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SHSU Adds Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity Protection Into Policy

March 7, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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Sam Houston State University recently made a giant step toward the “state of equality” by revising its Equal Employment Opportunity policy and nondiscrimination statement to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Led by Vice President for Student Services Frank Parker, the President’s Cabinet voted to add the two as protected classes into three areas of SHSU policy, including Chapter V for “Component Personnel,” which outlines employment qualifications; Chapter VI for “Student Services Activities,” which outlines admissions criteria; and Chapter VII’s non-discrimination policy involving campus life and activities.

“I believe that our policies should reflect and encourage the full spectrum of diversity on our campuses and adopting this policy is just the right thing to do,” Parker said. “This policy fulfills the concept that ‘Sam Houston is a great name in education’ for all.”

Other schools in the Texas State University System also will vote on this wording, before the TSUS Board of Regents will look to make the changes to the system-wide policy, according to Parker. Sam Houston State is currently one of only two universities in the TSUS to adopt the wording. Texas State has a similar policy.

Though these two classes are neither protected federally or by the state, several of Texas’s larger university systems and colleges have specifically listed sexual orientation or gender identity within their non-discrimination policies.

“I feel like this is a step toward eliminating some institutional discrimination and making the reality of life at Sam Houston consistent with what we talk about. One of our university’s stated goals is to recruit or obtain quality staff and faculty from diverse backgrounds, and we’re talking about a very significant aspect of diversity that up until now hasn’t been protected and so there’s been a disconnect there,” said Drew Miller, SHSU executive director for counseling and health services. “I think this just brings the walk in line with the talk, so to speak, in a way that is very helpful.”

“Not only does Texas State have it, but the Lone Star college system has sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination statements, and I think that’s an important thing to note that we’re matching up to another organization that we work closely with as a university,” said Chuck Collins, assistant director for Student Activities. “We’re now on a more equal playing field by offering these protections to our student and employee populations.”

The work of SHSU’s Student Government Association last spring also shows that these measures reflect the direction students want the university to go.

In March 2011, the SGA unanimously approved Senate Bill S11-03, the “Bearkat Equal Protection and Opportunity Act,” to “urge the Division of Student Services to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Student Guidelines handbook, specifically under the section ‘Student Organizations Policy'" and to list sexual orientation under discrimination elements.

“We always speak of this ‘Bearkat Family’ that we have here, but that’s not always an inclusive statement in practice. There are pockets of individuals who don’t feel welcome all the time or they sometimes feel the need to conceal themselves and not truly participate in the university community because of these social exclusions based around the identity of that individual,” Collins said. “The biggest thing for our employees and students is to be able to participate as an authentic person on campus as we work toward that state of equality. These types of inclusive statements aid in promoting that you’re indeed welcome here.”

In 2009, Collins conducted a survey across campus attempting to measure campus perceptions for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning persons and accumulated anecdotal evidence as part of his master’s degree in sociology. Of the 1,352 student respondents, 298 identified themselves as among the GLBTQ population, and 24 of the 246 faculty or staff members surveyed also identified themselves as GLBTQ.

“Generally speaking, the students, staff and faculty all felt that Sam Houston was a more positive environment for LGBT students than the Huntsville community,” Collins said. “It wasn’t by much but SHSU was noticeably felt to be more accepting, so I think it’s important for us to continue to build and encourage that more positive environment. If we can continue working towards the idea of a whole university safe haven, that would be great.”

Collins said, as someone who works closely with student organizations, he does hear reports of bias and harassment among Greek groups and other organizations, whose social cultures are not typically inclusive of GLBT students. The measures approved by the President’s Cabinet, then, show an institutional-level support for all students and will hopefully serve as a role model for these organizations by creating a tone of acceptance.

Miller said the policy change is exciting for the university as a whole because it lends credence to the idea that faculty and staff members, as well as student assistants, will not be fired for their sexual orientation.

“I’ve spoken directly to several GLB faculty and staff members who are intentionally closeted because they are fearful of being fired or not promoted should this aspect of their identity be realized,” he said. “They’re basing that not just on a sort of irrational fear but evidence based on conversations they’ve overheard or the tone of whatever department they happen to be in.

"Hopefully this kind of policy change will allow them to live more congruently, and therefore essentially be more happy, effective employees as well.”

Even more exciting, according to Collins, is the inclusion of “gender identity,” which is a more “progressive” class to be included.

“Up until now, people really just kind of think of only the Counseling Center as a safe place to go, and there are issues with that: stigma—do they feel comfortable—but also, I have to go to a place that treats mental health disorders for support for something that’s ultimately normative, so this policy essentially takes this need away,” Miller said. “Because SHSU’s policy essentially says this is normative, now you can theoretically go anywhere on campus.”

 

 

 

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