Allies & Advocates

Campus Gay and Lesbian Issues in the New Millennium

By Mary Jo Thiel and Steve Diehl

The challenges facing college campuses in the 21st century with respect to gay and lesbian issues are neither new nor surprising but the need to address them is definitely more urgent. The picture that has emerged in the literature at the end of the 20th century depicting campus life for gays and lesbians is disturbing. Physical and verbal anti-gay and lesbian harassment has been documented on all campuses where research about gays and lesbians has been conducted (Herek, 1989). Indeed, incidents that range from verbal abuse to physical violence against gays and lesbians are on the rise nationwide (National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, 1988).

Campus Life for Gays and Lesbians

Evidence of anti-gay and lesbian sentiment has been found on all types of college campuses including progressive liberal arts institutions (Walters & Hayes, 1998). For example, in a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst , almost 50% of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual students surveyed reported being verbally threatened or harassed while another 21% reported being physically confronted or assaulted (Yeskel, 1985). A study conducted at a major university in Pennsylvania , (D'Augelli, 1989), found that almost three-fourths of the lesbian or gay students surveyed had experienced verbal abuse while almost one-fourth and been threatened physically. Over half reported being occasionally afraid for their personal safety, and over a third changed their daily routine to prevent being harassed. In a study of potential hate crime perpetrators, Franklin (2000) surveyed community college students in the San Francisco Bay area. Of 484 males and females surveyed, 18% of the males admitted they had assaulted or threatened people they believed to be gay. Another 32% admitted to anti-gay verbal harassment and 23% had witnessed some form of anti-gay aggression. In studies conducted at a Catholic college (Love, 1997, 1998) and at a large, public institution, (Rhoades, 1994), campus climates were found to be unwelcoming and isolating environments for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. The situation for gays and lesbians in residence halls is particularly difficult and sometimes hostile (Bendet, 1986; Bourassa & Shipton, 1991). These students often feel isolated and alienated from the mainstream student population (Liddel & Douvanis, 1994) and may be ostracized by roommates and others in the residence hall when their gay or lesbian identity is "discovered" (Thiel, 2000).

In a survey of students who belonged to a campus gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) group, Diehl (2002) found that all had either experienced harassment in some form or were aware of incidents of harassment on campus. The respondents reported hearing public comments about "fags going to hell", being called "dyke" by members of a campus athletic team, seeing "burn in hell homos" written on a campus door and "die queers" written next to the LGBT campus group's meeting schedule. They also reported seeing LGBT signs torn down or defaced, and being told by a fellow student on a diversity council that he &.refused to do anything that had to do with fags cause it's wrong. Gay and lesbian employees may also be the targets of discrimination in a variety of ways. For example, recently Grand Valley State University was considering the issue of domestic partner benefits (providing health and other benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees) and despite widespread campus support and a great deal of favorable publicity, the president of the university decided against the benefits. This resulted in a highly publicized message from the president to the campus community endorsing discrimination against this employee group. As a result of this action, there is growing concern about the possibility of campus violence against gays and lesbians at GVSU and an increasing climate of fear.

In a study of campus climate, Diehl (2002) conducted a LGBT internet survey of college and university counseling centers accessed through a clinical director's list serve. 32 Center's responded, representing campuses in California , Michigan , Massachusetts and Georgia . There were many encouraging aspects of the results. For example, all 32 Centers reported defining diversity to include sexual orientation and 22 believed their counseling center was meeting the needs of LGBT students. 17 Centers said they had a LGBT specialist on their staff. When asked about resources for LGBT students, 17 offered LGBT-focused individual therapy; 21 had LGBT support or therapy groups and 27 provided outreach, consultation or programming around LGBT issues. 26 said there was a recognized LGBT student group on their campus and 21 reported having a campus Allies/Safe Zone program. In addition, 14 centers reported that there was a LGBT center or office on campus for students and 9 said their institution offered same-sex domestic partner benefits. Despite these positive reports, when asked to choose a descriptor for their campus climate toward LGBT students, 10 chose "passively hostile"; 9, "passively accepting"; 7, "tolerant"; 4, "openly accepting"; and 2, "openly hostile". 24 could recall examples of anti-LGBT incidents on campus in the past year that included verbal harassment, teasing, threats, destruction of property, tearing down flyers, derogatory drawings, physical assaults, threatening voicemails and e-mails, and LGBT students being excluded from campus activities. 24 indicated that the needs of LGBT students were not being met by their institution and 23 reported that in comparison to other minority groups on campus, LGBT issues were receiving "not enough attention." This study highlights a critical but often overlooked point. Offering services, resources and benefits to gays and lesbians is only part of the answer. The bigger challenge is to address the ignorance and bias in the heterosexual campus community that generates the hate crimes and intolerance against this population.

