Saturday, October 2, 2010

Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass Address Teen Coming Out Issues; Many College Campuses Remain Unsafe for LGBT Students, Faculty, Staff

Another valuable online resource for teens dealing with issues of gender identity and sexual orientation, and adults hoping to offer support to these teens: actors Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass have produced videos talking about the experience of growing up gay.

Meanwhile, as I noted last month, the Chronicle for Higher Education and the Q Research Institute for Higher Education have both noted in recent weeks that the climate on many American college and university campuses for students, faculty, and staff who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered is not conspicuously welcoming.  A study done by the Q Institute finds about a quarter of LGBT students, faculty, and staff reporting harassment due to their sexual identities.  Transgender people, in particular, note serious issues of discrimination.  

More than half of all LGBT students, faculty, and staff hide their identities in order to escape harassment. LGBT people of color note, above all, challenges with discrimination on their campuses.

Two of the recent suicides of gay youth involved college campuses--Tyler Clementi was a Rutgers student, and Raymond Chase attended Johnson and Wales.  College and university campuses can be dangerous places for those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, and in my experience as a university teacher and administrator, many of those leading these institutions are not only determined to ignore the problem, but are themselves part of the problem.

Far too many college/university presidents do not want to deal with hot-button issues that go beyond fund-raising and image management, and are intent on ignoring problems faced by LGBT campus members, and sweeping those problems under the rug.  At the last institution at which I worked as an administrator, an historically black United Methodist university in Florida, when I was instructed,as vice-president for academic affairs to lead the faculty in a project to enhance community engagement, I compiled a list of organizations that faculty and staff might contact for further information about particular social issues.

My list included the organization Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).  After I added GLSEN to an extensive list of groups that faculty and students might explore as they engaged in community service projects, my supervisor, the university president, punished me and informed me that my listing of GLSEN in this enumeration of resources for social engagement constituted "putting my lifestyle in the face of the campus."  

Though the university president in question has an openly gay son and claims to support LGBT people, she is intently concerned not to create controversy by appearing to promote gay-affirming groups, even when gay and lesbian students on her campus are going without role models.  She herself told me when I arrived at this school that she could not place herself in a position of controversy re: gay and lesbian issues, after the United Methodist state conference in Florida which sponsors her university voted, the week I arrived on campus, on the question of whether to accept openly gay members--and half of the state's  Methodist churches voted against doing so.

Many college and university presidents, whose primary concerns are bringing in money and managing the images of their institutions, will do anything possible--including discriminating against, disciplining, and firing LGBT employees--to avoid dealing with these issues.  And when their churches do not hold them accountable for this immoral behavior, but actually promote it, and when accrediting bodies (such as the Southern Association of Colleges, where these events took place) claim to base their accreditation on the integrity of an institution and its leaders while persistently turning a blind eye to discriminatory homophobic actions by these leaders, one wonders how college or university campuses can ever create safe places for those who are gay.

We won't have such a culture of acceptance and basic safety on our campuses until those who fund these institutions demand better leadership--and integrity on the part of university presidents, their boards, and the bodies that accredit colleges and universities.  Meanwhile, even as these stories of suicides of gay students harassed on college campuses break in the news, I won't hold my breath for a conversion of heart among many college presidents or leaders of academic accrediting bodies like SACS.

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