As the Student Government Association welcomed its new senators on Feb. 18, the familiar faces of former senators were giving their last hurrahs and saying goodbye after a year of hard work.
One such senator was Max Zinner, who has represented graduate schools for two years.
Zinner was an extremely active senator, serving as the chair of the Code of Laws Committee his second year and regularly introducing bills and amendments to streamline SGA’s legislation.
A common change Zinner introduced to SGA laws was the use of gender-neutral language.
While it is a seemingly minor alteration, its inclusion is incredibly important to the LGBT community, a group Zinner has always been passionate about supporting.
“I grew up in a very specific bubble of Auburn that was much more accepting,” Zinner said. “To get an idea of that, I actually went to more gay weddings than straight weddings as a kid.”
He said it wasn’t until he was 11 or 12 that he realized same-sex marriage wasn’t a legally recognized union. For Zinner, same-sex weddings were like every other wedding as a kid — boring.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
When he came to Auburn as an undergraduate, he joined Spectrum: Auburn University's Gay-Straight Alliance. He started attending SGA Senate meetings as an invested student following a homophobic incident that occurred in Jordan-Hare Stadium, knowing senators would be talking about the incident. He wanted to know what they had to say.
“Once I became political director for Spectrum, [SGA Senate] was one of the first places I turned,” Zinner said. "Because I thought, ‘well that is where students, at least in theory, are supposed to have their voice heard.’”
Zinner began attending Senate meetings weekly, voicing the concerns of the LGBT community during the open-forum time. He spoke to any senator willing to listen and asked for a resolution expressing SGA’s support for more unisex restrooms on campus, for the benefit of the LGBT community.
Once that resolution was brought to the Senate floor, an hour of debate led to the tabling of the resolution until the next meeting. He said he thought the resolution would have been easy to pass; he didn’t expect much opposition.
The next week, Zinner agreed to amend the bill by removing his name and any reference to the LGBT community or gender identity. It passed unanimously.
“At this point, I was like, ‘I just want this thing passed, so yes,’” Zinner said.
In his later years as an undergraduate, Zinner ran for an at-large senate seat, but the votes fell short. However, he had no intention of stopping.
Once he was in graduate school, he ran unopposed for the graduate schools' senate seat after other candidates dropped out of the running. He served as the graduate school senator for two years, spending the first year on the Inclusion and Diversity Committee and the next with the Code of Laws Committee.
During his first term, Zinner sponsored a bill that commended the achievements of the founding members of the Auburn Gay and Lesbian Association, a once controversial precursor to Spectrum in the early 1990s. During the AIDS epidemic, the group faced overwhelming intolerance from the Auburn community.
When the first Auburn student was diagnosed with AIDS, people didn’t know how it was transmitted, Zinner said. The idea that homosexuality was a disease and therefore a public health issue became even more popular.
According to Zinner, the group was originally denied a charter from SGA, a decision that was overruled by the University's president, based on legal precedent. Its founding members were threatened and one AGLA leader was even put in the hospital after he was beaten at a movie theater.
“One thing I also brought into the bill was the fact that we are on the Princeton Review’s most LGBT-unfriendly list,” Zinner said. “We’ve been on that list somewhere or another every year for the past five years or so.”
Despite this, Zinner said he thinks the general perception towards the LGBT community has changed for the better since he became a student at Auburn in 2011. Nowadays, SGA candidates are much more likely to speak at a Spectrum meeting or mention Spectrum on the debate stage. Daniel Calhoun, one of the presidential candidates in the recent SGA elections, even put it in his platform to give Spectrum a voting seat on Student Senate.
Zinner said he believes the administration has also evolved on these issues as a part of broader national trend towards more discussion of inclusion and diversity, thanks in part to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ramping up of presidential campaigns in 2015.
Unity Walker, graduate advisor for Spectrum who identifies as non-binary, said they agreed that Auburn has become more inclusive and diverse since they arrived on campus in 2010. However, they believe that Auburn has taken significant steps towards conservatism since 2016.
Walker said the conservative momentum peaked during November 2016, but flared considerably during the campus visits of Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor of Breitbart News, and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who garnered campus-wide controversy during his visit to campus in April 2017.
They said that while the Office of Inclusion and Diversity has served as a counterweight to conservative momentum, the past few years have created a more challenging environment for minorities at Auburn University.
"Overall, Auburn is not as conservative of a campus as it was during my arrival," Walker said. "But it still has a long way to go in terms of creating a safe and supportive environment for LGBT+ students."
When Zinner was Spectrum’s secretary as an undergraduate student, Zinner and Walker were on the forefront of getting the University to include the terms gender identity and expression in the Auburn Anti-Discrimination Policy.
“I sent out an email to all the Spectrum members, letting everybody know,” Zinner said. “That was a pretty happy moment; I remember typing it out.”
Looking back over his accomplishments through SGA, Zinner said he was proud of passing the commendation for AGLA and changing the voting system to an instant run-off system. He said he thinks the change to voting would probably be his biggest and longest-lasting impact on Auburn’s SGA.
Zinner said he was pretty happy with his successor, Cassandra Grey, and was glad it was a contested race. To him, graduate school senators have to ensure that everybody else doesn’t forget about their constituents.
“Everyone else is undergrad, and all too often, people are just thinking about their undergrad lives,” Zinner said. “It is a very different, in some ways, being a graduate student … ."
Zinner said he hopes that the new Senate body will keep a culture of debate and inquiry in the meetings, something he tried to push as a seasoned senator.
Zinner is scheduled to finish his master’s thesis on the history of the gay and lesbian student population in Auburn organizing during the 1980s and 1990s. Scheduled to graduate in May, Zinner hopes to work with students in higher education, preferably with LGBT affairs.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman