Warm or chilly?

At Sacramento City College, where I’m a professor of psychology and women’s studies, we have a fairly active LGBTQ student population. The Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) is one of the more recognized student organizations on campus. We celebrate National Coming Out Day every October with an open-mic event, where people can recount their coming-out stories – or come out for the first time. We offer LGBTQ programming through our Cultural Awareness Center. We have a couple of courses on the books that focus on LGBTQ issues (including my class, Psychology of Sexual Orientation). And there are a handful of faculty and staff who are out and visible. Not bad for a community college, given that very few community colleges offer any resources for LGBTQ students at all.

And yet, when you scratch beneath the surface, the rosy picture gets a little darker. While some faculty and staff are out, there are many people who have chosen not to be out to anyone other than their close colleagues. When the QSA puts up posters and flyers announcing events, they routinely get torn down or defaced. Students who are LGBTQ  (particularly trans students) experience verbal harassment – sometimes openly, although more frequently in the form of whispered comments and giggles. And every once in a while, an LGBTQ student is the victim of a more serious hate crime – a couple of semesters ago, a gay male student was attacked just on the outskirts of campus.

In 2010, Campus Pride, in conjunction with the Q Research Institute for Higher Education released what is now the most recent LGBTQ campus climate survey, titled “2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People.” Quite a few LGBTQ campus climate surveys have been conducted over the years, and all of them have yielded sobering results – enough so that education policy experts have deemed the campus climate for LGBTQ students to be “chilly,” at best. The goal of these surveys, of course, is to utilize findings in order to implement measures that will help build acceptance and pride for LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and administrators. After two decades of these kinds of studies, the 2010 Campus Pride survey was awaited with a sense of hope and accomplishment. And, in his foreword to the report, George D. Kuh noted that the survey yielded “uniformly disappointing results.” Shane Windmeyer, the executive director for Campus Pride, called the report “a loud reminder that we still have work to do” (emphasis in original).   

Based on results from surveys returned from 5,149 LGBTQ participants, the report revealed the following:

  • One out of four respondents had experienced harassment based on their sexual identity, and about a third of trans- and gender-nonconforming people had been harassed because of their gender status;
  • LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and administrators were significantly more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have a negative perception of their campus climate;
  • LGBTQ respondents were significantly more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to observe others being the victims of homophobia, suggesting that heterosexual privilege might shield straight people from seeing these forms of injustice;
  • LGBTQ respondents of color were significantly less likely, compared to their White counterparts, to feel comfortable in their classes, in their work environment, or with the overall campus climate;
  • LGBTQ faculty were more likely than LGBTQ students to rate the campus climate as negative and hostile, and they were more likely to have seriously considered leaving their institution.

Like other campus climate reports, the Campus Pride survey ends with a comprehensive list of recommendations and best practices – the same recommendations that all the other campus climate surveys have issued over the last twenty years. Although we’d like to think that college and university environments have improved for LGBTQ students and employees, these survey results suggest otherwise.

And yet, perhaps things have gotten better. Published in 2006, The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students – written by Shane Windmeyer (yes, the same Shane Windmeyer who led the above-mentioned study) – profiles the top 100 LGBTQ friendly colleges and universities in the U.S.  Based on 5,000 online interviews with students and 500 online interviews with faculty and staff, Windmeyer profiles the 100 colleges and universities with the top “Gay Point Average” which is calculated using criteria such as LGBTQ-affirmative policies, campus events, queer studies programs, LGBTQ housing, and so on. To me, there seems to be two parallel truths occurring – LGBTQ students and employees still face a chilly reception, and there are more resources than ever before for LGBTQs at colleges and universities.  

How can both of these realities exist simultaneously? The spin that’s put on the issue may have something to do with it. Cognitive psychologists talk about framing effects, noting that the way that information is framed can powerfully influence how we interpret that information. If a survey question asks you to describe the forms of anti-LGBTQ harassment you’ve experienced, you’ll get a very different picture than if a survey question asks you to describe the ways your LGBTQ identity has been supported and validated. Campus climate surveys typically utilize a negative frame, whereas college guides for LGBTQ students are more likely to use a positive frame. Probably both forms of information are necessary in order to get a complete picture of what’s going on at U.S. higher education institutions.

A group of us at Sacramento City College are in the process of putting together our own LGBTQ campus climate survey. To date, there haven’t been any large-scale studies that put community colleges to the test, so this will yield extremely valuable data. Even with no statistical data at our disposal, based on anecdotal experience, it seems as if these parallel truths are occurring here as well. Stay tuned.

To purchase a copy of “2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People” and The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students, go to http://www.campuspride.org.


Filed under anti-gay bullying, biphobia, covert homophobia, hate crimes, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, overt homophobia

2 responses to “Warm or chilly?

  1. Lorri Doig

    I would like to know how Sac State ranks. Freemont Pres, the nearest church to the campus, not only left the denomination but left for an ultra-conservative group because the larger church body voted to approve the ordination of Lesbians and Gays. I hope that just means that very few students choose to be a part of the church so they are not influencing decisions. It would be upsetting to know that they are a part of the congregation and are going along with this decision.

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