LGBTQ+ campus climate

LGBTQ+ acceptance on college campuses in the era of the "Don't Say Gay" bill

Graphic by: Sienna Parmalee | Production assistant

One of the most prominent topics in the news today involves Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill. Also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill it would prohibit the teaching of anything related to gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade, though opponents say the broad language of the bill could allow prohibition through all grades.

Florida’s bill is just one of many around the United States, with 15 similar bills being presented in other states. There are also an increasing number of bills and actions aimed solely at transgender youth and citizens. In fact, a judge in Texas blocked Governor Ted Abbott’s and Texas’ attorney general from investigating parents who provide gender-affirming care to trans minors.

The prominence of these bills and actions in the media have opened up discussions about LGBTQ+ rights. There is much concern about how bills like these can affect young LGBTQ+ people’s mental health, not only in school but through young adulthood, or the college years.

According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 8.3% of LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 19-24 attempted suicide in the past year.

The effect that proposed bills could have on LGBTQ+ is concerning to the outgoing coordinator of Ferris’ LGBTQ+ Resource Center Sarah Doherty.

“The rates of psychological distress and severe psychological distress, the rates of self-harming behavior, the rates of suicide attempts, the medical seriousness of suicide attempts, and the rates of completion of suicide attempts. So death by suicide, are already significantly higher for queer and trans youth,” Doherty said. “ So these are major stressors, living in a society that stigmatizes your identity. And potentially also living with people who don’t support and affirm you”

Since most of the bills like the Parental Rights in Education bill affect youth who are in grade school, the question of the importance of acceptance in other aspects of society arises. like institutions of higher education. 

 “It’s both important because there are LGBTQ folks in college, because we are everywhere. It’s real. And because folks who are here deserve to get as much out of the experience of college as anybody else,” Doherty said. “For a lot of people when they go to college, it’s when they encounter people who are unlike themselves for the first time and can learn more about the worlds and figure out how to live with people and work with people who are different than them.”

Bryce Longenberger is an intern at the LGBTQ+ Resource Center on campus and a graduate student pursuing a master’s of social work. He also talked about the importance of institutes of higher education like Ferris to be a place of acceptance for him as a student.

“Ferris is still part of a larger educational system, that we’re trying to educate the youth, even if they’re upper teens,” Longenberger said. “And I feel like it’s really important for Ferris to intentionally create a space that’s accepting. And I think that’s something that’s not done, it doesn’t just happen, you don’t just, you know, stumble upon an accepting space, I feel like you have to be intentional about it.” 

So how does Ferris do when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance?

“You can kind of see there are pretty well-established best practices around supporting the LGBTQ community and making LGBTQ staff and faculty experiences better, which Ferris is not doing, versus doing some things and has come a long way even since I got here,” Doherty said. 

Doherty also said that there were both people who were making sure that the LGBTQ+ community is welcome and accepted on campus, and people who were not, “and that’s true of every place everywhere because that’s how systemic heterosexism shows up.”

Longenberger shares Doherty’s sentiment that Ferris is getting better.

“I’m fairly new to Ferris. I’ve only been here for about six or seven months since I started my grad program, but especially working at the center, I feel like they, Ferris is getting better, like there’s definitely movement in the right direction, but I think there’s still progress to be made,” Longenberger said. “I mean, there’s a lot of things that Ferris does that creates that space of acceptance.”

Renee Elrod is a freshman correctional forensic psychology major who thinks that Ferris does great with LGBTQ+ acceptance.

“I think LGBT wise their acceptance is really good,” Elrod said, “I’ve been to the LGBT resource center in the University Center. I think it’s a really cool place. So I think if anyone has questions about the LGBT community, then they should definitely go check that out.”

While the opinion on Ferris’ acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is generally positive, people still think the university could do more.

“I think creating some additional LGBTQ+ student scholarships would be helpful. I know there’s one that I know of, but the resource center funded it,” Longenberger said. “I would also say, Ferris could engage like Big Rapids in general, to make it a more inclusive space. I know we’re in a conservative area. So that can be kind of tricky.”

Longenberger also brought up Big Rapids’ first Pride celebration happening this summer.

“ I don’t know how involved Ferris is with that. So there are some opportunities that Ferris can try to promote being accepting and inclusive even in the larger community that we’re in,” Longenberger said.

Doherty’s biggest concern of how Ferris could do more involves giving more adequate funding to the LGBTQ+ Resource Center. One of the main reasons Doherty is leaving Ferris is due to the fact that the coordinator position is only part-time, and does not pay an adequate wage.

“Fund Resource Center. Please, and thank you. I’m really good at this job. I’m really good. With students. I’m a little bit of a pain in the ass, but I’m really really good at it. Ferris did not have to lose me, but I can’t pay my rent,” Doherty said.

While Doherty said that much more could be done, she also said that there are people working to make important changes.

“Some of the diversity equity inclusion committees either have already made some changes on campus or are on the cusp of making some changes on campus that will just like directly improve people’s lives. Around restroom access, around providing leadership,” Doherty said. “The registrar’s office has been fabulous, housing has been fabulous. In terms of just like working with people’s needs.”

So while Ferris seems to be doing ok, seeing how much progress will be made in terms of creating an accepting environment for LGBTQ+ members of the Ferris community is still a concern.