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Spring 2005

Volume 34
Number 3

Visibility and Invisibility: LGBTQ Students on Campus



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From Where I Sit

Bridging Differences through Feminist Service Learning
By Cierra Olivia Thomas and Tonia St. Germain, Gender Studies Program
Eastern Oregon University

Homophobia is a widespread problem on college campuses; studies consistently expose a "fearful" and often "discriminatory" environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Questioning (LGBTQ) students, faculty, and staff (Renn, 2000). The Gender Studies program at Eastern Oregon University (Eastern) has taken a proactive approach to ameliorating the negative campus climate issue for LGBTQ students through in-class service learning projects. This essay outlines the rationale, approach, and results that a feminist-based service-learning project can have on LGBTQ students. Service learning is important for marginalized students because, as Porter argues, "[o]ffering a specialized leadership program sends a message to the LGBT[Q] student population that they matter to the institution," and program support can lead to "student leadership development and success" (307). Providing leadership opportunities for LGBTQ students at Eastern proved particularly important, as it established both a place to lead and a safe space for marginalized students to be.

Nationally, few studies that "test" pervasive attitudes and the general campus environment surrounding issues of homosexuality have been conducted in the last twenty years. According to Lopez and Chism, only a handful of academic institutions, including the "University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Rutgers University, Ohio State University, University of California, Santa Cruz, and Yale University, have conducted studies" on LGBTQ students, which complicates assessing LGBTQ students' experiences. Institutions often fail in their responsibility to support LGBTQ students, thus perpetuating the silencing and invisibility these students experience.

Campus Climate for LGBTQ Students at Eastern

No formal studies on LGBTQ students have been conducted at Eastern. In preparation for this essay, the authors informally interviewed members of the LGBTQ campus community, officers and members of the student-led Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), and other Eastern faculty, students, and staff about their experiences. The authors identified several factors contributing to the negative campus climate for LGBTQ students including: lack of administrative support for the GSA; a shortage of mentors for LGBTQ students; insufficient funds for educational resources; no office space for the GSA; and the consequences of placing untrained administrative personnel in charge of anti-discrimination policy enforcement. The Gender Studies faculty felt strongly that students would be best served by engaging the system themselves, and by actively working to change both the environment and policies.

Despite a campus-wide agenda promoting "diversity," barriers for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff remain. Eastern's mission is to guide "student inquiry" through an integrated program, which leads to "responsible and reflective action in a diverse and interconnected world" (University Mission, 2004). Meeting this mission is perhaps more difficult for Eastern because of the conservative rural environment in which it is situated. Diversity is thus shaped largely by local Anglo-male culture. This homophobic culture, with its tradition of practicing aversive heterosexism towards members of the LBGTQ community, has a powerful impact on student life at Eastern.

Living as an openly LGBTQ person in such a community can be devastating. One lesbian student commented on the lack of resources for LGBTQ students, including having no campus "safe space" program, no annual institutionalized staff "diversity" training, and no resource center, thereby creating "a desperate situation." Another student reflected that having no readily identifiable resources for gay students contributed to the feeling that there is no one and nowhere to turn to in times of need. Students have been ostracized in the classroom for "looking gay," and LGBTQ students report verbal harassment, including one lesbian student who has had to endure comments like "do you have a penis?" According to a gay student, the LGBTQ community "feel[s] like an underground community that everyone involved in knows [about], but if you are not involved [in it] then you have no idea." Further, LGBTQ students often claim they are not "completely free to voice opinions or feelings in many classes on campus due to the fact that many students are very traditional and hyper-hetero." Thus, LGBTQ students opt not to speak up in class "about homosexual topics" due to "not knowing how one or more people would react" and not "having the energy to fight the battle."

