Gay Rights on Campus, circa 2011

From a highly publicized suicide to quieter fear and state-sanctioned prejudice, the climate for LGBT people on campuses across the nation remains cloudy and unstable.
By Elizabeth P. Cramer and Charles H. Ford

The environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, staff, and faculty on college campuses has certainly improved over the last generation, but recent dramatic episodes confirm the continuing need for vigilance and reform. Students remain the constituency most vulnerable to the effects of entrenched bigotry: the harassment of first-year Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi last fall and his subsequent suicide highlighted this danger for a national audience. Here, the cyberbullying took on an especially vicious and homophobic edge, even on a relatively open and cosmopolitan campus close to America’s largest city.

But Clementi’s tragic ordeal seems to be merely the tip of the iceberg. At Messiah College in Pennsylvania last academic year, an openly gay first-year student regularly received vocal taunts and got at least one death threat. He plans to transfer this fall. Fellow students are not the sole perpetrators of such harassment: in Michigan, a now-former assistant attorney general hounded the University of Michigan’s gay student body president, railing against his “radical homosexual agenda” in a blog and showing up at a number of events to protest.

While many of the cases involve students, LGBT faculty and staff members are not immune to persistent threats to their hard-won inclusion and acceptance. A national survey from 2010 bears this out: despite inclusive policies and institutional commitments, the fear or experience of customary and irrational prejudice remains a common problem for LGBT students and members of the faculty and staff. These fears and experiences are most common in the South and Midwest, where anti-LGBT sentiments tend to be reinforced by religious teachings and state laws. For example, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, a lesbian soccer coach was fired after officials learned that she was starting a family with her partner. At Southeastern Oklahoma State University, an assistant professor of English, Rachel Tudor, was recently denied tenure by administrators reportedly offended by her transition from male to female. At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, only a concerted campaign, involving the AAUP, allowed both members of a dual-career lesbian academic couple—Karen DePauw and Shelli Fowler—to be hired over the bitter opposition of members of the university’s board of visitors. But bigotry is also officially sanctioned north of the Mason-Dixon line: at Pennsylvania State University, an assistant professor of education, Constance Matthews, was denied tenure largely because her research focuses on LGBT matters in the classroom. She sued the university, and an out-of-court settlement resulted.

Progress in the Old Dominion

While found nationwide, this persistence of antiquated cultural and political ideas on seemingly progressive campuses is nowhere more evident than in Virginia, whose current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has questioned in writing the very existence of inclusive nondiscrimination clauses at public universities. In March 2010, Cuccinelli held that the governing boards at public universities could not go beyond what the state legislature had explicitly authorized in terms of prohibiting discrimination. Since Virginia’s General Assembly had not officially included sexual orientation in its list of protected categories, Cuccinelli argued that universities had to pare down their policies to match the state’s less extensive ones. This unexpected challenge to long-standing precedent provoked immediate anger: nearly a thousand people rallied at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond alone; about 150 students at that rally then marched on the state capitol. Governor Bob McDonnell intervened to head off further protest, issuing a statement tacitly endorsing the previous policies. While dramatic, this incident is really a continuation and culmination of previous struggles in a commonwealth where officials have sometimes tried to create legal obstacles to full civil equality. This strategy should not shock anyone familiar with Virginia’s historical reputation for delaying or disrupting the extension of full citizenship to minorities, especially during the state’s massive and passive resistance to public school desegregation during the late 1950s and 1960s.

Thankfully, Virginia’s college campuses have developed internal and external responses to the sometimes repressive political, social, and cultural conditions in the commonwealth. Several public and private colleges and universities have successfully campaigned to include sexual orientation in their institutional nondiscrimination policies, even if most have not been as effective in getting gender identity and expression added. Many of these same campuses have incorporated Safe Zone Ally programs that enable the mentoring of vulnerable LGBT youth by sympathetic faculty and staff members; some have LGBT student and employee organizations; and a well-resourced handful have established LGBT resource centers, have engaged in collective action around discriminatory policies or practices, or, in the case of private institutions, are able to offer domestic-partner benefits for same- and, sometimes, opposite-sex unmarried partners. Most campuses, though, have acted in isolation, failing to bring such reforms to the notice of other, less advanced institutions. Virginia college students have held annual statewide conferences on LGBT issues—the last ones titled “Generation Equality.”

Despite these advances, until recently, no organization brought together LGBT students, faculty and staff members, administrators, and their allies. The AAUP helped lay the groundwork for such an organization at an impromptu statewide summit of LGBT academic leaders and their allies at VCU in April 2005. External relations director Martin Snyder and then communications director Ruth Flower of the national AAUP alerted the audience to the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues initiative. This grants competition was looking for preproposals that would lead to strategies and vehicles for civilized discourse on polarizing issues on America’s college campuses. Snyder and Flower quickly attracted a core group of collaborators that included English professor Janet Winston of VCU and the coauthors of this article. Alongside Snyder, we drafted the preproposal, which discussed LGBT issues on Virginia’s college campuses. The Ford Foundation required institutional commitment to this potentially controversial venture in the form of a presidential signature, and this proved impossible to secure, in part because of the perceived “volatility” of the topic of homosexuality in the culture wars and the real vulnerability of public universities to the basest popular prejudices.

