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social sciences

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Colleges and Universities  
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Non-Discrimination Policies

In the 1970s, glbtq advocates on campuses across the country began lobbying schools to add the category "sexual orientation" to their equal opportunity statements in order to protect the rights of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. As of 2006, approximately 560 colleges and universities have added "sexual orientation" to their policies, including most schools in the "Doctorate-Granting Universities" category of The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education The exceptions are primarily conservative public universities in southern states and private, religiously affiliated schools.

The inclusion of sexual orientation in equal opportunity statements does not necessarily cover people, who face discrimination based on their gender identity, rather than their sexual identity. To address this omission, colleges and universities are now adding the phrase "gender identity and expression" to their policies.

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In the ten years since the University of Iowa pioneered by revising its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity in 1996, more than 70 colleges and college systems have followed suit, including Ohio State University, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, and North Carolina State University. All but one of the Ivy League schools include "gender identity or expression" in their non-discrimination policies.

Domestic Partner Benefits

A more contentious policy change at some institutions is extending medical and dental insurance, tuition assistance, and other fringe benefits to the same-sex partners of campus employees. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual faculty and staff members argue that domestic partner benefits are in keeping with a commitment to non-discrimination and equal pay for equal work, as glbtq employees incur a significant financial penalty by being excluded from compensation packages that are available to heterosexual workers.

Opponents of domestic partner benefits often cite the potential cost, but studies of colleges and universities that offer same-sex spousal coverage find that the additional expense is minimal, because only one to two percent of employees typically enroll.

Others object to their institutions' recognizing and rewarding same-sex relationships. However, with opinion polls showing that the general public is increasingly supportive of equal rights for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, this argument is becoming harder to make outside of religiously affiliated schools and public universities that are overseen by conservative trustees and state legislatures.

The number of institutions offering domestic partner benefits has grown rapidly since the City College of San Francisco became the first school to extend spousal coverage to its glbtq employees in 1991. As of 2006, approximately 300 colleges and universities offer domestic partner benefits, including the school systems of the State University of New York, the City University of New York, the University of California, the University of Michigan, and the University of Maine.

Campus Climate

The efforts of glbtq students, staff, and faculty over the last thirty years to make their colleges and universities more inclusive have noticeably improved the campus climate at many institutions. Whereas, prior to the 1970s, most glbtq students were not out, even to their closest friends, many students in the 2000s are open about their sexual and gender identities even before they enter college. Indeed, many choose a school based in part on the institution's record on glbtq issues.

Similarly, most glbtq faculty and staff members did not disclose their sexual identities a generation ago for fear of being fired or denied tenure. Today, however, many campuses have glbtq faculty and staff organizations. Moreover, many faculty in a number of disciplines regularly conduct research and teach on glbtq-related topics without having to worry about a negative effect on their careers.

But, despite improvements in the campus climate, colleges and universities can still be hostile environments for glbtq people. In a 2003 study of the campus climate at 14 institutions, the first scientific research on the climate at multiple campuses, Sue Rankin found that 36 percent of glbtq undergraduates had experienced harassment, such as verbal harassment, hostile graffiti, threats of violence, and physical assault, within the past year. Moreover, twenty percent of students, staff, and faculty feared for their physical safety because of their sexual or gender identity, and 51 percent concealed their sexual or gender identity at times to avoid intimidation.

Rankin makes a number of recommendations for schools to improve their campus climates, including recruiting and retaining glbtq students, staff, and faculty; demonstrating the institution's commitment to glbtq issues; integrating glbtq concerns into the curriculum; and providing sustained educational programming on the experiences of glbtq people.


Many colleges and universities have taken steps to become more inclusive and welcoming to glbtq people, from revising non-discrimination policies to creating programs that address glbtq concerns. Most glbtq students, staff, and faculty, however, feel that their institutions can and must do a great deal more to be safe, comfortable places for people of all sexual and gender identities.

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