In July 2015, a letter to The News raised concerns about the Northeastern University student government’s commitment to engage with and protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, asexual, etc. (LGBTQA+) students in recent years. The letter, written by the Student Government Association (SGA) chief of staff at the time, Elliot Horen, called for SGA to take concrete steps to foster inclusivity, acceptance and safety.
Last week, the student senate did just that. The group passed the Northeastern Pride Act of 2016, authored by Horen, which outlines additional support for the rights of LGBTQA+ students at Northeastern. This is a victory both for affected community members and the university at large.
In the bill’s most significant passage, Horen renames an old awareness event for gay, lesbian and bisexual students to “Northeastern LGBTQA+ Pride Week” and moves it from the middle of June to the first week of October.
The change is more than symbolic: the new name recognizes the needs and roles of transgender, queer, questioning, asexual and other students. The lengthened acronym is meant to include people, not segment them. Meanwhile, the move from June to October means the awareness week will coincide with LGBTQ History Month, an important recognition of the many events and people who have contributed to the push for inclusion and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities.
A separate clause designates the SGA office a safe space where all students, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or expression can talk to student government representatives. In a show of commitment, SGA executive cabinet members will likely seek additional resources and training on how to be effective allies and safe-space facilitators.
We at The News applaud the creation of another safe space for LGBTQA+ students. Often, members of the community experience marginalization from external pressures, forcing them to remain silent. For too many members of our community, comfort and inclusion are anything but the default. Around 85 percent of LGBT students in a 2009 nationwide study reported being verbally harassed in a 12-month period due to their gender expression or sexual orientation.
Marginalization occurs both implicitly through the removal of voice and explicitly through violence: At least 73 percent of LGBT students reported experiencing sexual harassment in a 2006 American Association of University Women study.
While we often think of our school as a liberal haven – in many cases, rightly so – we must work to combat homophobia, transphobia and prejudice around us. Fostering understanding through allyship is a key part of the battle and one greatly elevated by this SGA act.
However, in applauding the senate’s work, we must not lose sight of work that remains to be done. While Northeastern has recently taken significant strides toward inclusiveness – including the creation of an LGBTQA Resource Center, the growth of student group NU Pride and a student referendum calling for more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus – support for students who identify outside of the traditional gender binary still lags.
Fortunately, the university has options readily available to increase such support. First, the gender-neutral housing system should be revamped to prioritize the needs of students who don’t feel safe automatically being assigned to a living situation based on their assigned sex. This is – or should be – the intent of gender-neutral housing, but the present system is used at least as much by people who want to live with their significant other or close friends of other genders. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but the rights and comfort of transgender and questioning students should come first.
The university must also be more proactive in making university health services more accessible to LGBTQA+ students. While school-sponsored health insurance is relatively accommodating, much of the rest of the system is uncomfortable at best and aggressive at worst to some students. An active partnership between the LGBTQA Resource Center and University Health and Counseling Services would be a great place to start.
Finally, both administrators and students should seek more dialogue on LGBTQA+ issues. As the SGA bill makes clear, acknowledging and listening to marginalized students is one of the most important things we can do to help end that marginalization. The Pride Act is a strong foundation for doing so.
Photo courtesy acoolerclimate, Creative Commons