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College campuses are perceived as some of the most open and affirming of communities. They encourage and support diversity and provide a broad spectrum of courses and programs. They accommodate students with access to academic, social, health care, psychiatric and other services. And, as employers, academic institutions establish policies that promote diversity and fair treatment for all who work there.

Given the claims, policies and structures in place at many colleges and universities, it would seem that everyone who works and studies at such institutions would respect and embrace individual differences—including non-heterosexual cultural perspectives and identities. However, many institutions face difficulties addressing bias and unequal treatment when it comes to LGBTQ+ administrators, particularly those in senior positions.

LGBTQ+ administrators’ experience stands apart from that of LGBTQ+ students and faculty members in a few distinct ways. First, there is a dearth of LGBTQ+ associations for administrators—LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education is one of few. Such organizations could support LGBTQ+ administrators by establishing professional workplace guidelines and creating regional, national or even international communities for LGBTQ+ administrators. Second, the number of LGBTQ+ administrators is smaller than the number of LGBTQ+ students or faculty members. Third, some LGBTQ+ administrator retreat to the closet for self-protection out of fear or to avert real or imagined professional consequences.

One might think that, for senior administrators in higher education, that closet would be anachronistic. Yet a report by the American Council on Education, “American College President Study 2017,” revealed that diversity among college presidents, for instance, has progressed slowly. ACE found that most college and university presidents are white and male; only 30 percent are women, and just 17 percent come from underrepresented groups.

What’s more, acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in the United States has begun to decline, according to the 2020 GLAAD poll of LGBTQ+ acceptance. The results show that, after moderate increases in LGBTQ+ acceptance from 2014 to 2016, the “pendulum abruptly stopped and swung in the opposite direction” in 2017. The poll found that “more non-LGBTQ+ adults responded that they were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ uncomfortable around LGBTQ people.” GLAAD polls have also reported “a significant increase in LGBTQ+ people reporting discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.” And the 2021 GLAAD poll indicates a continuing increase in the number of LGBTQ+ individuals who report discrimination based on sexual or gender identity.

These poll results reflect the reality on many campuses: senior administrators in higher education are predominantly white, male and heterosexual. And even the small number of administrators who do self-identify as LGBTQ+ may not have been hired to bring their LGBTQ+ perspective to their jobs. Consequently, their LGBTQ+ identity might not be considered an asset to their role at the institution, and they may not be consulted for their LGBTQ+ point of view on matters of institutional concern. Given the declining rate of acceptance, LGBTQ+ administrators might not speak up either to offer their observations, experience or studied knowledge about the concerns of LGBTQ+ individuals.

To rectify the situation, LGBTQ+ senior administrators on college campuses might, ideally, create an institutional LGBTQ+ council or committee. But not all LGBTQ+ administrators are in a position to take on this task, and not all campus cultures provide environments where an LGBTQ+ council or committee could flourish.

So what can and should be done? For those of you who are surviving as an LGBTQ+ administrator on a campus without a council or committee, or other types of supports, here are some first steps to consider.

  1. Talk with your LGBTQ+ colleagues about LGBTQ+ concerns in the workplace and in teaching and learning contexts.
  2. Don’t assume everyone knows how you identify, because they may not. Even if you have already come out, you might need to do so again.
  3. Recognize that LGBTQ+ administrators are, at all times, LGBTQ+ and administrators, administrators and LGBTQ+—in other words, both/and—not administrators at work and LGBTQ+ at home.
  4. Speak up when you experience microaggressions directed at you or observe them directed at another person.
  5. If you experience exclusion from social events, don’t rationalize that as just the way things are in a primarily heterosexual world. Let your colleagues know how and what you feel.
  6. Consider attending a leadership opportunity for administrators, and press the organization hosting the event to offer dedicated time for LGBTQ+ networking.
  7. Always remember that you bring your uniqueness to your position and that being LGBTQ+ gives you perspectives and sensitivities that are an advantage as a senior administrator. Stand up for your worth, the quality of your work and your contributions as a member of the administrative team.
  8. Wear clothes that you find expressive and comfortable. Dress codes may feel compulsory, but if your institution does not have a formal, written one, you may have more freedom to choose attire, shoes, accessories and hairstyles than you might think. For more insight into LGBTQ+ administrators’ experience regarding dress and physical appearance, you can consult Kelly L. Reddy-Best’s article “LGBTQ+ Women, Appearance Negotiations, and Workplace Dress Codes.”
  9. For an LGBTQ+ administrator, flirting between heterosexual colleagues can feel like a form of exclusion and lead to silencing. If that’s the case, and you feel compelled to take an action, study your office policy. If the behavior warrants it, follow procedures to file a report with your supervisor or the human resources department.
  10. Last but not least, if you would like to explore the possibility of creating a LGBTQ+ council or committee, don’t wait for someone else to lead. Take the initiative and schedule a meeting, invite colleagues to attend and encourage them to bring their friends.

These tips are my attempt to spark conversation among LGBTQ+ administrators on campuses and to offer some guidance from my experience of navigating and succeeding as an LGBTQ+ person in higher education administration. We owe moving out of the administrative closet to ourselves, to our LGBTQ+ faculty and administrative colleagues, and, most important, to the LGBTQ+ students at our institutions who need to see senior administrators proud and out on their campuses. We model for them the adults they can become.

We also owe this to faculty, administrators and students who do not identify as LGBTQ+. They, too, benefit from witnessing the collective will of senior administrators who stand for and represent commitment to LGBTQ+ values, embodying this vital aspect of the institution’s diversity mission in action.

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