by Fred Fejes, PhD
Professor, School of Communication and Multimedia Studies
Florida Atlantic University
© 2008 Fred Fejes
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national gay-rights advocacy organization, approximately 570 colleges and universities have explicit policies protecting lesbian and gay students, staff and faculty from discrimination on the basis of sexuality. A smaller but growing number of schools have policies granting partner benefits to lesbian and gay staff and also recognizing gender identity as a protected class. Not only private institutions and universities in the liberal areas of the North and the West Coast have such policies. Red state public institutions such as the University of Mississippi. the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska and the University of South Carolina have non-discrimination policies. The changes in official attitudes on lesbian and gay men on many campuses are impressive. Less than fifty years ago at many universities, faculty even suspected of being homosexual were typically given the choice of either resigning or immediate dismissal.
Such changes reflect not only the growing visibility of lesbian and gay students, staff and faculty, but the importance now placed on diversity on college campuses. In the increasingly complex and globalized 21st century society, educational leaders recognize that diversity, rather than a burdensome problem, is something to foster and sustain. But while diversity in general is clear and valued goal, the status of lesbians and gay men on campus often remains clouded.
Whether lesbians and gay men fall under the broad umbrella of diversity is often contested.
Current diversity efforts are the successors to affirmative action and other programs undertaken by many institutions. Often in response to court orders, these programs were meant to correct decades old discrimination in student admission and faculty and administrative hiring. Such corrective efforts, and the laws behind them, were outcomes of what political sociologist John Skrentny has called The Minority Rights Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2002) or that period the 1950s -1970s when America confronted its shameful treatment of marginalized groups. The civil rights movement of that era transformed American political culture by creating a new and powerful national narrative about minority group, identity, oppression and struggle in the United States.
While the 1964 Civil Rights Act, outlawed discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, (and) national origin” and theoretically covered all American citizens, its implementation focused on those groups that lawmakers and policymakers saw as particularly victimized by discrimination. In addition to African-Americans, women, Americans of Hispanic and Asian ancestry Native-Americans and, later, the physically disabled were seen as conspicuous victims of discrimination. Using what Skrentny terms the “black analogy,” government policymakers, the media and the public in general placed these designated groups within the larger narrative of minority group oppression and victimhood that, “while unspoken, undebated and unlegislated, nevertheless powerfully shaped policy.”
Like these other groups, lesbians and gay men met the requirements of a minority group deserving protection from discrimination. They were subject to discriminatory local, state and federal laws and policies. Earlier than other minority groups, pioneer homosexual rights activists felt a strong kinship with the growing civil rights movement and were the first group to copy their tactics of peaceful protest. By the mid 1970s there was a growing recognition that lesbians and gay men were a minority.
Much in the same way that science stripped theories of racial inferiority of their legitimacy, medical and scientific authorities rejected earlier theories pathologizing homosexuals. Similar to laws on segregation, laws restricting the rights of homosexuals were now viewed as outmoded and unjust and states moved to repeal them. Cities and counties across the country banned discrimination at the local level and a number of states moved to passing similar laws. Federal legislation was introduced in Congress. Jimmy Carter, elected President in 1976 on a platform of human rights, promised attention to the concerns of America’s lesbian and gay community. Soon after his inauguration gay rights leaders were invited to the White House to discuss their issues.
However, for lesbians and gay men, all of this progress came to a sudden halt in the spring of 1977. Led by entertainer Anita Bryant, local religious and conservatives in Miami-Dade County Florida mounted a vigorous campaign to repeal a county gay rights law. The successful effort attracted national and even internal attention. The theories and images of homosexuality as a sickness and perversion, now joined with condemnation by religious conservatives, still had a very powerful hold on the public imagination. Similar successful campaigns the following year in St. Paul Minnesota, Wichita, Kansas and Eugene Oregon harbingered a national movement. National political figures previously supportive of gay rights quickly distanced themselves. The media treated gay activists’ claims to minority status with increasing skepticism Even lesbian and gay leaders themselves recognized the futility of casting their claims in the narrative of minority rights.
If lesbians and gay men were no longer viewed as a minority deserving of protection against discrimination, what was their status in American society? Was the progress on gay rights to be replaced by an era of Jim-Crow style legislation aimed at lesbians and gay men. It seemed so. States from Alabama to New Jersey began recriminalizing homosexuality and considering legislation to restrict further the civil rights of lesbians and gay men.
