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The Top 10 things we need to stop doing in LGBTQ+ programming

Gender and Sexuality
July 10, 2015

1.       Being married to marriage

The recent Supreme Court decision is not the end of the marriage debate-but we centered so much of our resources and rhetoric around the issue we cannot blame some allies for thinking we have arrived at true equality. It’s time we refocus our efforts on keeping queer youth safe, giving LGBTQ+ people of all ages equitable and informed health care, and protecting us from discrimination in the workplace (amongst many other issues that threaten real equity). 

 2.       Being stuck in the “Safe Zone”

Safe Zone trainings are an important educational tool, but too often we rely on Safe Zone as the “be all and end all” of LGBTQ+ programming. Campuses beginning their journeys to inclusion have started Safe Zone programs before (or even instead of) gathering LGBTQ+ communities together to understand their pressing needs. Within Safe Zone trainings, many educators have worked hard to detach the perception that a single training can give anyone all the tools and knowledge they need to sustain LGBTQ+ allyship. Safe Zone’s should be seen as part of the journey, not an ally destination.

 3.       Rainbowing recklessly

The rainbow is an important symbol for LGBTQ+ communities, and can be powerful symbols at Pride and National Coming Out Day celebrations. However, not every program warrants a flag present on its advertising or at the event itself. Events that seek to bring in students who may not be comfortable with their identities, or those revolving around stigma or violence against trans communities are examples of events/posters that may be better off without the reckless rainbowing.

4.       Resting on respectability politics

Playing the assimilation game comes with the territory in higher education.  We teach our students how to engage in “proper” discourse, the finer points of writing and speech, and how to “dress for success” to land the post-college career.  LGBTQ+ folks are under extra scrutiny as an underrepresented group, and we often find ourselves trying to be the “good little gays.” In playing the assimilation game we often ignore the lived realities of our students and forget that some, among many other non-normative possibilities, could be kinky, in abusive relationships, or do sex work.  We must engage in sex positive ways centering healthy relationships and self-determination for our students.  And this means forgoing our “friendly neighborhood gay” mentality.

5.       Hiding in the ivory tower

Creating a queer/trans utopia at our institutions within hostile cities, small towns, and rural counties does not serve our LGBTQ+ students.  We must engage in meaningful ways with our community; sharing our immense resources like people power, intellectual expertise, research and analysis, and yes-even money.  This could look like students canvassing to inform voters or mentoring LGBTQ+ youth; or faculty researching for LGBTQ+ nonprofits; or simply opening our doors for the public to attend the speakers who come to our campuses.  Social justice and LGBTQ+ activism has strong roots in higher education and we must reconnect to that history in meaningful and mutually beneficial ways.

 6.       Being blind to Whiteness

White supremacy is a disease that infects a lot of our collective work and we desperately need to actively interrogate how it functions in our work.  This takes thoughtful, consistent, and critical questions and systems in place that hold us accountable.  For example, how do we continuously ask how our work uplifts, supports, and works in solidarity with racial justice and communities of color on our campuses? Addressing oppression and allyship in all of its forms in all trainings, programs, and advocacy is a start. Centering Queer People of Color (QPOC) narratives in programming is also essential. Requiring all professional, student staffs, employees and volunteers to critically engage in issues beyond LGBTQ+ concerns, such as race, demonstrates a commitment to ensuring an inclusive environment within LGBTQ+ spaces.

7.       Always stewing on the alphabet soup

Many of our students have made it clear that the LGBTQ+ alphabet soup does notalways properly capture the complexity of who they are and who they love. Yet how many of us spend the majority of LGBTQ+ trainings going over just vocabulary? Many educators are now breezing through terminology by sending participants resources beforehand and getting down to what’s important regarding all identities-asking (with care) about identity, doing research about that identity on your own, and mirroring the language our students use for themselves.

 8.       Letting students do it solo

While many campuses are expanding to provide LGBTQ+ student services through stand alone centers or through multicultural student services, others are still relying solely on LGBTQ+ students to provide support groups, advocacy, and education to their campuses. Empowering students can be great, but relying on them solely to do campus-wide education comes at a cost: often their academic and emotional well-being. We as administrators, even on campuses where it is politically difficult, have to bear some of the burden of providing support for LGBTQ+ students.

           9.       Stopping at interpersonal interruptions

Too many training sessions spend precious time running through multiple scenarios of how to address homophobic and transphobic comments. While an important skill and completely necessary, many of these same trainings forget to move from biased speech to the systems that perpetuate them. Our allies have to understand the impact of power, privilege, and heterosexism and how to work to dismantle them. Keep your scenarios-but be sure you move from situations to systems.

10.   Drowning in the deficit model

56% of LGBTQ+ students experience discrimination in schools.  40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ identified.  LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual/cisgender peers. These are our students’ reality and we must talk about them.  But, when all we do is focus on the horrors of systemic oppression we re-traumatize our community.  We need to move beyond the deficit model and talk about the joy, love, and the downright awesomeness of being LGBTQ+.  Our community should be celebrated. Sometimes you just need to throw a party! 

Final thoughts:

The authors of this list readily admit they too are guilty all of these at certain times in their professional lives. What’s critical is that we continue to engage in LGBTQ+ programming with thoughtfulness and intentionality. It’s time we hold our LGBTQ+ programming, and ourselves, to a higher standard of equity and inclusion. 


Ted Lewis serves as Associate Director for LGBTQ Campus Life at the University of Richmond and the Special Projects & Outreach Coordinator for Campus Pride.  Ted has over a decade of experience working with LGBTQ+ programming in higher education. Chris Purcell is the Director of LGBTQI Life at Vanderbilt University, and has LGBTQI advocacy and student support experience at 4 different institutions.  

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