To me, summer time always brings to mind my time working in orientation and helping new students and their families transition to college life. It's often an exciting and sometimes emotional time, setting a marker for a new chapter in an individual's life. Yet, through my research, it also becomes clear that orientation, often the only time that the majority of new students on-campus are all together, provides powerful messages about sexual violence prevention.
Those messages can vary, but often colleges and universities have students (or sometimes hired actors) perform skits about sexual violence or have staff engaged in violence prevention share information about statistics and resources on campus. To be sure, these are sometimes well done and are certainly better than no discussions or messages about sexual violence (which can also be some institutions' choice, but not one that I can condone).
Unfortunately, many institutions' efforts don't go far enough in addressing the issues at hand, lacking specificity and often upholding a false binary of cisgender women as survivors and cisgender men as perpetrators. This erasure of cisgender and transgender men, transgender women, and gender non-conforming folks who have survived incidents of sexual violence is troubling and extremely problematic. My recent research has been focused on cisgender and transgender men who are survivors of sexual violence during college, and one of the questions I posed to participants was "What advice or recommendations would you provide your institution on how to support men survivors of sexual violence better?"
Below, I provide a list of themes that they shared with me that I think are important for higher education professionals to consider in relation to their work. Sexual violence prevention work pervades everyone's work in higher education. Survivors need faculty to be more aware of how classroom dynamics and conversations can be triggering to them. Survivors need senior student affairs officers and student conduct officers to review the ways that code of conducts uphold genderism, heterosexism, and sexism in powerful ways to sometimes erase and minimize survivors' experiences. Orientation staff need to create dialogue-centered opportunities to talk about consent and provide clear information about the resources available to all students on campus. Violence prevention specialists need to actively build coalitions with staff of student cultural centers on campus to support students who often experience higher rates of sexual violence than their White, heterosexual, cisgender peers. There are so many suggestions well beyond these...but suffice it to say, the time has come to act. We need to take action and change what we've been doing. The status quo has not served our students well, and our students are needing us to be more critical in our work and do much better.
Please review their thoughts below. Again, these are thoughts from survivors themselves, often folks who have been let down in very real ways by the institutions they thought were designed to keep them safe as students who lived, studied, and/or worked there. And here they are offering thoughts on how those institutions might do better. Let that sink in as you contemplate their suggestions.
I learned about the massacre at Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning. I felt as though my heart was in my throat when I read the news stories, and as I attempted to get back to sleep, I felt numb. Senseless violence committed against my kin. And yet, as I know well, violence has affected so many in our world lately that it has become so normalized that I feel disjointed and disengaged from its reality.
Later on Sunday morning, more details emerged and people I value and respect were able to start conversations that were important, powerful, and well-thoughtout. I just wasn't there. One of the qualities that I often least like about myself is that I shut down in the times where I feel overwhelmed. Admittedly, it's a defense mechanism, a form of compartmentalization for a sensitive heart who often feels too hard and too much, and quite possibly a piece of my dominant privilege that gets maintained (I'm still trying to sort that out for myself and whether that's wrapped up in this). I needed time to process, to grieve, to start to feel.
I gave myself some time off of social media and minimized my time looking at the news. I guarded myself and tried to contemplate. I received messages from friends and responded, but largely kept to myself and my thoughts. And after a day, I started to move outside of being insular and read the news, wept at new reports and details of those killed and injured, and questioned why it's easier to cultivate hate rather than love in our world.
Mid-week, I was contacted by a reporter for a higher ed newspaper for comment on the Orlando tragedy, given the focus of my research and the fact that many of the victims were college students. (Thank you, Jamal, for allowing me to provide some insights and thoughts and giving me the opportunity to further my own reflections.) He sent me the questions, and I thought deeply about how I could best answer them. I spent a couple of hours working through my responses and sent him more than he could ever use in a news article. With his permission, he graciously allowed me to post my responses to his questions here as a blog post. They are included here:
What can institutions do to better support LGBTQ students (particularly students of color)?
There is a very real need for increased resources and support for LGBTQ college students, particularly students of color. Over the past few decades, there has been a increase in the establishment of LGBTQ resource centers on college and university campuses as well as support for LGBTQ student organizations. More institutions need to provide these services and professionalize them with full-time professional staff members. However, faculty, staff, and administrators must understand that LGBTQ student support is a part of everyone's work, not just those who work in LGBTQ student support services.
