Striving to Be a More LGBTQIA-Inclusive Campus

Photograph of a rainbow flag against a clear blue sky.
Brooke Barnett, PhD

Whether you are just now learning what each of the letters in LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual) means, or you are leading a sexualities studies minor at your college, there are ways to focus your efforts to become a more LGBTQIA-inclusive campus. The key is to find out where you are currently and then create a plan to move to the next level. Here are some steps you can take as you begin to deepen the LGBTQIA focus on your campus.

Be aware of your assets and potential road maps. It is helpful to look at best practices from a source like the Campus Pride Index (campuspride.org). It provides a series of questions and categories, as well as a potential to-do list across campus. What are your library holdings around sexual orientation and gender identity? What courses do you offer? How are you supporting LGBTQIA students and colleagues? These and other questions will help you uncover your existing assets and areas where you may want to focus next. Once you create a to-do list, look for best practices being used by other institutions to consider implementing on your own campus.

Consider the campus and broader community context. While uncovering best practices nationally, be sure to consider your own campus and regional contexts.  What is your school’s history around LGBTQIA inclusion? Do campus, local, or state policies protect sexual orientation and gender identity? Where can key LGBTQIA community members or welcoming messages of support be found and disseminated across your community? Answers to these questions will help you understand structural and cultural challenges that will inform the way you approach your to-do list.

In North Carolina, prior to the recent repeal of HB2, the rights of LGBTQIA communities and other groups were limited; in such situations, you need to be prepared for conversations about the state and local climate. If your university does not include gender identity and sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination statement, you will need to address that as well.

Build a core team of faculty, staff, and administrators. As you prepare to address your campus and regional climate and map your assets, you will want a core team to assist with these efforts. The importance of positive and engaged leadership cannot be overstated. We all know that it helps to have leadership from the top. However, many campuses have built effective coalitions across university silos and hierarchies without explicit presidential leadership. Conversely, having leadership only from the top will not suffice either. Having a team that is inclusive of all campus roles, positions, and functions will ensure broader appeal and success.

Celebrate small wins and publicize to build momentum. Positive leadership is a key to success. However, you must be real about the challenges you face and address them head on. Yet rarely do people want to follow or join a losing cause. To sustain motivation, we must share successes as they happen and publicize the importance of this work in making a difference. Acknowledgements to those who are carrying the load are key, whether broadcast in staff meetings, social media posts, campus communications, or via campus awards. Make sure that people doing the work are thanked and given credit and know that what they do matters.

With any marginalized or numerically small group, allyship can create a groundswell. This does not mean that efforts are centered on the dominant group, but rather that visible symbols of support from majority groups can help. 

Ensure visible iconography that connotes support. Another way to build momentum is to create ambient and explicit visual cues of support and allyship. With any marginalized or numerically small group, allyship can create a groundswell. This does not mean that efforts are centered on the dominant group, but rather that visible symbols of support from majority groups can help.

For us, the Elon “bELONg” pin has become one such symbol. The word “b-elon-g” nicely includes our university name, but you can find creative ways to brand support symbols on your own campus as well. We also offer an array of stickers, buttons, and flags across various identities, such as bi, pan, trans, and asexual. During our campus’s Pride Week, we provide rainbow-sprinkled doughnuts at our university-wide College Coffee gathering, and we routinely use an array of Pride flags at campus events. Students can also be seen wearing our Elon “accepted” T-shirts, which have a double meaning: LGBTQIA students are accepted to Elon (enrolled) and accepted at Elon (validated).

Use campus student media. Another way to create dialogue and awareness and promote your efforts is to pitch story ideas to student media. Our campus media have featured editorials about marriage equality, explication of state legislation and the effect on LGBTQIA communities, event coverage of our county’s Pride Festival, and a Valentine’s Day love story about two female student-athletes.

Tap into your cultural and special program offerings. Consider using existing vehicles for campus cultural programs and speakers. Suggest films for an academic department film series, musicians or plays that address gender and sexuality, or speakers who discuss emerging topics such as trans inclusion in athletics, the rise of anti-LGBTQIA legislation at the state level, or media representations of and issues facing LGBTQIA youth. Consider ways that student government funding can be used to develop collaborative gatherings across identity groups, including drag shows, ally workshops, student travel for diversity conferences, film screenings, or events featuring intersectional speakers like Willy Wilkinson, Geena Rocero, Eli Clare, or J Mase III.

For us, collaboration is key, as is witnessed through our Department of World Languages and Cultures’ international LGBTQIA film series, the Department of Performing Arts’ semester productions that explore gender and sexuality, and the Hillel Center’s hosting of Rainbow Shabbat each year.

Know that with any change efforts, you may end up feeling frustrated, and some might say that nothing is changing — that progress is too slow. You will be confronted with people who say they don’t feel like part of the community or are having a bad experience. Your job will be to learn from those situations, adjust when needed, and keep at it. As you begin or continue this work on your campus, know that there are many people on other campuses with the very same goals. Work together to share your challenges and successes as you strive to create more LGBTQIA-inclusive campuses.●

Brooke Barnett, PhD, is the associate provost for inclusive community and a professor of communications at Elon University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Matthew Antonio is the director of the Gender and LGBTQIA Center at Elon University. Campus Pride is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity.