Rankin, Lerma offer Congressional testimony on campuses' LGBT climate

October 05, 2010

Campus Pride U.S. Congressional Policy Briefing
hosted by the U.S. Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, Campus Progress and Campus Pride
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Capitol Hill House Visitors Center, Room 215, Washington, D.C.

2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People: A National Study by the Q Research Institute for Higher Education
Written by Sue Rankin, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Genevieve N. Weber and Somjen Frazer

The following is a transcript of the testimony given by Susan Rankin, research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education and associate professor of education in the College Student Affairs Program in Penn State's College of Education, and Penn State student Yvette Lerma as part of the Sept. 23 Congressional policy briefing by Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber and college students Lerma of Penn State and Jacob Wilson of Iowa State University. The executive summary of the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report is available at http://www.campuspride.org/research/ online.

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My name is Sue Rankin. I am an associate professor of education at The Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People National Report. My colleagues and I appreciate your interest and your time to review the key findings of the report. We are especially grateful to Jacob and Yvette, two current students who can speak about their own personal experiences and provide “voice” to the data.

In 2003, I conducted a similar project much smaller in scale than the current initiative. Given the increase in LGBT research, inclusive policies, curricular initiatives, co-curricular programs, student services and an increase in the number of institutions in higher education supporting LGBT centers (99 in 2003 and 160 in 2010), I was curious to know if the campus climate for LGBT students, faculty and staff had changed. This national study seeks to respond to this question.

We recognize that “LGBT” does not represent the fluid spectrum of sexual and gender identities offered by the respondents or used in our community. Many of our participants did not fit the socially constructed definitions of gender identity, sexual identity and gender expression. In the narrative, we use the language provided by our participants to honor their voices and their own self-descriptions. We use LGBT throughout our discussion today as a means of simplifying our dialogue.

Our report, The State of Higher Education for LGBT People, is the most comprehensive national research study of its kind to date. It documents experiences of over 5,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators who identify as LGBT at colleges and universities across the United States.

We explored how LGBT people experience campus climate, we reviewed their perceptions of campus climate, and we presented behavioral (personal) and institutional (campus) responses to LGBT issues and concerns. In order to capture the complexity of campus climate, we paid particular attention to the intersections of racial identity and sexual identity, the intersections of racial identity and gender identity, and how such intersections impacted the experiences and perceptions of those who encounter multiple forms of oppressions. We also considered institutional position to examine any differences in the experiences of students, faculty members, and staff members, and again reviewed these differences as they intersect with sexual identity, gender identity and racial identity.

Recommended best practices from this national study provide the means for campus advocates, program planners and policy makers to implement strategic initiatives that address the needs and concerns of LGBT students and employees.

With regard to students, the literature indicates that campus climate plays a large role in students' educational experiences and outcomes. A challenging campus climate negatively influences educational outcomes, persistence and identity development.

Support: Empirically-supported student development and environmental theories suggest that students from different social groups perceive campus environments differently (Chang, 2003; Evans et al., 1998; LaRocca & Kromrey, 1999; Rankin & Reason, 2005). Several other empirical studies reinforce the importance of the perception of non-discriminatory environments for positive learning and developmental outcomes (Aguirre & Messineo, 1997; Flowers & Pascarella, 1999; Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Terenzini & Nora, 2001). Perception of climate also appears to influence student learning (Persaud & Salter, 2003; Salter, 2003; Salter & Persaud, 2003).

With regard to faculty and staff, a challenging campus climate leads to decreased productivity, decreased sense of value to the community and, ultimately, decreased retention.

Support: Settles et al. (2006) suggest that the personal and professional development of employees is significantly impacted by campus climate. Trower and Chait (2002) made an important observation in this regard when discussing the slow rate of change in faculty diversity at American colleges and universities: “Despite earning doctorates in ever-increasing numbers, many women and persons of color are eschewing academic careers altogether or exiting the academy prior to the tenure decision because both groups experience social isolation, a chilly environment, bias and hostility” (p. 36). Thus, Trower and Chait add their voices to other higher education scholars who suggest leaders and scholars must look to campus climate to improve the experiences of underrepresented and marginalized groups in higher education.

So what did we find?

In 2010, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) students, faculty and staff experience a climate in higher education that often interferes with their ability to successfully work, live and learn on campus. Because of this climate, one-third of LGBQ (33 percent) and transgender (38 percent) students, faculty, and staff have seriously considered leaving their institution due to the challenging climate.

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Yvette Lerma:

I considered transferring out of Penn State. Most people that know me would be surprised to hear that.

After the release of the key findings from the 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People, it seems that my experiences and thoughts are common. It found that it is significantly more common for individuals who are LGBT than our heterosexual peers to have seriously considered leaving their institution.

When I arrived in Happy Valley, I fell in love with Penn State. I became involved in several organizations, made many great friends and excelled in my classes. It would have appeared that my life as an undergraduate student was ideal.

Unfortunately, as only a few individuals knew at that time, my feelings about school had changed by spring 2007. I heard homophobic slurs in too many of my labs and was rejected by many of my classmates once they found out I was in a relationship with someone of the same sex. I began to battle a familiar fight with depression during that semester. This had an effect on my social life as well as academic courses.

Although I had these experiences, I had things that kept me at Penn State, the individuals working at the LGBTA Student Resource Center and the members from Undertones, the LGBT organization on campus for students of color. These two groups were able to guide me in the right direction to overcome these challenges. These were the people that helped me become a proud Chicana lesbian.

My undergraduate experience have improved due to the support I have received from my fellow LGBT students as well as affirming heterosexual peers, but it has not been without incident.

Currently, I am in a committed relationship with another Penn State student. We are both out to our families, in our classes and in the community and are involved in various organizations on campus. I might have faced my share of homophobia and heterosexism on my own but my sexual identity is more apparent while in my relationship. This has resulted in more direct harassment over the past four semesters.

Although many of our days go unmarked by homophobia and heterosexism, there are moments that have been tainted. Many strolls on campus and downtown have included gawking from others. Reactions to our presence have made a few of our dates considerably awkward.

Some of the worst harassment has occurred while in environments where alcohol has been present. One Wednesday night, we went out dancing at a local 18 and over club. Normally we would only attend “rainbow nights” at the local establishments, since our options were limited during the time my partner was under 21. While we were dancing together, a fellow student shoved us intentionally. While we decided to move away from this group of students, we were soon harassed by another group of students. Sadly, we decided to end our night early, seemingly the only option for us to avoid any more issues that evening.

I will not deny the fact that I have enjoyed my time in Happy Valley, but these moments will be a part of my college memories too. I have been able to get through some of the tough moments because of the availability of resources at Penn State, but sadly, not all colleges have the same resources available for their LGBT students. It is these negative views of the LGBT community that keep people from coming out and accessing the resources if they are available. If we are to move forward, we need to eradicate these issues, and change the way LGBT students experience their educational careers.

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Findings from the national report include the following points:

• Fewer than 7 percent (300) of U.S. colleges/universities have institutional support (centers, offices, person) for LGBT issues and concerns.

• Four percent (16) of higher educational institutions have LGBT centers.

• There are institutional policies at 4,409 colleges/universities in the country (two- and four-year). (Source: 2009 US Department of Education; http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_265.asp). Of those policies, 578 (13 percent) include content about sexual orientation and 282 (6 percent) include content about gender identity.

• There are 307 (7 percent) colleges/universities that offer same-sex health benefits to faculty/staff.

• 13 states and Washington, D.C. have laws providing protection based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

For student and employee LGBT resources at Penn State, visit the LGBTA Student Resource Center's resources page and the Commission on LGBT Equity.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 06, 2010