Knox Pride Parade

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

On paper, the College of the Ozarks and the University of Tennessee have very little in common. The former is a Christian liberal arts school with a student population of only 1,508 located in rural Point Lookout, Missouri, while the latter is a sprawling land-grant public school with 30,000 students located in urban Knoxville.

But when the Princeton Review released its annual guidebook to the best colleges last Tuesday, the two were side-by-side yet again on the one list where they have both appeared for years. In the ranking of the most LGBTQ-unfriendly colleges in America, the College of the Ozarks was in first place, and UT was right below it in second place.

After making it into the top five for years, the 2021 placement at #2 is the highest ranking that UT has ever had on the list, marking it as the most unfriendly public university for LGBTQ people in one of the most trusted sources for college rankings in the nation.

As a nonreligious public school, UT’s placement in the top five most LGBTQ-unfriendly campuses is unique. Besides UT, the other four colleges in the top five are all private and highly religious — Wheaton College, Brigham Young University and Grove City College took the third, fourth and fifth places, respectively. 

According to the Princeton Review website, the lists of the most LGBTQ-friendly and LGBTQ-unfriendly colleges are “based on how strongly students agree or disagree with the statement, ‘Students treat all persons equally, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.’” 

Based on student survey responses, the lists have much to do with students’ perceptions about how they and others are treated on campus in regards to status as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

In response to a request for a statement on the ranking, the University reiterated its support for LGBTQ+ students.

“UT is committed to supporting the LGTBQ+ community, and the survey does not reflect the progress we have made and want to make,” the statement reads. “We definitely have more work to do, and UT’s leadership is committed to creating a campus culture where LGTBQ+ students feel welcome, valued and supported.”

Leticia Flores, director of the UT Psychological Clinic and former chair of the Commission for LGBT People, believes that though the Princeton Review ranking is “methodologically weak,” it still holds great influence over UT’s reputation as an institution.

“Some ambitious, gay high school senior out there in Cookeville may be talking with his parents this fall about where to go to college,” Flores said. “He and his parents won’t critique the survey methodology — but they will pay close attention to the results of the Princeton Review survey, because they want their child to be safe, happy and successful.”

Flores also believes that, perhaps ironically, the ranking may be a sign of progress.

“UT’s ‘elevation’ to #2 status can also be interpreted as possibly a good sign — a sign that LGBTQ+ students are making their voices heard, and that people are paying more attention,” Flores said. 

“Talking to LGBTQ+ alumni from UT, it is clear that things have improved in the area of LGBTQ+ representation on campus, and perhaps a result of that greater and louder representation is that complaints may be heeded more, versus swept under the rug or ignored.”

The fraught relationship between UT administrators, the Tennessee state legislature and the LGBTQ+ community on campus is well-documented. 

In 2013, after students organized the first ever Sex Week, a sex education program designed to teach students about all sexualities in their own language, several state politicians expressed disdain for the event and moved to cut $11,000 in state funding for the event.

Todd Starnes of Fox News condemned Sex Week in an article originally titled “University of Tennessee Uses Student Fees to Pay for Lesbian Bondage Expert,” calling the event, “six days of XXX-rated debauchery that make Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street look like a Sunday school picnic.” This view was echoed by several members of the state legislature, who argued that the event did not reflect the values of the state of Tennessee.

The controversy over Sex Week reached its peak in the spring of 2019, when a 269-page report from the state comptroller led to the complete defunding of Sex Week and the disbanding of the Student Programming Allocation Committee (SPAC), which funded Sex Week through student fees. UT President Randy Boyd testified publiclythat UT did not condone the event.

Students who still want to celebrate sexual diversity and sex positivity now must find creative ways to pay for the event without the help of the school or the legislature.

Another significant conflict between UT and the Republican state legislature came in 2016, when hundreds of thousands of dollars in diversity funding was cut and several programs for LGBTQ+ students were disbanded. Some, like the Pride Center, have since reopened. Others have not, including the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

In 2018, Chancellor Beverly Davenport was suddenly fired after only a 16-month stint, during which she secured private funding for the Pride Center and openly defended Sex Week in the face of backlash from the state legislature, among other actions.

According to Patrick Grzanka, an associate professor of psychology and the chair of the Women, Gender and Sexuality program, all of these attempts on the part of UT administration and the staunchly conservative state legislature to fashion the university in its own image have created an environment that is often hostile towards LGBTQ+ students.

Grzanka encourages students to remember that voting for state legislators who will support the LGBTQ+ community on campus is an important step in making change.

“Votes do have a direct effect on the campus because we have a really powerful state legislature that has declared war on UT, specifically, UT’s efforts to become a more inclusive and diverse place,” Grzanka said. “It’s not sexy, it’s not fun, but it’s really, really important.”

According to Grzanka, once we have campus policies that are more supportive of queer students and faculty, more LGBTQ+ students will come to UT. 

Outside of funding issues, which have kept the Women, Gender and Sexuality program from attaining department status, a central part of the problem is that there simply are not enough LGBTQ+ individuals on UT’s campus to facilitate the kind of intergroup relationships that are vital to creating a friendlier atmosphere.

“You need more queer people around and out, and in order for that to happen, they have to want to come here,” Grzanka said. “And so the policies in some ways do have to come first, because you have to get queer people to want to be here. And when there’s more of them, they’ll have more interaction with more people.”

Student reactions to the new ranking have been blasé for the most part, especially considering UT’s consistent placement in the top five most LGBTQ-unfriendly campuses over the past few years.

Karmen Jones, UT Student Body President and former director of the Student Government Association’s Diversity Affairs Committee, did not need the Princeton Review to alert her to the problem. 

“Anyone who works in our sectors of diversity or is an actual member of the LGBTQ+ community here at UT should not be surprised at how high we rank in this specific category,” Jones said. “We all know the truth of the matter and have so much more work to do in order to make our LGBTQ+ Volunteers feel supported and safe at our university.”

Jones mentioned the annual promises made by administration that they will work hard to make LGBTQ+ students feel supported. The Princeton Review ranking shows that students do not feel that these promises have been kept.

“I don’t know how many prestigious reviews it will take for our university to take this work seriously, but SGA will continue showing our support for this community by having direct representation by and collaboration with our LGBTQ+ Volunteers,” Jones said.

Work on the part of SGA and other student organizations may in fact be the key in improving UT’s reputation as an LGBTQ-unfriendly campus. 

Professor Grzanka, citing student activism of the 1960s and 70s that led to the creation of Africana Studies departments and increased racial equality on campuses across the nation, believes that students can influence campus culture much more readily than staff and faculty.

“I think that students generally, not always, but generally underestimate their power … student activists are the ones who change everything,” Grzanka said. “There’s absolutely no reason why you as young people can’t make things different, there’s no reason.”

Flores and Grzanka are just two examples of the many faculty members who are working to make UT a more welcoming and supportive place for LGBTQ+ individuals, including the many members of the Commission for LGBT People. They hope that students will join them in this work.

“I don’t think that’s a radical proposition to say all of our students should have as equal a shot as possible to succeed and thrive here,” Grzanka said. “That’s not a platitude, that’s a serious ethical proposition.”

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