Recently, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. became an accidental metaphor for the lives of many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. In August, The Princeton Review named it the most gay-friendly school in America, and then less than a month later, someone scrawled homophobic graffiti on one of its student’s cars.
Most campuses endure hate crimes, but the timing of these events clarifies that even in the safest places, LGTBQ students can have challenging day-to-day lives. And now, one new book is aiming to address the full breadth of their experiences outside the classroom.
Published in September by The Princeton Review, The Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life bills itself as “a comprehensive resource” for LGBTQ students and their allies. Unlike most college guides, the book isn’t trying to rank anything, so there are no lists of faculty-to-student ratios or even statistics about universities with the most openly gay professors.
Instead, there are chapters with names like “Dealing With Homo/Bi/Transphobia On Campus (and Off.)”
John Baez, one of the guide’s three co-authors, says, “We intentionally went for a very mainstream, practical perspective. I think the book has the potential to guide students through situations that perhaps they’ve never found advice on before.”
Importantly, the authors — who also include Jennifer Howd, Baez’s partner in the media group Punkmouse, and Rachel Pepper, coordinator of lesbian and gay studies at Yale University — are careful to address situations at many types of schools, be they urban or rural, large or small.
“We provide a resource that can hopefully help kids express who they are, regardless of where they are,” notes Howd.
Howd says that at most of the schools she contacted, she was struck by how many students provided stories and photographs for the first-person narratives that accompany the chapters. She explains, “I had some concerns in the back of my head that kids wouldn’t want to do it, but when we put out the call, we were flooded with kids from all across the country who wanted to take a stand and participate.”
Baez says the authors strove to quote a broad range of students — particularly those who identify as transgender, whom he says can be “left out” of conversations on queer student issues.
But gender isn’t always an overlooked topic. In many schools, those who don’t fit traditional definitions of “masculinity” or “femininity” have been the impetus for significant change.
Mostly, colleges have begun addressing gender concerns by amending the language of their non-discrimination policies. However, some have also joined two key movements that are directly affecting daily student life: the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms in campus buildings and the institution of a gender-blind roommate option in dorm housing.
Brittney Hoffman, who heads campus initiatives for the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC), says these initiatives are vital. She explains, “Colleges and universities have to provide an environment that nurtures self-determination. It’s important to respect students as part of a community without imposing barriers that won’t let them be who they are.”
Though gender-blind housing and restrooms are far from the norm, they have become increasingly popular since schools like Wesleyan University began introducing them in the mid 2000s. Of the 278 colleges and universities it surveyed for an August report on campus gender equality, GenderPAC reported that 30 offered some kind of gender-blind housing and 140 offered gender-neutral restrooms.
Of course, gender neutrality doesn’t only affect LGBTQ students — a heterosexual brother and sister, for instance, might want to share a dorm room — but campuses that institute such policies are certainly making it easier for their gay community to thrive.
Housing policies and guidebooks can only do so much, though, and statistics can’t reveal everything. Ultimately, the truest indicators of a school’s attitude on sexuality may be ineffable.
Discussing what makes Macalester welcoming to the LGBTQ community, Dr. Jim Hoppe, dean of students, muses that the active queer student organization, the “lavender” graduation ceremony for gay seniors, and the rising number of out faculty members are only part of the equation. “I don’t know if it’s so much about what we do,” he says, “as it is the general climate on campus. It’s been a value here for a while to be an open, accepting place, and we’ve attracted faculty, students, and staff who want to embody that.”
Hoppe continues that the recent act of homophobic vandalism emphasizes that even the most hospitable schools can improve their support of LGBTQ students. He says, “That was a reminder of the type of world we live in. It’s important for us to help students be prepared for the type of world they’ll enter when they leave this place, but it would be inappropriate for us to say we’ve got it all figured out”
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