The struggle for fair access and treatment for LGBT students is still that in many places — a struggle. And while organizing in the South offers a special set of challenges, Southern colleges and universities remain a vital part of the social, political, and cultural landscape.
Since conviction has always been strong in the face of adversity, Campus Pride has identified seven campuses in particular that stand out as not just good colleges, but “brave spaces” where LGBT young adults have stood up against the politics of bigotry and pushed forward, driving grassroots progress.
Many of these campuses are pioneers in the region advocating for inclusive policies, programs, and practices. In other cases the students have taken up the fight for equitable treatment themselves and are creating “brave spaces” on their own. The designation “brave space” comes from the philosophy that “safe spaces” are a privilege not available in some situations, such as these Southern campuses.
Founded and based in Charlotte, N.C., Campus Pride has provided ongoing support and a hands-on commitment for the work done by and for Southerners, especially on college campuses.
College of Charleston — Charleston, S.C.
In the 243-year history of the College of Charleston, this last academic year proved to be one for the books earning the campus the distinction of a “brave space.” The annual CoC Campus Reads! Program buys books, like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, every year to engage students on issues of diversity and invites the author to speak on campus, as Bechdel did last October. A highly honored best seller published in 2006, Fun Home depicts the author’s coming-out story and the suicide of her father, a closeted gay man. But a dramatic showdown over CoC’s use of Bechdel's book ensued when South Carolina-based conservative group the Palmetto Family Council and Republican state representative Garry Smith supported a bill to cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston budget.
The CoC campus community opposed the attempt at government censorship and staged various nonviolent protests. At a LGBTQ Solidarity Rally held by student activists April 21, one student read a public statement from the CoC president George Benson with a megaphone: “Is there an alternative to academic freedom? Yes there is. It’s called oppression.”
Isabel Williams and K.T. Babb, student leaders of the CoC Gay-Straight Alliance, led the crowd in the chant “Nothing about us, decided without us.”
As The Washington Post reported, that evening more than 750 students, faculty, staff, and community members flooded into an off-campus auditorium to watch a performance of the musical adaptation of Fun Home. CoC funded the event through private and nonstate college funds. Reacting to the events, Bechdel told the Post, “I’ve gotten my eyes opened a bit. I live in the Northeast in a pretty liberal place, and I’ve sort of been lulled into complacency. This has been an interesting wake-up call.”
Despite this past year, CoC administrators and students have persevered as a three-star campus on the Campus Pride Index broadening campus efforts to improve policies. LGBTQ and ally leaders continued to create change on campus, including the Gay-Straight Alliance hosting its second annual Second Chance Prom, which drew over 110 guests. In the fall, a board was established to create a new Gender and Sexuality Equity Center. In the spring, Safe Zone implemented a partnership with the college’s Department of Public Safety, including recruitment of two Public Safety/SafeZone liaisons. The CoC also provided training to staff at the nearby Medical University of South Carolina and the Citadel, both of which now have Safe Zone programs that are funded by their institutions. CoC students also hosted their first-ever Spring Lavender Celebration, honoring LGBTQ and ally graduates at the close of the academic year.
Over the last 25 years, Emory University has strived to epitomize the brave, LGBT-friendly campus. The private research university is located in the diverse metropolitan area of Atlanta and has long been a leader in LGBT support services in higher education, especially in the South. The campus had the first LGBT support office in the Southeast, opening in 1991, which is now the 10th oldest in the country. Student organizing at Emory has always been a strong component to advocating for LGBTQ rights, dating back to the 1990s and even more recently with the Chick-fil-A controversy.
Emory has allowed LGBTQ students to have an active voice in making decisions, especially when it comes to annual programming and participation in national events. Emory’s Office of LGBT Life offers a variety of programs and events to support students and provide opportunities to the entire campus community. The office holds educational programming, such as Safe Space training and Lunch ‘N’ Learn events, to increase campus awareness about LGBTQ issues and concerns. It also has major events, such as an annual drag show and Pride Awards to develop a stronger sense of community for LGBTQ students on campus. The office recently added centered career nights, where students can foster relationships with LGBTQ and supportive professors, staff, alumni, and other professionals in their chosen career field.
Emory’s Office of LGBT Life also hosts student-facilitated queer discussion groups that meet weekly. These discussion groups provide students with safe spaces in which to discuss different aspects of their identities. These discussion groups include a queer and Asian group, a queer students of color group, a bisexual/pansexual group, a queer men’s group, and a transforming gender discussion group.
Emory has ranked consistently in the Campus Pride Top 25 LGBTQ-friendly list annually and holds five stars out of five on the Campus Pride Index. Emory also participates in Campus Pride’s LGBT-friendly college fairs, a program designed to address the concerns of LGBT and ally students related to academics, student life, and campus safety. The school just expanded its gender-neutral housing options.
