When UofL’s LGBT Center officially opened in 2007, there was plenty of push back – legislative bills were filed demanding that state funds not be used for LGBTQ work, letters to the editor were published questioning the university’s priorities, angry emails were sent.
But for Brian Buford, the center’s director and assistant provost for Diversity, the contention that transpired less than 10 years ago now seems like ancient history. UofL was recently named one of only 16 schools in the nation to earn five out of five stars in the Campus Pride Index by the organization Campus Pride. Furthermore, UofL is the only public university in the South ranked among the “Best of the Best” for its inclusiveness.
“We have come a long way. In 2007-08, the climate on campus was supportive, but very cautious. We wanted to do the right thing, but we didn’t want to lose funding and, since we were first with a lot of these (initiatives), we were a target,” Buford said. “We’ve done a lot of work to bring us to where this is something we can be proud of and not apologize for. The expectation about our campus now is that we’re inclusive. It’s who we are; it’s in our DNA.”
Getting to this point has taken a campus-wide, comprehensive effort, from HR to housing to admissions.
HR. It has taken a buy-in from the university’s administration to push for initiatives such as domestic partner benefits before any other institution in the state (in 2007), and, just last year, the expansion of trans-inclusive health benefits for employees and students, as well as the preferred-name option, which was expanded in 2015 to campus ID cards.
Admissions. It has taken a commitment from admissions to establish Cardinal OUTlook Day. Last year, its second year, more than 100 attendees participated in this event geared specifically toward high school students who either identify as LGBTQ or as allies.
Scholarships. Another major component has been the establishment of scholarships through alumni and community donations. Three new scholarships to support LGBT students were created in the past year alone – the Dawn Wilson Scholarship for LGBT Students of Color, the Johnson-Campion Alumni Scholarship, and the Brian Buford Endowed LGBT Alumni Scholarship.
Housing and Residence Life. UofL’s Housing and Residence Life hosts a themed housing option for LGBT students. The Bayard Rustin LGBT and Social Justice Themed Living Community opened in Fall 2012 and provides a safe, comfortable space for LGTBQ students living on campus.
Campus Life. UofL’s students also have access to the LGBT Center, student organizations such as Shades for LGBTQ students of color, and events such as the center’s signature fundraiser Feast on Equality, as well as Pride Week and PINK, UofL’s student-produced amateur drag and variety show.
“You really have to look across the institution at things like policies and procedures, campus life, academics, housing, everything. To really be a national leader, we have to be doing well in all of these areas, and we are. It’s comprehensive and it’s systemic,” Buford said.
Academics plays a key part
When it comes to this ranking specifically, perhaps the biggest feather in UofL’s cap is its LGBTQ curriculum. The university was the first school in the South to offer an LGBTQ Studies minor, which was developed in 2009 by Dr. Kaila Story, associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Pan-African Studies.
“Having this (minor) in place was important because, unfortunately, when we talk about traditional disciplines – English, history, political science, etc. – oftentimes they don’t speak to the experiences of LGBT work. We need students to have a more holistic vision of the contributions from these folks,” Story said. “For young people especially, it’s important they see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Not only does it give them a sense of where they fit in history, but also gives them folks to admire and allows them to gain a better sense of self.”
Prior the creation of the minor, UofL already had professors teaching about the intersection of gender identity and sexuality; for example, Anne Caldwell’s Queer Politics class and Nancy Theriot’s History of American Sexualities. These courses and professors are a big part of what makes UofL so inclusive, Story said.
“So many of us have been working for years to create a thorough and rich environment for our LGBT students, to make sure they feel safe, but also welcome,” she said. “One’s identity and who they are shouldn’t be a worry for students who are already worried about being away from home, about their grades, about money and everything else.”
In addition to the LGBTQ minor, UofL has also committed to incorporating into its curriculum the Association of American Medical Colleges competencies for serving LGBT, Gender Noncomforming and Differences in Sex Development patients. The eQuality Project, launched in 2014, was the first in the nation to incorporate such competencies. The UofL School of Medicine also recently hosted an LGBTQ Health Summit and facilitated a web-based network of LGBTQ-friendly providers to give potential patients a resource for finding affirming care.
“Historically, LGBTQ health has not been part of any health care or medical school curriculum,” said Suzanne Kingery, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at UofL. “It is only recently that a handful of medical schools, with UofL at the forefront, have started to do this kind of training.”
Aside from the rankings that deem the university’s LGBTQ efforts a success, it’s the students’ perspective that matters most. Ciyadh Wells, a grad student in the School of Music, said she has never felt so welcomed in a university environment. What makes the school standout for her is the LGBT Center, the preferred-name option, the abundance of all-gender restrooms, LGBTQ and ally-themed housing, and access to the counseling center.
“The (center) provides both an intellectual safe space and a physical space for students who are looking for a community to which they can belong. More than 90 percent of LGBTQ-identified high school students have been bullied or harassed. That statistic alone shows a serious need for spaces where students are able to be their authentic selves. UofL sees these needs and is doing its best to meet them,” said Wells, who is an ambassador for the LGBT Center and a member of Shades.
Lee Cooper, a sophomore and undecided major, chose to attend UofL after Buford visited her high school to share the university’s LGBTQ-friendly attributes.
“It was amazing hearing about how accepting the campus was, but even more special to know about all the opportunities and organizations related to the LGBT community on campus. I knew here was where I would not only be accepted for who I was, but able to fully immerse myself in activism surrounding my community,” Cooper said.
For Cooper, what really makes UofL so inclusive is its LGBT Center and all of its organizations and events.
“Not only is there amazing support through the center, but they have done so much work through other offices to make sure all students are comfortable on campus. I have never felt like I had to hide who was here. If anything, I’ve felt more comfortable expressing my identity,” she said.
Though the national accolades are special, Buford said there is still much work to do and the LGBT Center has developed a vision for the next five years aimed at “elevating our work to a higher level to make us the nation’s model for LGBT work at other schools.”
Some of the details of this plan include creating a more accommodating space for the Belknap and HSC teams; hiring a new team member whose sole focus is the coordination of services for students in crisis and in helping manage their care; creating an endowed LGBT Scholars program similar to UofL’s MLK, Ali and McConnell Scholars programs; becoming a nationally-recognized program for LGBT students of color; and creating a practical clinic focused on LGBT health where students in nursing, medicine and mental health services can perfect their skills and become competent providers of care.
“To me, we’re still turning a corner. It’s still not a common part of our thinking when people are choosing a college that LGBT identity is an important consideration. But I want students to think about going to a college where they can have these critical resources to be who they are,” Buford said. “This ranking is one part of our story. It helps us send a message that this is a welcoming place, a place where these students will do well, where they will survive and succeed.”