Student Life 101: Even Those ’Gay-Friendly’ Colleges Aren’t Really
The results of a new survey may destroy the commonly held perception in the gay community that LGBTs on the nation’s college campuses enjoy protections that keep them safe.
Relatively few colleges and universities have policies that ban discrimination against LGBT students and employees. Less than 8 percent have such policies in place.
Even those can’t guarantee that students are safe from bullying and other forms of harassment and abuse.
The nation’s first comprehensive survey of LGBT students, faculty and staff at America’s colleges campuses was released Sept. 23 at a briefing hosted by openly gay members of Congress on Capitol Hill. Considering the reputation college campuses have of being ultra-liberal, trendy and sexually aware (not to mention relentless criticism from right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts and religious leaders for it), the results were surprisingly downbeat.
Indeed, the survey is an eye-opener for those of -- probably nearly all us, gay straight, left, right -- complacent enough to believe that college life is a walk in the park (or on the campus). Even choosing one of those schools touted as being particularly "gay friendly" doesn’t guarantee a happy time in academia.
The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People reports on the experiences of nearly 6,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators in all 50 states. It shows significant harassment of students and a lack of safety and inclusiveness, even among those supposedly "welcoming" institutions.
As if to dramatize the report’s findings, on the same day advocates unveiled the study, members of the University of Rhode Island’s GLBT Center and Gay-Straight Alliance staged a sit-in to demand that its administration take immediate steps to ensure the safety and inclusion of LGBT students and employees after a rash of anti-gay incidents.
Harassment, the Closet, Even Physical Assaults
The survey’s key findings included these shocking statistics:
• A quarter of respondents reported experiencing harassment. More than 80 percent of those said sexual orientation was the reason.
• Just under 40 percent of transgender respondents reported harassment and 87 percent of them blamed their gender identity or expression.
• A third of those surveyed have seriously considered leaving their institution because of the challenging climate.
• More than half said they hide their sexual or gender identity to avoid intimidation.
• More than a third reported they fear for their physical safety.
LGBT people of color suffer a double whammy. They are significantly less likely to feel comfortable on campus because of racism and homophobia.
Only about 600 colleges and universities include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, according to Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, the organization that commissioned the survey. The number that includes gender identity and expression is much lower: less than 200.
"There’s a lot of work to be done," Windmeyer said in a phone interview. "We have to applaud the efforts that have been made the last 10 years on these few campuses. They’ve made great strides in creating a safe environment. But they represent a tiny sliver of the colleges out there."
Of the vast majority of colleges that don’t have non-discrimination policies, Windmeyer said gay advocates "need to hold their feet to the fire and tell them that to achieve academically LGBT students need to have the same safety and learning environment as all other students."
The unfriendly colleges don’t have to start from scratch, he pointed out. For instance, they can apply the model the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network began developing two decades ago to create safe schools for elementary and secondary students. Partly as a result, more than a dozen states now have anti-bullying laws that are LGBT inclusive.
Ranking the Institutions
What about the books that rank gay friendly and unfriendly colleges? In an op-ed piece last year in the Advocate, Windmeyer contended that the popular Princeton Review guide, which includes the best and worst ones for LGBTs, uses an outmoded, oversimplified and inappropriate methodology.
Windmeyer himself authored a guide that’s based on scientific research, but it only lists the 100 best schools.
Iowa State: LGBT Coordinate Makes a Difference
EDGE interviewed two student leaders who spoke at the Capitol Hill briefing that the tiny, all-Democrat Congressional LGBT Caucus (Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jared Polis of Colorado) hosted.
Both students attend universities that have LGBT-inclusive policies, but they aren’t immune from harassment.
A senior at Iowa State University, Jacob Wilson, 24, is president of his fraternity and will co-chair the 2012 Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Ally College Conference.
Wilson comes from a religious, conservative family in Salem, Mo. When he was 19, encouraged by family, friends and his church, he entered an ex-gay reparative therapy program in Memphis, Tenn.
"I was really depressed and desperate for something," he explained. "I had just gotten out of my first significant same-sex relationship."
"It was very challenging," Wilson continued. "The objective is to wear you down and build you back up. I was told that gay people cannot have successful relationships or be successful in life."