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Activism on Campus: My First Year

I knew I had to get away from home. I needed to be free of my family so that I could truly speak for what I believed in.

by Nathan W. Brown

My first experience of activism was like that of many others. I grew up in a small town, in conservative Michigan, so my experience with activism of any sorts was minimal at best. Around the time of graduation, however, something inside me changed. I started to feel a bit different about the world around me. I was angry. All I saw on the news was war and hatred. I had never been a big supporter of the war, but I never really opposed it either...and things just kept going downhill. More troops were returning in caskets, yet the war was going nowhere, and more innocent civilians were being sent to Guantanamo. I wanted to speak up but my mother didn’t want me to. I still don’t know if this was done to protect me, or her own views of Bush from being hurt. When it came time to pick out which university I was to attend, I knew I had to get away from home. I needed to be free of my family so that I could truly speak for what I believed in.

When I finally arrived at Saginaw Valley State University in August 2007, I—like many students—was overwhelmed with my new freedom. Unfortunately, this university wasn’t exactly what I expected. SVSU is a small university of just under ten thousand students, actually one thing I really enjoyed about it. However, the university was also very conservative, which is one thing I really didn’t like about it. I started to forget why I really came to this campus. I started to hang out with a small group of outsiders comprised of stoners, neo-hippies, and other “freethinkers”. We would sit around smoking a hookah talking about all the problems in the world, but not really doing anything about them.

One day late in September, one of the guys in our group mentioned a peace rally that was going to take place nearby the following weekend, organized by Tri-Cities Action for Peace (TCAP). This was my chance to get involved in the area, and to finally speak up for my beliefs...but instead I just let the chance pass by. Around the same time, I started to get involved with the Gay Straight Alliance on campus. It was a small group, with only four or five other members. I finally started to learn of the injustices that were occurring in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, and Transgender) community. It was also the first time I started to openly question my own sexuality. This was where I began my awakening.

The first protest I took part in was during my first October on campus. Some preacher man came to campus and was telling everyone that they were going to Hell. He and his two partners were wearing shirts that said “all homos go to hell”. This was the chance I’d really been waiting for. While growing up I remember watching movies with huge demonstrations taking place on campus, but since I had gotten to campus I had seen nothing like that. For the first time since I arrived on campus, the students actually came together to stand against discrimination, and stood up for something they believed in. Students actually organized this, and made plans for further protest when the preacher came back the next day. Sadly, this was the only time I have seen mass, organized protest on this campus. The rest of my first semester was pretty dull. I went to meetings, hung out with friends and waited for the next time there would be a chance to stand up with others for what I believed in. That chance didn’t come until February.

During the second semester's first month-and-a-half, not much really happened. And then, on the way to a store with my friends, I saw it. The antiwar protesters on campus in Fall were back again. Unfortunately, my friends were unwilling to stop to participate, since they were in a hurry. So once again I missed out on my chance...but at that moment I decided to do something about it.

I decided that I was going to have a war protest of my own.

I started spending many hours online researching and contacting every peace activist group in Michigan that I could find. I sent out press releases and put up flyers. About two weeks before my protest, I found out that the group that I had seen was going to be back organizing a protest on the anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.

This time I could make it.

While I was there, I met many helpful people. Many of these people had helped in the anti-Vietnam war movement. They agreed to help me put on a rally of my own. I thought that this would be it, and I would finally get this campus involved in something larger. Then the day of the protest, March 26th, arrived.

It started out with just me holding up a peace flag and a bullhorn. And it stayed that way for about an hour, until a couple of people showed up from the protest that I had visited two weeks prior. We set up a display that looked like a miniature version of Arlington Cemetery, with a cross for each person from Michigan who had died in the Iraq war. As we placed the crosses into the ground, we read their names off.

Still, no one else showed up.

About an hour later the people left, and just the crosses—and I—remained. Then a couple more people cameg up and looking at the crosses. They had known people who died in Iraq and I helped them find the names upon the crosses. Some of them were friends; others were cousins, or brothers. The small crowd eventually disappeared. Then an international students from Saudi Arabia came up to me and told me that he supported me, but that he could not stay because he “couldn’t be involved in political issues.” In some ways I thought that I had failed at getting people to think about what was going on in the world around them. But then I thought of the eight or nine people that stopped and searched the numerous crosses to find people they knew. I may not have had the large crowd I had hoped for, but I did have some impact and even that small impact I felt was an important start.

After that rally I decided to change my focus on activism revolving around the LGBT community. The year was beginning to come to a close, so there was not a whole lot of time to plan another rally of any sort, but we did have the “day of silence” coming up, and the GSA and I planned to be noticed when that week came. Some of us wanted to be in the courtyard in the center of campus, since that was the most noticeable place to have an event of this kind. The president of our organization, however, didn’t like the idea because she claimed we would draw too much “unwanted” attention to ourselves. We objected, but the president had the final say. We ended up having our little rally outside of the student bookstore. Thankfully the year was coming to a close so there were plenty of people there returning books. I brought the bullhorn again and we shouted out the names of LGBT youth that had been killed in the last few years. We hung posters with their pictures all around and mourned them as we remembered all of the violence we have put up with through the years. Sadly not many people seemed to care. We were protesting for at least three hours and in that time we only had about five or six people come to our table to talk to us.

Despite all the images on television that I had seen growing up, set during the Vietnam war era, students nowadays seem to be very apathetic. Since these events on my campus, however, things have started to look up. During this last presidential election, we saw numerous students standing up for their beliefs and actually working to benefit the causes they believe in. Especially when it came to supporting President Obama’s campaign. Since the election we have also seen many positive things come out of even unfortunate events, such as the passing of California's Proposition 8. Since the passing of Prop 8 we have seen numerous pro-LGBT demonstrations.

Things are finally starting to look up here at SVSU. This year I have gotten more involved, as I have gotten involved in the LGBT community as a whole. Unfortunately, most of the younger members of this community are far from gay rights advocates. Things are getting better overall, and despite my pessimism, I do think things are going to improve. Every so often you see the youth of America stand up for what they believe in. I believe that this is one of those moments. But the question I ask is whether this new found activism among America’s youth will last...or is it just a new fad created by November's election?

Nathan Brown is a student majoring in history at Saginaw Valley State University. Since coming to Saginaw he has been involved with, and is currently Vice-President of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at SVSU and has been involved with many advocacy events through this organization. In 2008 Nathan became involved with Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and Perceptions, a local LGBT group.