From a developmental standpoint, we need to understand that for our LGBTQ students of color, the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion plays a significant role in their lives. For many LGBTQ students of color, they often feel a need to compartmentalize parts of their identities based upon different factors, including who they are with or what environments they are in. The sexual minority men of color who I have spoken to often feel a deep conflict between the messages they hear from their church communities, parents and family members, as well as their peers in colleges and universities. This can lead to a lot of questioning on the part of the students around their holistic sense of self. As a result, higher education professionals need to provide opportunities for support and mentoring to these students to allow them to continue to make sense of who they are and grapple with these big questions that are deeply personal and powerful.
From a leadership perspective, LGBTQ students are watching what institutional leaders are saying (or not saying) about events like these. If leaders of colleges and universities are silent, that silence sends a powerful message to our students. LGBTQ students on many campuses often are asked to educate, serve as advocates, and do vital work for our institutions around inclusion and social justice. Yet, if institutional leaders do or say nothing around events such as the tragedy in Orlando, they are being complicit in further marginalizing a community that is grieving and also feeling increasingly fearful and vulnerable.
What does the tragedy in Orlando mean for LGBTQ students?
It is significant that this mass murder happened inside an LGBTQ nightclub on Latin Night where the overwhelming majority of the victims are Latinx and over half were Puerto Rican. It is entirely probable that some of those killed or injured at Pulse may not have been out to their family or friends. Separately, since the start of this year, 14 transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. All of that being said, it is absolutely critical to understand that LGBTQ students are witnessing a great deal of violence within their communities.
The tragedy in Orlando serves as a stark reminder for LGBTQ students that violence is possible, even in spaces that many have largely seen as our safe spaces and sanctuaries. Already we have reports of statements being made on Craigslist and social media from individuals who are threatening copycat violence in other major cities. As a result, our students understandably may be feeling more fearful and worried.
How can institutions be more inclusive?
Higher education professionals need to understand that there are LGBTQ students studying, living, and working on their campuses. We must do better in outreaching to our LGBTQ students and finding ways to support them. LGBTQ student organizations and safe space/ally programs are important, but we need to go beyond these basic minimums. We need to create opportunities for cultivating civility and finding deeper connections with one another; therefore, intergroup dialogues or interfaith dialogue work on campus can be helpful. We need more training opportunities for faculty and staff to understand how to support LGBTQ students and to minimize issues of tokenization and microaggressions in and out of the classroom. Our campus leaders need to be able to model for others within the campus community the importance of speaking to LGBTQ-related issues and concerns from a place of authentic and genuine concern if we are to be seen as inclusive spaces. Lastly, we need to be concerned about how deep seated violence is within our communities, and we need faculty, staff, and administrators to be proactive within our local, state, and federal communities to advocate for efforts to stem violence. As educators, we need to take up our voices and collectively affect the change necessary to make our communities, on campus and off, safer for all of us, but particularly for our LGBTQ students.
Many LGBTQ students seek refuge in nightlife due to lack of safe spaces (at home, school, community, etc). Can you speak to the significance of safe spaces?
In my research, the sexual minority men that I have spoken with have always outlined the importance of finding community off-campus because for them, it serves as a very real reminder that there is a larger LGBTQ community beyond the bubble of their campus. Therefore, having the opportunity to access nightclubs or bars within the LGBTQ community also serves as an opportunity for meaning-making for them around their identities as LGBTQ people. These spaces become even more important for folks who face oppression or discrimination on their home campuses or at home. For many LGBTQ-identified individuals, bars and clubs, such as Orlando's Pulse nightclub, serve as a space in which individuals feel free to be their authentic selves: a place where they can been seen and heard for who they are.
These responses were given in earnest of making some sort of effort to help support my community in a time of grief, but to go well beyond just "thoughts and prayers." Yes, we need to support those who have been affected - without a doubt. But we also need to take action and do more for our LGBTQ+ students in higher education. Like I said in my notes above, the minimums are important (and it's important to note that not all institutions even provide the minimums, which is highly problematic to me), but we need to go beyond that as well.
And so these thoughts, in the aftermath of a great tragedy, are given in the hope that we can do more, that we can grieve together, but cultivate that grief into real change, and that we can work to love each other more while recognizing that there are systemic and individual challenges that stifle, marginalize, and oppress folks in very real ways. I want more for our world. I know that I am not alone in this.