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GRCC board trustee defends LGBT community in response to offensive comments, students speak out

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A Grand Rapids Community College Board Trustee expressed regret during yesterday’s board meeting for not speaking in support of the Diversity Lecture series when another board member made the suggestion to invite a formerly gay person to speak at the series.

“In the past month, I’ve deeply regretted not speaking on my own behalf at the end of February’s board meeting,” Trustee Terri Handlin said. “I made a conscious decision at that moment to wait, collect my thoughts and not get into any behavior that, for me, would turn heated.”

During the closing comments at February’s board meeting, Trustee Richard Ryskamp made the suggestion that next time someone speaks for the Diversity Lecture Series on the topic of gay issues, that it be someone with a different view than LZ Granderson, the journalist and gay rights activist who had recently spoken for the series. The GRCC Diversity Lecture series was created to promote understanding of multicultural issues.

GRCC student leaders responded by submitting a letter with 18 of their signatures to Ryskamp asking for an apology.

Yesterday in the board meeting during open comment, former GRCC student Azizi Jasper, who is popular within the spoken word poetry community in Grand Rapids, was the first to respond to the comment Ryskamp made at the February board meeting that the speaker should perhaps be someone who “has tried being gay but now regrets that path or is trying to walk a new path.”

“I just found it offensive, short-sighted, archaic, and a bit bigoted,” Jasper said. “…This is the type of mindset that belongs at a private college that our county tax dollars are not paying for.

“GRCC represents Grand Rapids, and even more broadly, Kent County, and that’s a county that’s made up of many different people from many different walks of life, and at the very least, we want them to feel welcomed at our community college,” Jasper said.

Handlin followed Jasper’s comments with her own prepared statement on the topic. After sharing her regret for not speaking up last month, she said:

“Then I heard the words of LZ Granderson, and I quote Mr. Granderson: ‘It’s not the words of our enemy that we will remember, but it’s the silence of our friends. That really propelled me to speak tonight.

“My personal life is filled with wonderful people representing all humans because we are, of course, all human beings, and we are in this together,” she said. “I wonder each time about what is so fearful about accepting people for who they are, especially those who add so much to our community and certainly to my life.” Handlin asked that the resistant energy surrounding the LGBT community be channeled to issues such as domestic violence or human trafficking.

Handlin also spoke of the benefit she takes from the speaker series.

“Our diversity lecture series has been a venue for me to listen and develop a better understanding, to be a better informed person, and that makes me a stronger trustee and a stronger community member,” she said.

Handlin said though it’s important for trustees to respect one another, she does not support inviting a speaker who has tried being gay and reformed, something she thinks is not possible.

“I truly believe in the right of my board colleagues to be heard, yet it also distresses me when people feel that our words are hurtful, and I think Azizi expressed that tonight,” Handlin said. “I know from this experience that as a friend, I will no longer remain silent.”

Ryskamp made his initial comments last month during the same meeting where he voted against the midyear budget, the reasons being its allotted funding for the Woodrick Diversity Learning Center, through which the lecture series is organized, and the funding for Actors’ Theatre and green energy.

“I have voted for funding of the Diversity Lecture Series the last couple years, so that is a misconception that I voted against it,” Ryskamp said in today’s meeting. “I do, however, believe that a Diversity Lecture Series should be balanced and should include different perspectives and should include all people.

“…I am surprised to hear from Trustee Handlin that there is no such thing as people who have become disillusioned with just about any course in life, and there are people who have been disillusioned with the lifestyle of homosexuality.”

Ryskamp said he’s heard many Diversity speakers on this topic say or imply that “being gay is no big deal,” as he quoted from Granderson’s speech, but Ryskamp believes it is a big deal.

“For some people, I supposed they feel it’s a good deal, and maybe others, it’s not such a good deal, and some try to get out of that deal, and some actually do,” he said. “And I know some, and I don’t understand why their opinion is not included. “

Jasper responded in his speech to the similar comments made by Ryskamp last month.

“You seem to want diversity, but only if it’s underfunded and within conservative parameters,” he said.

Ryskamp clarified the comment about the Diversity Lecture Series in an email Tuesday.

“Actually, since I voted “no” on the budget as a whole, I can’t really say I voted for the Diversity Lecture Series or anything else in the budget,” he stated. ” I should have said that the line item expenditure for the Diversity Lecture Series was not one of the three items that I voted to defund.  The three were the green energy subsidy, the Actors’ Theatre, and the Diversity Learning Center (which is a separate line item from the Diversity Lecture Series.)”

During Trustee Richard Stewart’s closing remarks, he again agreed with Ryskamp’s stance.

“If we are, as an institution, a place where critical thinking is valuable…we need to hear all sides of all breadth of discussion,” Stewart said. “And now, frankly, I’m a bit surprised—that resistance of hearing all sides of discussion.

GRCC President Steven Ender declined to comment on the issue Monday, according to spokesperson Kathy Mullins.

The comments made today were days after Ryskamp met with GRCC students Eirann Betka, president of StandOut, GRCC’s gay/straight alliance club, and Ross L. Pike, president of GRCC College Democrats and StandOut member, two of the 18 student leaders who signed the letter requesting his apology. Ryskamp requested the meetings after Pike delivered the letter.

Pike said their meeting was successful and they plan to meet again, but he was disappointed Ryskamp would not issue an apology.

“We had hoped for a better response from our letter and that we would be able to sit down with Dr. Ryskamp and explain why his comments were offensive, but clearly he did not take that to heart,” Pike said. “I understand his line of reasoning, though I do still remain…concerned that one of the highest ranking officials for the college feels so strongly that individuals are disillusioned because they’re gay.”

Betka was also disappointed with Ryskamp’s words yesterday.

“I just would have hoped that he would have been more sensitive after we spoke about his last insensitive comment,” Betka said.

In response, to the comments of Handlin and others in support of the Diversity Lecture Series, Pike is delighted.

“I am pleased so many in our community are also opposed to the words spoken by Dr. Ryskamp and beginning to speak up to support our LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff who were and are offended,” Pike wrote in a text message. “We cannot allow prospective students to think that this is a viewpoint shared by the whole college.”

In response to Ryskamp’s closing remarks, Jasper said:

“Someone should not use their position on the board of a publicly funded institution to promote their political agenda…If he’s going to keep it up, then the community certainly will. My suggestion to him would be to let sleeping dogs lie.”

Follow Editor-in-Chief Justin Dawes on Twitter at twitter.com/dawes_justin.

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