Taking initiative

By: Greg Lane

Students in Whatcom’s Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) agreed that the new LGBTQ initiative is a step in the right direction. Photo by Greg Lane.
Students in Whatcom’s Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) agreed that the new LGBTQ initiative is a step in the right direction. Photo by Greg Lane.

Beginning in winter quarter, community colleges and technical colleges in Washington state asked students for their gender identity and sexual orientation when they registered for classes—the first steps of the state-wide Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Qeer/Questioning (LGBTQ) Student Success Initiative, a project proposed by students of Highline Community College.

The purpose of the initiative is to create a better understanding of student demographics and to implement this data in a manner which supports new programs and services.

“Washington State is the first state to run this sort of project,” said Susan Lonac, an English instructor and co-advisor to the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at Whatcom Community College.

Patricia Onion, Vice President of Educational Services at Whatcom Community College and a member of the Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), said the project at Whatcom is still in early development.

Onion said the initiative had gained a footing during the 2011 Washington Community and Technical Colleges Legislative Voice Academy. What followed was a Legislative White Paper, a list of student concerns to Washington State legislation.

The white paper had outlined five critical issues students had prioritized for Washington State’s community and technical colleges. Onion said one of these issues was to address the lack of representation for the LGBTQ demographic among students.

Students called for legislation to require the SBCTC to include sexual orientation and gender identity demographic categories on the Uniform Application for Admission to Washington Community and Technical Colleges, she said.

According to the paper, colleges then can use the “information to research the enrollment, retention, and degree completion rates of LGBTQ cohorts and to address inequities of educational outcomes if they are identified within this population.”

When Onion heard about the LGBTQ concern, she said, “What really struck me was when they reminded us that this is how ethnic and racial support movements started. That’s what really hit me as a leader.”

Now with the initiative underway, staff, faculty, and students at Whatcom and colleges around the state are becoming aware of and learning about LGBTQ needs.

“We’re all humans and we all have similarities and differences and we can learn and grow from those differences,” Onion said.

Onion said it’s important that our community realizes the need for better understanding of LGBTQ individuals, not just at Whatcom, but throughout the county.

Lonac said she was invited to speak with advisors about the new initiative but says she is “only peripherally involved” with the finer points of the initiative.

“The first goal is to gather data…If it turns out we have a substantial LGBT population on campus,” the school would likely take measures to further assess the needs of LGBTQ students, Lonac said.

The specifics of such measures are to be decided as Onion said the initiative is in a “learning as we go” phase. She explained how she and others in the SBCTC are using what they learn to discuss how to best implement the initiative.

With the details still being worked out Onion said the overall plan is to create “an awareness and education strategy…It’s kind of hard to know what our next step is but my thought is that we’d later have workshops and courses.”

To gather the data needed, when students registered for spring quarter two questions were asked: “What is your sexual orientation?” and “what is your gender identity?” These questions were given a selection of answers including an “other” and a “prefer not to answer” option.

Students and both advisors, Tara Hughes and Lonac, of the QSA collectively agreed that the two questions and their selection of answers were limited, but a start nonetheless.

“The real value of the project is to help the institution understand the needs of LGBT students,” Lonac said.

Students in Whatcom’s QSA said they feel that the campus is a generally positive environment.

“I haven’t had any difficulty with people accepting me,” said Alex Moulaison.

“It’s really not judgmental here,” said Destiny Rodem Berger.

Emily Heiner said a common response to when she talks about her gender identity goes along the lines of “I’m not but it’s okay.”

Rai Hughes Davis, student president of the QSA, said it’s important to have clear definitions of terms some people may have little understanding. “What I found always being confused is gender and sexual orientation,” she said.

And while students at the QSA said their experiences at Whatcom have been positive, Lonac said issues have happened in the past.

“We like to think social ostrazication doesn’t happen here but we’ve had students with difficulties,” Lonac said. “The most common problem isn’t direct or verbal bullying, but to feel invisible, not valued, not regarded as deserving of basic human dignity.”

Although not pertaining to the Whatcom campus environment, Lonac said “the most heartbreaking challenges for me are when students come to the club and tell me how they came out to their parents and were thrown out of their homes.”

To combat the problems LGBTQ students experience and to help students as a whole, Lonac said the new initiative is a push in the right direction.

“As an educator, I believe [LGBTQ] education is a large part of the how to foster a positive campus climate,” said Lonac.

One of the initiative’s later goals is to implement effective education of gender identity and sexual orientation through new or improved courses.

Davis said a “History of Gender” class would be interesting with both informative and accurate material.

Alongside course offerings, Onion said Whatcom’s stance on the LGBTQ Student Success Initiative is to use the information collected on gender identity and sexual orientation and create campus safe zones, scholarship and financial aid opportunities, and mentoring of LGBTQ clubs and organizations.

Whatcom’s Commitment to Diversity states: “Whatcom promises to transform lives through education while supporting student growth, respecting student investment, embracing diversity, promoting excellence, and creating opportunities.”



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