Most colleges today want to be recognized as LGBTQ-friendly. The question then becomes, what are they doing that makes them worthy of this recognition.
These days, on college campuses, the responsibility for creating a safe, welcoming learning environment for LGBTQ students often falls on the out LGBTQ students or faculty and staff. Many of them volunteer their time to improve the campus climate, offer ongoing programs, and promote inclusive campus efforts, such as awareness days, trainings, and policy recommendations.
When it comes to sports, colleges and universities would never think of having a football team and then not providing the players with a field, coach, helmets, and safety gear in order to win games. But on most campuses, LGBTQ students don’t even get a ball. Every day, college administrators ask LGBTQ students to come out and be visible on campus doing LGBTQ work without the necessary support services, programs, or policies to guarantee their safety, especially for transgender students. Campus Pride research shows that roughly a quarter of LGB students, faculty, and staff face harassment on campus. For transgender populations and LGBTQ youth of color, that number is even higher.
Overall, higher education institutions continue to fall behind in proving that they are indeed LGBTQ-friendly. According to Campus Pride data, only 20 percent of campuses have sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination statements, and just 13 percent include gender identity and expression. Today, a mere dozen colleges have an ongoing mechanism for tracking retention of LGBTQ students and their graduation rates. The picture of LGBTQ progress is even more challenging on the campuses of rural southern colleges, two-year community colleges, and minority-serving institutions.
Campus Pride recommends the following six key actions for campuses to improve their institutional commitment and be responsible for LGBTQ academic success:
1. Invest in LGBTQ student leadership – Granted, not all LGBTQ students are going to be involved on campus, nor are they necessarily going to be out and visible in campus life. However, if you expect your out LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff to implement programs, recommend policy changes, and be involved in making the campus a safer, more welcoming place, you should invest in their leadership and growth as LGBTQ pioneers. Send these individuals to conferences or trainings — like Campus Pride’s Camp Pride and the LGBTQ Professional Academy for Advisors. Be sure they are well-equipped to lead your campus community, and in return, your actions will show support for their academic pursuits on campus.
2. Institutionalize the Ps – The Ps refer to campus policies, programs, and practices. It is important to think about how certain programs or practices would exist if LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff — or even allies — were not able to participate in them as volunteers. Campusprideindex.org can help if you want to improve your LGBTQ campus climate. It is free to join, and you can assess your Ps with a roadmap toward the future. Remember that students learn and achieve best when they feel safe and welcome inside and outside the classroom.
3. Don’t forget the B and focus on the T – What visibility does the B — which stands for bisexuality or other sexually fluid identities — have on your campus? Does your campus really know much about the T, the transgender community? As a campus, are you open to or aware of other queer, questioning, gender queer, asexual, and/or intersex identities? Campuses often conflate the LGBT or LGBTQ acronym, and even these do not cover the myriad of sexual and gender identities. Engage in active awareness, and do not use the LGBTQ acronym unless you mean each letter and are working to educate and create a safe and welcoming learning environment for all.
4. Take a team approach – Every part of the campus community plays a role in creating a welcoming, safe learning environment. Professors, coaches, financial aid office staff, Greek life advisers, and every office and department should understand and be willing to support LGBTQ students by using inclusive language and practices. While advocacy may begin with student life or in multicultural and diversity services, LGBTQ support is not limited to those areas. LGBTQ students will perceive the learning environment as truly inclusive if everyone is part of the team.
5. Recruit for the future – In your recruitment efforts, you should seek to create the type of inclusive campus you wish to have for the future. LGBTQ students represent a growing recruitment population that is now out and visible in high school, or even earlier. These LGBTQ students expect accountability and high standards for on-campus support. You have the opportunity to recruit LGBTQ youth and attract them to your campus with LGBTQ-positive efforts. Part of recruitment efforts should also include diversifying hiring practices of LGBTQ faculty and staff.
6. Track retention – Colleges and universities need to track retention of their out LGBTQ students to provide necessary services and/or maintain proper safety. Demographic questions that ask students about their sexual orientation and gender identity give administrators the data they need to properly implement LGBTQ-inclusive policies and practices. In order to best serve the needs of LGBTQ college students, it’s imperative that colleges and universities give these students the option to self-identify at the time of enrollment. That way, the campus can take responsibility for the LGBTQ student experience, as well as their academic retention, safety, and success. Remember, it costs more money to recruit a new student than it does to retain a current one.
Shane Windmeyer is the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. To learn more, visit campuspride.org. Campus Pride is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity.