College Campus Not Always Safe For Gay Students

Although Rutgers student Tyler Clementi was not openly gay, the broadcast of his romantic encounter with a man on the Internet is being linked to his apparent suicide. New research shows campuses have not become significantly safer for students and faculty who are not straight. Sue Rankin, a Penn State professor, talks to Ari Shapiro about her research into gay, lesbian and transgender issues on college campuses.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And we're going to hear now from Sue Rankin, who has spent more than 30 years studying what it's like to be gay or lesbian on a college campus. She is the lead researcher of a new report on the topic. And her study found that contrary to popular belief, campuses have not become significantly safer for gay and lesbian students and faculty.

Professor SUE RANKIN: (Pennsylvania State University): And what we found in this particular research project was that in 2010, that there is still a climate that interferes with students' abilities to learn and persist at their campuses.

SHAPIRO: How do you define that?

Prof. RANKIN: One of the major findings that was surprising to me, actually -after 33 years of doing this - that one-third of the students, faculty and staff that participated indicated they had seriously considered leaving the institution.

SHAPIRO: Is that a result of bullying, or just a place where they don't necessarily feel comfortable being themselves? How does that play out?

Prof. RANKIN: We identify it as being climate. And climate includes things like discrimination and harassment. We asked not only what they experienced, but how they experienced it. An interesting piece that complements - I guess - this particular, unfortunate event at Rutgers is that a lot of this is now happening in cyberspace, which may lead to the possibility of them being outed and then harassed in some way.

SHAPIRO: What are the other consequences of this kind of bullying?

Prof. RANKIN: We find that there are higher depression rates among LGBT students who don't have support on their college campuses.

SHAPIRO: You say LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.

Prof. RANKIN: Yes. We find that students who are out in high school are actually returning to a more closeted space when they come to college. They have to...

SHAPIRO: Really?

Prof. RANKIN: ...yeah - reopen those doors for themselves, because they're afraid of what may happen if they have a roommate who is not supportive. So the importance of having visible resources on a college campus to assist students, I think, is tantamount. And right now, only 7 percent of our institutions offer that.

SHAPIRO: Only 7 percent of colleges have resources for lesbian and gay students?

Prof. RANKIN: That's correct.

SHAPIRO: This survey just came out in September. And what were some of the specific anecdotes in it that you found particularly powerful?

Prof. RANKIN: One of the comments from a student was that professors had pathologized my experience as a member of the LGBT community.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean, pathologize my experience?

Prof. RANKIN: Saying that by being involved in the community, it was indicative of mental illness.

SHAPIRO: College and university professor said this to a student?

Prof. RANKIN: That's correct. There was another incident that another student discussed, that said there's a rally of students with a cry: We can either accept homosexuals, or burn them at the stake. Are you with me? And a large group of people were yelling and saying, burn them. And there this young person was, in the middle of all that, with a rainbow flag on his bag - alone and very afraid.

So I think those kinds of fear for safety are things that students are experiencing on a more frequent basis than people - I think - think.

SHAPIRO: That's Sue Rankin, associate professor of education at Penn State University. She's the lead researcher of a new report titled "2010: The State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People."

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