What it means to be out in college
Published Thursday, 04-Sep-2008 in issue 1080
For some students, September is accompanied by the excitement of returning to campus, No. 2 pencils and binders in hand; nervous about college algebra and pre-World War II American History. For a certain percent of the population, however, there is another reason to be nervous: being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
“The climate for LGBT students varies from campus to campus,” said Ben Cartwright, coordinator of San Diego State University’s (SDSU) Pride Resource Office (PRO). “But I think, in general, there continues to be a kind of anti-gay undertones. Studies have shown that across the board hate crimes in all areas have risen, but I think the main problem is the undertones of hate, the ‘that’s so gay’ comments that go unaddressed by faculty, staff, or allies.”
Sticks and stones? Words hurt more
SDSU sophomore Kelly (who asked to be identified by first name only) agrees with Cartwright.
“I’ve never been sent to the hospital, per se, but I have been shoulder-blocked a few times and called ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’ more times that I care to count,” Kelly said. “And half the time, there is some professor standing witness, but turning a blind eye.”
The phrase “that’s so gay” and the word “fag” or “faggot” have become more prevalent on college and high school campuses.
“There is a segment of the students who say, ‘Sure I said or say, ‘Dude you’re a fag,’ or ‘That’s so gay!’ but there was no harm because we never meant it as anti-gay,’” said Frank Nobiletti, professor of history of sexuality at SDSU. “It is very easy to get them to understand when you say, ‘Suppose everybody in school used your name to mean something that was horrible or useless; and suppose they said, ‘Oh, that’s so Jason Smith,’ whenever they wanted to put something or someone down. If the speaker said, ‘Oh, but I never meant something against you, Jason Smith,’ would you feel then it was OK?’ Then it dawns on them. They see it.
“So I think the day will come when these expressions will be very unacceptable in society in any age group. But parents and teachers and friends can make it come sooner by jumping on it when they hear it. The few times I hear it on campus or in class, I love saying, ‘Hey, I’m gay. I assume you meant that as a compliment to your friend that he is so gay?’ Sometimes I almost feel sorry for them they are so embarrassed.”
Few people felt sorry last year for the staff of The Koala, an alternative, student-run newspaper at SDSU. In November 2007, the newspaper printed an anonymous letter calling fraternity and sorority coordinator Doug Case a “flaming fag.”
The letter went on to say, “Oh, yeah, and get off our fucking nuts. I know you love them, but unlike your flamboyant self we like to have girls on them.” The letter, signed “The Greek Community,” led to a campus-wide investigation and a subsequent “Rally Against Hate.”
But rallies and resource centers are not restricted to just major public universities – nor are hate crimes. Earlier this year, University of San Diego’s (USD) United Front Multicultural Center hosted a candlelight vigil to honor victims of hate crimes and incidents of hate crimes that occurred on private universities. The vigil was also, in part, a response to the fact that during a six- month period, 14 hate or bias-related crimes or incidents were reported at USD. Students at smaller universities, and, in particular private, religious institutions, can be at a greater risk for harassment, despite organizations such as Pride Alliance or Rainbow Educators, a GLBT awareness coalition of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
Samantha (who asked to be identified by first name only) is a junior at Point Loma Nazarene University.
“I think a lot of people see religion as a shield to hide behind when they shoot their hateful, poison-tipped arrows at people that are gay or that they think are gay,” Samantha said. “When I’m on campus and hear hateful comments, I just think, ‘What part of Jesus do you not understand – the compassion part, the love part, the forgiveness part?’ And I can go on and on.”
Samantha says the administration and faculty should play a role in creating change on campuses.
“People say that change happens from the bottom up or the top down,” Samantha said. “And I think there’s room to argue that the middle group could do some influencing. The professors need to step up and say, ‘This is what a model student looks like’ and ‘This is what our place of employment should be like.’”
In recent years, being GLBT in the Greek community (fraternities and sororities) has been the subject of extensive research (see sidebar). One of the key findings has been that nearly four in five people who join fraternities and sororities did so to pursue friendships, and more than a quarter of gays and lesbians reported having been in leadership roles in their fraternities and sororities.
The same people, however, reported in significant numbers that harassment due to their sexual orientation did occur. In the study, called “Experiences of LGBT People in Fraternities & Sororities: From 1960 to 2007” released by Campus Pride as part of its Lambda 10 Project, researchers reported more than 90 percent of all harassment entailed derogatory remarks and direct or indirect verbal harassment.
Coming (out) to a campus near you
Armed with more research and new allies, local campuses are making changes.
“Since last year, with all of the tension, I think we’ve done a complete 180,” Cartwright said. “We have a new director of diversity [Aaron Bruce] who is in touch with the GLBT community and doing great work. Our Pride Resource Office, which has always been staffed by volunteers, now has a paid graduate student to support us, and that is huge. We’ve been collaborating with administration during the summer, and we are seeing a lot more support from the University.”
