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I wasn't very good at being a Model LGBT student in college.
I mean, the circle I ran in was pretty queer, in a casual, often intoxicated way. Most of us identified somewhere on the bi-ish spectrum, though "What's a little tipsy making out among friends?" is probably a more accurate way to describe our collective sexualities. None of us did much in the way of queer activism on campus, though a few volunteered with the LGBT resource center and others were just part of groups that happened to skew super gay (i.e., every single literary magazine). Two of us had met at the GSA, though we'd each only attended a handful of meetings (and gone on one accidental date) before losing interest.
As typical jerkwad undergraduates, we talked about queer identity a lot, in addition to spending a lot of time on economics, Foucault and cheap poster reprints of Nighthawks (usually while someone played "Wagon Wheel" on the banjo).
For the most part, I just remember feeling lucky -- lucky that despite our school's pretty pervasive bro culture, there persisted an attitude of casual queer acceptance that meant we could be comfortable with and about each other pretty much anywhere on campus, including places like frat parties or in the local bars. I certainly, though, wouldn't have been the person to refer to as the expert on organized university queer life.
I was reminded of that this week when Campus Pride released its list of the "top 25 LGBT-friendly colleges in the United States." The list, which was done in conjunction with The Huffington Post (presumably not just for slideshow purposes), evaluated campuses around the United States based on a variety of criteria, including "LGBT Academic Life," "LGBT Policy Inclusion," and "LGBT Campus Safety."
It's a pretty awesome resource, particularly for LGBT high schoolers who see college as the first opportunity to start their Big Gayventure. When I was a mostly closeted baby bimo, I remember being thrilled to pieces on college tours whenever I saw something as innocuous as a rainbow "support" triangle sticker in a professor's office window or a Gay-Straight Alliance booth at the orientation fairs. Even for a queer teenager with plenty of support (which, let's face it, is still a rarity in many parts of the country), it's a great list of places to start.
However, that's how this list should be regarded: as a great point of inspiration for other universities rather than the ultimate ideal in LGBT-friendly higher education. For one thing, while the list has great geographical variety above the Mason-Dixon line, the farthest south any of the referenced colleges are located is at the University of Maryland, College Park. Also, out of the 25 colleges listed, only about half are public, which can still often mean high out-of-state tuition fees. For a queer kid in the South who doesn't want to trade his liver for an education, I imagine looking at this spread could feel pretty devastating.
Additionally, I'm giving these rankings just the tiniest bit of side-eye due to Campus Pride's decision to base them on a college's "self-reporting." Sure, the ratings aren't commercially driven, which is great. But in order to appear on the Campus Pride Index (and subsequently ranked), it only takes a single college official filling out an evaluation form about a variety of LGBT issues on campus.
According to Campus Pride's website, "This individual should be responsible for LGBT issues and, or able to represent the campus in a professional capacity." In other words, having the LGBT Resource Center Director on hand would be great, but pretty much any PR representative will do. It's easy to imagine someone skewing a little more sympathetic about the very university that employs them.
On the one hand, it's definitely inspiring that a school would even bother hypothetically trying to inflate its LGBT friendliness rankings for image purposes. Like the whole "pandering to voters" issue, I always appreciate when queer folks are regarded as a desirable population to woo in the first place. Still, it's hard to believe that the whole spectrum of LGBT students' experiences on campus could be evaluated by one individual representative, even if they were trying their best to be as impartial and truthful as possible.
Take my rather fluttery memories of being a bisexual kid at Cornell, for example. Like I said, I had a grand old time while I was an undergraduate, filling my time with "kiss-ins" to protest DOMA and elaborately costumed queer dance parties. But I'm also a cis white girl from a middle-class background. To regard my overall positive experience as unequivocal proof that Cornell was a great place for all LGBT students would be naive at best.
Though it didn't make the "Top 25" rankings, Cornell itself still received five stars overall on the Campus Pride Index. But it still had very few gender-neutral housing or bathroom options on campus, and I know many people in the LGBT community were dissatisfied with the lack of queer representation in student leadership. I was even in a class once where the professor advised bi or questioning kids not to come out to their parents, lest they not be taken seriously enough. But a quick glance at Cornell's "five stars" ranking, which was probably determined by an on-campus administrator, would convey none of those prevailing systemic issues.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not discounting the importance of pro-LGBT resources and policies in universities. I know from experience that without formal university support, trying to organize behind more in-depth initiatives is a pretty fruitless endeavor. But I worry that if universities aren't legitimately held accountable, both by a third-party evaluator and by students themselves, they'll be content to fulfill the bare minimum of what they perceive it takes to be "LGBT-friendly."
Ultimately, it's difficult to quantify exactly what "gay friendliness" means on a general level. But with continuous help from queer students -- all queer students -- more universities can make their campuses a beacon of hope for every high schooler dreaming of someday watching "Queer as Folk" on a Friday night while squashed into a dorm room with 15 of their closest new friends.
Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters.