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Campus LGBTQ Organizations Hit Their Stride

The history of LGBTQ groups and associations on college campuses is inextricably entwined with the nation’s often repressive and sometimes violent treatment of LGBTQ individuals. Just as they did in the broader community, gays, lesbians and transgender individuals on college campuses had to make difficult choices about whether they would be out — and potentially be subject to violence and discrimination as a result — or hide their true identity.

Homosexuality was viewed for many years as a crime or mental illness, as it still is in some corners of the world. Illinois was the first state to decriminalize “homosexual acts” between consenting adults in 1962, even though the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973.

Georgetown University’s Lavender Graduation celebrates LGBT students. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Kossoff, Georgetown University)Georgetown
University’s Lavender Graduation celebrates LGBT students. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Kossoff, Georgetown University)

Recent victories, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2010 and the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage in 2015, marked the culmination of years of activism and sacrifice to change these beliefs and norms. Changes such as these signal that the LGBTQ community is becoming a more accepted and visible part of the fabric of American life, but, nevertheless, there is much work to be done.

Over the years, faculty and staff LGBTQ caucuses, or standing committees as they are sometimes known, have been instrumental in encouraging college administrations to create more inclusive campus cultures, protect sexual orientation and gender identity through non-discrimination policies, and recognize LGBTQ organizations and individuals as full-fledged campus partners.

According to Shane Windmeyer, director of Campus Pride, a North Carolina-based organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights on college and university campuses across the country, LGBTQ faculty and staff caucuses have been in existence on some campuses since the 1990s, often hand in hand with LGBTQ student organizations.

Having both types of organizations is the most effective means of advocating for change, Windmeyer says.

“Faculty and staff groups are important because they provide longevity, they provide institutional memory, and they provide an ongoing support mechanism, so that students feel supported,” Windmeyer says. “But I always say that we have to have a team approach in order to be successful in changing things on college campuses.”

The activism and personal sacrifice of previous decades paved the way for a safer and more tolerant nation today, but as many activists and organizers on college campuses will tell you, their work is still far from complete.

Coming out

When Dr. Karla A. Bell, assistant professor of physical therapy, arrived on the University of Delaware (UD) campus in Newark in 2008, after years of working and living in New England, she was surprised to find that the existing LGBTQ group kept their activities out of the public eye. At the time, UD’s LGBTQ faculty and staff members met more or less in secret.

Their names were kept on a list by one group member, who would then quietly contact the group for get-togethers. “It wasn’t a known entity at the university per se, representing constituents or the community in any way,” Bell says. “It was more for social support.”

Bell says she was initially puzzled by the apparent secrecy of the group’s activities but soon came to learn that many, quite simply, were afraid to be open about their identities. “There was a very strong sense of fear for job security, fear that their identity would be held against them in some way even though the 2000s were a positive growth climate for our community in this country,” she says.

Today, Bell is the co-chair of the UD LGBTQ Caucus, a group she has led along with co-chair Christine Grott, Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program coordinator, for the past four years. The duo led efforts to see UD recognize the LGBTQ caucus as one of eight other “official” diversity caucuses on campus.

Before Delaware recognized same-sex marriage, the caucus campaigned to ensure that couples in same-sex partnerships would be given stipends through the university to cover the cost of medical insurance for their partners and family. For the time, this was an enormous breakthrough.

“A lot of people think that LGBT groups are just a social group, that we get together and play games, or have drinks, or find dates,” Grott says. “But Karla and I were more about policy change and getting the word out there that you can be yourself and be an employee.”

UD representatives did not respond to requests for comment about the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The progress that UD has made is all the more striking when compared to where it was just four decades ago in the 1970s, which were a turbulent time for gay rights. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 brought the gay community out of the shadows and to the forefront of national consciousness, but there were many who were all too willing to try to force them back underground.

It was in the midst of this tumultuous period that Richard Aumiller agreed in September 1974 to serve as a volunteer faculty advisor to the Gay Community, a student group on campus. Aumiller had arrived at UD in 1972 as a graduate student in the Department of Theater and stayed on after obtaining his Ph.D. to become the manager of the University Theater on a contingent basis.

