June 24, 2019
Queer and Coping at Conservative Institutions: Pride in Higher Education
To most members of the LGBTQIA+ Community, June is a special time of celebration and remembrance for how far we’ve come. How far have we come South of the Mason Dixon Line? How can we celebrate when our identities must be kept close to our chests? I am in a unique position to work with LGBTQ+ students at a conservative institution in the buckle of the bible belt. I deal with a full range of student experiences, some of them are overwhelmingly positive, and some are heartbreakingly negative. At most though, my students are coping, they have to take the good with the bad in relative silence because their college community is less than accepting.
The unique challenges facing LGBTQ+ students/faculty/staff at conservative institutions include identity erasure, daily microaggression, and open harassment. As part of my work with the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at my institution, I have access to the main form of communication our organization uses, a Discord Server. There are several channels within the server, and the one that I view the most is the Homophobia/Transphobia Channel. In this channel, students share their negative experiences on campus, in their homes, and in the greater community. Many of my students are closeted in their homes and in their classrooms. When in their homes a great many of my student's experience cognitive dissonance, trying to understand their LGBTQ+ identity in the context of their conservative upbringing. Much of those feelings carry over to campus as they walk into classrooms, filled with students and faculty that share that ideology. They are told that the Transgender identity isn't real, or that their sexuality is just a phase. They are faced with daily microaggressions that seek to diminish or dismiss their thoughts and feelings surrounding their identity. Unfortunately, many students also experience open harassment, such as having their Pride decorations destroyed.
How do LGBTQ+ students Cope at Conservative institutions? There are many unhealthy ways students cope at institutions like mine, they will adapt passing personas to display in their classes and in social settings. They will diminish their outward gender expression to avoid confrontation. I have had students avoid using their preferred pronouns (understood as their ACTUAL pronouns) because they feel a teacher or class setting would be unreceptive. The healthy ways I have seen students cope is through the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Community. Using the Discord Server to share feelings and reach out for help. Many of those students will seek sanctuary in my office, choosing to sit on my floor and eat lunch instead of mingling in open spaces with their peers. While I am happy to be their safe space, I hope that my efforts will someday lead to a safer and more accepting campus.
So why are we talking about this issue this month, during Pride? The answer is simple; we aren't there yet. Conservative institutions and student affairs staff within, still have a long way to go to making higher education and inclusive and safe space for LGBTQ+ students. I do not have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions.
First, education and awareness are the keys to creating a safer campus for LGBTQ+ students. Take time out of your schedule to attend SafeZone Trainings, and to learn more about the LGBTQ+ community at your school. Second, promote program and initiatives at your campus that support LGBTQ+ students. When you look around, what is your institution doing to make college life more inclusive for the community? If you don't see any programs doing so, raise your voice in support. Add pressure to administration and do the research to find out what programs or initiatives would best support your students. Finally, work to promote awareness and education among non-LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff. When everyone is open to learning and growing together, we can all learn and work in a safer, more fulfilling environment.
Rachel Hendrix currently serves as the Women & Gender Initiatives Program Coordinator for Arkansas State University’s Department of Multicultural Affairs. Some of her specialties include: being a certified SafeZone Trainer-The Out Alliance, being an A-State Gender and Sexuality Alliance Advisor and the Feminist Union Advisor. In her two years with the university, she has helped to create more awareness and assisted in developing a voice for the LGBTQ+ community both at A-State and within the local community. In addition to her duties at Arkansas State, she is the proud and dutiful mother to 10 fur babies (1 dog, 1 cat and 8 bunnies).
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