“Brave spaces” are the result of action and persistence. On April 9, 2013, North Carolina Central University became the second historically black college or university in the nation and the first in North Carolina to open a center dedicated to LGBTQ issues. Tia Marie Doxey, director of Student Life Assessment, who oversees the LGBTA center, said NCCU has become a Southern pioneer among HBCUs for LGBTQ rights, even though the center was the result of a nine-year journey.
Upon opening of the LGBTA center, former NCCU student Clayton Barrier said, “We’ve come a long way since 2004. I remember when if a male student gave another male student a compliment, ‘nice shirt’ or whatever, he would justify it by saying ‘no homo.’” Barrier is the current co-advisor to Creating Open Lives Organizing for Real Success, the student-led organization for LGBTQ students, staff, faculty, and alumni.
NCCU has four organizations devoted to the LGBTQ community: COLORS, Polychromes for LGBTQ faculty and staff, DOMS for lesbian- identified students, and OutLAW for LGBTQ faculty, staff, and students within the school of law, all of which encourage ally attendance. Students and staff agree that one of the key building blocks for the ongoing success at NCCU is the Safe Zone program. The training focuses on understanding the basic needs of LGBTQ students.
David Monk, a junior studying Spanish and the vice president of COLORS, noted, “There is a need to inform everyone that the LGBT community plays a vital role in today’s society and may even affect their immediate family. The decisions that heteronormative persons are making in regards to our community affect us as a whole.”
In September the LGBTA center will host a national transgender film festival called Gender Reel. The innovative programming on the campus touches on a variety of issues affecting the LGBTQ community. Every year in February, LGBTA Week includes events surrounding HIV/AIDS awareness and sexual health and LGBTQ inclusion in Greek life. This past year, NCCU hosted Pathway to Health Care and Higher Education: A Transgender Cultural Competency Workshop and plans to host it again. In addition, NCCU had its inaugural Lavender Graduation Ceremony to recognize graduating LGBTQ students this past year.
“Being able to advocate such a diverse movement with my fellow Eagles is a wonderful experience,” said sophomore Ashlee Barnette, who interns at the LGBTA center. “It is a long and steady progress of change, but we are getting there, slowly but surely.”
Tulane University, a private institution of about 6,500 students, has been a leader in policy and campus climate work in the South. The Louisiana school is one of only four campuses in the South to have a five-star score on the Campus Pride Index. This is due in large part to student activists who have dedicated their time and effort to making LGBTQ climate a priority on campus. Tulane established its Office of Multicultural Affairs in 1988 and has since added an Office for Gender and Sexual Diversity. Campus Pride has recognized Tulane for sending past students to Campus Pride’s annual Camp Pride for six consecutive years since 2008. Tulane students have also been recognized for their capacity-building and organizing work, such as Mark Labadorf, who was one of the 2013 Top 10 Student Leaders in Action.
Campus programming is a large focus of queer work at Tulane. From hosting the queer South Asian performance and literary arts duo Darkmatter to the annual Audre Lorde Week, there are always educational events available to Tulane students that can push the narrative about LGBTQ work further. Tulane offers a multicultural/LGBTIQA orientation, a peer mentoring program, a multicultural/LGBTIQA leadership retreat in Mississippi, a Safe Zone Ally program, and Pride Prom among many other things.
Tulane University demonstrates an institutional commitment with programs like Jubilee during freshman orientation. This is where all new students learn about intersectionality, microaggressions, and preferred gender pronouns. The regularity of LGBTQ events, including the LGBT film series and LGBT History Month, ensure that the messages from Jubilee are not lost on students and that the campus message of embracing diversity follows students from orientation to graduation.
The commitment to LGBTQ work is not limited only to the L, G, and B. Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearinghouse notes that the campus has a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of gender identity and expression, allows students to change name and gender on campus records, and provides student health insurance inclusive of transition-related medical expenses.
While Virginia has not necessarily been the most LGBT-friendly place, this campus has been a “brave” beacon for LGBT advocacy in the state for decades. The University of Richmond's work to become an LGBTQ-inclusive campus began in the 1990s, when sexual orientation was added to its nondiscrimination policy and the school launched its Safe Zone initiative. Since then, the university has implemented same-sex domestic partner benefits for full-time faculty and staff members, added gender identity and expression to its nondiscrimination policy, received four stars on the Campus Pride Index, hired an associate director of LGBTQ life, and started hosting Lavender Graduations, among many other things. The University of Richmond is one of 29 Southern schools with a Campus Pride Index rating of four stars or higher.
In early February the university teamed up with Campus Pride to host the first-ever Campus Pride College Sports Summit. The summit was a two-day event that featured Sue Rankin, Kye Allums, Wade Davis, and even a world premiere screening of The Rugby Player. The event was focused on research findings from the Campus Pride report, LGBTQ student athlete experiences, training resources, and recommended best practices to prevent harassment in college sports. The event reached more than 100 coaches, staff, and student athletes.
