By Raechel Hoy
On Friday, Oct. 1, the final session of the first on-campus LGBTQ+ workshop series was held. As the two organizers, Gage Deeter and M Powell (both Resident Directors at Western), settled in and prepared to host the discussion, six more people trickled in for what would prove to be record attendance for the week’s three workshop sessions.
This was a clear illustration of one of the key issues on campus that Deeter and Powell would later lament– people don’t take direct action to help members of the LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, those in attendance had a good conversation about allyship, labels, and inclusivity before moving on to discuss institutional shortcomings.
Ally is a verb
“After all,” Deeter reminds us, “ally is a verb.” Deeter wants people to remember that allyship is active, not passive, and asks more people to get involved, especially those outside the LGBTQ+ community. They express frustration that, while many people label themselves as an ally, they hardly, if ever, take concrete action to support the community.
In the workshop, those in attendance spoke about the concept of initiative and how some of the most valuable and meaningful actions an ally can take involve stepping up first. Gage’s advice: don’t wait. Don’t wait until you meet someone who is LGBTQ+ to make changes; do it now. Don’t wait for a queer person to say something, step up for them now. Act first so they don’t have to. Doing so removes the burden from the shoulders of a queer person.
In the eyes of Deeter and Powell, it’s also critically important to always step up and make changes where you recognize that things are lacking, such as pointing out the lack of gender neutral bathrooms or opening conversations about pronouns and offensive jokes when the occasion arises. They both call upon students to be allies, even when a queer person isn’t around to hear you, and even when you won’t get a pat on the back for it.
They also encourage the Western community to engage with queer people regularly, and to make being an ally a daily activity. Deeter and Powell note that it is critical to remember that your own education should be a continuing effort, and one of the best ways to stay educated is to simply show up to LGBTQ+ events and participate fully. They strongly highlighted the importance of simply becoming involved and making the decision to be an active ally, rather than a passive one. This means engaging with diverse people, and listening to their voices.
Both Deeter and Powell stress that it is important to remember that allyship is about making someone else feel safe, not about your personal comfort. To do this effectively, you must take yourself completely out of the equation. And, as Powell points out, the LGBTQ+ community needs more energetic allyship. The goal of workshops and discussions like this, they say, is to get more people involved, an involvement we desperately need here at Western.
Coming up short
As a community, Western comes up dreadfully short of supporting LGBTQ+ students.
On the Campus Pride Index, Western ranks dead last in Colorado: just a 1.5 star rating out of five. The next lowest rating is a 3.5, and 5 institutions have a rating of 4 or higher. When sorting by lowest rating in the entire western United States, Western appears fifth on the collegiate list.
In fact, Western doesn’t check a single box in several different categories. The Academic Life category is measured here using criteria like the existence of a queer studies program or other LGBTQ+ specific classes, faculty training on gender and sexuality issues, and queer staff and faculty organizations. It is largely ignored at Western, and it shows in the index rating. Queer perspectives are rarely considered and many queer students report that they have little or no representation within their classes.
The Housing and Residence Life category is measured by considering requirements such as the existence of an LGBTQ+ specific living space, gender inclusive housing and restroom facilities, and training for residence life and other housing staff. Presently, Western leaves many gender non-conforming individuals feeling out of the loop. Campus does not have housing and bathrooms inclusive to gender queer, non-conforming, questioning, and transgender students, which makes some of the most basic needs difficult to fulfill for many LGBTQ+ students.
With next to no administrative interest and backing, students often feel like they are on their own. One positive note is that polled Western students reported feeling no pressure related to sexuality, and report feeling accepted by resident assistants and directors in this capacity. However, a community housing gap still exists, and closing it would be beneficial to all LGBTQ+ students.
Western also completely lacks any measures in the Recruitment and Retention category, which is calculated by examining the existence of scholarships, participation in admissions fairs, graduation ceremonies or markers, and admissions counselor training and resources for LGBTQ+ students. Deeter says that recruitment and retention for queer students doesn’t even seem to be on Western’s radar currently.
Queer students can expect no additional financial support despite their status as a minority group, and very little recognition as a distinct group on campus. Despite many colleges offering special ceremonies for LGBTQ+ graduates (often called Lavender Ceremonies) or a cord to wear at graduation, Western does not. The LGBTQ+ community is largely ignored in these capacities at Western, leaving unfortunate, and potentially dangerous, gaps in representation.
One critical category we perform poorly in is Campus Safety, which places the LGBTQ+ community in harm’s way on a daily basis. One polled student expressed that while she does feel comfortable holding her girlfriend’s hand in public, their close friend “…has been personally harassed on campus because of his gender presentation and sexuality. He doesn’t like to go places on campus alone, and I can understand why.”
Safety was one of M’s big concerns, pointing out that situations like this can be life-and-death, and many queer students don’t feel truly safe. While we meet the Campus Rating criteria for campus police education on gender issues, there are other major gaps. We have no formal process for reporting LGBTQ+ related bias and hate incidences, no real training in hate crime prevention, no active protective outreach to queer students, and no stand alone support for queer victims of sexual and partner violence.
