NYU’s Violent Relationship With Stonewall

On the anniversary of the LGBTQ rights movement’s occupation of Weinstein Residence Hall, it’s important to note how far NYU has come since 1970 — and how far it still has to go.

Abby Hofstetter, Opinion Editor

49 years ago today, NYU was complicit in the suppression of LGBTQ rights. One year after the Stonewall riots, Greenwich Village was home to the world’s largest LGBTQ community. The community needed money — funding for medical care, legal counsel and housing services — and the only way to get it was through fundraisers. So they rented a room at NYU’s Weinstein Residence Hall and hosted a series of dance-a-thons. The first two dances, which were held over summer break, came and went smoothly. But as the fall semester approached, NYU’s administration abruptly canceled the remaining dances, banning gay social functions from taking place on university grounds until a team of psychologists and ministers deemed homosexuality to be “morally acceptable.” In response, activists led by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera organized a five-day sit-in at Weinstein, beginning on Sept. 25, 1970. The occupation ended when NYU called the riot police, who removed all protestors — injuring many in the process.

NYU is not a university known for its pro-student stance. Our administration has shown repeatedly that it is wrapped around the fingers of the Board of Trustees and its major donors, and the Weinstein occupation was no exception — the dances were canceled in part due to objections from concerned university donors. NYU didn’t have a problem with the dances taking place over summer break; it was only once students returned that they became concerned about a gay presence on campus. But the students themselves didn’t have a problem with the protestors, or a gay presence — by the end of the occupation’s fourth day, a number of straight students had drafted a letter in solidarity with the protestors. Rather, it was concerned parents who caused the events to be canceled, and the university carried out their wishes under the guise of protecting students from a morally unacceptable force.

While NYU may have improved its public stance on LGBTQ rights since the 1970s, it hasn’t improved the way it treats protestors. When the status quo of university life is disrupted by those protesting for a better future — be they at Weinstein, the Kimmel steps, or President Andrew Hamilton’s own private elevator — NYU has historically retaliated with underhanded attacks. The university has threatened to revoke student protestors’ financial aid and housing, called their parents and threatened them with suspension.

With all of this considered, what would NYU do if the Stonewall movement took place today?

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It is safe in 2019 for NYU to come out in support of LGBTQ rights, and it is safe in 2019 for NYU to come out against President Trump. These are no longer radical stances. But when NYU is faced with the opportunity to take a somewhat-radical stance — such as using its influence on the United Arab Emirates’ government to come out in support of legalizing homosexual activity in the country or removing a man found guilty of sexual misconduct from its Board of Trustees — it always chooses to play it safe instead.

NYU’s recent Stonewall 50 campaign suggests that NYU has moved on from its past failures, and is perhaps even willing to apologize. But the way it discusses the Weinstein protest shows that the university is far from ready to take responsibility for its actions. Two sentences are dedicated to the occupation on NYU’s website, and neither of them mention the administration’s wildly violent retaliation to what was otherwise a peaceful protest. It seems that the university would rather deflect blame than admit guilt in what was described by Yale Professor Roderick Ferguson as the “most frightening, naked display of anti-homosexual power.” 

It’s easy to claim that we would have done the right thing, and it seems like this is what the university has tried to do with Stonewall 50. But it’s clear that NYU did not do the right thing. Not only has the university not apologized for its actions, but it’s actively whitewashed its own history of violence. Until it accepts its historic complicity in the suppression of LGBTQ rights, NYU cannot move forward as an ally.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Abby Hofstetter at [email protected]

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