Several factors converged to make "normal" campus life for LGBTQ students at Eastern even more difficult than national studies describe. Scrutiny of students who are "out" or desire to "come out" is fairly intense due to the pervasive negative stereotypes about members of the LGBTQ community. The small size of the student body and the intimate relationships between students, faculty, and staff fostered by a small campus environment make it difficult for LGBTQ students to form alliances in a hyper-heterosexual environment. University staff members are drawn from the local, more conservative community and many faculty, who would be expected to have a wider perspective, have little awareness of or insight into the experiences of LGBTQ students.

Economic considerations often lead students to locate themselves in this "non-welcoming" academic environment. Though educational and living fees are more affordable, LGBTQ students who attend Eastern face a high incidence of overt and covert discrimination based on sexual orientation in their daily lives. Elisa Lucozzi writes that LGBTQ students need support in the struggle with "others' homophobic responses" and having allies among faculty and staff is the key to transforming an unwelcoming campus culture. The Gender Studies faculty was determined to help LGBTQ students cultivate leadership and organizing skills that would allow them to "take their space" on Eastern's campus, and therefore developed course components directed towards this goal.

Eastern's Gender Studies Curricular Response

Eastern's Gender Studies program opted to develop leadership skills through service learning within course work. Porter argues that "leadership development programs" support the "important struggle for identity and community of LGBT[Q] students," which sends the message of allegiance and support students so often lack (310). For the LGBTQ students at Eastern to begin to "take their space" as leaders they needed to develop organizing and lobbying skills to persuade both administrative leadership and their own student government to include them fully and proudly in the campus community. Teaching LGBTQ students the skills they need to become student leaders in an environment that seeks to keep them invisible and silent is the challenge; feminist-based service learning is the solution.

Feminist Service Learning Project

Committed to the simple concept that "behavior follows thought," faculty included a service-learning component in Eastern's introductory (200 level) Gender Studies course. Students were required to work in groups to organize an "open mic" event on campus using Rivka Solomon's book, That Takes Ovaries!, and accompanying web site as their guide. Solomon's book is a compilation of short stories about the "empowerment of females," including stories by openly lesbian women. It encourages girls and women to organize and hold "speak outs" in their community as part of a larger "grassroots movement" to raise awareness of the conditions for all girls and women, creating essentially a human rights community forum.

The event was scheduled late in the term after the students had the opportunity to engage with course readings on the social construction of gender, race, and class, and the power of heterosexism in their lives. Robert A. Rhodes argues that perceptions of what it means to be gay are often "media-produced [and] one dimensional," which places gender and sexual identities in a box rather than on a continuum. This can cause negative self-perceptions in the campus LGBTQ population. Classroom engagement with sexuality (and other) issues raises awareness in students and helps to "situate" the problems "within local, national, and global political realities" (Gilbert, 2000). Students confront their own preconceived notions about sexual orientation through course readings and then test these ideas experientially through the open mic project.

One student explained her feeling prior to being involved in the class and event: "I believe that people identify me in a negative way." Another labeled herself as "bad" and felt she needed to "live a lie" to gain acceptance. These negative self- perceptions prevent LGBTQ students from "coming/being out" and actualizing their identity. Ruth E. Fassinger argues that "students' experiences of their own identities create a lens through which all cognitive, affective, and behavioral events are filtered." Student development in the form of scholarship and leadership can, and often does, suffer as a result of poor self- perception, because--as research has repeatedly shown--classroom experiences often marginalize LGBTQ students.

Renn claims the classroom is "the place on campus reserved for free and respectful exchange of ideas," and therefore it should "provide an oasis" from "anti-LGBT[Q] harassment, violence, and invalidation." Gender Studies courses examine oppressive social structures and, within the framework of feminist pedagogy, challenge students to "think critically about the systems of interlocking oppression at work in local communities (Gilbert, 2000). Feminist service learning projects, according to Gilbert, provide a means for "continually relating the community work back to theories about inequity, social change, and personal agency." Students who organized and/or participated in the open mic night found themselves leaders in the effort of teaching tolerance and helping the campus community live up to the words of its mission.

