University Earns Four-Star LGBT Rating in Index

By NIA BENTALL

The University of Mary Washington offers students of a sexual minority a generally high quality of life, according to the four-out-of-five star rating UMW received on an “LGTB-friendly” campus-climate index.

Campus Pride, the “only national nonprofit organization for student leaders and campus groups working to create a safer college environment for LGBT students,” publishes the index.

The Washington Post reported Mary Washington’s rating in an article about the generally high scores for universities in the Washington D.C. area.

UMW’s four-star rating is higher than many in the commonwealth, including the College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia and James Madison University.

Campus Pride, the “only national nonprofit organization for student leaders and campus groups working to create a safer college environment for LGBT students,” publishes the index.

The index tool, according to the Campus Pride website, is supposed to help college leaders improve their LGBT campus life and shape a more inclusive, welcoming and respectful educational experience.

Campus Pride asks that a campus official responsible for LGBT issues on campus fills out the survey and rates the school in eight categories: the extent of LGBT policies, the level of LGBT support and institutional commitment, academic life, student life, housing issues, campus safety, student health and counseling, and recruitment and retention of LGBT students.

Jack Pando and Charles Girard, president and vice president of People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities (PRISM), ‬filled out the survey in the summer of 2011 after attending a Network Virginia Conference about sexual orientation and gender identity programs and policy on June 18, 2011.

Cedric Rucker, dean of student life, and Marion Stanford, director of the James Farmer Multicultural Center, also attended the conference and encouraged Pando and Girard to fill out the survey after hearing the creator of the survey, Sue Rankin, speak.

“We wanted to see where our school rated and wanted to know where we could improve and focus our efforts. Most importantly, we wanted to make sure that our school was on the radar for perspective queer students looking at schools.  We wanted to let them know that UMW was an option for them,” said Pando.

Kira Lanewala, a 2011 graduate agrees with the four-star rating.

“I was so afraid of that label [lesbian], but being around PRISM, being around queer-friendly people, and being in a friendly community has really let me embrace the label, and I don’t think I would have had that without UMW,” she said.

Lanewala added, “It makes me happy to know that I can walk down Campus Walk and hold my girlfriend’s hand.”

Girard added that in his years at UMW, “in terms of queer culture, there’s been a shift from social group to activism.”

Additionally, the sale of shirts for PRISM’s the Day of Silence has increased from 500 to 1000 shirts, according to Pando.

Jeremy Thompson, Student Government Association president elect for 2012-2013, said, “One of the main things about UMW is that we’re committed to diversity and UMW should focus on putting its policies where its ideals are. Because these policies are important to students they are important to SGA.”

Rucker reflected upon the rating stating, “Here at the Office of Student Affairs and Academic Services, we all work together to support the educational mission of UMW, to encourage thought and provide different perspectives. That connects back to Dr. Farmer, who is a symbol of social justice and inclusion.

Rucker added, “Our institution is better because of its diversity, and I mean the true mosaic of diversity we have here. The LGBTQ community is an important part of that.”

UMW did not get a perfect score though, and the lowest score on the breakdown of the rating online was two stars on LGBT institutional support and commitment, and two and half stars on LGBT policy commitment.

Aniel Jaster, a student at UMW and transgender woman, said she agrees with the four star rating for sexual orientation, but when it comes to gender identity, there is still more work to do.

“I feel comfortable and safe most of the time on campus, but I get verbally harassed a couple times a week in my dorm, as well as when I’m going to the bathroom,” said Jaste.

According to Pando, “The reason for these low scores is because we don’t have state support for these initiatives. The commonwealth’s attorney won’t allow us to have gender identity on our non-discrimination policies . . .because we are a state school and Virginia doesn’t offer same-sex benefits to couples, neither can our universities.”

Girard added, “Our school is worried a lot about how the state will react if we have sex-neutral housing or if we put gender identity and expression into our discrimination policy, to which I say let’s take a stand and do it anyway.”

Girard hopes filling out the survey will allow UMW to see some of the gaps in its policies adding that there are many things UMW could do to improve its rating, including looking into insurance policies that cover hormones and sex change surgery and having admissions material for prospective queer students and gender-neutral bathrooms.

“It is important to note that not every queer person on this campus goes to PRISM, and there are people on this campus that are gay and that don’t talk about it every day and there are people who are trans [gender] that don’t want to talk about it. I will speak out to make a better climate for people who will come after me,” Girard stated.

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