Knox Pride Parade

Members of UT's Pride Center carry a large LGBTQ flag down Gay Street. 

When the Princeton Review named UT the second most LGBTQ-unfriendly college and the most LGBTQ-unfriendly public college in the nation last fall, the ranking cemented a years-long stain on the university’s reputation.

One year later, the highest ranking in UT’s history on the list has become a byword for the ways that LGBTQ students, staff and faculty feel unwelcome or undervalued.

Yet even as the ranking has become akin to fact for many prospective and current students, the methodology behind it has been criticized.

According to the Princeton Review website, the ranking is based on surveys that ask how strongly students agree or disagree with the statement, “Students treat all persons equally, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”

Student leaders, however, pin UT’s issues with LGBTQ support on university and state leadership more than on student culture.

According to Will Martinez, a graduate research assistant and president of OUTgrads, an organization for graduate students in the LGBTQ community, students were not surprised by the ranking because of where UT is positioned.

“I believe there are more to the rankings than meets the eye,” Martinez said. “I do think that being in the South, in a state that historically has not been the best with LGBTQ+ issues, and at a university closely linked to state politics, UTK has experienced some very rough times when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community.”

Martinez sees room for acknowledging both the failures on the part of university leaders to make students feel welcomed and also the work of hundreds of people to make UT a more LGBTQ-friendly campus.

“There are some students who would agree that UTK is an LGBTQ+ unfriendly campus and would agree there are a lot of good people doing good work,” Martinez said. “It's hard to put an accurate ranking together without getting the full context.”

There are spaces on campus that are devoted to supporting LGBTQ students, most notably the Pride Center and groups specific to colleges and majors, like the Rainbow Collective in the College of Social Work or Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM).

There are also spaces where LGBTQ students routinely report feeling unwelcome, like the Haslam College of Business.

Avery Vantrease, a senior supply chain management major, is the president of the new LGBTQ+ Association of Business Scholars (LABS). In a college heavily focused on career development, Vantrease recalled meeting with a prospective employer who questioned her position as a woman in business and explicitly stated their support of “traditional views of marriage.”

She said that LABS is hoping to correct an environment both within the college and in the business world that is skeptical and exclusionary of women and LGBTQ students.

“Haslam has a very polished and particular presence when it comes to representing their idea of diversity for students, and while I know plenty of incredible people in their offices and on faculty, I think there’s a reason this organization hasn’t existed before this year,” Vantrease said.

Vantrease also linked UT’s status as an LGBTQ-unfriendly public campus to a powerful state legislature that has attempted to erase LGBTQ people and issues from public curriculum and limit rights for transgender individuals, among other anti-LGBTQ laws.

“While there are plenty of amazing students, faculty and staff I have found here, it’s impossible to ignore that UTK is controlled and arguably bound by the interests of the state legislature, a motif we have seen time and time again regarding different issues on campus in recent years,” Vantrease said.

A recent example of the relationship between university leadership and the state legislature concerned many students. UT System President Randy Boyd was revealed to be hosting a fundraiser for state senator Mark Pody, a conservative politician who publicly opposes LGBTQ rights.

Boyd has since backed out of the fundraiser after faculty pushback, but many students heard a strong message. Seniors Amanda Knopps and Gregory Whited are co-chairs of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT), the organization that produces the famously embattled Sex Week event.

In a joint statement to the Daily Beacon, Knopps and Whited said that the efforts on behalf of university leaders to support the LGBTQ campus community are hollow in light of their deeper commitments.

“UT is more focused on putting a bandaid over their issues than actually addressing them completely and unabashedly,” Knopps and Whited said. “Playing into respectability politics for LGBTQ+ and sex-positive organizations while allowing higher-ups to publicly support homophobes, transphobes, etc., feels like a slap in the face to LGBTQ+ students and the organizations committed to supporting them.”

“Perhaps actively listening to LGBTQ+ students and responding to their concerns instead of pretending there isn’t a problem would be a good first step.”

When it comes to the path beyond the ranking, student leaders seem focused on holding university leadership responsible for creating a more LGBTQ-friendly environment.

SGA Student Body President Claire Donelan said students were not surprised by last year’s ranking because there are still support and resources lacking at the university level, including in the areas of housing and career development.

“In order for UT to become a more welcoming place to queer students, there needs to be a serious commitment from the university to actively listen to queer students and then create action from those conversations,” Donelan said. “This year I hope that SGA can be an influential part in creating that welcoming environment for all students. This means consistently advocating for the needs that we know exist and holding the university accountable for their actions, or lack thereof.”

For all of the authentic support students are seeking at the level of university leadership, there are hundreds of students, staff and faculty on UT’s campus who are proud members of the LGBTQ community and who, like Will Martinez, are hoping for a more inclusive student culture as well.

“Folks in the LGBTQ+ community are your professors, staff members, friends, family members and community members. We are everywhere, and we are just trying to live our most authentic lives,” Martinez said. “Have those sometimes uncomfortable and challenging discussions about pronouns, listen to your LGBTQ+ friends and work to be as inclusive as possible.”

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