Will religious freedom laws disrupt higher education for LGBTQ students?

Indiana’s religious law has raised concerns about the safety of gay students on campus. Ken Wolter / www.Shutterstock.com

Recent attempts that could allow for discrimination in state laws, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed by Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, have raised concerns about the safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students on campus.

For young people, who identify as LGBTQ, an important factor in the application process is the climate on campus. When selecting colleges, prospective students, as well as faculty, not only take into consideration the major programs offered, but also look at how comfortable the campus feels to them.

In my 30 years as a mental health professional and over 20 years in a University setting, I have both witnessed and researched the negative effects of hostile environments on work and school productivity. These effects have ranged from a drop in grades, to failure to complete school, to suicide attempts.

My colleagues and I also receive frequent calls from prospective students about the safety of the campus for LGBTQ persons.

It’s not students alone, who have concerns for their safety. In the last dozen years at our University, I know of a number of cases where qualified applicants for faculty positions either declined job offers or left their jobs after they felt that the community was unwelcoming to LGBTQ people.

As a much sought-after faculty candidate, who rejected a job offer, told me at the time: “I don’t want to live in a place where my kids are in danger because they have two moms.”

With Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, due to become law July 1, the question is what effect such laws will have on LGBTQ students at colleges and universities across the state.

Understanding concerns at Indiana

Let’s look first at the demographic as well as religious background of students who come to Indiana University.

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) is a regional campus in northeast Indiana that includes programs from both universities. Of our 13,000 students, who enrolled during this 50th year, about 82% are white, 55% identifying as female and 45% male. We do not currently keep statistics on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Ninety-five percent of our students come from rural communities in the surrounding 14 counties in the northeast quadrant of the state. Over two-thirds of these are first generation college students.

What is more important to know is that many of our students were raised in isolated conservative, Christian, farming communities.

Of the 36,418 square miles that make up the state of Indiana, 32,776, or 95%, are rural. Fort Wayne, the second largest city, is known as the “city of churches” and is the only urban area in the 14 counties.

In these communities, LGBTQ students face serious discrimination and have to remain hidden for survival.

Gay students live in fear on campuses. Student image via www.shutterstock.com

Students have told me how they have lived in constant fear of being beaten or thrown out of school – or their homes – if they ever revealed their true sexual orientation or gender identity.

To these students, Fort Wayne is frighteningly “huge” and many are afraid to venture off campus.

Even so, the city has an active LGBTQ population and the yearly LGBTQ dinner-dance brings out over a thousand attendees.

But then, Indiana is also host to 16 hate groups as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one-fourth of which reside in the northern counties. In 2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) of 55 reported hate crimes in Indiana, 12 (21.8%) were for sexual orientation.

Anti-gay feelings exist on other campuses

Such anti-gay hate crimes are not limited to Indiana.

While approval of marriage equality shows an increase nationwide, from 27% in 1996 to 54% in 2014, harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remain a concern.

Anti-gay hate crime constitutes nearly 20% of reported hate crimes nationally, according to the most recent statistics released by the FBI.

Predictably, LGBTQ students across campuses in the US are victims of anti-gay feelings.

A 2004 studyby Robert Brown, Brandy Clarke, Valerie Gortmaker, and Rachel Robinson-Keilig in the Journal of College Student Development, reports that the results of numerous campus climate studies show significant levels of hostility toward LGBTQ students, ranging from exclusion to outright physical assault

Two other authoritative studies by Susan Rankin at The Pennsylvania State University - one in 2005 and another in 2006 showed that many campuses are experienced as being chilly for sexual minority students.

This is even without the additional effect of anti-LGBTQ laws.

Impact of religious laws

The concern now is the additional impact that these laws and their respective anti-LGBTQ attitudes would have on campuses and on students at colleges and universities, who already live under considerable fear.

Other than heightening the feelings of insecurity, I also fear, that in Indiana, such anti-LGBT state laws could have significant impact on insurance and other benefits. For instance, the laws could eliminate insurance benefits or force same-sex married couples to purchase separate insurance. They could even disallow housing.

These laws could also eliminate LGBT studies programs and even result in a state-wide “brain drain” or the loss of well-qualified and productive students and faculty to other states.

In view of the law, recent discussions on college campuses have echoed fears that enrollments and graduation rates will be negatively affected by the perception of Indiana as a hostile environment.

The attitudes of the surrounding community are of concern on campuses that are LGBTQ friendly such as those listed on the Campus Pride website. But even in these “safe” places, college students need to deal with the surrounding community, whether they live off campus, or as they go about their daily lives, doing shopping, laundry or just going to places of entertainment.

The community around the campus is important for students to feel safe. Girl image via www.shutterstock.com

If the community either offers no protection against discrimination or is overtly hostile to LGBTQ students, then recruitment and retention become issues out of the control of the particular college or university.

This damage may have already been done and the state may be marked as a hostile place to live. All one has to do is look at social media, eg, Facebook, Twitter, to see the effects on the state’s reputation.

Attempts by the Indiana state legislature to reduce the effects of the new law by adding language to clarify that the religious freedom law will not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians, may be too little too late.

Although the amendment to the law states it does not authorize persons to refuse to provide services and so on to others, it does not contain explicit protections for LGBTQ people.

Universities need to take urgent steps

In order to combat the potential negative effects of discriminatory legislation, colleges and universities will need to step up and do much more to promote LGBT-affirming programming in both academics and student life, as well as the community around.

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) offers some good examples of how it can be done. A Safe Zone training for faculty, staff, and students, aims to increase the awareness, knowledge, and skills for creating a safe space where everyone feels welcome.

In addition, an LGBTQ Resource Center, an active LGBTQ student organization, a suicide prevention programthat targets, in part LGBTQ students, help build a supportive environment.

IPFW also offers a certificate course in LGBT studies and participates annually in the NOH8 campaign, a “No Hate” campaign to promote equality. A conference addressing LGBTQ student needs, “Queer Health on Campus” is hosted once every two years.

In terms of a nationwide resource for potential students, the Campus Pride Index, is helpful for knowing LGBT-friendly schools. The Campus Pride Index rates schools on eight scales: LGBTQ policies, support and institutional commitment, academic life, student life, housing, campus safety, counseling and health, as well as recruitment and retention efforts.

Until colleges and universities take the lead in reaching out to sexual minority students, faculty and staff, so as to provide a safe, affirming environment, laws such as the Indiana RFRA could seriously damage student enrollment and graduation, effectively denying LGBTQ students the opportunities for higher education.

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