When Chat Leat attended the University of Kansas in 1975, he says, there was no LGBT community to speak of at all. While moving from a small town in Kansas to politically liberal Lawrence offered a broader worldview, there remained no safe place to explore the still-forbidden thoughts he had wrestled with for years about his sexuality. But with a $1 million gift to his alma mater, recently announced by the university, the retired Citigroup executive hopes to make sure gay kids entering the school won't feel alone in the universe.
"When a students walks into that financial aid office, I know there is at least one scholarship dedicated to leadership in the LGBT community," Leat says. "That in and of itself is a positive thing."
The major gift at KU adds to a growing number of LGBT-centered scholarships available around the country, and the KU scholarship is one of the largest focused on students in a conservative state. Just two decades ago, such scholarships were unheard of, and it took until 2011 before any college in the nation allowed LGBT students to self-identify on college admissions material so they could easily learn about opportunities. The announcement that the Chad A. Leat Student Scholarship Fund will substantially expand, and will now be able to fund a student's four-year undergraduate education, marks the most recent growth in scholarship funding earmarked specifically for LGBT youth and leaders.
For Leat, it's great news to see more resources available for students, and exciting to see schools like KU embrace the concept. Since 2007, he has provided funding annually for KU to provide a smaller scholarship, but he now looks forward to gifting students with a full undergrad education. "It's about directing funds to a group that may be having a harder time in that geography than it would in other geographies," he says.
The gift is one of the largest ones to support LGBT students in the university's history, according to KU officials.
"I have received financial aid from other sources in my time here at KU, but this is the first scholarship I've received that is actively dedicated to LGBTQ+ identities," says current scholarship recipient Sam Ritchie in a statement. "There are so many people like me who want an education but have trouble affording it. It's an honor that KU has someone like Mr. Leat who is actively dedicated to providing scholarships for LGBTQ students."
LGBT student groups across the country applauded the donation, while also encouraging KU to increase not just financial assistance to students but the level of on-campus support. "You also have to have a set of standards and a level of benchmarking when it comes to LGBT inclusion," says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride.
Scholarships dedicated to assisting LGBT students were largely unheard before the turn of this century. Campus Pride launched in 2001 to provide an online resource to inform LGBT students about what was available at various campuses, something Windmeyer had researched and promoted since around 1995.
"There's been an increase in scholarships and programs, most definitely," says Windmeyer, who in 2006 produced a college guide for LGBT students for The Advocate.
The greatest resources for LGBT students remain in those parts of the country known for tolerance, Windmeyer says. The Pride Foundation offers several scholarships in the Northwest, for example. Scholarship opportunities remain less available to students who don't live on the East or West Coasts.
A native of Kansas himself, Windmeyer applauded KU for the growth of the scholarship. He noted, though, that the school still lags competitor Kansas State in providing on-campus support for LGBT students. Campus Pride keeps an index of schools providing such support as as gender-inclusive housing and restroom facilities. Notably, KU did start offering gender-inclusive housing last year.
The LGBT scholarship scene underwent a revolution in 2011, Windmeyer notes, when Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first school in the country to allow students to self-identify as gay or lesbian on their applications, something that allowed college staff to connect students directly to scholarship opportunities.
And the growth in resources available has grown substantially since then. The Point Foundation, which still offers the most high-profile scholarship opportunity for LGBT students. Launched in 2001, the foundation is now the nation's largest scholarship-granting organization for LGBTQ students. It works with a $6.25 million endowment and has 98 current scholars on top of 270 program alumni, according to Eugene Patron, communications and marketing director. The scholarship program started out as a financial resource for LGBT students in four-year advanced programs and has evolved to include a mentoring component.
"Part of our founders' vision for students was to benefit students beyond financial help and to connect them with LGBTQ and allied professionals in their field," Patron says. "For medical students who feel overwhelmed, we can connect them with a mentor and show what it's like to be an out physician with a partner and raising a family."
Financially, the Point Foundation also now has corporate sponsorship from pro-LGBT companies like HBO, another change in the level of visible support. But throughout the nation, many scholarships still rely on individual donors giving during their lifetime or through their wills.
Through the years, Leat has met scholarship recipients and encouraged them about their futures, particularly those pursuing fields in finance. He also hopes that providing a scholarship that benefits LGBT students will spur greater diversity and visibility of a community of campus where students can belong. That would be a huge contrast, Leat says, from when he attended school in Kansas and had no inkling of a community. He didn't discover that until leaving his home state and moving into more metropolitan areas. By the time he worked on Wall Street in the mid-1980s he could live as a fully out gay man, but he knows that even now, many students coming from rural areas don't have that luxury.