The showdown came in California in the 1978 elections. Conservative activists, hoping to incite another Miami-style campaign, placed a measure on the ballot banning lesbians and gay men from teaching in public schools. Early polls showed that more than 60% of California voters supported the ban. Gay activists feared the referendum was only the beginning of a larger effort to restrict them from other areas of public employment and state regulated professions. However the measure’s proponents had overreached; they wrote their proposal so broadly that even heterosexual teachers favoring gay rights could be fired. Gay activists opposing the measure were joined not only by liberal and union leaders, but also by noted conservatives such as Ronald Reagan who saw it as a serious attack on the rights of all California citizens. The measure lost by more than a million votes
Since 1978 the question of the legal status of lesbian and gay men and their rights has been fought in a cultural trench warfare between gay activists and conservative political and religious activists. Still the visibility, prominence and vitality of the lesbian and gay community have grown. Lesbians and gay men are regarded as important segments of many communities. In the area of business and commerce, not only are they viewed as a significant and growing market, many major corporations hoping to attract them as valuable employees offer the recognition, protections and benefits that the state is typically unwilling to grant. According to the HRC 433 of the Fortune 500 companies explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including not only companies like Microsoft and General Motors, but also Wal-mart and Winn-Dixie. In higher education, an institution’s recognition and support of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered faculty, staff and students is a mark of its commitment to diversity and quality. All 62 members of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) have non-discrimination policies and more than two thirds provide partner benefits.
According to the HRC approximately 570 colleges and universities have explicit policies protecting lesbian and gay students, staff and faculty from discrimination on the basis of sexuality. A smaller but growing number of schools have policies granting partner benefits to lesbian and gay staff and also recognizing gender identity as a protected class. Not only private institutions and universities in the liberal areas of the North and the West Coast have such policies. Red state public institutions such as the University of Mississippi. the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska and the University of South Carolina have non-discrimination policies. All 62 members of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) including the University of Florida have non-discrimination policies and more than two thirds provide partner benefits. The changes in official attitudes on lesbian and gay men on many campuses are impressive. Less than fifty years ago at many universities, faculty even suspected of being homosexual were typically given the choice of either resigning or immediate dismissal.
Still, although 570 colleges and universities have explicit polices addressing their lesbian and gay concerns, and these include the University of Miami, Florida International University, Nova University, Broward, Miami-Dade ad Palm Beach Colleges, the other approximately 3,700 higher education institutions in America do not. Among those institutions is Florida Atlantic University. One can only read these institutions’ lack of minimal protections as a disregard for its lesbian and gay faculty, staff and students. Unfortunately not only lesbians and gay men, but the institution itself pays the costs.
It costs the institution top faculty, administrative and staff. Most institutions compete nationally for top talent. For lesbian and gay employees, the issue of protections and benefits are important and can either attract them or send them away. For example, in 2006 Robert W. Carpick, a leading researcher in nanotechnology left the University of Wisconsin for the University of Pennsylvania. In 2003 he had married his partner of ten years in Canada, however the University was unable to offer him partner benefits due to a state measure banning gay marriages. The revenue from research contracts he took with him to Pennsylvania dwarfed the estimated cost of the benefits.
It costs the institution in students. For many lesbian and gay youth in America, “coming out” or acknowledging one’s sexuality is a high school experience and many high schools provide them a safe and supportive environment. In considering colleges, these students look to see if they are openly welcomed at a university and if their concerns and safety as openly lesbian and gay students are taken seriously. Publications like The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students and websites like www.campusclimateindex.org rank various colleges and universities on their policies and supportive campus environment. Lesbian and gay students listen very carefully to what an institution says, and does not say, about people like them.
It cost the institution donor support. Many lesbian and gay baby boomers who remembered the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s are now organizing their estates. These alumni also look very closely at what their universities says and do not say about people like them. After the death of gay activist Phil Zwickler from AIDS in 1991 his family set up a foundation to commemorate his work. Part of the foundation’s effort is funding a program of research fellowships at Cornel University. Richard Weiland, one of the first employees at Microsoft who died in 2006, made a $60 million bequest to Stanford University. A significant portion of that was designated to support the University’s Lesbian and Gay Resource Center.
It costs a university any claims of quality. As noted above, a proactive stance on diversity, including sexuality diversity, is a mark of a top echelon university. Thus it is hard to take an institution’s clams to excellence and diversity seriously when all it can offer its lesbian and gay faculty, administrators, staff and students are generic assertions about “not discriminating against anybody.” This is little more than an academic version of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Finally it costs the institution any claim of community leadership. As Richard Florida noted in his research on the “creative class,” a distinguishing feature of communities in the forefront of technological and biological research and innovation is an open and welcoming attitude towards diversity, including sexual diversity. What message is sent about a community when an institution devoted to an open and unfettered search for knowledge, and in many cases a community’s major employer, carefully hedges its position on issues of sexuality and its own lesbian, and gay faculty, staff and students.
In the strictly technical sense, lesbians and gay men are not a minority, or at least no federal law has yet defined them as such. However they are a vital, visible part of the life of many colleges and universities. Those institutions that recognize and welcome them benefit from their talents and energies. Moreover these institutions send out a real message about their commitment to diversity and quality. These universities are the leaders in higher education. Hopefully their model will be followed by those institutions that seek to move forward.
Fred Fejes, PhD
Professor, School of Communication and Multimedia Studies
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton FL 33431
fax 561 297-2615