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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

The Bear and safe spaces: Do the two intersect?

Photo by Mayu Sakae. These signs, put up by the Queer Athlete Association, attempt to pacify a sometimes hostile environment.

By Alice Herman

During the first weeks of the spring semester, students have mobilized around the issues of gender bias and LGBTQ inclusivity at the fitness center of the Bear.

Last semester, a student working at the front desk of the fitness center approached Murielle O’Brien ‘17 while she was exercising about an alleged violation of the dress code.

“I had an incident where I was wearing a sports bra and I was running on one of the treadmills upstairs and one of the guys who was working at the front desk — who is also a student — came up to me and asked me to put on a shirt … he told me that my clothes couldn’t be too loose or too tight,” O’Brien said.

When she asked to speak with a manager — and specified that she would prefer to speak with a woman — O’Brien was told repeatedly that there wasn’t anyone she could speak with about the problem. Ultimately, she was able to explain the situation to a woman employed at the Bear. Although O’Brien said that the conversation with the female employee was helpful, she did not return to the fitness center for over a month.

O’Brien noted that the issue of dress codes had broader implications than her experience at the Bear Athletic Center. “It’s hard to have a dress code and then to enforce that and not make people feel sexualized. I think that in our culture women are misrepresented in media and disproportionately made aware of the sexual nature of their bodies,” she said.

The Bear Athletic Center website does not include information about a dress code, and Jason Martinez, the Director of the Fitness Center, was unavailable for comment.

Many students report feeling intimidated at the prospect of going to the Fitness Center. John Gallagher ‘17, co-leader of Queer Athletes and Allies (QAA), is working to address what he identified as a widespread “uncertainty that people feel going into the gym.”

The organization, created in 2012, was designed to provide support to queer-identifying members of the athletic community. Along with initiatives to improve inclusivity for queer-identifying athletes, the QAA aims to make the fitness center more welcoming to students who do not play varsity sports. The QAA is responsible for the two signs outside of the fitness center that read “queer safe space” and “trans safe space.”

“We put the signs up because we have constantly had people feeling uncomfortable in different places in the Bear, mostly in the fitness center. We acknowledge fully that this won’t solve most of those problems, but this is something that would hopefully help people feel a little bit more welcomed,” Gallagher said. “Sports historically [are] not the most welcoming place for people in the queer community.”

Gallagher said that he was hopeful about the Athletic Department’s most recent hire, Holly Roepke, the new Assistant Athletic Director for Diversity, Inclusion and Student Programming.

“I think it’s been hard not having an advisor who has a say in the Athletic Department, so just having her here will be helpful,” Gallagher said.

One student, Lukas Resch ‘19, has taken on the issue of discomfort with the Bear independently of the College and other student organizations.

“I love the Bear … and I think that the quality of our athletic facilities is really high. That being said, I find it really difficult to go to the fitness center sometimes and a lot of that is based on there being large team practices going on. I started chatting with other people about how they felt about it and a lot of my female friends felt particularly intimidated,” Resch said. “I took a gym class last semester but I, just even in that class, felt like I was surrounded by a lot of hyper-masculine people and a hyper-masculine coach, which was hard.”

Such conversations prompted the creation of a private online network in which queer-identifying students can share their experiences working out and coordinate trips to the fitness center. Resch noted the QAA’s signage outside of the fitness center as well, “I think even the act of them having signs that say “trans inclusive” and “queer inclusive” is huge … Having that visual reminder is a step in the right direction.”

As for efforts by the Athletic Department to make the fitness center a safer space, Assistant Athletic Director Ben Cooprider did not know of any ongoing projects by the department.

“Sometimes I think it’s easy, … as a [member of a] group of people who are very comfortable in this building on a daily basis, to believe that it’s implied that this is an open and welcoming environment,” Cooprider said.

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