'Expanding the Circle'

New book explores strategies and obstacles for gay, lesbian and transgender students and those who conduct research on L.G.B.T.Q. topics.

April 6, 2015

Despite increasing attention on diversity issues within academe, colleges and universities still have a ways to go in broadening the repertoire of research on L.G.B.T.Q. studies, according to a book published earlier this year.

Course curriculums rarely expand beyond heterosexual male and female experiences, and most faculty members don’t receive training for working with transgender students, for example. Many campuses don't have adequate policies, role models or programs designed for L.G.B.T.Q. students.

Expanding the Circle: Creating an Inclusive Environment in Higher Education for L.G.B.T.Q. Students and Studies (SUNY Press) aims to be a guide to help change that. The book, edited by John C. Hawley, a University of Santa Clara English professor, is a collection of chapters written by contributing authors about their experiences, including cases studies on changing the climate at individual colleges, perspectives on religion and sexuality, and the effects of antidiscrimination and antibullying policies. Hawley responded via email to questions about the book

Q: In the book’s introduction, you document some of the advances in L.G.B.T.Q. issues that have been made in the past decade. Even in the past year, there’s been considerable attention on transgender policies on campuses and a few high-profile gay athletes coming out. Why is this book needed right now?

A: The number of studies in this field is relatively small (Peter DeWitt, Michael Bayley, M. Jason Cianciotto and Sean Cahill, and a few others), but this is arguably the most comprehensive book on the subject that draws together the perspectives of the leading scholars regarding the principal L.G.B.T.Q. issues in higher education. The book intends to serve as an introduction to an emerging field for faculty, counselors, scholars, clinicians and administrators. It grows out of the several years of increasingly populated summer institutes on these topics at the California Institute of Integral Studies. The broad range of participants, and their increasingly sophisticated set of questions, demonstrates that we are really only at the beginning of a newly recognized struggle for human rights among a cross section of students, faculty and staff on U.S. campuses. And one gradually admits that this is an area that requires greater sensitivity and actual training.  A book like this can be an incentive and instrument for such upgrades in campus communication.

Q: Of the colleges that you’d consider on the forefront of “expanding the circle,” were they proactive in creating inclusive environments or were the efforts in reaction to negative issues on campus? Does it make a difference?

A: Both. In many respects, it doesn't make a difference. The important aspect is that institutions will be proactive or they will be pushed to act -- but in the end, all institutions will need to act. Proactive of course is better.

Q: Many of the chapters in the book talk about the complexities and stresses students face in trying to balance multiple identities. How can campus groups avoid becoming silos and work together to intersect sexuality, gender, ethnic and religious support services?

A: It has been the experience of many of the contributors to this collection that all these groups work together rather closely on the administrative level, within or in relation to student affairs or a dean of students office. On the level of student groups, their best work together usually comes through reaching out to work on common projects. One of the most promising aspects for most campuses is that allies are very willing to help members of the  L.G.B.T.Q. community. Therefore, collaboration across academic departments as well as with student life areas is becoming very common. The silos only remain if people mistake the trends in thinking as only the concern of a small group. As we know now, we are all in this movement, and colleges and universities will not attract nor retain L.G.B.T.Q. faculty, students, staff or administrators unless they create welcoming communities.

Q: In an essay about a statewide L.G.B.T.Q. coalition in Virginia, the authors write that two college presidents refused to sign off on documents to form the group due to fear of blowback from legislators and newspapers opposed to gay rights. That was 10 years ago. How influential are outside interests today in swaying support for L.G.B.T.Q. initiatives?

A: Our Virginia contributors note that the fear of political retribution for supporting L.G.B.T.Q. students and faculty on Virginia campuses has lessened. From the high-water mark of the state attorney general's retrograde opinion against nondiscrimination clauses in Virginia in March 2010, there has been a marked increase in the political support and cultural acceptance of L.G.B.T.-themed programming and even curriculums on both private and public campuses. Judge Arenda Wright Allen's decision in the marriage equality cases in Virginia [in February 2014] as well as the earlier abolition of Don't Ask, Don't Tell [in December 2011] has cut the momentum of anyone trying to punish campuses for having an L.G.B.T. studies minor or for having a gay rights advocate to speak. [Republican State Delegate] Bob Marshall, a reactionary from Gainesville, Va., is always complaining about the campus support of L.G.B.T. initiatives, but he is increasingly seen as irrelevant. In contrast to the last century, one now sees interest from alums/donors to have more programming, classes and support for L.G.B.T. folks on campuses instead of the fear of what the other side will do.

Campus Pride's Campus Climate Index for campuses in Virginia tells the tale. Virginia Commonwealth University has 3 of 5 stars; Virginia State University has 2 of 5; University of Virginia has 3.5 of 5; University of Richmond has 4 of 5. There is still work to do (other campuses in other parts of the country have 5 out of 5). Information on the tools that the campuses use on which the rating is based is at Campus Pride website. As in other states, L.G.B.T.Q. faculty recruitment and retention is getting better now with marriage equality.

So much, as you know, has changed in an amazingly short time. Presidents need to take the time to explain to their board members why they need to act. If presidents are supportive, they will be able to bring their trustees along -- to do otherwise is to put the institution at risk regarding enrollment. The best Catholic universities, like Georgetown University and Boston College, know this reality, and they have been leading in many areas. Presidents can cite quality institutions -- private and public, small and large -- who are successfully changing and reaping the rewards of having an open-minded community.

Q: On campuses where students report inclusive environments, is there any correlation to the number of high-level administrative roles filled by L.G.B.T.Q. individuals? What are some methods to get more L.G.B.T.Q. students and faculty members into campus leadership roles?

A: Many already are and have been -- only they have had to be closeted in the past. As the climate shifts, more can be open about their identity: there is less need to hide in plain sight. As it becomes increasingly a nonissue, there is far less resistance.

Q: Some authors mention a perception that only L.G.B.T.Q. students enroll in courses or programs focused on L.G.B.T.Q. issues. How important is it to change that perception, and what are some ways that gender and sexuality departments can recruit a wider variety of students into their programs?

A: L.G.B.T.Q. issues are everybody's issues. Just like racial issues and feminist issues, in time all students need to be engaged in exploring L.G.B.T.Q. studies. Of course, it is better to include L.G.B.T.Q. studies throughout the curriculum -- like racial and feminist issues -- if we wish all our students to succeed in the 21st century. Several contributors report that their experience is they get a very large percentage of students taking their courses -- queer theory in general, queer Hispanic culture, queer filmmaking in general, queer Hispanic filmmaking -- because they are intellectually engaged and not because they identify as gay, etc. Interesting course content and word of mouth about exciting intellectual exchanges can overcome a lot of this hesitance, as it has in other subjects that seemed initially noncanonical.


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