In late March the University of Richmond hosted the Q-Summit: A Gathering of Queer Southern Youth. The event was a gathering of queer youth, ages 18-25, who are leaders within the South. The day was filled with movement-building, skill-sharing, and best-practices development that was led by people under the age of 25. The aim was to amplify the experiences of LGBTQ youth of color and trans* youth voices, while gathering to plan the future of their movement. The event welcomed over 130 queer youth activists and featured keynote speakers and presenters who were all 25 years old or younger.
In May the university was recognized by the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth with a 2014 Catalyst Award at the organization’s annual fundraiser. The Catalyst Award is given to institutions that work with LGBTQ youth and are champions for LGBTQ progress.
A mark of a “brave space” is unyielding advocacy in the face of adversity. As a public research institution, the University of Houston is known for a history of grassroots LGBTQ student organizing and activism.
This past year the University of Houston student senate passed the Josephine Tittsworth Act. The student bill is an attempt to address the safety concerns of transgender people on campus. The bill allows transgender students to use their proper name, title, and gender when completing official university documents.
Today the university boasts a full-service LGBT Resource Center with a program director, student staff, a large selection of annual programming, and an LGBT studies program. As stated, the mission of the center is “to launch the next generation of healthy, proud, academically successful LGBTQ citizens, leaders and advocates.” Some of the center’s key programs include a Peer Mentoring Program to help assist newly LGBTQ-identifying students, a speakers bureau, and a brown bag social lunch to help foster relationships between students and faculty. Programs for faculty and staff include the Cougar Ally Training on LGBTQ issues as well as multiple Cougar Ally Lunch ‘N’ Learns, which provide discussions on select LGBTQ issues.
The University of Houston is one of the two highest-ranked Texas schools listed on the Campus Pride Index, ranked at 4.5 stars out of 5 stars. The campus also has made significant strides on transgender concerns, adding “gender identity/expression” to its nondiscrimination statement and having a gender-inclusive restroom policy that allows students and faculty to use the restroom of their choice. Beginning this fall, the campus has also added transgender-inclusive student health insurance for medical expenses related to hormones and surgery.
Western Kentucky University's students are no strangers to public organizing. A group of 200 students who prepared to demonstrate at a visit by U.S. senator Mitch McConnell back in 2010 ended up ultimately securing same-sex domestic partner benefits for the university’s employees starting the next year.
In the past year student activists have pushed the conversation forward both on campus and in their community. On campus, students recently finished a full year of meetings and presentations designed to convince the university administration to assess its LGBT-friendliness using the Campus Pride Index, which WKU completed in June.
The WKU Institute of Citizenship and Social Responsibility has been instrumental in teaching students about institutional politics and public organizing. The institute has a very visible LGBT membership and has consistently supported and demonstrated on behalf of LGBTQ issues. WKU’s Brave Spaces exist as a result of the institute’s work.
In WKU’s community, students have also collaborated with local residents to spearhead Bowling Green Fairness, a group dedicated to getting the city of Bowling Green to include LGBT people in its citywide nondiscrimination ordinance. WKU students have also stepped beyond their immediate community and organized the Owensboro Fairness group on top of Bowling Green’s.
The institute was a founding sponsor of the student-organized and student-run Fairness on Fountain Square initiative, which seeks to demonstrate local business support for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. Fairness on Fountain Square currently has 33 local business sponsors advocating for a nondiscrimination ordinance — the most of any city’s fairness movement in the state.
WKU’s queer and trans student group, Student Identity Outreach, has partnered broadly with other progressive organizations, such as Hilltoppers for Choice and and the Coalition for Gender and Racial Equality, creating networks of brave spaces across campus and fostering these environments in public with events like Condomonium and Rock 4 Choice, both of which had representatives from Student Identity Outreach present to visibly represent and educate visitors on LGBTQ issues.
WKU is also home to Kristen Guin, founder of Queerability — an LGBTQ and disability rights advocacy organization that is run by and for LGBTQ people with disabilities and works to ensure that the voices of LGBTQ people with disabilities are heard in the conversation around LGBTQ and disability issues. Queerability has been a constant advocate for fairer registration practices at WKU.
"What strikes me most about the WKU queer and ally community is their bravery and willingness to stand up for what they know is right even when it flies in the face of the administration," said Rachel Adams, faculty sponsor of Student Identity Outreach. "No matter how many times they are turned away or turned down, they do not give up — and their tenacity is slowly but surely starting to pay dividends on the Hill. I am proud of the LGBT and ally community on our campus and excited to see what's next for equality, both at WKU and in Bowling Green."
This article was written based on a review of Southern campuses from Campus Pride programs and services. For the purposes of this article, the South was defined as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. The writing staff included Campus Pride Executive Director Shane Windmeyer and the 2014 Campus Pride Summer Fellows HM Barton, D. Andrew Porter, Andrew Salman, and Isabel Williams. These student leaders have attended or are currently attending Southern campuses.