Creating a Positive Campus Climate

What is crucial to realize about the process of transforming a hostile or passively accepting campus into a safe and affirming one, is that the attitudes and behavior of the heterosexual campus community must be addressed. This does not mean trying to change heterosexual individuals' beliefs or values about gay or lesbian identities. What it does mean is changing their level of knowledge and awareness about gay and lesbian issues and changing their actions toward gay and lesbian people. This is more important now than ever before because despite the prevalence of anti-gay and lesbian harassment, the number of people who are acknowledging a gay or lesbian identity and living and working openly on college campuses is steadily increasing. This is likely due to several factors including that from a psychological perspective, the process of coming out (acknowledging one's gay or lesbian identity to oneself and to others) has been associated with greater mental health and well being (Fassinger, 1991; Gonsiorek & Rudolph, 1991; Eichberg, 1990; Jordan & Deluty, 1998). In addition, the presence of many more community-based gay and lesbian organizations, people and images in the mass media, role models and mentors, increasing numbers of heterosexual allies, and access to the internet for information and support are all huge contributors to the ever larger numbers of gay and lesbian people who are living "out."

Given the combination of unsafe campuses and ever increasing numbers of "out" gays and lesbians, the need for action is urgent. One of the most comprehensive lists of recommendations on how to make college campuses safe for LGBT students was developed by Blumenfeld (1993). He presented a detailed plan targeting all areas of university functioning including policies, training and development, direct services, curriculum/educational materials/academic affairs, employee concerns and community/off-campus concerns. Most importantly, Blumenfeld's recommendations underscore the fact that real change in the quality of campus life for gays and lesbians will only occur through institutional changes that address and impact the entire campus community. There must be a planned and deliberate effort to create a campus climate that not only does not tolerate discrimination against gays and lesbians but also welcomes and values the diversity they bring to the campus community. Such an environment also promotes and values other forms of diversity such as people of color and people with disabilities.

One of the greatest sources of power and influence at a college or university is its president and administration. People in these roles are largely responsible for articulating a vision and mission for the institution. They can, for example, endorse a vision that honors and intentionally includes diversity and they can define specific steps that the institution will take to achieve this vision. They can do much through both words and actions to unequivocally affirm the rights and dignity of gay and lesbian employees and to normalize and legitimize their place on campus. This can have a tremendous impact on the heterosexual community as they hear and see these messages coming from the highest levels of campus leadership. The GVSU domestic partner benefits issue illustrates the power of these messages and how they can influence campus climate.

In addition to regularly articulating a commitment to valuing and affirming gay and lesbian students and employees, campus administrators can take a number of other specific actions. Again, many of these actions focus on educating the heterosexual campus community. These include sponsoring campus-wide educational workshops and speakers on gay and lesbian issues, integrating gay and lesbian issues into existing courses throughout the curriculum, increasing the number of gay and lesbian books and periodicals in the library, encouraging scholarship and research on gay and lesbian history, culture and theory, defining "multicultural" studies to include gay and lesbian culture, and requiring all undergraduates to take courses in multicultural studies. Finally, enacting nondiscrimination policies in the areas of hiring, tenure, promotion, admissions and financial aid, providing domestic partner benefits, having specific procedures for addressing homophobic violence and harassment, actively recruiting openly gay and lesbian employees and students, providing safe residence hall options for gay and lesbian students, funding and staffing a gay and lesbian resource center, and funding a gay and lesbian student organization are some of the most important ways that a commitment to diversity can flow from the top  down.

Mary Jo Thiel is a psychologist in the Grand Valley State University Counseling and Career Development Center.

Steve Diehl is a former GVSU Counseling Center intern and is currently a psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Page last modified December 22, 2010