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LGBTQ COCC students protest choice of Rep. Chavez-DeRemer as commencement speaker

Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore., speaking on House floor
C-SPAN/Chavez-DeRemer's office
Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore., speaking on House floor

Congressman says she 'supports all Oregonians'; school president apologizes but won't pull invite

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- A group of LGBTQ Central Oregon Community College students are protesting the selection of Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer as this year's commencement speaker, accusing her of a record of transphobia. An aide said the lawmaker "supports all Oregonians," while college President Dr. Laurie Chesley apologized for missteps but did not withdraw the June 17 invitation.

The congresswoman's spokesperson provided this statement to NewsChannel 21:

"The congresswoman is honored to have been invited to participate in this special day with graduates and is looking forward to speaking at the commencement ceremony. She supports all Oregonians, including those in the LGBTQ+ community."

Here's the students' full news release, and a letter Chesley sent Tuesday to students and staff:

LGBTQ Students Oppose COCC’s Decision to Host Lori Chavez-DeRemer for Commencement

Bend, OR: LGBTQIA2S+ students and allies at Central Oregon Community College are protesting the college’s decision to invite Lori Chavez-DeRemer to represent them as their 2023 commencement speaker, because the U.S. representative for Oregon’s 5th district has a record of transphobia and supports anti-transgender policies.

Chavez-DeRemer was a co-sponsor of House Resolution 734, the “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act,” and House Resolution 5, the “Parents Bill of Rights,” both widely criticized anti-transgender bills. HR 734 would amend Title IX to classify women based on their sex, and would effectively ban transgender women from participating in sports. HR 5 would require schools to consult parents before a student is allowed to change their name or gender marker, taking away transgender students’ autonomy over their identity and potentially outing them to an unaccepting family.

The college’s decision for Lori Chavez-DeRemer to represent students as the 2023 commencement speaker was headed by the Senior Leadership Team, including the president, Dr. Laurie Chesley. None of the other staff or students at the college were included in the decision. Students and staff have repeatedly raised concerns about hosting an anti-transgender legislator to represent a student body with many LGBTQ students. However, yesterday, June 6th, Dr. Chesley stood by and defended the decision.

The LGBTQ COCC students, as well as staff and members of the community, have sent letters to Dr. Chesley and the Senior Leadership Team, as well as the Board of the College, which did not contribute to the decision but which the students hope will denounce it. The students plan to petition the college to rescind its invitation to Chavez-DeRemer. The petition is accessible here. The students also call for a more inclusive process to choose commencement speakers that would include staff and students, and for long-term institutional support for LGBTQ students, including a cohesive LGBTQ program and an LGBTQ program coordinator.

From: Laurie Chesley
Date: Tuesday, June 6, 2023 at 3:00 PM
Subject: COCC Commencement Speaker

Dear Colleagues,

I have been reflecting upon last week’s Snack Chat. After a Snack Chat, I often think about things I neglected to say and things I wish I had said differently.

I have also been reflecting on the messages that I have received from staff, faculty, students, and community members. I have read and considered every communication carefully. I sincerely thank everyone who took the time to send me an email or to meet with me. I am particularly grateful for those who approached this current controversy with civility and a spirit of inquiry and mutual learning. With this communication, I will try to address some of the major themes and questions that have been addressed to me.

I owe you, our employees, as well as our students an apology. In fact, I owe an apology on several fronts. First of all, I misjudged the potential impacts of inviting a political person to be our Commencement speaker. I know that my decision has caused pain to some students, faculty, and staff. For that I am truly sorry. I understand that my good intentions regarding the decision do not negate that pain. Second, the process I used to solicit ideas and feedback on potential Commencement speakers was a poor one. I commit to making improvements to that process, more specifically to soliciting robust input from students, faculty, and staff moving forward. All of us want Commencement to be a time for celebrating our students’ achievements together.

During the Snack Chat, I also neglected to explicitly state that COCC and I stand with our LGBTQ2+ students, employees, and community members. Let me be clear: members of the LGBTQ2+ community are welcome at our College, members of the LGBTQ2+ community have the right to self-expression at our College, and COCC supports equal rights and opportunities for all members of the community regardless of age, sex, race, religion, disability, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, marital status, social status, socioeconomic status, veteran status, political status or other affiliations.

I understand the need to take actions that show my own and this College’s support for our LGBTQ2+ community. I am committed to doing that and am open to hearing ideas about how that might be accomplished. Thank you to those who have already outlined many of these ideas in your outreach to me, the SLT, and the Board.

I recognize that for some members of our community, these words and future actions are not enough. Some have asked that I show my support for the LGBTQ2+ community by rescinding the College’s invitation to Representative Chavez-DeRemer to speak on June 17. I have very carefully considered and discussed differing points of view on this subject, and I am not going to rescind our invitation. While I acknowledge and regret that choosing a political person has caused pain to some members of our community, I still believe that we must engage with those with whom we disagree, no matter how passionately and viscerally. I especially believe this to be true when people are engaging on a subject of broad agreement—like the achievements of our graduates. This communication is not the best place for a lengthy discussion of this subject, but I do hope our College can create occasions in the future to discuss differing views, on this situation as well as others.

For now, let me say that I believe we must model the empathy, community care, and willingness to listen that we wish to make manifest in the world, even if we do not believe others are modeling those qualities in return.

A College’s invitation to a commencement speaker—or any speaker—is not an endorsement of all of a speaker’s views. As we see all too clearly in our State legislature right now, an unwillingness to engage different perspectives can lead to disruptive and harmful gridlock. I will add that Representative Chavez-DeRemer understands that she was not invited to give a political speech.

Sometimes ideals we deeply believe in – like listening to others yet rejecting intolerance and injustice—can be difficult to reconcile. Just as I am concerned that LGBTQ2+ students and employees feel welcome and supported here, I am also concerned that students and employees who voted for the Representative and/or who want to hear her speak feel welcome and supported at COCC. I know that some feel passionately that one cannot be an ally and support the Representative as our speaker. I don’t share that view. My most difficult moments as a human being are when I disagree with people for whom I have deep respect, and that includes those in this College community with whom I am in disagreement now.

Many of you who have sent me emails have centered your message for our students as the forefront of your concerns. Some have asked me to disinvite the speaker, not because she is unworthy of the selection, but because the controversy has overshadowed the focus on celebrating our students. Again, my biggest regret is that this overshadowing of student success has been the unintended result of my decision. I ask you to remember that I am responsible for this fact, not Representative Chavez-DeRemer. I understand that some may feel the need to demonstrate their disagreement with the Representative at Commencement. In the spirit of keeping the focus on the achievements of our students, I am asking you to show your objection in a civil manner and symbolic action.

I know this a time of heightened emotions for many. Commencement remains a time to celebrate our incredible students, their myriad successes, and the exciting paths they are forging for themselves and for their communities. I hope you will join me in centering that spirit of celebration later this month.

Thank you for the ongoing dialogue.


Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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