Content warning: this blog contains discussions of gun violence and hate speech.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a media interview with Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and a civil rights activist. The two of us shared our thoughts with a reporter about how college campuses have been impacted by anti-LGBTQ speech and legislative actions over the past several years. A few days after that interview, I woke up to the news of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs—yet another horrifying reminder that things have to change.
Colleges and universities, where many young people get their first real taste of independence and experience community, are ideal places to spark this change. In this blog, I’ll outline the imperatives for campus administrators to act on, as well as five actions you can take today.
The statistics are a harrowing call to action
Since hearing about the Colorado Springs shooting, I’ve been reflecting on my own lived experience as I consider what higher education leaders might do differently to support LGBTQ students while combating the vitriol and widening endorsement of exclusion.
Growing up queer in a state, county, and city that actively excluded and marginalized people like me took its toll, and I still carry some of that baggage. I’m lucky to have wonderful parents, but I recognize that is not a universal experience among LGBTQ+ students. Even today we see nearly unanimous responses in surveys like GLSEN’s where 97% of youth aged 15-21 report that homophobic phrases are still uttered in what should be safe spaces of learning. Ninety percent of respondents reported hearing, with some frequency, slurs or intentionally harmful comments in virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning environments. Nearly 60% of students from those same surveys said they had heard such comments directly from teachers or administrators. My experience was no different. I remember being called homophobic slurs before I knew what they meant. One of my coping mechanisms was to hide myself behind a veneer of high performance to distract the eye and dodge hatred in my communities.
I hoped that when I moved out of my small town, I’d leave small-minded opinions behind as well. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The LGBTQ+ organization on my college campus met in a secluded area of the basement in our student union, and the only queer space in the community had an unmarked alleyway entrance and blackened windows to protect the identity and safety of its patrons. I did not see myself reflected in staff working at the counseling center, in the classroom, or around campus. On the few occasions when I sought help, counselors offered general platitudes and demonstrated a dangerous level of cultural incompetence, which did little to make me feel that I deserved to be an active participant in the wider campus community.
Making progress—but is it enough?
Most colleges and universities have made tremendous strides since my time in college—but is it enough? Even today, 20 years removed from when I first set foot on campus, I still hear similar comments – for example, being told directly by a university leader in a professional setting to “tone it down when you’re on campus.” I’m better equipped now to deal with such attitudes, but I can’t help feeling dispirited about the challenges LGBTQ+ students still face.
Nearly every day, some elected official makes a hateful public comment attacking the LGBTQ community, and their constituents praise them for it. In the last few months, I’ve seen reports of a fire-bombing just outside the walls of a college campus just because that establishment hosted a drag event. I’ve read about LGBTQ+ college student organizations either being dismantled or denied formation. The shooting in Colorado was just the most recent and heartbreaking example of such hate.
What can college leaders do to help?
While there is hate, there is also hope, in that each leader on campus can make the conscious choice to speak and act differently. It isn’t just the right thing to do. Efforts to boost student retention are more critical than ever as overall enrollment numbers decline. If you are not actively supporting and engaging your LGBTQ students, those students are much less likely to stick around.
To address this, the initial actions you should take (which I consider to be the bare minimum) are:
- Ensure your official policies are reflected in your staff’s everyday practices, and that both are inclusive and geared towards belongingness
- Achieve greater diversity in your workplace and celebrate historically underserved student populations throughout the year, not just on special awareness days/weeks/months
- Train staff to raise cultural competency and improve their understanding of how the marginalization of minority student groups is embedded in higher education
- Utilize groups like Brandon’s Dru Project, Campus Pride, or GLSEN to create safe spaces where students feel welcome and comfortable
- Proactively discuss your inclusion efforts in admissions conversations in the same way our progressive partners are discussing mental health offerings on campus—Tulane University’s “Queer in Admission” page is a great example.
Learning from my colleagues who are helping schools transform through EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity work, I know that universities don’t exist in a vacuum, and our students don’t just live within campus boundaries. The loss of life in Colorado was preventable, and campus leaders must stand up to such violence by addressing the ignorance and calculated hate that gives rise to that violence. We must signal that change is needed and we have to demand more for our students.
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