Queer Michigan College Students Consider Safety On and Off Campus As New Year Kicks Off

Local campuses offer respite from national anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, legal fights

At a time when state legislatures across the country have been presenting hundreds of bills attacking LGBTQ+ rights, Michigan has gone in the opposite direction since the 2022 midterms. A whopping 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country just this year, according to Human Rights Watch. Michigan, meanwhile, has passed a modification of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which extends anti-discrimination protections to queer Michiganders. 

But what does that mean for Michigan’s LGBTQ+ college students? 

For Koda, a queer, transmasculine, non-binary senior at Oakland University who spoke to Pride Source on the condition that we only use their first name, they said they feel safe on campus in the urban parts of Oakland County and, “at the moment,” across Michigan. However, they said, “I feel a personal responsibility because I feel safe to make sure that other students feel safe when they are in queer spaces.” 

“I believe that the community has persisted despite everything,” they added. “In particular, we have seen an influx of students who have sought out this space specifically at Oakland University because of our approachability to LGBTQIA students. I have had several students [say] ‘I come from this place, where they have anti-trans legislatures’ that are seeking out a location where they can grow in themselves and express their gender appropriately.”

The story of LGBTQ+ life over the course of history has been a constant story of assessing where it is safe to be yourself in public and where it isn’t. Michigan students interviewed for this story consistently said they felt safe on campus and in the city they live in. Outside of that, safety is a more complicated question. Joey, a bigender, bisexual social work graduate student also at Oakland University, said that he often scopes places out in his male-presenting form before being comfortable going there in more feminine attire. Joey feels safe on campus, but not in his home city, Troy. 

“There’s a lot of hostility and tension due to all of this misinformation and ignorance about our community. It’s very difficult to really present the way that I am in public. I feel safe if I’m not presenting, but if I’m being who I am, no, I don’t feel safe,” Joey, who also asked for anonymity, told Pride Source. The more urban a place, the safer Joey feels.

“Let me define safe: Do I feel like I’m going to be physically harmed? For Michigan and Oakland County, I’m more worried about ostracization. That’s how it is in a good portion of the United States, at least for me. I’m six-three and very muscular so I’m not worried, but for other people who aren’t my size and frame, I’d definitely be worried. There are places across Michigan and the United States, where regardless of how I present, it’s dangerous to be queer.” 

Certain Michigan universities are already known for providing LGBTQ-friendly environments, like Eastern Michigan University, where journalism major Ameera Salman will be a junior this fall. 

“I personally think that history moves in a progressive trajectory, however I think that in the United States specifically we have a lot of foundational systems that are harming people: capitalism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism,” Salman said. “Those are in the foundation of our country, so even though in 2008 we had our first Black president, even though we passed gay marriage, even though we had a lot of progress in the last 20 years — maybe not counting the last eight — you can say that it’s almost like it was just putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.” 

Wayne State University takes steps to visibly include the queer community across campus and throughout the curriculum, according to Simone Chess, the director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Wayne State will be opening its first ever gender and sexuality center in the student center this fall. This will be an interdisciplinary research center, combining several different areas of curricula, and student resources, which will centralize already existing resources with new ones. 

“That’s exciting and new, a big deal for us,” Chess told Pride Source. “I think it’s a hard time right now for all of us who are queer, especially young people watching the legislative shifts that are going on across the country. We feel lucky in Michigan to have some protections, but we don’t take them for granted. I think this is a period where people are feeling both tender and convicted in wanting to protect our rights.” 

Some states have seen business and people go elsewhere because of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Florida is perhaps the most extreme example, passing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill along with other parental rights bills, bills censoring history and racial discussions in schools and anti-immigrant bills. Koda had considered a Florida university when first going to college, but wouldn’t go now after the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed. 

“My family’s from West Virginia, and I identify with that culture,” Joey said. “I feel that in certain parts of West Virginia, there are certain places where it’s definitely safe and OK to be queer. But at the same time, there’s certain parts of West Virginia where it’s dangerous, in rural areas. That is the same thing for certain urban areas. I wouldn’t feel safe anywhere in Florida — Miami, yes, but anywhere else. Or Texas or Louisiana, I wouldn’t feel safe, urban or rural.”

Joey pointed out that none of the anti-trans talking points being deployed today are new, arguing that the same fear mongering trans Americans face today was used against gay men and women just a few decades earlier. 

When asked if they thought that the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ laws was a phase or a new normal, Koda said, “I think it will last longer than this upcoming election, but it is definitely the new thing that the Republican Party and far right have latched their teeth onto — they use fear tactics in order to get votes in elections. They are using trans and queer people as fodder for attention, for their own personal gain. I think that they won’t always focus on it, but it will always be a running point, especially with the attention they have gotten up to this point.”