People perceive college campuses as being safe places for gay students, said Shane Windmeyer, an expert on sexual orientation issues.
But that perception isn’t based on research, and it often isn’t correct.
Windmeyer spoke about “The Impact of Hate” at the College of Charleston on Monday as part of the Office of Institutional Diversity’s Signature Speaker Series.
The college recently completed a draft of a strategic plan to increase campus diversity, said John Bello-Ogunu, chief diversity officer. The final plan will include ways to make the College of Charleston a more respectful, inclusive and safer place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, he said.
Windmeyer said that according to a recent survey, 25 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students reported they had encountered harassment on their college campuses. And 40 percent of transgender students reported such harassment.
“Every campus wants to be called gay-friendly,” Windmeyer said. “But most haven’t looked at institutionalizing safety and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.” It takes more than allowing a Gay Straight Alliance group to meet on campus or holding a “drag” show, he said.
College of Charleston junior Kneena Raheja — who identified herself as queer, transmasculine and intersex — said the campus climate “is rough and pretty bad” for students who don’t fall in line with standard gender norms.
“I’m surrounded by skinny white women all day,” Raheja said. “It’s easy for them to spot me as ‘the other.’ ”
Melissa Moore, executive director of the local nonprofit organization We Are Family, said her group is working with the college as it develops its strategic diversity plan. She said gay and transgender students primarily tell her about two forms of harassment they encounter on campus. They often are harassed verbally on the street, she said.
“That makes them feel physically threatened.”
And transgender students report being harassed in campus bathrooms, she said. She thinks the college should provide some “gender-neutral” bathrooms for transgender students, and should find ways to let those students know where they are located.
Windmeyer said it’s important to make campuses safe for gay students, because such students face many obstacles, and already have a much higher rate of suicide.
The public is becoming more aware of the problem since the news media reported that in September 2010, seven young gay people killed themselves. That included the widely publicized case of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcast live images over the Internet of the 18-year-old having a sexual encounter with another man.
In his presentation, Windmeyer said it’s important to highlight the contributions of gay people. For instance, he said, Bayard Rustin — an advisor of Martin Luther King and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington— was gay.
It’s important to acknowledge that he was not only an influential black man, but a gay man as well, Windmeyer said.
“There are kids out there killing themselves because they don’t have role models.”