In May 1975, a reporter from the Philadelphia Bulletin visited the UD campus to report on gay culture in Delaware. Aumilller was quoted in the article making remarks that were provocative for the times, such as, “What does teenage America want to know about homosexuals? They want to know if we are sick and if we can be cured.”

After the article was published, senior administrators let Aumiller know that while his private life was his private life, if he did anything to cause embarrassment to the university, something would have to be done. Nevertheless, Aumiller’s contract was renewed for another year, after which he consented to being quoted again in a number of articles about the Gay Community’s activities.

As a result of the subsequent newspaper interviews, the university administration decided to not renew Aumiller’s contract for the 1976-77 academic year. Although Aumiller took his dismissal to court and won, the episode was chilling for those who remained on campus.

Ivo Dominguez Jr., who was a UD freshman in 1976, still remembers the turmoil that ensued after Aumiller left. It was a difficult time to be out. Dominguez recalls a dance the Gay Community held on campus that was broken up after some of their peers attempted to enter the hall and attack Gay Community group members inside.

Dominguez joined the Gay Community soon after enrolling.

“But the problem was, as a result of Aumiller being fired, the group was basically decimated,” Dominguez says. “People were afraid to show up. Students were afraid; grad students, even more so.”

Keeping the group going for the next few years was a struggle, but they persevered, gaining approval as a recognized student group and even some funding from the school.

Despite the gains the Gay Community made as a student group in the late ’70s, they were operating in a hostile environment.

“We had no problems with the SGA. We had no problems with getting support from the Faculty Senate. But even though there had been a change of administration, the administration continued to try to make the group go away,” Dominguez recalls. When the group posted flyers for meetings or activities, they would be taken down overnight on the pretext that they were “offensive.”

“These were flyers announcing things like consciousness-raising groups or dances, nothing particularly out of the ordinary,” Dominguez says.

An ongoing fight

The history of gay rights on UD’s campus is a microcosm of a larger struggle that is far from over, even on campuses that may at first glance appear to have well-established associations and strong non-discrimination policies. Having an LGBTQ group on campus is not enough to ensure full inclusion or ensure that the campus is a discrimination-free zone.

“A lot of campuses think, ‘Oh, we have a student group. We have a non-discrimination policy. That means we are LGBT-friendly,’” Windmeyer says. “Campus Pride has been saying for years now that you have to have an institutional commitment and a responsibility for LGBTQ students to be a truly welcoming, safe space for LGBT people.”

Sivagami Subbaraman, director of the Georgetown University LGBTQ Resource Center, echoes a similar sentiment.

“I look at [our progress] as how vast of a safety network we have created, because if students feel they can only come to the center for support, then that’s a problem,” Subbaraman says.

When Subbaraman arrived on campus in 2008 to lead the nascent center, she felt she could succeed in her work because there was support from the administration, faculty and campus ministry. The Resource Center was established at a moment in the university’s history when there was strong institutional will to create a more inclusive campus climate.

In 2007, a student was verbally and physically assaulted by two of his peers as he walked down the street. The victim wound up in the hospital with minor cuts and bruises, and the episode prompted the university to consider its treatment of its LGBTQ community, ultimately resulting in the creation of the center in August 2008.

Subbaraman believes that Georgetown has made significant progress since 2007. Campus leaders and ministry are engaged and willing to learn, she says, adding that it did not hurt when Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner and Georgetown alumnus, endowed the center with $1 million gift for programming, one of the largest donations to an LGBT center to date.

“Today, if something like what happened in 2007 happened, there’s absolutely no way a PSA wouldn’t go out within the hour. There would be a major meeting of senior administrators. There would be a town hall. There would be an appropriate level of response,” Subbaraman says. “Nobody would be trying to walk away from it. And that to me is really the measure of change.”

Over the years, LGBTQ organizations have led the way in helping society move toward a more progressive and inclusive space. While the future is always uncertain, if the past is any indication, they will continue to face down any challenges and existential threats to come.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

  • This story also appears in the June 1, 2017 print edition of Diverse.
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