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SIUE students encouraged by changes in LGBT laws, attitudes

What’s it like to be a transgender student at SIUE?

Cris Copeland, a business administration major and transgender student who identifies and presents as male, talks about being transgender and other LGBT issues on campus. Going to the bathroom can be an anxiety-ridden experience.
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Cris Copeland, a business administration major and transgender student who identifies and presents as male, talks about being transgender and other LGBT issues on campus. Going to the bathroom can be an anxiety-ridden experience.

Joe Simpson’s parents were nervous about him going to a four-year university 300 miles from home.

“They wanted me to go to a community college so I wouldn’t be harassed or beaten up or isolated,” said the openly gay student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Simpson, 19, of Chicago, has largely felt comfortable since arriving at SIUE this fall to study graphic design, but his dorm roommate did confront him about his homosexuality and posted a hateful video on social media. Simpson thinks the university handled the situation properly by moving the student to another room.

“You really can’t live as a homosexual and not expect at least some harassment,” Simpson said. “The ideal would be that you could be who you are, but it’s not that way.”

Simpson’s case illustrates some of the challenges facing all colleges and universities in dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a changing world.

25 Members of the Gay-Straight Alliance at SIUE

180 Faculty and staff on Safe Zone mailing list

The legalization of gay marriage and willingness of LGBT celebrities, such as Caitlyn Jenner, to go public has led more people, including college students, to come out of the closet.

“It’s definitely made me feel more comfortable and less afraid for my future,” said Timothy Tank, an SIUE student majoring in applied communications. “There are more issues that need to be worked on. But now I’m optimistic that it will actually happen, and I hope relatively soon.”

Coming out can be risky

Tank, 20, of Belvidere, told friends and family he was gay in high school, but homosexuality still is a secret for many college students. Some worry that disapproving parents might stop paying for tuition, books and rent. Others want to avoid judgment, harassment or even violence.

“It takes courage to come out,” said Venessa A. Brown, associate chancellor for institutional diversity and inclusion at SIUE. “It takes courage to be you, and we want to create an atmosphere on campus where it’s OK. We welcome you and embrace you. Even if other people don’t get it, we want them to be respectful.”

Brown, 54, was sitting in the university’s new Multicultural Center, a place for information and dialogue with students of all races, religions, cultures and sexual orientations. For her, campus efforts to promote tolerance is about more than getting along. She knows students need to get jobs and function in a diverse world after graduation.

“My job is to position SIUE as a model for the region in terms of inclusion, diversity and just looking through a wider lens,” she said.

Brown got good news last month. The national nonprofit Campus Pride gave the university 4.5 out of five stars on its LGBTQ-Friendly Campus Climate Index for the second year. That’s up from three stars in 2012 and four in 2013. The index is based on self-reported assessments of campus facilities, services, policies and procedures.

“The free online tool allows (people) to search a database of LGBTQ-friendly campuses that have come out to improve the academic experience and quality of campus life,” according to the website.

Safe Zone lends a hand

The most important LGBT-related program at SIUE is called Safe Zone. Faculty and staff undergo “ally” training so they can assist students and employees. Each Safe Zone ally displays a sticker on his door that’s the equivalent of a welcome sign.

“Someone might call and say, ‘I have a student in my class, and I think he’s struggling with coming out at home, and I was wondering how I could support him and what resources are available,’” said Rex Jackson, assistant director of residence life at SIUE.

Jackson, 31, is past co-chair of the Safe Zone committee and a gay man who understands from experience the struggles of LGBT students.

The committee has looked at a range of issues, including the need to remove gender-related questions from applications and other forms if they’re irrelevant.

“On our website, we have a list of all the restrooms that are gender-neutral,” said Jamie Matthews, 29, assistant director of Morris University Center and current Safe Zone co-chairman. “People don’t have to decide if they’re a man or a woman. They’re single-use restrooms.”

The committee sponsors Safe Chats, which are community discussions or presentations on everything from gender non-conformity to gay and lesbian parenting. Last year, one included a showing of the movie “Kinky Boots.”

The Safe Zone committee also rides on parade floats and operates a booth at the Pride St. Louis festival each year.

