November 3rd, 2008

Reconnecting the Historical Dots of my LGBT Student Leadership Past

Reconnecting the Historical Dots of my LGBT Student Leadership Past


Sometimes, something happens that really puts in perspective just how much time has passed.

Nine years ago (in the fall of 1999, for those not endowed with basic mathematical skills), I was attending the beginning-of-semester Cornell LGBT student leadership retreat somewhere a little ways outside of Ithaca NY. At some point among the many workshops and discussions, an idea was born. Through my subsequent involvement in the founding and early leadership of two new student organizations (Haven and CUGSA a.k.a. the "Cornell University Gay-Straight Alliance"), I earned my own little footnote in the chronicles of LGBT student leadership history at Cornell, although such history is often forgotten or obscured.

I'm not much for letting go of the past, especially when the past is something I really cared about and dedicated myself to. So I've remained subscribed to some of the e-mail lists for various Cornell LGBT groups, since I worked with (and attended meetings for) a bunch of them, not just the ones I co-founded. I don't pay a lot of attention, but I like to loosely keep tabs on things, especially what's going on with my two little creations. And it's always interesting to run into younger Cornell alums, when we're talking about our LGBT experiences at Cornell, and I happen to mention my former role in things. The reaction tends to be interesting.

But anyway, fast-forward to two weeks ago, and an announcement that came out through a few of the LGBT lists. It seems some people in Haven were interested in changing its name to the "LGBTQ Student Union." Now, I'm not going to stand up and complain if they really want to change the name and have good reasons for doing so. Times change, and Haven belongs to its current members, not to any of its older alums, even us founders.

However, the ballot that got sent out was interesting in the sense that the historical information provided about the formation of Haven was completely wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it appeared to have been simply made up randomly. And the actual, true history would have shed some light on some strong arguments against the proposed new name.

So for the first time in a long time, I decided to speak up and make myself known to the current members. I wanted everybody to at least be armed with the truth before making their decision. So I wrote an e-mail to a few lists, and asked people to forward where appropriate. I haven't heard what ultimately became of the name-change issue, but in a way, I valued the opportunity to re-engage briefly with my legacy.

And, in the spirit of tomorrow being Election Day -- and my core belief that an informed decision is a better one -- I'm sharing my Haven e-mail here today:



Greetings all,


Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mike Webb, I'm a Class of 2003 A&LS alum, and I am one of the founders of Haven.

The historical information included in the Haven-name-change ballot is wildly incorrect on several counts, and I feel that the record should be set "straight" (no pun intended) for everybody who is considering this issue. Changing names is a pretty big deal from a branding/image perspective, so people should probably be armed with the accurate historical facts/perspectives before rendering a decision. (No offense to the people who put this initiative together, but it's easy for facts to get distorted over time, and it may be useful to have input from somebody who was there.)

"Once upon a time," there was a student organization at Cornell called the LGBT Coalition (not unlike the possible new name currently under consideration, as you may have noticed). The LGBT Coalition was responsible for coordinating both the activism and social/support/outreach sides, basically subsuming both of what Haven and DASH are today. In the fall of 1998, what was left of this ailing organization disintegrated, leaving no activism component and letting the support groups fend for themselves.

In the spring of 1999, student activists from the former LGBT Coalition got back together and formed DASH as an independent direct-action group.

The idea for Haven was born during a meeting at the fall 1999 LGBT student leadership retreat, when I got together with James Holmes (fellow student) and Sarah Simpkins (Dean of Students Office advisor to the support groups) and put an organizational structure in place. Haven's purpose was *entirely* to provide an administrative umbrella to the support/social groups (MSM, Bridges, Mosaic, Safe Space, LBQ, and others including CUGSA which was founded in 1999 along with Haven). I'm not sure where the thing about the crisis phone line came from, as that sounds more like "EARS" to me, but I assure you that has *nothing* to do with Haven's history, other than that I believe Sarah Simpkins was involved with both.


So to sum it up, a group called the LGBT Coalition dissolved in 1998 and was replaced by DASH and Haven in 1999, which split the former Coalition's duties in a way that allowed each to serve its goals more effectively. From its inception, Haven was *always* intended as an umbrella for its constituent groups.

The name "Haven" was chosen to communicate a sense of inclusiveness, openness, and welcomeness for the LGBTQ community, without "hardcoding" the LGBTQ part into the name, as had been done before with the LGBT Coalition. It's not unlike how the HRC, while being an LGBT rights organization, communicates its intentions without specifically stating LGBT/gay/whatever in its name. (And no, I'm not comparing the scope of Haven with that of the HRC, but Haven has been a significant institution on campus for almost a decade.)

Haven was meant to be the "invisible duct tape" holding the Cornell LGBTQ universe together -- somewhat of a behind-the-scenes presence. It didn't need to carry its identity on its sleeve; that was for each of its constituent groups to do, as more visible units of LGBTQ support and activity on campus.

(And might I remind everybody that CUGSA was created as one of the Haven groups, and was intended to include straight allies in its functions/activities; I would be slightly concerned about alienating potential allies by making the parent group's name too LGBTQ-specific. Just something small to consider.)


I know I'm just an alum. I know I haven't been on campus for a few years, so maybe I'm out of touch. But there were a lot of reasons why we went with the name "Haven" and avoided the earlier practice of having LGBT(Q) in the name. I just wanted everybody to know the relevant history before making their decisions. And please know that I'm not just trying to preserve my legacy. I'm proud that the groundwork we laid a decade ago has served as the basis for so many years of so many people's selfless devotion to this collection of outstanding causes; but whatever decision you all make, I wish you continued success and sincerely thank all of you for making a positive difference.


Thank you,

- Mike