News Editor, The Pendulum
Among Elon University’s many commitments to greater success and diversity as an institution, efforts to expand and improve the experiences of LGBTQ students are a priority for many students, faculty and staff. But despite continued work to increase awareness of LGBTQ issues on campus, many say the Elon community as a whole remains apathetic to the cause.
“It’s neutral but that neutrality is perceived as negative by the LGBTQ community,” said junior Jess McDonald, president of SPECTRUM and a Lumen Scholar researching the history of LGBTQ student organizations on college campuses. “The university isn’t supporting that kind of diversity.”
Richard Baker, assistant director for Residence Life, minored in LGBT studies as an undergraduate and said he has seen much more open support for LGBTQ students on other college campuses.
“At every campus I’ve been a part of, I’ve seen more obvious symbols of LGBTQ pride and support,” he said. “It’s different being on a campus that is so obviously heterosexual and I think that can wear on you after a while.”
There are few overt signs of homophobia on Elon’s campus, Baker said, but more people should step up to interrupt more subtle messages of hate, such as language used in jest that has the potential to be offensive.
Sophomore Ben Poole said his friends were extremely supportive of him when he came out to them during Winter Term of his freshmen year, but the casual use of “gay” as a synonym for “stupid” is one that significantly impacts his perception of people.
“When you’re in a situation where there’s mostly men, you know there’s going to be jokes like ‘that’s so gay,'” he said. “It makes me feel a little uncomfortable. It makes me not want to tell them as much, or get as close to them.”
Simply promoting tolerance of the LGBTQ community is a step, said Ann Cahill, chair of the philosophy department, but should not be the ultimate goal. Society should work toward recognition and appreciation of gender identity and sexual orientation diversity, she said.
But there are many barriers on Elon’s campus that prevent full-fledged appreciation of this diversity, and the challenge most voiced by members of the Elon population is the LGBTQ community’s lack of visibility.
Though there are many students at Elon who identify as gay, lesbian or queer, the visible presence of this type of diversity is limited, which is part of a cycle that can be broken by more students coming out, Cahill said.
Research has shown that greater visibility of LGBTQ students leads to increased tolerance and appreciation from the straight community through personal interaction, McDonald said, which then leads to an atmosphere that is more conducive to closeted students coming out, and so on.
Junior Maggie Castor, who identifies as queer, said she has always been surprised at how comfortable she feels at Elon but she thinks the school could be better at supporting queer students.
One way to do so would be to create an LGBTQ social space that doubles as a resource center, much like the Multicultural Center, she said.
“I definitely wish there was a queer space on campus,” she said. “It’s important just to have open space to serve a variety of queer purposes.”
Poole, who has been heavily involved with McDonald’s ongoing discussion group about LGBTQ issues, “Bursting the Heteronormative Bubble,” agreed and said that many other campuses have much more present administrative support.
“UNC Chapel Hill has a whole website for the LGBTQ community, and Elon has two buildings with a unisex bathroom and that’s about as far as we get,” Poole said. “I see that as one of the problems.”
Defining spaces for specific groups needs to be done carefully, said Leigh-Anne Royster, coordinator for personal health programs and community well-being. There are certain issues where people need access to trained specialists, she said.
“By a ‘space,’ I don’t mean that’s a place where LGBT students should go and stay,” Royster said. “I’m not for segregation.”
Baker’s office is stocked with books about LGBTQ issues and covered nearly floor to ceiling with signs of pride and support, which causes people to make assumptions about his sexuality.
But, the joke is not on him. Baker said he purposely confuses people about his orientation in order to make a statement about society.
“I’m intentionally very unclear about my sexual orientation because I don’t think it’s important for people to know,” he said. “And I like messing with the system. I think that it’s important for people to see people for who they are and how they choose to identify and it’s not our place to make judgment or force them to identify a certain way.”