I feel pretty satisfied with where we are at SIUE as far as gay and lesbian issues, especially in relation to other universities. But trans issues, which are just now hitting the spotlight, that’s a struggle that the university is working on. I definitely think they’re trying.

Fraternity president Travis Fulk

Housing is ‘gender inclusive’

On the housing front, SIUE offers coed or “gender-inclusive” match-ups as an alternative to traditional (all male or all female).

The university honored a request from Travis Fulk and two friends, who didn’t want to apply for coed housing at Cougar Village apartment. That would have required a transgender roommate, who identifies as male, to identify as female.

“I feel pretty satisfied with where we are at SIUE as far as gay and lesbian issues, especially in relation to other universities,” said Fulk, 21, of Effingham, a biology major. “But trans issues, which are just now hitting the spotlight, that’s a struggle that the university is working on. I definitely think they’re trying.”

Last year, a transgender student who identifies as female charged that SIUE police didn’t take proper action when the student reported physical and verbal abuse by a roommate. At the time, SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga said police investigated the complaint, but found no evidence of the alleged assaults.

“There was a significant time delay between the alleged incidents and the report,” he said.

Students join forces

Fulk is the local president of Delta Lambda Phi, an international fraternity of “gay, bisexual and progressive” college men.

The SIUE chapter, chartered in 2005, also welcomes transgender students who identify as male. It now has 11 brothers, including Tank. Simpson is one of two pledges.

“I’ve always felt very supported and accepted (at SIUE),” Fulk said. “I honestly haven’t had a single issue that had to do with sexual identity. LGBT events are just as promoted as other events.”

But Fulk and Gay-Straight Alliance President David Munguia have noticed their events aren’t as well attended. They’re hoping for a good turnout at the annual Delta Lambda Phi Drag Show on Oct. 22 in the Meridian Ballroom.

I knew there would be people here I could relate to and talk to. Heterosexual people have different experiences than homosexual people, whether it’s dating or family life or anything like that.

David Munguia on why he came to SIUE

“Some of our (fliers) have been torn down in the past,” said Munguia, 22, of Peoria. “And when you see these kinds of things, you realize everything is not sunshine and rainbows.”

Munguia, a political science major and gay man, came to SIUE specifically because of the fraternity and alliance, which has about 25 members.

“I knew there would be people here I could relate to and talk to,” he said. “Heterosexual people have different experiences than homosexual people, whether it’s dating or family life or anything like that.”

Raising self-awareness

This year’s other Delta Lambda Phi pledge is Cris Copeland, a business administration major and transgender student who identifies and presents as male.

College has been a time of self-awareness for Copeland, 24, of Glen Carbon. The Highland native came out as a lesbian at 17 and later realized it was a mistake.

“I liked women, but at the same time, I felt like I should have been a man,” Copeland said. “I kind of had a feeling about it when I was much younger, but I repressed those feelings because I didn’t really know there was a such thing as transgender.”

Today, Copeland’s military-style haircut and masculine clothing often get double-takes from other students. A psychologist is considering whether to prescribe hormones in preparation for a sex change.

Copeland’s immediate wish is that SIUE would install more non-sex-specific restrooms. It now has about five scattered around campus.

“I feel uncomfortable in women’s restrooms, but I’m not to the point that I feel confident in a men’s restroom,” Copeland said. “I don’t pass well. I look kind of like a guy, but my voice gives me away.”

Safe Zone co-chair Matthews applauds recent changes in LGBT laws, policies and attitudes but feels society has a lot more work to do.

“We still have hate crimes,” she said. “The incidence of suicide and mental health problems in the LGBT community is still much higher than it is in the rest of the population. I think that education and dialogue is important. It’s easy to think, ‘As long as it’s not happening on our campus, it’s OK.’ You can stay in your own bubble.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

LGBTQ-Friendly Campus Climate Index

Illinois and St. Louis colleges and universities registered with Campus Pride (five stars possible)

  • Southern Illinois University Edwardsville: 1/2
  • Washington University, St. Louis: 1/2
  • Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington:
  • Eastern Illinois University, Charleston: 1/2
  • Illinois State University, Normal: 1/2
  • Knox College, Galesburg:
  • Adler School of Professional Psychology, Chicago:
  • University of Missouri-St. Louis: 1/2
  • Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago: 1/2
  • Kankakee Community College: 1/2
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