LGBT students at Central Michigan University walk a fine line between acceptance and rejection. While they know they can take solace in supportive student organizations, they’re also wary of a vocal opposition that sometimes lashes out against progressive groups.
Last year, CMU’s lesbian and gay student organization Spectrum put together a unique event for its Coming Out Week in October. “Many statistics estimated that ten percent of the American population identified as LGBT,” said Sarah Winchester, political chair of Spectrum. “So we determined how many students would be LGBT on campus, and put a flag out in front of the CMU library for every one of those students.”
The flags caused some students to speak out against them, some even expressing their opinions with chalk on campus sidewalks. The First Amendment protects these responses, but the chalk was washed away after one day. Winchester said no one in Spectrum was involved, but another student organization cleaned the pathways and wished to remain anonymous.
While Spectrum focuses on addressing issues for gay and lesbian students, another newly-formed group, Transcend, advocates for transgendered students and provides a support group for those who are transitioning. Kylee Meade, a two-year member of Transcend, explains that the two organizations serve different purposes.
“Transcend is trying to solidify the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation,” Meade said. “I think that people view the two as one in the same. But they’re very different ways of identifying oneself.”
Meade, currently in the early stages of transition, said the organization offers plenty of benefits for its members.
“When we first started the group, none of us were in hormone therapy, none of us had been fully dressing as the identity we wanted to present ourselves,” Meade said. “Four of us have started the physical process now, which is a huge breakthrough. For me, it wasn’t until I got the support from Transcend that I started the process. The whole coming out process is a huge obstacle that most of us overcame because of Transcend.”
Meade also said support from Shannon Joliff, the director of the Office of Gay and Lesbian Programs, helped her start the transition process.
Joliff’s office is one of six units of CMU’s Office of Institutional Diversity. The OID’s goal is to create a more accepting and inclusive campus.
CMU seems to take Joliff’s position more seriously now than it did previously. Before Joliff was hired in 2008, the position was only part-time. Joliff’s title is now a salaried, full-time position that offers her and her partner benefits (CMU has a “plus one” option for their staff). She has two student assistants and two interns on staff.
Joliff has planned events for Pride Week, Coming Out Day and Transgender Day of Remembrance. She also brings panels into classrooms and residential halls to provide information about LGBT students and to tackle discrimination.
Joliff’s office also supports Spectrum and Transcend, and the three organizations sometimes band together around a cause. In 2010, a few housing staff members proposed a gender-neutral housing option. Now, Transcend, Spectrum, and the Office of Gay and Lesbian Programs are working together to create an LGBT or gender-neutral floor in the residence halls.
The initial proposal was denied. “A policy change in the middle of Michigan, in the middle of nowhere – it wasn’t taken very well,” Winchester said. Students from both organizations created petitions, wrote letters, and utilized social media to argue a case for LGBT-friendly housing and applications. They collected 700 student and staff signatures, in hopes of convincing the administration.
For now, the university’s housing administration and residence life are willing to work with transgender students on a case-by-case basis, as is the policy of most colleges.
CMU also has a non-discrimination policy that protects LGBT students. The university added the phrase “sexual orientation” to its policy in 1999 and “gender identity and expression” in 2009, according to the university’s independent student-run newspaper, Central Michigan Life.
Overall, Winchester argues that Central is doing well and the student body is supportive, despite the conservative influence of Mt. Pleasant and the state of Michigan (which supplies very little protection to LGBT Michigander).
“Campus has changed in my four years here. I didn’t feel comfortable four years ago,” Winchester said. “I’ve seen many freshmen come out to their roommates this year. I’ve seen those roommates then turn around and say ‘Yeah, my roommate is gay, I don’t really care.’ I think that is so exciting to see. I am really happy for incoming students that will be coming to a campus much better off than the one I came to four years ago.”