Story by Kayla Harrell, Staff writer
Murray State is part of a group of four Kentucky universities that are helping other campuses start LGBT offices that provide support and awareness programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
The Kentucky Association of LGBTQ Higher Education started by Murray State, Northern Kentucky, University of Louisville and University of Kentucky in 2015, created a safety net for universities that don’t have LGBT offices.
Jody Cofer Randall, director of Murray State’s LGBT Programming, said the four directors would be a consulting group for these other institutions. “Other universities can use our experiences to figure out how they create this at their school,” she said. “The issues being dealt with at other universities are most likely what we and the three other institutions have already dealt with.”
The association comprises the paid directors of the LGBT offices at the four campuses. The goal is to include others who are interested.
“There was a vision that one day that association could possibly grow out beyond just the people paid to do this work,” Cofer Randall said. “Right now, it is just if it is your position to until it gets a little bigger.”
The Kentucky Association of LGBTQ Higher Education will spread awareness of the LGBT community to local businesses surrounding the colleges. Its goal is that every LGBTQ person on a Kentucky campus will be welcomed and included to fully participate in the life of their college or university, according to the association’s website.
Cofer Randall said she visits businesses around Murray to talk about being more supportive of LGBT people.
“Murray State is a social driver,” she said. “We have to lead by example.”
Murray State was the second public university to create the LGBT Programming office in 2012. The University of Louisville was first in Kentucky to create such a program in 2007. Northern Kentucky followed Murray State, and the University of Kentucky added the office earlier this year.
Emma Lewis, senior from Louisville, Kentucky, said she was glad Murray State provided this service to LGBT students and included them among the campus.
“I am proud that we are one of the four,” she said.
Cofer Randall said before the LGBT office, the student organization Alliance was putting on 30 volunteer-led programs by itself each year.
“We are seeing more equitable, fairer treatment of this population on our public university campuses across Kentucky, but there is always a list of things we could be doing in addition,” she said.
Universities without LGBT programming are “doing a disservice in demonstrating their commitment by not recognizing the needs of this community,” Cofer Randall said.
Bonnie Meyer, director of Northern Kentucky’s LGBT Programs and Services, said there is a need for an increase in these offices on college campuses.
“It is not as controversial as it used to be,” she said. “We are seeing a large population of this group on campus, and we need to value supporting this group.”
About 20 percent of college students fear for their physical safety because of their gender identity or their perceived sexual orientation, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. For instance, John Kelly, sophomore at Tufts, was sexually assaulted in 2012 but had trouble pursuing charges against the assailant, according to a Sept. 9, 2015 Huffington Post article.
The LGBT Programming office provides support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally student community through services and educational programming, according to Murray State’s LGBT Programming mission statement. These services include specific programming, ally development, resource development, student organization, leadership development, alumni engagement and external relationship management.
“We began to see more and more efforts happening on campus from our students, faculty and staff that were not being necessarily organized or supported by campus unit,” Cofer Randall said. “There was a lot of missed opportunity there, a lot of duplication of effort and a lot of times when things could have been taken to that next level if we had that coordinating body.”
Coral Serrano, junior from Tompkinsville, Kentucky, said the external relationship management of the programming helps educate people who are not familiar with this community.
“They deserve to have a voice like everyone else,” Lewis said, echoing Serrano.
Lance Poston, director of University of Kentucky’s Office of LGBTQ Resources, said even on campuses without an LGBT office, other groups or departments advocate for this community on some level at those schools, such as Western Kentucky and Kentucky State.
“It’s a really good time to be doing this work at University of Kentucky,” Poston said. “The more and more institutional support, staffing and funding that goes along with supporting LGBT experiences, the better and more inclusive the university can be.”
About 38 percent of Americans said they approved of gay and lesbian relationships in 2002, but that has risen to 63 percent this year, according to a Gallup poll.
“It is a growing population, not necessarily saying there’s more LGBT people today than there were yesterday,” Cofer Randall said. “The climate is shifting so fast nationally that it is okay to come out as such; so more and more people are coming out.”
While LGBT people have made gains in the acceptance over the last two decades, bias is still prevalent and has mental health consequences, according to a 2014 Psychology Today article.
The LGBT population experiences sexual assault at higher rates than its heterosexual counterpart, according to the 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. For example, 71 percent of LGBT students reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared with 61 percent of non-LGBT students, according to American Progress.
Lauren Paulk, a National Center for Lesbian Rights reproductive justice fellow, wrote in a 2014 blog post, “Sexual assault in the LGBT community is often rendered invisible or dismissed outright.”
“The research is clear that LGBT students are at higher risk for all the things we want to protect them from: suicide, substance abuse, dropping out, homelessness,” said Brian Buford, director of the University of Louisville’s LGBT Center. “So it’s critical to the mission of Kentucky universities to recognize LGBT identity and create safe and inclusive services to meet their needs.”
He said the universities cannot put the burden on students to meet these needs. The universities should devote resources to help, he said.
“We can support one another now,” he said, “and coach other schools to follow this example.”