Counseling and Health is another category that can mean the difference between life and death for LGBTQ+ students. The lack of queer housing, counseling staff trained in trans-inclusive care, and queer healthcare inclusion and options puts young queer people in danger. The Trevor Project reports that queer youth are up to four times as likely to plan or attempt suicide as non-queer peers.
LGBTQ+ mental health care is a major blind spot, even as Western moves towards being more open with mental health. Even new efforts, such as a new online therapy initiative, known as“TimelyCare ”, does not appear to have an LGBTQ+ specialist. Additionally, the service has Christian organizational ties– a factor that can be alienating to students of other religious beliefs as well as a popular point of anxiety among many LGBTQ+ youth, who often have had negative experiences with Christian organizations.
The organization associated with this service is Abilene Christain University, which is listed among the worst campuses for LGBTQ+ students. Abilene Christian has refused to allow the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance and passed discrimantory policies, including banning same-sex relationships in 2018. Ties like this raise many valid concerns among the queer community about the quality and kindess of this source of mental health care. These concerns could render the service largely useless to the queer community. Western proclaims “Mental Health Matters”, yet does little to address the queer community desperately in need of concrete mental health support.
Powell points out that any and all current efforts to improve LGBTQ+ representation, safety, and student experience are driven by students themselves. We currently don’t have a single professional position at Western dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ students, and zero professional hours are dedicated to that support. Providing support to LGBTQ+ students is considered an extra, optional service, rather than a mandatory aspect of people’s jobs, or something Western staff are paid to do.
Other schools, including the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, staff an entire specifically-LGBTQ+ resource center. The lack of professional support leaves vulnerable queer students on their own with matters of career and professional development, education, and mental health. We need to create spaces for LGBTQ+ people and speak to them directly, and we sorely need active allies who can commit to making Western a safer place to be.
For more information about the Campus Pride Index and its criteria, visit additional resources at the bottom of the article
Allyship action: Being a part of the solution
The broader hope of the workshops, and other related LGBTQ+ events, is to create visibility and offer representation. Deeter and Powell hope that this increase in visibility will lead to increases in support, active allyship, and policy change. Until widespread institution-supported change comes, Deeter and Powell implore everyone to get involved and take action to be an ally.
In the classroom, professors can often make a meaningful difference in the lives of their queer students in relatively simple ways. Pronouns and affirmations can save lives, as reported by the Trevor Project: “Affirming transgender and nonbinary youth by respecting their pronouns… is associated with lower rates of attempting suicide.”
A simple survey — such as a Google form asking name, preferred name/nickname, and pronouns– at the beginning of a class can improve both mental health and academic success. Any beginning of the semester-style questionnaire or activity can include inclusive questions about pronouns and names.
As a professor, it’s important to take the lead in your classrooms in allyship: correct students and don’t let offensive statements or jokes fly. Be open to conversations about identity with students and keep an open mind. Nearly one-third of polled students responded that they feel out of place in the classroom, and that they are unsure if their professors are supportive of them. True allyship needs to be explicit. Become a dependable and secure person for your LGBTQ+ students.
Lack of professional support and representation is a longstanding fatal flaw, particularly in science fields, and has been the subject of several large scale campaigns, including one for the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities. This support needs to immediately extend to include queer people trying to break into previously more restrictive fields of study.
While multiple polled humanities students reported feeling accepted, every STEM student brought up at least once feeling ignored, out of place, or unrepresented. One student even mentioned considering changing their major emphasis to something more representative and inclusive, which would feel more welcoming.
All students, of all gender and sexual identity, deserve respect and inclusion. LGBTQ+ people belong in your classes, fields, and studies. Make them feel like they belong by respecting pronouns, identity, and expression. You can even take it a step further: include LGBTQ+ material in your classrooms, and highlight important LGBTQ+ figures in your field and include their work in your syllabus. Make your queer students feel welcome, seen, and respected.
And one of the most important things an ally can do is normalize difference and diversity by talking about and embracing gender identity and difference. Make asking about (and respecting) pronouns standard when getting to know someone new. Don’t be afraid to kindly cut in and correct people in any situation. The more active, persistent, and consistent you are, the more normal it becomes.
Kindness is the key to allyship. Approach everyone with kindness and the understanding that we all experience our lives and selves in a unique way. Open your mind and heart to new people. Listen, learn, and love.
Links to additional resources:
For information about student-driven initiatives at Western, get involved in Spectrum: visit the Lead Office Thursdays at 7pm, or reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org
For a breakdown of the Campus Pride Index and how we rank, visit: Campus Pride Index and:
Worst List: The Absolute Worst Campuses for LGBTQ Youth
For more information about LGBTQ+ students and mental health, visit: The Trevor Project National Survey
For more detailed information about being an ally, visit: A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth – The Trevor Project And Sexual Orientation – The Trevor Project