By Craig Leets
Coordinator of the Queer Resource Center at Portland State University and former Resident Director at the University of Maryland
October is an important month for the LGBT community with observances such as National Coming Out Day (October 11th), Spirit Day (October 16th), and LGBT History Month. This October though is especially exciting as daily updates are made to the maps that record the ongoing marriage equality battle in the United States. It seems that every time I have checked the news in the recent weeks there has been a new state with marriage equality since the Supreme Court declined earlier this month to hear several appeals cases brought to them by legislators who sought to uphold marriage bans in their state constitutions. Although this is an especially exciting October for the LGBT community, it is important to remember that these legislation changes do not result in total climate change for the LGBT community, especially on our campuses.
We must remember that although these changes to state legislation offer more rights to LGBT people, these quick changes do not reflect a total change in climate in our states and cities and on our campuses – we still have work to do. Our students come to live in the residence halls from many different places and backgrounds, and some students, both residents and Resident Assistants (RAs), do not necessarily hold the pro-LGBT values that are signaled by marriage equality in a state. As such, it is important to continue programming to educate and raise awareness about the LGBT community through passive programming and events in the halls. Perhaps you might find time to post a bulletin board in the last few days of October about important LGBT historical figures (sometimes referred to as “queeroes” = queer + heroes) to recognize LGBT history month. Or, as you are preparing for November, you might work with your staff to develop an event to honor Trans Awareness Month with the annual recognition of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR, November 20th).
Although Coming Out Day was recognized several weeks ago, I think it is important to mention the power of coming out in the residence halls. With the progress that is being made on a state-wide level, we might forget that there continue to be young people who are coming to live on campus who might have been closeted at home or who might not have previously questioned their sexual or gender identities. Additionally, the LGBT community has historically lacked role models in all aspects of life, from government to media to education. Elected officials, celebrities, and professors are predominantly heterosexual or are not out and are, therefore, not able to be strong, positive role models for young LGBT people. As such, residence life professionals and paraprofessionals can make a strong impact on the climate in their halls simply by being out. When Resident Directors and RAs and other members of staff come out, they provide positive representations of the ways that LGBT people can be and are involved in all facets of life and show LGBT students that they, too, can be leaders on their campuses.
An important note: whenever I speak about coming out, I always make sure to provide a disclaimer. I hope that people who want to come out, who feel safe to come out, and who are ready to come out are able to come out, but it is important to remember that some people are not comfortable, safe, ready, or wanting to come out. We cannot push people out of the closet but must instead do our best to provide spaces where people feel comfortable. We must keep working with our residence hall staff to provide spaces where all people are celebrated and able to share all parts of their identities. With this, students, when they are ready, will come out in supportive, inclusive environments.
In closing, we must remember that marriage equality does not equate to welcoming, inclusive environments for all LGBT people in all aspects of society. We must continue to intentionally work to ensure that we are creating spaces where LGBT people feel recognized, comfortable, and that they are full and equal participants in campus life. Finally, we must remember that marriage equality is not the end of the movement for LGBT rights. There are many issues we must continue addressing to eliminate the heterosexism and institutional homophobia that limit the lives of LGBT students, faculty, staff, and administrators on campus. There is work to do, and we must come together to ensure all LGBT people are succeeding in our halls and on our campuses.
For additional information on the climate facing LGBT students as they arrive on campus, consider these resources:
- HRC (Human Rights Campaign) infographic “Growing Up LGBT in America: View Statistics” http://www.hrc.org/youth/view-statistics#.VE-pZfnF_Tp
- Campus Pride reports and publications http://www.campuspride.org/research/projects-publications/
- GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)’s page on national reports and briefs http://glsen.org/learn/research/national
- PFLAG’s page on advocacy and issues http://community.pflag.org/getinspired
- Rolling Stone article “The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families” http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-forsaken-a-rising-number-of-homeless-gay-teens-are-being-cast-out-by-religious-families-20140903