LGBTQ Representation and Leadership

The open mic had a ripple effect that moved beyond the students in the class. The LGBTQ students in the course passed the word to their friends on campus and in the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). Leaders in the GSA saw an opportunity to make the wider community aware of their presence on campus in a positive way. These juniors and seniors spoke about being LGBTQ students, partners, parents, and friends, and told their stories with pride and confidence at the open mic, serving as role models for other LGBTQ students in the audience. These "bold and brazen" stories told by lesbian and bi-sexual students included tales of coming out to family members, mothering as a same sex partner, or asking a friend out for the first time. They gave the audience powerful examples of the pain that enforced heterosexism can cause in the lives of their friends and classmates. Gay men spoke about how much it meant to them to have strong and accepting women in their lives from mothers, to aunts, to classmates--again reinforcing for the audience the power of being and having "allies" in the face of heterosexist discrimination. One student "came out" publicly at the event and was clearly excited and empowered by the act of telling her story. The event set a new standard for openness on campus, and allowed LGBTQ students their "space" for the first time in an organized and public way.

Where To Go From Here?

Eastern's Gender Studies program recognized the disconnect between the word "diversity" and the campus practices surrounding LGBTQ students. Gender Studies faculty promoted institutional integrity by beginning to ameliorate this painful and pervasive disconnection between words and practice for Eastern's LGBTQ students via feminist service learning. Oberhauser writes that feminist "service learning and other experiential teaching methods expand students' understanding of themselves, social issues, and service organizations," thereby allowing students critical engagement with their education (28). The developmental service experience of Gender Studies courses allowed marginalized LGBTQ students to find their voices, speak out, and take their space in the classroom and in the community--becoming student leaders in the process.

Cierra Olivia Thomas is an undergraduate student at Eastern Oregon University. Tonia St. Germain is an assistant professor in and program coordinator of the Gender Studies Program at Eastern Oregon University.

References and Resources

Eastern Oregon University. February 3, 2004. University Mission. http://www.eou.edu/pres/mission.html.

Fassinger, Ruth E. 1998. Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identity and Student Development Theory. In Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students: A Handbook for Faculty and Administrators, ed. R. L. Sanlo, 13-22. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Gilbert, Melissa Kesler 2000. Educated in Agency: Student Reflections on the Feminist Service-Learning Classroom. In The Practice of Change: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Women's Studies, ed. B. J. Balliet and Kerriss Heffernan, 117-138. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Hammers, Corie, and A. D. Brown III. 2004. Toward a Feminist-Queer Alliance: A Paradigmatic Shift in the Research Process. Social Epistemology, 18 (1): 85-101.

Lopez, Gilda, and N. Chism. 1993. Classroom Concerns of Gay and Lesbian Students. College Teaching, 41 (3): 97-104.

Lucozzi, Elisa A. 1998. A Far Better Place: Institutions as Allies. In Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students: A Handbook for Faculty and Administrators, ed. R. L. Sanlo, 47-52. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Oberhauser, Ann M. 2002. Examining Gender and Community through Critical Pedagogy. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 26 (1): 19-31.

Porter, J. Davidson "Dusty" 1998. Leadership Development for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender College Students. In Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students: A Handbook for Faculty and Administrators, ed. R. L. Sanlo, 308-319. . Westport: Greenwood Press.

Renn, Kristen A. 2000. Including All Voices in the Classroom: Teaching Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students. College Teaching, 48 (4): 129-135.

Renn, Kristen A. 1998. Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual and Transgender Students in the Classroom. In Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students: A Handbook for Faculty and Administrators, ed. R. L. Sanlo, 231-244. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Rhodes, Robert A. 1995. The College Campus Climate for Gay Students. Education Digest, 61 (1): 57-61.

Solomon, Rivka. 2002. That Takes Ovaries!: Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts. New York: Random House, Inc.

Solomon, Rivka. 2005. That Takes Ovaries! Website Accessed on the World Wide Web on May 23, 2005 at http://thattakesovaries.org/htmls/homepage.html.

Tierney, W.G. 1992. Building Academic Communities of Difference: Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals on Campus. Change, 24 (2): 40-47.

 




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