LGBT groups find U’s friendly rankings misleading

By By Clayton Norlen and By Clayton Norlen

By Clayton Norlen

Some students and administrators say that a ranking, indicating the U is an extremely friendly environment for queer students and faculty, doesn’t match the experiences they’ve had on campus.

Generally, queer students don’t have issues until they do something that is obviously gay, said Shawn Boley, a junior in social work.

“The U isn’t like high school,” he said. “Here it is more inclusive and accepting like the rest of society, but society isn’t tolerant.”

The U received four-and-a-half of five stars in a Fall 2007 national survey ranking the friendliness of college and university policies toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities on their campuses. The survey was filled out by Cathy Martinez, director of the LGBT Resource Center.

But queer students and faculty say the U’s high ranking doesn’t reflect the hostile attitude they see on campus.

“I’d take it down to a two-and-a-half,” Boley said.

The survey’s scoring system is based on the university’s policies for inclusion of LGBT students, faculty and staff in emotional and administrative support, campus life, safety and academics. Although the U extends most of these services to the queer community, the U’s administration could take more steps toward creating a more inclusive and safe environment for queer students, said Octavio Villalpando, the U’s associate vice president for diversity.

“Any university campus, including the U, can do more to better the climate for LGBT students and faculty on campus,” Villalpando said. “We don’t have the same denial as other institutions. Our administration realizes they need to do more.”

To create a campus climate that is inclusive of queer students and faculty, Villalpando said the campus needs to provide physical safety and a sense of security that would allow students to fully express themselves and their sexual orientation. Villalpando said cultural biases and government policies that discriminate against queer couples make achieving this environment difficult. Martinez said the U is an island in the state because the tolerance that exists on campus doesn’t exist outside of Salt Lake City. However, she said LGBT students cannot be fully expressive on campus. Using the Union as an example, she said that when people go to get lunch, they don’t see queer couples expressing themselves like heterosexual couples who can openly kiss and hold hands without receiving cold stares.

“There are LGBTQ students on campus who feel silenced and others who will express themselves regardless of the situation,” Martinez said.

Zachary McGee, a freshman in biology, said regardless of what other people think, he is proud to be gay.

“I don’t hide who I am,” McGee said. “Sometimes I get looks, but I surround myself with supportive friends, so it doesn’t bother me.”

Compared to other public universities in the state, the U is the most progressive institution, according to The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students, a resource for queer students that assesses the climate of campuses. The book ranked the U in the top 100 most LGBT-friendly campuses. The U was the first college in Utah to have a student group for queer students and to have a resource center dedicated to advocating and supporting students.

Despite the high rankings, students in the Queer Student Union said that only the LGBT Resource Center sponsors queer-related events. Boyle and others questioned why other groups and organizations on campus couldn’t create events that encouraged diverse communities to attend.

Dhiraj Chand, the ASUU director for diversity, said that LGBT students are invisible on campus, for the most part, and aren’t included in events. Using the example of Campus Date Night, Chand said that alternative relationships aren’t included in the advertisements.

“After talking with students, it’s clear that the campus doesn’t have a safe climate yet,” Chand said. “There are still issues of inclusiveness and safety that need to be addressed. The university climate doesn’t foster an environment that allows people to go through the coming out process, and this is potentially a good indicator of how hostile our campus is to many students.”

Villalpando said the administration doesn’t believe that students should feel invisible at the U or nationally and although not everyone will be accepting of the LGBT population on campus, people can be more understanding of their experiences.

“The thought that someone has to restrict their self-expression and identity because of a fear for their safety is abhorrent,” Villalpando said. “(The creation of safe environments) begins with the faculty. Many times they can do much more to understand student experiences.”

Hannah Epperson, co-president of the QSU, said that the biggest problem queer students have on campus is visibility. In the classroom, she said that LGBT history and experiences are ignored except for short paragraphs that occasionally appear in textbooks, adding that it is only the queer community and its allies that respect and include queer experiences.

To encourage faculty to be more open and understanding of the adversity and discrimination queer students face, Villalpando said administrators will have to facilitate ongoing conversations with professors that encourage understanding, not necessarily acceptance of the LGBT population. He proposed that more departments and staff members participate in the Safe Zone training program that the LGBT Resource Center offers. But the work of advocating for the queer population can’t be just the resource center’s responsibility, Chand said.

“The only people doing work on educating the campus about LGBT issues is the LGBT Resource Center,” he said. “There needs to be more involvement from deans, administrators and departments to really make a change.”

Martinez agreed, saying that the resource center does most of the work, but it is the responsibility of the resource center to advocate regardless. She said that the center would welcome assistance from other groups and departments in creating a safe environment on campus.

“I’ve been on other campuses that were way worse (than the U), but this campus, for the state it’s in and the fights they have with the legislature, is good,” Epperson said. “We could be at (Brigham Young University) where you can’t even be out.”

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Anna Kartashova

Queer Student Union members listen to announcements before a movie night. The group holds weekly meetings on Mondays.