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So I just finished reading the executive summary (PDF) of Campus Pride’s 2010 report on the status of higher education for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I’m hoping to get my hands on the full report, but I can’t afford to purchase it for the $25.00 cover price at the moment, and it’s proving a little tricky to inter-library loan. So for the moment, the executive summary’s all I have to work with. Along with this really interesting interview on NPR with lead author Sue Rankin, which is what tuned me into the report in the first place (audio + transcript available at NPR).

This report has been getting a lot of media attention following the suicide of Rutger’s student, Tyler Clementi, who was apparently the subject of bullying and harassment by fellow students in part because of his same-sex relationships. It is surprising to many people — across the political spectrum I gather — that college campuses in general might be hostile places for non-straight and gender-non-conforming. On NPR Sue Rankin herself put it this way when interviewed by Morning Edition’s Ari Shapiro (emphasis mine):

Prof. RANKIN: One of the major findings that was surprising to me, actually -after 33 years of doing this – that one-third of the students, faculty and staff that participated indicated they had seriously considered leaving the institution.

SHAPIRO: Is that a result of bullying or just a place where they don’t necessarily feel comfortable being themselves? How does that play out?

Prof. RANKIN: We identify it as being climate. And climate includes things like discrimination and harassment. We asked not only what they experienced but how they experienced it. An interesting piece that complements, I guess, this particular unfortunate event at Rutgers, is that a lot of this is now happening in cyberspace, which may lead to the possibility of them being outed and then harassed in some way.

SHAPIRO: What are the other consequences of this kind of bullying?

Prof. RANKIN: We find that there are higher depression rates among LGBT students who don’t have support on their college campuses.

SHAPIRO: You say LGBT – Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.

Prof. RANKIN: Yes. We find that students who are out in high school are actually returning to a more closeted space when they come to college. They have to…

SHAPIRO: Really?

Prof. RANKIN: …yeah – reopen those doors for themselves, because they’re afraid of what may happen if they have a roommate who is not supportive. So the importance of having visible resources on a college campus to assist students, I think, is tantamount. And right now only 7 percent of our institutions offer that.

SHAPIRO: Only seven percent of colleges have resources for lesbian and gay students?
Prof. RANKIN: That’s correct.

You can read the rest of Rankin’s interview at NPR.

Since I haven’t yet read the full report, I will simply offer a couple of tentative observations based on the executive summary.

The first is that, as regular readers of my blog will know, I have first-hand experience with campus climates that are hostile to queer students. Many of the folks who are active in trying to change the climate on Hope’s campus, as well as more distant observers of the anti-queer bigotry there have operated under the assumption that much of the hostility stems from the religious beliefs of influential members of the community and the Reformed Church of America (RCA), the denomination out of which the college originated and still maintains close ties. While the expression of and explicit justification for anti-gay sentiment on campus at Hope is unquestionably religious in its nature, this report is a caution not to treat Hope College as some sort of ultra-conservative outlier, completely out of touch with the mainstream world of higher education.  On the contrary, it appears from the personal stories and statistics in the report that Hope College’s struggles with harassment, bullying and other subtle forms of hostility and non-support for non-straight, gender-nonconforming folks is (sadly) much more mainstream that it would be nice to believe.

The second is the emphasis the report places on both the intersectionality of marginalization (non-straight, gender-nonconforming students who were not white, for example, experienced greater degrees of harassment and reported overall higher levels of negative experience than their white counterparts) and the importance of not becoming wedded to rigid identity categories when researching, reporting, and attempting to mitigate the negative campus climate for queer folks.  As the authors write in their executive summary when suggesting future “best practices”:

In the demographic section of the monograph we discuss the power of language in the LGBTQQ community and, therefore, encourage the use of language that extends beyond the binaries in all of the recommended potential best practices. As reflected in the results [of the survey], many participants did not fit the socially-constructed definitions of gender identity, sexual identity, and gender expression. Their comments suggested they are either pathologized or forced to develop a “different” sense of identity. In shaping our outlook, language instills and reinforces cultural values, thereby helping to maintain social hierarchies. While definitions facilitate discussion and the sharing of information, terminology remains subject to both cultural contexts and individual interpretation. As a result, the terminology that people use to describe themselves and their communities is often not universally accepted by everyone within these communities. Therefore, our overall recommendation is that we value the voices of those within our campus communities and use language that reflects their unique experience (p. 15 of the summary).

As a feminist activist and scholar of feminist and sexuality activism, I deal with the thorny question of identity language all the time. It is easy enough to respect the identity language people choose for themselves (just ask and honor their preferences!); it is much more complicated when one is trying to understand how collective identities emerge and transform over time.  One of the questions I ask myself often is whether collective identities always, by definition, end up excluding and/or marginalizing people. That is, can they only exist by virtue of defining themselves against other collective identities?  Hanna often argues this position, and I am hard-pressed — when looking at identity communities in practice — to disagree with her.  Human groups too often base their collective self-understanding on exclusion. 

I don’t, however, believe this is necessary for forming a meaningful sense of self-in-relation-to-others, and I see the way forward (towards creating a less hostile climate for non-conforming folks) as being a path towards community identity that is based on inclusion and the honoring of individual experience and voices, rather than exclusion and the silencing of individual self-understanding.  I’ll be interested to see, when/if I get my hands on the full report, where CampusPride’s researchers go with this issue of language, identity, and community.

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