SDSU is also launching a Safe Zone program, an educational initiative of Campus Pride, and one of the tools the organization provides. The Safe Zone program, in which both SDSU and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) participate, identifies and trains faculty and staff to be allies to GLBT students. Their offices are outfitted with a symbol that identifies them as allies, so students who have issues with coming out, or adjusting to college life know they have someone to talk with.
Campus Pride also hosts a national Summer Leadership Camp, the only camp in the nation to bring young adult leaders from the GLBT community together to develop leadership skills and raise awareness of social justice issues. The camp consists of five days of typical camp activities with a series of workshops and discussions on leadership development focusing on such subjects as identity and privilege, stereotypes and bias, Transgender 101, the GLBT movement today, and spirituality in the GLBT community.
Students often turn to school administration to fund the trip. At SDSU, students will now have an ally to procure that funding. The appointment of Bruce as SDSU’s director of diversity shows a huge commitment on the part of administration, Cartwright said. Prior to joining SDSU, Bruce served as director of multicultural affairs at Rhode Island College where he developed policies and programming supporting underrepresented students including racial and ethnic minorities, international students, women, students with disabilities, and GLBT and questioning students. More than half the student population at SDSU, ranked No. 10 in the nation for awarding bachelor degrees to ethnic minorities, is made up of ethnic minorities.
SDSU is trying to leverage that same reputation and success with GLBTQ students.
Case, who was the target of The Koala’s attacks last year, also co-authored of the aforementioned Lambda 10 study. He says there has been “a sea of change in the past generation, and the last decade especially, in terms of acceptance and the ability of students to be out. A generation ago, very few GLBT students came out. Most people probably lived in fear of being found out.” (See side bar for quotes about coming out in the Greek system.)
Case’s hypothesis has to do, in large part, with the average age of students coming out.
“Studies show that today, students are coming out earlier, in high school, for example,” Case said. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, people were coming out in their late college years and beyond. Because students are coming out earlier, when someone arrives to college, there is a much higher chance they have known someone who is out, maybe even someone who was out and very proud. With the support of Gay-Straight Alliance groups, students are arriving with a much more open mind.”
Take the recent issue of same-sex marriage, for example.
“The majority of college students support that,” Case said. “This wasn’t the case a decade ago. It’s a very different world for entering freshmen.”
Students have to go out and make sure that they are registering for courses that include sexual orientation as part of the curriculum. Students need to register for these types of classes so that an economic argument can be made to the administration.
That isn’t to say that coming out is an easy path, Case said, “but more and more students are coming to campus with fewer fears, and administrators are taking notice. While the hiring of a full-time graduate student is a baby step, it is a step in the right direction.”
UCSD’s LGBT Resource Center was established in 1999, and is the largest public university GLBT resource center in the nation, with three full-time staff members and a number of undergraduate and graduate students.
“We have seen our resource center grow in a number of dramatic ways over the last nine years,” said Shaun Travers, the director of the LGBT Resource Center at UCSD. “The primary reason is that we have the support of campus administration, as well as the faculty and staff. I am so proud of our faculty and staff that we have a lot of out folks who tend to be active in certain circles, and the students love the out faculty. The influence that the faculty has, and here we are in this very nurturing environment of learning and growing, students see mentors and think, ‘If others can do that, then so can I.’ It’s a real blessing.”
But getting administration’s “blessing” isn’t easy, Cartwright said.
Roberto Valenzuela decided not to attend college this year, despite having graduated high school with high honors.
“I am just really worried about being out and going to a college here in San Diego where everyone knew me in high school, and suddenly the jock is a queer,” Valenzuela said. “And honestly, I’m not just afraid of the other students, you know, because a lot of the stuff was my teachers. College costs too much to end up getting in trouble by some professor on a high horse against gay people. I’ve seen it happen right here in San Diego, so I feel like I have to go to school somewhere more understanding. But I don’t have the money to go somewhere else.”
Valenzuela is not alone, and Nobiletti is concerned.
“The group I wonder about, though, is the huge number that never go to college,” Nobiletti said. “This is why I couldn’t recommend more strongly that anyone who teaches in high school or lower grades read, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School by the lesbian scholar, C.J. Pascoe. Hundreds of my students have read it, in both History of Sexuality and LGBT History and Culture, and the most common response besides, ‘Now I understand what was going on in my high school,’ and, ‘I wish I had read this in high school,’ is ‘My high school teachers should have read this!’”
Nobiletti also argues for a better understanding of available resources.
“If our LGBT community organizations learned how internships and community services are structured at each community college and university, and developed personal relationships with those who help students get an intern or volunteer post, whether administrators or faculty in history or sociology or communication departments, there is a lot of student energy available,” he said.
