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End of the Rainbow?

Anti-DEI and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passed in states like Texas and Florida is tied to a national trend of trying to make LGBTQ+ people and people of color invisible and more easily discriminated against, says Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Imani Rupert-GordonImani Rupert-Gordon“All students deserve to have places of support on the campuses where they are investing in their education and preparing for their futures, and this includes LGBTQ+ students and students of color,” says Rupert-Gordon. “We are increasingly concerned that this trend will have a chilling effect across more campuses if these laws spread to other states.”

Florida’s Senate Bill 266 took effect on July 1, 2023, prohibiting specified educational institutions from expending funds for certain purposes. It seeks to prohibit any state or federal funding from being utilized to support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at the state’s higher education institutions. The University of North Florida (UNF), by example, has shuttered several on-campus centers, including the LGBTQ Center.

In Texas, Senate Bill 17 took effect on Jan. 1, 2024. Under this law, public institutions of higher education cannot engage in DEI activities. The University of Texas at Austin closed its Gender and Sexuality Center, transferring some of its activities and services to the university’s Women’s Community Center, which UT then closed in May.

“It really is a structural erasure of queer and trans individuals,” says Dr. Ángel de Jesús González, an assistant professor of higher education administration and leadership at Fresno State. “These spaces were created out of a demand to recognize our existence in these spaces, to serve us, provide us the resources that we need to be successful in our educational trajectories, and, in doing so, be successful overall. Now, we’re seeing it being targeted through multiple avenues.”

Dr. Ángel de Jesús GonzálezDr. Ángel de Jesús GonzálezImpact

To put in perspective how these centers serve LGBTQ+ students, Dr. Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says this center does about 50 programs per school year. If forced to scramble for meeting space, there would be only a small fraction of that programming. It is a space to establish community, which is important for persistence and student success.

Johnathan Gooch, communications director for Equality Texas, says that, by spring, many schools had to shut down their LGBTQ+ centers. Some institutions even started shutdowns at the start of the academic year.

“We know there’s a real need for this, and these centers have such a big impact on students,” says Gooch. “They impact student performance and retention.”

During the 2023 legislative session in Texas, more than 160 anti-LGBT bills were filed, seven of which passed. The government affairs department of Equality Texas has been surveying students and faculty at the Texas institutions impacted by SB 17 to gauge how it has been implemented.

“We’re seeing a lot of pressure from lawmakers on university officials to over-comply with the law,” says Gooch. “[Recently], there was an interim hearing where the committee on higher education was grilling chancellors of the major public university systems in Texas about what they’re doing to comply and whether or not they’re really auditing all of the departments to make sure everyone is in compliance.

“What we’ve seen time and time again is that the universities are over-complying with SB 17,” he adds. “They’re doing much more than they need to, which is leaving students with fewer and fewer resources.”

The LGBTQ+ resource center at Prairie View A&M University, a public historically Black university in Texas, closed earlier this year. Chauna Lawson, associate director of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) HBCU program, says the center was stripped of “literally every rainbow in sight.” Saabiraa Robinson, president of Prairie View’s LGBTQ+ organization, says the center is sorely missed.

“When we needed to have important sensitive conversations and host events where we could all just come together and be ourselves and have fun, we used the resource center,” Robinson explains. “When we lost the resource center, it was harder to secure a location and make any other location as unique, safe, and comfortable as our resource center was. As someone who came out not long before college, the resource center was a safe place not only as a queer person, but it also was a safe place to process the ups and downs of being a college student.”

Resistance

Robinson has been in communication with the HRC’s HBCU division and says she’s begun to embrace her activist spirit. “This situation has lit a fire in me that I cannot put out,” she says.

González notes that the LGBTQ+ community has created its own spaces over the decades, even when there is no institutional support. “Community can be built in different ways,” they say. “Hope is our guiding star in this moment.”

Dr. D-L Stewart, professor and chair, of the higher education department in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver, says these closures, which also encompass other DEI initiatives, show that public institutions have not traditionally served the public at large.

“Much of the campus systems and structures are still very much informed by patriarchy, even though they’re public institutions,” says Stewart. “The way[s] elimination of resources is being implemented are meant to bring queer and trans students back into the closet and being unseen. Thankfully, various coalitions are coming together to support these college students.”

Dr. D.L. StewartDr. D.L. StewartAs college students grappled with the closures, sources stepped up. Houston Canterbury, an Episcopal organization serving the three public universities in Houston, partnered with Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Jewish campus ministries to offer LGBTQ+ student organizations free use of the A.D. Bruce Religion Center on the University of Houston campus.

At the University of Texas at Austin, Lavender Graduation for LGBTQ students was taken up by the alumni association. Four celebrations — Lavender Graduation, GraduAsian, Latinx Graduation and Black Graduation — took place in the alumni center with the alumni covering the costs.

“Young people are already formulating that resistance,” says Stewart. “They have done that often with the support of the professionals who work in those offices who helped to teach them and develop their activism. They are already pushing back on central administration — presidents, chancellors, provosts.

“We, the grownups, need to be supporting the pressure that they are putting on and also using the rooms that we are in to also agitate,” Stewart adds. “As a tenured full professor, I have access to certain spaces that students don’t have direct access to. It does matter if I am on one of these campuses, what am I saying, how am I helping to push back, how am I resisting, making vocal and amplifying the voices of the students who are already speaking out.”

Beemyn says a class divide may develop. Students whose families have the means to move them to an institution in a more supportive state will do so and those who don’t have the means will have to navigate oppressive regulations. Young people, new voters, must become engaged in politics at the local and state levels, says Stewart, because that is where many of the battles are happening.

Inclusion

“It’s also a reality of why we need to embed this work across the fabric of the institution versus just having it be centralized in one component, because it’s easily targeted and removed when it’s just the work of an office,” says González. “My research and research from other scholars I have spoken to while we need these spaces, centers, and services, we also need the work to be labored across the organization structures. That way, if something is removed there are still other components structurally that are supporting queer and trans students.”

Dr. Genny BeemynDr. Genny BeemynStewart says people need to stop investing all their hope in colleges and universities as the sole space of freedom and liberation. Before there were LGBTQ+ centers, queer and trans youth found community off campus. There should be investment in grassroot organizations in the local communities, he added..

“[These organizations] become a space for these youth to be engaged in,” Stewart says. “It used to be underground. It doesn’t have to be underground anymore, but we can still divest from the college or university as the sole anchor of support, resources, and mentoring for queer and trans youth.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic showed, college students have become adept at building community online. “People are going to, I assume, turn to more virtual spaces to find support, to find community, which will certainly help some students, but by no means is a substitute for [centers],” Beemyn says. They also note that LGBTQ faculty and staff can make a point of being mentors and role models as well as cultivating a sense of belonging for students.

“This is the generation that is the queerest, is the transist,” says Beemyn. “It’s going to be an awful next decade, I’m sure, but I think things will change in time. It’s going to be really unfortunate for this Gen Alpha as it comes into college and has to deal with this, but they’re going to help change things.”

Lawson is impressed with the resilience and resolve that students are showing. “Students are taking their power back and are finding unique ways to carry forth the movement for social justice via social media, events, and workshops,” Lawson says. “There is strength in numbers — forming an LGBTQ+ alliance club can go a long way in the fight against shutting down what is ultimately white supremacy systemic oppression.”

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