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Filling the stars: LGBT inclusion makes strides after creation of equity position

BY KATHERINE BAUER

The creation of the Director of Student Engagement, Equity and Inclusion has created a “watershed moment in how the university approaches” LGBT inclusion, according to Tony Tyler.

Tyler, previously the director of Olmsted, moved into the new position at the start of the 2016 J-Term.

The need for the new position, and more institutionalized LGBT inclusion efforts, was demonstrated by the results of two surveys conducted recently at Drake.

“(Student organizations) were giving us feedback about wanting more support and wanting an institution to devote institutional energy and time and commitment to supporting our multicultural organizations,” Tyler said. “Listening to that student feedback, listening to the campus climate survey, taking a hard look at what areas we are supporting and what areas we are not, we said we need to make this change.”

Rainbow Union, Drake’s safe space organization for LGBT students and One Voice, Drake’s LGBT student advocacy group, worked together to conduct the Campus Pride Index. It was made available in October 2014 and the results ranked Drake two out of five stars for LGBT inclusion and support.

The second survey, the Campus Climate Survey, brought social issues for LGBT students to Drake administration’s attention.

Tyler said that Drake previously worked under the philosophy that every member of faculty, staff and administration should be working towards diversity, inclusion and equity. It was believed that an office or position might reduce the weight of the responsibility on individuals.

“I think over the last several years, they’ve come to the realization that if there isn’t a person coordinating those efforts, then often times they can get kind of lost and forgotten even though a lot of people affirm their importance,” Tyler said. “Nobody was directing these efforts and giving them energy and giving that energy direction.”

Pride Index

The Campus Pride Index looked at many different areas of campus life and revealed issues with LGBT inclusion.

The Index revealed that residence life poses difficult social situations for LGBT students, particularly transgender students. Students have to worry about whether or not their roommate will be comfortable, supportive, or if they’ll even be in a safe environment if they were to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The Campus Climate Survey identified mainly social problems ‘LGBQ’ students perceive on campus.

‘LGBQ’ respondents were less comfortable with the overall campus and classroom climates than heterosexual respondents.

Armed with this feedback, Tyler said he is able to look at the next steps Drake administration can take to expand LGBT inclusion.

“We just have to choose something and start working on that,” Tyler said. “It’s difficult because you don’t want to prioritize one person’s need. So it’s been difficult to identify those things.”

Projects

One major project that may be nearing completion is the implementation of the Trans Inclusion Statement under the university’s nondiscrimination policy. The purpose of this statement is to state explicitly that Drake is supportive of transgender students and that policies and practices on campus will uphold this value.

Tyler said he has mainly worked with members of Rainbow Union, One Voice, Student Activists for Gender Equality (SAGE) and the dean of students to cultivate this statement. Legal council was sought out to ensure a well-crafted statement.

“I think we’d like to see something before this academic year is over, so before we leave for the summer,” Tyler said. “Now we’ve passed it on up sort of to the higher level of administrative offices for them to consider this.”

In addition to the Trans Inclusion Statement, other efforts have already created a more inclusive environment. An all-gender restroom was installed in Olmsted earlier this semester.

“For people who don’t feel comfortable being labeled a boy or a girl, being in a men’s or women’s bathroom can be really uncomfortable,” Paxton Gillespie, Rainbow Union’s publicity chair said. “It can go to that idea of … causing anxiety because you’re not being perceived the way you want to. It also comes to the issue of safety, specifically for gender nonconforming people.”

Tyler said he is working to identify all single-stall restrooms on campus to reconstruct them as all-gender restrooms.

Safe Space

Another major step as director of Student Engagement, Equity and Inclusion is the organization of Safe Space Training.

Safe Space Training is a program designed to educate groups on a variety of LGBT topics. Often a training session begins by going over terminology used to identify members of the LGBT community, followed by discussion of the statistical violence that occurs against the LGBT community and the importance of creating safe places.

“Violence comes from a lack of understanding usually, so that’s the first goal of the Safe Space Training — to get rid of physical violence that can happen,” said Mary Traxler, an executive member of One Voice. “People want to be respectful and know how to talk to people and be someone that can be affirming of people’s identities. But it’s hard to know (everything) all the time, especially if you haven’t had personal experience with it before.”

For many years, Tyler alone performed the training for campus organizations. Now, students, primarily from One Voice, will coordinate the trainings through Tyler’s position.

Residence Life

On campus, housing remains one of the biggest hurdles for inclusivity, especially for transgender students.

“Sometimes people feel uncomfortable because they don’t know if their roommate is comfortable having someone in the LGBQ Community as their roommate,” Rainbow Union Co-President Hannah Smith said. “We’ve talked about adding stuff to surveys for roommates so someone doesn’t have to deal with having a roommate who may not be as comfortable with (a roommate) being part of the LGBQ community.”

Students said a new section on the roommate survey could allow students to dictate whether or not they are comfortable with having a member of the LGBQ community as a roommate by answering a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.

“We’re having a lot of important conversations with people in housing, making these things feasible because they are (feasible), but a lot of times they seem like really lofty goals,” Traxler said. “And it feels like we’re the only people in the world trying to do this.”

Dean of Students Sentwali Bakari said that Drake administration is exploring what the best practices are in higher education for residence halls concerning gender-inclusive housing. One solution may be installing more single-stall bathrooms and private showers in the residence halls or having floors or buildings dedicated to members of the LGBT community.

“In due time, you’re going to see (things) happen,” Bakari said. “But our job right now is to do research, identify best practices and not rush into something that we haven’t thought everything out to make sure that when we are able to do that … We want to be conscious and thoughtful and research-oriented to make sure that when we say we’re going to deliver on a service, it’s done right.”

Bakari said that Drake has been able to accommodate students on a case-by-base basis in terms of special housing requests.

“Anytime (students) have a housing situation where they want to be matched up with different students, they need to let us know and we can see how we can make that happen,” Bakari said.

Social climate

While Drake administration is able to take steps toward policy, it can only do so much to change the social climate LGBT students are experiencing on a daily basis.

“In many ways, a college is nothing without the students,” Traxler said. “Faculty and staff and administration can only do so much if the students aren’t willing to be an active participant in learning or engaging in these sort of things. ”

Smith said that educating Drake’s students, administration, faculty and staff remains an important part of becoming more inclusive.

Smith said that it can be difficult to sympathize with the struggles of LGBT students when many non-LGBT students will never experience them. However, the Drake community can help change that-.

“Something that I learned was that just because I can’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not real,” Smith said. “It gets tiring to constantly be fighting an uphill battle. Administration has started listening, but it’s definitely a process.”

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