From Where I Sit
Bridging Differences through Feminist Service
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
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
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
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
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