We did not let it rest there, however. Snyder convinced the Ford Foundation to entertain the group’s draft preproposal without a university sponsor, with the expectation that a university administration would commit to the project soon. He then persuaded a group of faculty members from Hollins University whose own preproposal had been rejected to join his group’s proposal with Hollins as the lead agency. That summer, Hollins faculty members LeeRay Costa (anthropology), Jennifer Boyle (English), and Darla Schumm (religious studies) joined the core group. We met at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression in Charlottesville to flesh out the full proposal, which was sent to the Ford Foundation in October 2005. Although the proposal was not fully funded, we did receive $10,000.

Network Virginia

We decided to use the grant to organize a conference, “Network Virginia: Building LGBT Coalitions for Change on Campus,” scheduled for March 3, 2007, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In its mission statement, the group expressed the following four goals, which it retains: (1) to build sustainable, professional ties between LGBT faculty and staff members and students on Virginia campuses of higher education; (2) to overcome allegiances of race, gender, class, and region that may hinder LGBT solidarity within the state; (3) to facilitate difficult dialogues among LGBT academics and their allies in Virginia about potential strategies and priorities in the ongoing fight for legal equality; and (4) to use and disseminate pedagogical tools that help form progressive coalitions in the commonwealth.

These goals must have struck a chord with the intended audience; eighty-one people from all over the state—faculty and staff members, students, and community activists—attended the Charlottesville conference. The conference was publicized in the July–August 2006 issue of Academe, which focused on the Difficult Dialogues initiatives and included an article by Janet Winston, “Difficult Silences,” that eloquently explained the importance of the project in Virginia. The Charlottesville gathering was a success, featuring as plenary speakers Karen DePauw and Shelli Fowler, the academic dual-career hires at the center of the Virginia Tech controversy, as well as morning and afternoon breakout sessions.

Changes in leadership and personal transitions have led to changes for Network Virginia since that meeting. Today, Network Virginia has advisory board members from nine campuses, including four faculty members and five staff representatives. The organization still functions mainly through AAUP-sponsored conference calls, but its Facebook page is slowly adding more friends. In June 2011, Network Virginia held a one-day workshop at VCU on many of the same issues that had captivated the 2007 conference attendees, and it has drafted academic freedom and governance resolutions to be ratified by faculty and staff senates for presentation to the Virginia General Assembly in January 2012. These resolutions would reaffirm the campus nondiscrimination clauses and liberties already in place that had been questioned by Attorney General Cuccinelli’s notorious March 2010 opinion.

Network Virginia has had its share of successes and failures during its five years of existence. Its most innovative and ambitious initiative was a series of intercampus workshops, “Addressing Issues of Diversity and Oppression in the Classroom,” sponsored jointly by VCU and Norfolk State University. For the 2009–10 academic year, faculty learning communities on both campuses discussed salient works on diversity and pedagogical inclusion within their own groups and between campuses through a wiki.

The biggest obstacle for Network Virginia remains the degree of institutional commitment. Network Virginia initially could not get a lead agency to sponsor it for the Ford Foundation grant, and the commitment of Hollins and the University of Virginia has been spotty at best. Future grant proposals to sustain the initiative will have to insist on finding it a permanent host. This seeming instability—the lack of a permanent home—has been compounded by the natural attrition in leadership and the need to renew and nurture connections with student groups periodically, which takes time that many advisory board members do not have.

From these successes and failures, we offer a few recommendations. The Facebook page, administered by individual board members, is much easier to maintain than a web page with an institutional host. Sustaining interest is essential yet elusive: most of Network Virginia’s constituencies, like most campus stakeholders, like to go to events without really appreciating the hard and unglamorous work that goes into planning them. Yet, the dreadful litany of ongoing episodes of discrimination underscores the need for such a network, despite the impressive gains of the last thirty years.

Our primary recommendation for groups in other states thinking of embarking on the same path is that they collaborate with other campus advocacy groups, in addition to the AAUP. But gaining real institutional support is absolutely necessary for keeping any such effort alive after the core group moves on. The demonstrated need for coordinated, multicampus strategies to combat both official and popular homophobia remains. Network Virginia seems more relevant than ever.

Elizabeth P. Cramer is a professor in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. She cofounded Network Virginia and serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Charles H. Ford is a professor in (and acting chair of) the History Department at Norfolk State University. A cofounder of Network Virginia, he also has chaired the AAUP’s Committee on Sexual Diversity and Gender Identity since November 2005. His e-mail address is [email protected].