“We don’t have any of those students.”
The privilege and ignorance of this statement are dumbfounding. The notion that specific groups of young people — including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) — do not exist on a college campus demonstrates the prejudice, resistance, and struggles faced by many students over the years. Even more disturbing is the fact that the biased belief behind these words is still present in the action — and inaction.— by faculty, staff, and administrators on college campuses across the country today.
As the executive director and founder of Campus Pride, the nation’s leading nonprofit advocacy organization for LGBT students on college and university campuses, I have witnessed firsthand both the progress and challenges of LGBT inclusion in higher education over the last 20 years. I have also seen how this progress has been limited by factors such as political climate, financial resources, bigoted religious teachings, region, institutional commitment, and ultimately, campus officials who lack the understanding, awareness, or willingness to recognize LGBT youth as part of the community.
During the early ’90s, when I was attending college in Kansas, I knew all about being invisible and how isolating it was to come out as a gay man. It felt like my whole world was going to end, and yet, I found a sense of liberation in this fear. I was lucky in that I had friends and fraternity brothers to stand beside me as I grappled with my sexuality in those early days. I also had a few key faculty and staff members who recognized that part of their job should be to support gay students — similar to how they would other student populations. As a result of LGBT students coming out at my alma mater in the ’90s, the university was among the first in the state to have a nondiscrimination statement that included “sexual orientation” as a protected class. It also had one of the first “Safe Zone” programs to create safe spaces for LGBT students on campus. Indeed, I was fortunate.
Today, while LGBT progress and momentum continue to build on college campuses, the bulk of the work is still happening on the backs of out LGBT students, faculty, and staff, who are responsible for their own safety. These individuals often lack resources and are doing this work in addition to their jobs or studies.
Some institutions are beginning to pay for LGBT support staff, which focus on LGBT concerns related to job roles and broadened diversity efforts for campus life. However, only 229 campuses currently have a dedicated office or resource center for LGBT students with a full- or part-time paid staff member. And when it comes to LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, only 26 percent of campuses nationwide prohibit discrimination based on “sexual orientation,” and less than 13 percent include “gender identity and expression.”
Campus Pride recently published its “Shame List” of the worst campuses for LGBTQ youth. Many of these have applied to the U.S. Department of Education and received a Title IX exemption, allowing them to openly discriminate against LGBT students based on religious beliefs.
To be clear, the bag is mixed for LGBT issues in higher education.Progress is relative, and challenges are based on the eye of the beholder. Campus Pride’s 2010 national study showed that nearly a quarter of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, faculty, and staff faced harassment on campus compared with 39 percent of transgender students, faculty, and staff. In addition, more than a third of transgender respondents feared for their physical safety on campus. These percentages increased for LGBT people of color and trans people of color.
When an LGBT student arrives at college, there is no guarantee of a safe, welcoming environment in which to learn, live, and grow. The Campus Pride study showed that half of all students, faculty, and staff hide being LGBT to avoid intimidation on campus. The region and the type of school also play a large role in the amount of progress achieved and the challenges faced by these individuals. When you look at the LGBT-inclusive work that is most visible, it is often successful in areas that are more progressive or that have significant financial resources allocated to assist with this work. Southern, rural, and two-year colleges are fighting an uphill battle and lack the support necessary to improve the campus climate for LGBT individuals.
Campus Pride annually recognizes the achievements of LGBT-friendly campuses with its “Top 30 List.” We have also highlighted Southern campuses that are leading the way in LGBT progress. These efforts are informed by the Campus Pride Index, an online benchmarking tool and database of 200-plus campuses that have LGBT-inclusive policies, programs, and practices. The Index measures the LGBT-inclusive benchmarks and prepares a roadmap for each school to improve its campus climate. This roadmap is vital to recognizing that LGBT students do exist and taking the necessary actions to create safer, more welcoming learning environments.
I believe campus officials and the majority of colleges want to be seen as LGBT-friendly. It’s not only good for business, but I also believe students and their families want to support campuses that celebrate difference and diversity. This is evidenced by the 300-plus colleges that are openly recruiting LGBT students and participate annually in the Campus Pride LGBT-friendly National College Fair program. The number of participants has grown twofold over the last three years.
Whether a campus is successful with LGBT students and in improving its campus climate depends on the institutional commitment and where the college finds itself on the roadmap to LGBT progress. Remember, it doesn’t just get better; we have to do better.●
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. Campus Pride is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. To view Campus Pride’s “Top 30 List,” visit campuspride.org/campuspride2016top30.