EDWARDSVILLE — The university has come a long way, but has a ways to go before it is truly a welcoming place for gay and lesbian students, according to a recent national study.
This year, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville participated in a ranking of colleges' policies and services for students and staff who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It was conducted by Campus Pride, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBT students' rights on college campuses.
The rankings focus on policy and services, rather than a more subjective survey of students' impressions. SIUE ranked fairly high due to many of its policies, including:
* SIUE prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and includes orientation in its diversity training;
* Gay students living in the dorms are matched with roommates who are comfortable with them to minimize potential conflicts;
* Same-sex partners are permitted to live in family housing, the same as heterosexual couples;
* Gender-neutral restrooms are offered in residence halls;
* Safe Zone, a university organization formed in 2003, advocates for a safe and equal atmosphere for LGBT students, faculty and staff. It trains "allies" as an ongoing network of visible people who can help LGBT students with problems.
So why did SIUE only rank 3 out of 5 stars in the Campus Pride listings?
SIUE scored highest in housing and residential life, with 4.5 out of 5, followed by policy inclusion and student life at 4 out of 5. But it ranked lowest in counseling, safety, recruitment and retention.
"Overall it's definitely moving in a positive direction, but there are some challenges," said Dayna Henry, professor of community health education and a member of Safe Zone.
Not long after it was established, Safe Zone successfully lobbied for the university to offer health benefits for same-sex partners of university employees. That policy was approved in 2004 and held until last year, when the state of Illinois officially began recognizing same-sex unions.
"We have made serious strides toward creating a safer, more welcoming campus for the LGBT community," said Vicky Dean, co-chairman of Safe Zone and assistant director of housing. "We have room for significant improvement in recruitment and retention, counseling and health, and support in institutional commitment."
Safe Zone originally trained professors who volunteered to be "safe" counselors, marking their doors with a symbol so gay students would know this professor would listen and help them without judgment.
Safe Zone has since expanded its trainings and there are so many people interested that they have had to offer three sessions in a row just to accommodate demand, Henry said.
"We want everyone at SIUE to feel comfortable and safe, whether you're a student or you work here," Henry said. "No matter what your background, your ethnicity, your ability or your identification, we want you to get the most out of your time at SIUE."
But Henry said SIUE has not offered a mentoring program for gay students or attended LGBT admissions fairs as they do for other minorities. However, she said the university has plans in the works to begin doing so.
There are other issues: not having a full-time staff member for LGBT issues, gender-neutral bathrooms not being available in academic buildings, etc.
"A typical restroom will have one for men and one for women," Henry said. "In (a gender-neutral bathroom), it's a single-room stall, so there's no reason to be marked male or female. It's private and irrelevant what your gender is."
Henry also said there is a shortage of counselors trained specifically in LGBT issues to help students struggling with orientation-related problems. That has been a big stumbling block, according to Erik Zimmerman, student body president and an on-campus residence hall adviser.
Zimmerman said students who are struggling with their sexual identity have sometimes come to him for advice, and he doesn't have anyone to whom he can send them for help.
"There need to be resources for students who are out and those considering coming out," Zimmerman said. "People are going to harass LGBT students wherever they go, but then they need somewhere to go when it happens."
Daniel Rosner, a graduate student who also works with Safe Zone and the Gay-Straight Alliance, said in the time he's been at SIUE, he has not seen gay-bashing, violence or harassment; only social stigma and people sometimes using derogatory terms that they may not realize are offensive.
"There can definitely be bias against LGBT students by people who don't agree with that lifestyle," Rosner said. "They don't understand the coming-out process and how stressful that can be, particularly when you're dealing with classes, holding down a job and everything. (Gay students) can lose a lot of the support structure that other students carry their entire career."
According to SIUE's police records, there has been only one anti-gay hate crime registered in three years: an act of vandalism in a residence hall in 2009. Still, SIUE only ranked 3 out of 5 in campus safety, with questions based on clear and visible procedures for reporting hate crimes, outreach to LGBT organizations and training officers on sexual orientation issues.
"We try our best to be proactive and inclusive," said Chief Regina Hays, who also assists in Safe Zone activities. "We have a very safe campus and a good climate for all students. There could be things going that we don't know about, but it hasn't come out in the meetings that I've attended."
Zimmerman agreed that things are improving. "The climate for LGBT students is definitely getting better than it has been when I came to the university," he said. "But our rating is just not acceptable."
Zimmerman said he thinks the college would benefit from a multicultural center, not just for LGBT students, but for students from all backgrounds to learn and benefit from each others' experience.
Safe Zone has also expanded its workshops to include creating safe spaces, the legal complexities of gay marriage, coming out and activism.
"There's a platform now for opinions to be expressed," Rosner said. "I think that people are listening."
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2501.