And the road goes both ways, Nobiletti said.
“Alternatively, if LGBT or friendly faculty in relevant courses made an effort, the same community-campus connections could develop,” he said. “These programs have a profound effect on students. I know because I have been able to connect hundreds of SDSU students with Lambda Archives and the students write about what an amazing experience it is, often saying it is one of their best experiences in college. The students volunteer for 10 to 120 hours, depending on the program. And their energy has transformed Lambda Archives of San Diego, getting work done that has piled up – some of it for years.”
Having the actual resources and systems in place to provide a safe space is critical, but it isn’t a given, Cartwright said.
“As a student 10 years ago, I belonged to the student LGBT club,” Cartwright said. “But to get to where we are today, to build a resource center, it takes the commitment of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and administrators. It doesn’t happen through just marching in protest or sit-ins. You have to be smart about your goals, and so you have to speak in language the administrators understand: retention rates, losing students because of the climate, issues with recruitment, creating a diverse population, and so on.”
“We kept calling the president every month to schedule an appointment to go over our proposal, because administrators need to see plans and proposals, and finally we got our appointment,” Cartwright said. “And we made sure that we spoke in the administration’s language.”
SDSU’s allies have made strides not only in student organization, but also in the school’s curriculum. This year, SDSU will be rolling out a GLBT studies minor.
But Cartwright explains that this monumental step is not the result of just wanting people to feel better.
“We had to show that there is a demand for such a program,” Cartwright said. “Students have to go out and make sure that they are registering for courses that include sexual orientation as part of the curriculum. Students need to register for these types of classes so that an economic argument can be made to the administration.”
Nobiletti agrees there is a need for students to make this a priority.
“The thousand or so students who take these [GLBT history or sexuality] courses each year are only about 4,000 out of a student body over 25,000 – so, less than 20 percent,” Nobiletti said. “And these self-selected students are probably mostly more progressive and open than many of their peers. Still, according to their own words, they influence their friends and their families.”
Orientation on orientation
UCSD and SDSU also now include GLBT issues in their student orientation for all students.
“When you’re an incoming student, either as a freshman or as a transfer student, and you happen to be gay or lesbian, having part of student orientation focus on resources for LGBT students solves so many problems quickly of getting connected with other students or into organizations either on campus or in the broader community,” Travers said.
In the end, he says, it’s about having role models.
“The most powerful thing anyone can do is to be out, regardless of whether you are involved in activism or not,” Travers said. “By just being out, you affect change, because what students see as an issue is suddenly tangible and visible. The most powerful thing you can do is to come out and be vocal about who you are, so that you become a visible part of campus life, beyond just the LGBT student groups, but in all circles and all communities.”
Case recalls some good that came from The Koala’s attack last year.
“When I first read it, it was a stab in the heart, but it wasn’t the first time I had heard those types of comments,” Case recalls. “But the important thing was that the SDSU community came together and responded, all the way up to the president of the university. I remember the ceremony we had last year to raise the Pride flag over campus. I would hate to think you have to have an unfortunate incident in order for progress to happen, but we have to focus on the positive outcomes, as well. After all, who would have thought a year ago that we would have had a student who was transitioning female-to-male on our Homecoming Court? And while most of the experiences I have seen on campus are positive, I in no way mean to imply that the negative ones are not significant. Those do not reflect the predominant culture, but they do point out the need to approach those issues head on.”
The most powerful thing anyone can do is to be out, regardless of whether you are involved in activism or not. By just being out, you affect change, because what students see as an issue is suddenly tangible and visible. The most powerful thing you can do is to come out and be vocal about who you are, so that you become a visible part of campus life, beyond just the LGBT student groups, but in all circles and all communities.
And from the looks of things, SDSU and UCSD are doing just that.
“As is often commented on,” Nobiletti said, “this is a very tolerant generation of students. Civil rights education came with the milk and cookies starting in kindergarten, it seems. In a general sense, compared to us in older generations, when most of these young college students see a person, the first they see or think about is not race, gender or sexual orientation. It is remarkable to me. This is not to say it is yet easy to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual in college in California yet – let alone transgender or gender variant. There are bigots and slights to deal with, and there is a lot of self-esteem to rebuild from high school years and earlier. And lots of making up for lost time, for not having been able to learn from age 14 or so about dating and relationships with family support that heterosexuals take for granted. Early teenage life is stolen from our queer youth, and they pay for that.”
Ultimately, so does the community at large. After all, trite, but true, is the saying our children are the leaders of tomorrow. Just 10 years ago, the Lambda 10 project showed that nearly 10 percent of gay and lesbian students joined fraternities and sororities in order to pass as heterosexual. Its findings that 0 percent of today’s undergraduates join in order to pass as heterosexual is, Case said, “a sea of change.”