Students discuss school’s gay-friendly reputation
Media attention addressing anti-gay bullying and hate crimes, particularly in schools, has raised awareness of discrimination against LGBT individuals.
LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersexual and ally/asexual) awareness nationwide.
In 2011, Newsweek ranked UMKC as the 5th gay friendly college in America, outranked by only MIT, Stanford University, Tufts University and Bryn Mawr College.
The Newsweek ranking stems from anti-discrimination policies on campus and an active LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersexual and ally/asexual) office.
UMKC is one of approximately 90 universities in the country with a professionally-staffed LGBTQIA center.
At UMKC, the office raises awareness through diversity and sensitivity training. Many faculty and staff members, including residential life employees, go through a “Safe Space” training to better understand students of LGBTQIA backgrounds.
Many students view UMKC’s reputation as gay-friendly as well-deserved.
“From what I have seen, no one has ever pushed it away or pretended that we don’t have an LGBT community at UMKC,” senior Tess Roam said. “I think they make an effort not to exclude anyone. They have rallies and get-togethers that are well advertised.”
“I think it’s quite an accomplishment and it shows that UMKC is accepting of all types of people,” sophomore Bailey Whiteaker said. “The LGBTQIA program is a big thing here.”
“It’s awesome,” said senior Lauren Palmer. “I think everyone should be accepted for who they are, so it’s cool that the school I go to has that mindset.”
Others feel discrimination prevails despite this.
Senior Sarina Smith, a philosophy major, does not understand how UMKC was ranked in the top 5 gay-friendly schools.
“I just can’t imagine that,” said Sarina Smith, a senior philosophy major . “If UMKC was ranked that high, the rest of the schools in the country have to be pretty terrible. It makes me depressed.”
Smith served on the Queer Alliance (QA) board for three years as treasurer, vice president and president, consecutively. During that time, she struggled to gain recognition and funding for the group.
“We have a good group of queer students,” she said. “But UMKC very much doesn’t address issues for the queer community.”
Queer Alliance is one of several LGBT social groups on campus and is open to all students regardless of orientation.
UMKC Outlaws is a social and academic group geared more specifically toward law students. This year, faculty and staff created a new organization called Spectrum.
This LGBTQIA office also maintains the Rainbow Lounge in the Student Union. This lounge contains a television, four computers and free printing. Walls are lined with shelves full of LGBT related books.
Within the Student Affairs office, a LGBTQIA Resources Coordinator plans programs and services that promote awareness and acceptance of gay students.
This position was vacated earlier this year when the previous coordinator, Joel Bolling, found a new opportunity at Towson University in Maryland.
Office of Student Involvement Director Angie Cottrell recently announced that the position will be filled by Jonathan Ta- Pryor beginning Sept. 4.
Ta-Pryor’s position includes helping students access resources, working with organizations and coordinating events such as the annual Pride Breakfast hosted by the Division of Diversity, Access and Equity.
This year, Ta-Pryor will also absorb the duties of Social Justice Coordinator over the Residential Halls, a position previously held by students that was eliminated.
Missouri’s laws on hate crime also aid UMKC’s “gay-friendly” stance. The statute defines “sexual orientation” as “male or female heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality by inclination, practice, identity or expression, or having a self-image or identity not traditionally associated with one’s gender.” In this way, hate crimes targeting sexual orientation are automatically a minimum class D Felony.
Kansas has similar hate crime laws, but excludes gender identity as a basis for hate crime sentencing.
“I think inner city schools tend to be more accepting than rural schools,” said sophomore Kaley Patterson, who has participated in religious groups on campus that invite LGBTQIA students to their events. “Most campus religious groups even invite the LGBTQIA body to their outings and get-togethers. I have yet to see any protests on the matter.”
Among students, experiences vary
Smith said she’s witnessed behavior from professors that has made her uncomfortable, and thinks faculty and staff should have more Safe Space training.
“I wish there were some punishment for being intolerant,” she said.
Smith has experienced discrimination first-hand.
“I work in Christian churches,” she said. “One time, I was scheduled to teach Sunday school, but a parent of one of the children stopped me in the hallway and refused to let me teach the class that day.”
The word Smith used to describe her experience at UMKC? Difficult.
