October 11th was National Coming Out Day, where we in the LGBTQIA community and our allies celebrate our identities. The 27th anniversary of this occasion comes at a time of great success with the recent SCOTUS federal marriage recognition ruling. It is a time in our history where the marches, protests, lobbying, and hard work have paid off. A goal of equality was reached. Our voices were heard.
A cause for celebration yes, but the work is not over. We can see that in Kentucky. We can read that in the news about the number of transgender murders in this country (as of July, the number is 15 since January). We can also see that on our campuses, in conversations in the hallway with slurs and words of hate.
How do we create an open and inclusive culture on our campuses? What resources are available to us in higher education? How can we offer support to our students? How can we ultimately make our spaces a welcoming environment?
National Coming Out Day is recognized at many universities across Maryland and the country. Administrators, faculty, and staff can and should play an integral role in the support of this day. Becoming a mentor and a role model is a good first step.
I recall my own experience in coming out when I attended Salisbury University for my undergraduate degree. I struggled with finding myself and who I was. Eventually, I found the campus LGBTQIA group (then, known as BT GLASS), where I discovered a strong student-support system. Ultimately, I noticed stickers on faculty doors – rainbows and the words “safe space” highlighted – that let me know that some of my professors were people I could talk to. They became my trusted advisors, mentors, and ultimately my friends. I cannot stress to you how much this meant to me as student.
To promote mentoring opportunities, I encourage you to research Safe Space training options at your institution. Safe Space training usually involves a presentation and small group discussions on how to be an ally and to provide a “safe space” for your campus. The Safe Space sticker lets students and even your colleagues know that your office is a “safe space” for the LGBTQIA community. This important step allows your office to become a safe haven for your students. You can provide a trusting environment, equipped with the knowledge of how to offer support and resources to your students.
Once you go through Safe Space training, consider becoming a trainer. You can play an integral role in assisting those in your office and around the campus with learning how to become a “safe space.”
If you do not have a Safe Space program, look into starting one and research other resources. Part of the mission of the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals (Lgbtcampus.org) is to offer support for policy changes and to provide resources to LGBTQIA professionals in higher ed. Organizations like Campus Pride (Campuspride.org) have resources available to faculty, staff, and students, many of which are free. The Chronicle of Higher Education partnered with Campus Pride to produce a video called “Ask Me: What LGTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know” (Chronicle.com/article/Ask-Me-What-LGBTQ-Students/232797).
This powerful video gives college students the opportunity tell us what they want us to learn. “Ask me” is an important statement. Students do not want us to assume or to assign identities to them based on appearance or even based on their birth name. Other concerns may include campus housing or gender-neutral bathrooms. Our role in higher education is to listen to our students and be advocates.
Finally, come out as an ally. The simple act of offering up support to your students who are coming out, transitioning, or even questioning their identity is important. As I have pointed out, it can make someone’s day by just being there. This also takes us back to our own communities. The call for public service, as Dr. Roger Hartley discussed last week, is needed now more than ever. Be an ally for your students on your campus and the youth in your community. Answer the call to public service within your own university and become part of a network of support for our LGBTQIA students.
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