One year after the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ+ rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera organized an occupation of Weinstein Residence Hall in response to NYU’s abrupt cancellation of a dance-a-thon to benefit the LGBTQ+ community. Although NYU had allowed two dance-a-thons to take place on campus during the summer, once students returned to campus, parents and donors expressed concern about students being influenced by a gay presence on campus. As a result, the university banned gay social events from taking place at NYU. After employing a variety of harsh tactics to drive protestors away — including cranking the air conditioning up all the way to freeze them out and then overheating the room occupied by protestors –– NYU called the riot police, who ended the five-day protest by forcibly removing protesters from the building.
Judging from NYU’s website, it’s hard to tell that the university was an active participant in violence against the LGBTQ+ community 50 years ago. Rather than apologize for its violent response to the Weinstein occupation, NYU published two sentences on the protest that omitted the university’s decision to deploy riot police against protestors.
Now that steps have been taken to establish LGBTQ+ rights around the country, NYU would face backlash if it didn’t champion LGBTQ+ rights. While NYU’s proclaimed dedication to championing LGBTQ+ rights is a step in the right direction, the whitewashing of NYU’s past relationship with the LGBTQ+ community shows that the university is only willing to take a stand when it positively impacts their image.
While NYU has taken a more progressive stance on LGBTQ+ rights since the Weinstein occupation, it still maintains a relationship with the NYPD despite the NYPD’s continued violence toward protestors and Black and Indigenous People of Color.
On Friday night, the NYPD employed excessive force against protestors at an Abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) protest outside of Bobst Library. Despite the NYPD beating protestors on NYU’s campus, the university did nothing to address the issue except send a mass text advising students to avoid the Washington Square Park area. Whether NYU calls the police itself — as it did in 1970 — or refuses to condemn the NYPD when protestors are beaten on campus, NYU remains complicit in a system of police brutality that endangers the lives of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities NYU now claims to protect and embrace.
NYU has also continually fallen short in protecting LGBTQ+ students since the Weinstein occupation, including those abroad. Over the years, many have expressed concerns about discrimination against gay students at NYU Abu Dhabi. Although former NYU President John Sexton refuted these concerns, stating, “I would say to any student here that wants to go to the Abu Dhabi campus, ‘Go.’ Gay students, Israeli students, I refuse to think in those categories,” it is clear that the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students were seldom considered. Homosexual activity is illegal in the United Arab Emirates, and can even be punishable by death. Mubarak Al Shamesi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, pushed back on Sexton’s statement, saying, “NYU was aware of our local culture and rules and guidelines, and our policies on Israelis or homosexuality were clearly not a concern for them.”
It isn’t as if higher-education institutions must accept homophobic policies and human-rights violations — in 2004, Harvard returned a $2.5 million donation when it realized that the country’s laws would violate the school’s nondiscrimination clause. From a university that has repeatedly been named as one of the most gay-friendly in the United States, this type of disregard for LGBTQ+ students is both inappropriate and dangerous.
On the New York campus, students have had difficulty receiving appropriate student-housing accommodations as recently as last year. When CAS sophomore Evelyn Zhang, who is transgender and uses she/her pronouns, indicated her gender identity on her application, she was assigned to a room in University Residence Hall with three cis male suitemates. The following year, after applying for gender neutral housing and expecting to be assigned roommates who identified as women, Zhang received three cis male suitemates again. The previous Vice President of T-Party, a club for transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming members of the NYU community, reported that many students have had their safety and comfort compromised within their own dorms due to their identity. These experiences underscore the failure of NYU housing to live up to its own expectations as an institution that currently “support[s] the LGBTQ+ community.”
NYU can continue to present itself as an inclusive institution, but its refusal to own up to the part it’s played in the oppression of LGBTQ+ rights prevents the university from truly being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. Looking back on the Weinstein occupation 50 years later reminds us that even though NYU has become more progressive on the surface, the university only stands up for LGBTQ+ rights when it is beneficial for the university while taking actions that actively harm the LGBTQ+ community itself.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 e-print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]