Surprise! The Princeton Review ranked the University of Tennessee as the third most LGBTQ+ unfriendly university in the country, only bested by two private schools. Even without the ranking, the inhospitable environment at UTK has cost the university talented students and leaves our students unprepared for the 21st century. As a student at UTK, our goal and highest duty needs to be to prepare our students to be successful in the 21st century; allowing institutional bigotry that suppresses, censors, and prevents educational discussion for our students is actively working against the goals of a university.
How do I know the bad climate for LGBTQ+ students has had a negative impact on UTK?
As the former president of OUTgrads, the LGBTQ+ graduate student organization, I have been asked by prospective graduate students, the workhorses of a research institution, if the campus is safe for them as an LGBTQ+ students. I always think back to my experience at UT: I have seen the Pride Center defunded, heard of rocks and branches thrown through the windows of the Pride Center, rainbow flags torn down, and a student assaulted after leaving the Pride Center.
I cannot lie to these prospective students, so I tell them about these experiences. Not surprisingly these students do not come to UT.
I have had frank discussions with faculty and staff, most of who refuse to let their LGBTQ+ children apply to UT. Even parents of students who are not LGBTQ+ have said they will not allow their child to come to UT because the current campus environment is harmful to student success.
Additionally, the inhospitable environment towards the LGBTQ+ community makes students less competitive on the job market. If you talk with job recruiters, they will tell you that are looking for people who can work well with diverse colleagues and this is as important to them as field-specific skills. The defunding and work against diversity at UT is viewed with surprise by recruiters! Companies want employees who can work in the 21st century, and the work against diversity on our campus causes our students to be viewed as potentially being unprepared for a professional career in todays job market.
Now, let me turn from talking about the damage done to UTK into how we move forward. The way UTK improves life for LGBTQ+ students is simple: listen to LGBTQ+ students, work to implement their suggestions, and address their concerns.
My personal contribution to the community is to build and organize support within our community and with our allies through the OUTstanding LGBTQ+ conference. OUTstanding started in 2011 and was moved under OUTgrads in 2016 when it’s previous home stopped being a supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students. With the defunding of the Pride Center caused by pressure from off-campus groups, the burden of LGBTQ+ programming fell on students, and the conference was put on hold for a year while students worked to provide the essential community support for each other that was not being provided by UT.
I am proud to announce that OUTgrads is again hosting the OUTstanding Conference, which is on October 13th. Due to the climate on campus, OUTgrads has invited help from the Tennessee Equality Project and other LGBTQ+ community groups. OUTstanding 2018 will have workshops for health professionals to ensure our community has mental and physical healthcare providers who provide care in a LGBTQ+ culturally competent and welcoming manner. A panel of local religious leaders will talk about the intersection of LGBTQ+ issues and religion, and with faith leaders sharing their experiences in welcoming the LGBTQ+ community. Community organizers will have training for students on how to talk to legislators and ensure their voices are heard. Local leaders will also provide workshops on fundraising to ensure we are able to build up support from within our community (don’t forget, the Pride Center is now privately funded). Additionally, we will have talks on intersectional leadership, focusing on the intersection of black and LGBTQ+ identities, and how our communities can support each other going forward.
In addition to the conference, we need to get our community registered to vote, and then vote! Having experienced life at UT, I know that as long as the people who have power over the University view LGBTQ+ students as a problem to legislate or intimidate away, we will be unable to make any institutional changes to help students. If you need to register to vote, or checking/update your voter registration, please go to: www.proudvoter.org/TEP
Sterling Field can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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