Sophomore Kalaa Wilkerson, a health sciences major, is the current vice president of QA, and said her experience at UMKC has been mostly positive.
“I know it’s been negative for different people for different reasons, but there haven’t been any negative things directed toward the gay community,” she said.
She said the faculty and staff at UMKC could be “gay-friendlier,” but that she hopes there will be better communications with the new LGBTQIA coordinator.
She is pleased, however, with the Multicultural Student Affairs office.
“They’re really accepting of me,” she said. “They’re not negative toward me, and they don’t make me feel uncomfortable.”
Junior Ellen Parsons, a psychology major, said she has had a mostly positive experience at UMKC, citing some supportive instructors to whom she felt she could open up and be comfortable. However, not all of her experiences have been positive.
“There are times I’ve felt administration wasn’t as supportive as they could’ve been,” she said. “Faculty is great, but administration could be better. And on tours of the school, they never point out the LGBT rooms as a resource.”
Parsons said her feelings are mixed about the students at UMKC and their acceptance of the gay community.
“Some of the more religious groups aren’t very accepting of LGBT people,” she said.
Junior Allegra Durrant, former vice president of QA and pharmacy major, said she agrees with the Newsweek ranking.
“People are always amazed that we have our own room in the Student Union and so many other resources,” she said. “I think that puts us ahead of a lot of other schools.”
She described her experience at UMKC as difficult but mostly positive.
“A lot of decisions are governed by economics,” Durrant said. “Chick-fil-A was here before we knew about their affiliations. It’s not like [UMKC] could easily reverse those decisions [to have the company on campus]. But there wasn’t really an apology, and I hope to not see anything like that in the future.”
Durrant said she feels generally accepted.
“My friends that I’ve met on campus have been generally accepting,” she said. “I’ve been pretty free to put QA on my resume and not be discriminated against.”
A struggle coming out
“My family doesn’t really talk about it, and I know my dad doesn’t agree with it,” Wilkerson said. “Most of my peers and friends are okay with it. If they weren’t okay with it, they wouldn’t be my friend.”
Junior Chris Haywood struggled with coming out.
“I faced some of the most challenging yet rewarding moments of my still young life,” Haywood said. “My parents kicked me out back in early November, and I was forced to find shelter at the OccupyKC camp.”
Cases of family rejection are common in the LGBT community, but Haywood looks at the positives.
“Overall though, in spite of everything that happened, coming out was the best decision of my life. Even though I lost a family and a home, I found both again in activism and UMKC,” he said.
He has mixed opinions about his ability to be open on campus about his LGBT status.
“As proud as I am about how far I’ve come in terms of accepting myself, there is a conscious fear of how others will react,” he said. “Yet the campus, the staff and much of the student body is very accepting of the LGBT community.”
Haywood recognized Kristi Ryujin, assistant vice chancellor of Diversity, Access and Equity, and members of the Queer Alliance as some of the most accepting people he has encountered.
While in agreement with Newsweek’s statement, he feels gender-neutral rooms in the residence halls would further support the LGBTQIA atmosphere on campus.
QA President Brad Leach said his coming out required mental preparation and self-reassurance.
“My biggest obstacle was myself,” he said. “I was afraid that my brothers would never speak to me again. I was actually so afraid to come out that I actually wasn’t able to ever tell my dad. He passed away in 2004, and I didn’t come out till 2007.”
Leach feels there is strong administrative for LGBTQIA-identifying students.
“The things that support us being a top-5 LGBT campus starts with administration,” he said. “They are supporting us in many endeavors as of right now.”
Senior Hunter Capps’s said that while the majority of his family accepted his sexuality, his father sent mixed signals.
“As a staunch conservative, he has openly voted against gay [rights], so in my mind that nullifies whatever he might have told me when I was 14,” Capps said. ”In full knowledge of having a gay son, voting directly against his rights is hardly support.”
Attending an all-boy’s high school initially set limitations on how Capps could present himself, but once he connected with more accepting friends, things got better.
Capps is aware and appreciative of the LGBTQIA resources on campus.
He also said he would like to see more “trans-safe spaces.”
Overall, he feels he can have an open dialogue with many faculty members and feels the student body is accepting.
“I have yet to have any particular problem(s) with any student,” he said.