There’s nothing wrong with being proud of one’s identity, regardless of what it is, Baker said, but it’s important for both allies and members of the LGBTQ community to challenge society to break the stereotype that there are two types of people, male and female, and that everyone is assumed to be straight. People could take simple measures to be more inclusive with their use of language, he suggested, referring to husbands and wives as “partners” and referencing previous relationships without using gender with terms such as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
“When people assume the majority, it just perpetuates the marginalization of that minority,” Royster said. “When people talk to my daughter and ask, ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ if my daughter’s gay, they oppress her.”
Poole questioned how comfortable straight students are around same-sex public displays of affection.
“On this campus, if there was any PDA, there would be looks and whispers,” he said. “I kind of want to do a same-sex PDA day. I don’t know how many of the students here have been exposed to stuff like that, but I think it would be really interesting to see how the campus would react. I feel like a lot of people would act like it was something different. I think it should get to the point where it’s just like seeing a guy and a girl walking and holding hands.”
J. Lowry Sinclair, Class of 1965, recently donated $25,000 to Elon to establish the J. Lowry Sinclair III Endowment to support undergraduate research about LGBTQ issues. This donation, the first of its kind, will support undergraduate students exploring research topics of interest to the LGBTQ community.
“I think Elon was pleased but a little stunned,” Sinclair said. “But they were glad to get the money and I hope it’s going to be well-received.”
Jamie Killorin, director of gift planning, worked with Sinclair directly to establish the endowment and said Elon is very excited to receive the gift. Funds will be distributed through Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, and through undergraduate research programs such as SURF.
“It’s a great gift,” she said. “It’s going to be a permanent legacy of Lowry on campus.”
Sinclair, who was president of his senior class, said he was in the closet during his time at Elon, and from his discussions with students in Spectrum during his visit to Elon this past week to attend Pride Week festivities, he got the impression that there’s no real leadership at Elon to help students get the support they needed for the gay community, which was “not existent” during his years as an undergraduate.
“It was never discussed, never spoken about, anything,” he said. “I don’t remember any classes that ever came up or textbooks or anything else. It was just never mentioned. Well, I knew there was something missing in my life, I was in the closet and I didn’t come out until I was 28.”
Many colleges across the country have begun to implement gender-neutral housing options in an effort to make LGBTQ students more comfortable. Cahill said she thinks there could be enormous benefits to gender-neutral and gender-diverse housing options.
“One question people ask is, ‘what if boyfriends and girlfriends want to live together?'” she said. “Well, gay people have already done that. College students are adults, I’m not sure I need to be in the way of their cohabitation. But most universities that have gender neutral housing find that romantic partners don’t live together. I don’t see any reason for keeping mixed housing off the table as a non-option.”
Although Elon has not yet made plans to include such options in its own residential system, Brian Collins, associate director of residence life for community building and residential education, said he does not think it is far away. But, he said a large reason it has not yet been discussed in-depth is because students have not taken the initiative to ask for it.
This year, the Board of Trustees approved plans to allow students to live in single-sex rooms within coed suites in Danieley flats, in order to have small, student-led learning communities. The communities would have included a small budget for group activities, but Collins said there will be no such groups during the 2011-2012 academic year because not a single student proposed a community. Nevertheless, he said he thinks the approval of such an idea is a step in the right direction.
“I think what this says is Elon is open to thinking about housing in different ways,” he said. “But students must take the initiative. It’s not been something students have asked for, and if they have, they’re not talking to Residence Life.”
All new buildings will include gender-neutral bathrooms labeled as “family” bathrooms, according to Brooke Barnett, assistant to the president. Though this has not been widely publicized, Barnett said the university is constantly making these kinds of decisions.
“Our goal is for all students, faculty and staff to find a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere at Elon,” she said.
The key initiative on behalf of the university is the establishment of Safe Zone next year, she said, a program designed to foster educated discussion about LGBTQ issues. Barnett said the time it took to establish the program was not a sign of reluctance. Rather, years of discussion served to ensure a thoughtful and effective program would be established.
“We want to do this the right way,” she said.