really upset in my dorm yesterday, and I didn't know what I could do to really affect change in our community, but I do know that I can hold a cardboard sign for a couple of hours in the cold and let people know that we're upset and that we want to be heard," said freshman Zoey Irving. "We're not going to be quiet until we actually get change."

On Friday afternoon, well over 50 ISU students and others walked the campus in protest, chanting "No hate at Illinois State" before stopping in front of Hovey Hall.

And Martin, who has spoken to multiple media outlets and student organizations, created a petition that outlined three things they'd like to see from university officials: A designated safe space for LGBTQIA+ students; additional counselors; and a public apology from President Kinzy.

ISU's on-campus Multicultural Center, located on Main Street near the Student Fitness Center, sponsors the Pride organization and has a Gender Affirmation Station. But Martin said having a more central location on campus would highlight the presence and inclusion of queer students and faculty at ISU, sort of celebrating their belonging.

Martin also said the encouragement from administrators to seek counseling rang hollow, since the university is so short-staffed on mental health workers that students often don't come close to using their 20 allotted free visits; Martin is also advocating for a telehealth option to make things more accessible.

The public apology Martin is seeking isn't personal, they said; it's about the ISU queer student community as a whole.

"The university has been very tight-lipped. But when you're neutral in situations like this, you're going to be siding with the oppressor. So, the university's vagueness and general claims are not speaking to what the students need right now," Martin said. The administrators "don't know me, but they are the university that claims to foster inclusivity and diversity. I had no input on their values; this institution was founded long before I was born or came along. What I'm asking for is nothing new."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.