Merely hours after a Cal Poly “free speech wall” was erected on Dexter Lawn, it was speckled with bigoted comments and images drawn and written by students. Most eye-catching was a drawing of the Islamic prophet Muhammad holding a machine gun and yelling, “I’ll jihad your face.” Subtler yet equally as piercing were male and female check boxes that read: “Pick one, and one only.”
Since that day—Nov. 10, 2015—a movement of Cal Poly students, known as SLO Solidarity has stepped into a contentious dialogue with school officials over how the university can get on a better path toward inclusivity and diversity.
But Cal Poly’s student-led push for social change began before the “wall” shoved that conversation into the spotlight.
In February 2015, students founded the Cal Poly Queer Student Union. At the time, no student organization for LGBT students existed on campus. In April, the leaders of the Queer Student Union got in touch with Jane Lehr, the chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies department, about a proposal.
“We approached the WGS department about the possibility of adding more queer-centric curriculum on campus at Cal Poly,” said Mick Bruckner, a sophomore at Cal Poly and vice president of activism for the Queer Student Union. “Dr. Lehr explained to us that she had been wanting to do that for a very long time.”
Students and faculty teamed up to form the Queer Studies Minor Working Group. Questions at play were: What would the minor be about? How would it fit in to Cal Poly? How could it be structured to give it the best chance of getting approved?
“Queer studies has always been kind of ambiguous in the academic sphere,” Bruckner said. “We really wanted to define our program in a way that first makes sense for Cal Poly and that makes sense for queer students.”
On Jan. 6, the paperwork for a Queer Studies minor was submitted to the College of Liberal Arts.
“If approved by the College of Liberal Arts and the academic senate, the new minor will provide all Cal Poly students with opportunities to explore how sexuality is central to human societies,” the Cal Poly Women’s and Gender Studies Department wrote in a letter to Mustang News on Dec. 9. “[The minor will explore] how [sexuality] is lived in relation to race, religion, class, nation, disability, and gender, and how the dynamics of heterosexism, heteronormativity, [and] sexuality … shape our daily lives, social institutions, and political discourses.”
For the students involved, being a part of the working group was a unique experience.
“It really sets the precedent for students, faculty, and staff to work together to bring forward the curriculum that they want,” Bruckner said. “I think we’re really setting a cool model for other people in the Cal Poly community.”
Students say that the minor will open up new academic avenues at Cal Poly and empower LGBT students from all disciplines to “take a stand and share their voices.”
“There are queer STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] students, and they want to take agency over their identities,” Bruckner said. “Cal Poly has not necessarily offered queer students a route or channel in which to explore their identities in a professional and academic way.”
The courses in the minor are designed to be open for enrollment by any student at Cal Poly, regardless of their year and major.
“Because it’s such an interdisciplinary program, it’s going to get so many students involved from so many different academic backgrounds,” Bruckner said.
The Women’s and Gender Studies Department points to history to expose Cal Poly’s poor track record of keeping up with social issues. Cal Poly was the very last Cal State University to establish a women’s and gender studies program in 1991. Today, seven CSUs offer majors in queer studies-related fields.
“We do not need to wait to be the last to establish a queer studies minor,” the department letter states. “We can, as #SLOSolidarity calls for, take action now and demonstrate Cal Poly’s commitment to being … the nation’s premier comprehensive polytechnic university.”
The Queer Studies Working Group constructed the minor to give it a realistic chance for approval. In other words, to demand as few resources from the university as possible.
“We proposed as few classes as possible because then the College of Liberal Arts is more likely to approve it,” said Matt Klepfer, a sophomore and president of the Queer Student Union.
Klepfer, who received a death threat over Facebook for his role in SLO Solidarity in December, believes that the current campus climate makes the proposal tough for the school to dismiss.
“I’d be shocked if it wasn’t passed,” he said.
The movement received a boost of momentum when CSU Chancellor Tim White visited Cal Poly on Nov. 3 and roughly 30 students conducted a demonstration in the Chumash Auditorium, where they placed duct tape over their mouths to symbolize feeling excluded from the curriculum.
“There’s definitely a lot of interest on campus and a lot of energy on campus right now around queer studies,” Bruckner said. “It’s just so cool that this happened, and I’m so excited to see where it goes.”
Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at [email protected].