The University of Illinois prides itself on its diversity, as it is home to students from all over the county and internationally who bring different perspectives and experiences. Yet some students are questioning just how inclusive the Illinois campus is to its diverse population.
The University’s commitment to an Inclusive campus has been embedded since 2007, yet certain students still feel they walk a campus that is segregated. The LGBT community in particular is stressing their concern for what they say is a campus who accepts identity only through the limits of race and religion.
The Inclusive Initiative launched by Chancellor Phyllis Wise is more commonly known through the slogan, “One campus, many voices.” According to Inclusive Illinois, “Diversity is represented by the variety of ways we are different in terms of physical attributes, capabilities, cultural/social backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and ideas.”
One of these diverse groups is represented through the LGBT community. There is a multitude of registered student organizations devoted to the LGBT community in particular. The LGBT Resource Center has played a pivotal role in ensuring gender identity and sexual orientation is included in the University’s non-discrimination policy. For 21 years, the center has been devoted to providing a safe space for students.
Barriers to Inclusion
Here is where students say part of the problem lies. Students, like those in the LGBT community, only feel safe in these certain locations. Similar to African-American, Native-American, and Latino students who are active within their cultural centers-these students are reluctant to leave these safe spaces.
Active students in the LGBT community, such as Sarah Mowitz and Chan Choi, say the spaces have given them a sense of acceptance.
The University conducted an internal assessment of the climate for LGBT persons and Allies within the campus in the Spring of 2004. The concerns students reported in 2004 are still prevalent 10 years later.
- Among the participants, LGB individuals and those who are uncertain about their sexual orientation perceived the campus climate as less positive and less affirming than their heterosexual counterparts; transgender individuals and females perceived the climate as less positive than males; and, “people of color” perceived the climate as less positive than White/European Americans.
- Respondents felt most safe in the Illini Union, Main Quad, classroom buildings, Krannert Center for Performing Arts, and in campus libraries, and felt least safe at parking lots and fraternity and sorority houses.
“I’ve had many friends that are in Greek life and have had an issue being LGBT,” Mowitz said. “So I think it kind of depends on where you are. But, I think it is in the student body that I find the most difficulty.”
Associate Provost for Diversity Menah Pratt-Clarke who has worked closely with the Inclusive Illinois initiative articulates the problem that she is all too familiar with.
“Why during the course of your four years, if you are comfortable, safe, affirmed, validated, have a great friendship network with people like you, share your values, why would you ever come out of that safe space?” Pratt-Clarke said.
And this is what the LGBT community is calling on the administration to recognize. The diverse campus accommodates students of all backgrounds, each in their individual community. Yet, these LGBT students believe in order to truly cultivate inclusivity, there must be a push to have these communities cross paths. Listen to what these students have to say.
They are calling on the administration and students to create a genuine inclusive campus where all are united despite identity markers. Director of the LGBT Resource Center Leslie Morrow shared that the center is inclusive because it welcomes students regardless of their identity. However, Morrow said getting the word out to students about this resource is difficult. Since the University doesn’t track LGBT students, Morrow relies on social media and word of mouth to tell students about the space.
“It really is open to everyone,” Morrow said.
Illinois senior and trans equality activist Stephanie Skora says that much of this inclusive effort has been championed by the LGBT center and by LGBT students.
“The culture at large has had to be changed by students,” Skora said.
Avenues for Change
Transgender activist and author Janet Mock, who spoke to University students on challenging gender norms, echoed Skora’s call on the student body to implement change.
As an author, Mock says she creates spaces that allow her to express who she is. In her autobiography, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Mock was able to create a safe space. But similar to students at Illinois, she reiterates that the transgender community should not be restricted by these safe spaces. She educated students in attendance of what needs to happen instead. Take a listen here.
There is debate over how genuine inclusivity can be reached. Students, administration, and experts each express their concern and approach. The most common solution voiced by the community is a genuine effort for students to engage outside of their safe space (hyperlink to video package).
Inclusive Illinois defines it as the Individual Inclusive Illinois commitment and you can make your commitment here.