24 November 2012

Punctuated Equilibrium of University Queer Services

Combining my undergrad experience and my grad experience so far at two different Big 10 universities has led me to believe that Queer Services on campus follow a punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. In other words, campuses see a period of little to no change followed by a period of very rapid change. This has also led me to think that Purdue will soon be one of the most Queer friendly universities in the Big 10 due to it being the most recent to undergo the period of rapid evolution.

To give a brief background on Purdue, when I started at Purdue it was WAY behind the rest of the Big 10 on LGBTQ issues. It did not include gender identity and gender expression in its nondiscrimination policy. It did not have LGBTQ Affairs staff. Its bias reporting was a nightmare. It didn't have any sort of LGBTQ Studies program. It was definitely well behind the rest of the Big 10. A few administration changes, a change in strategy that got a big win to start the ball rolling, and all of a sudden Purdue changed drastically. I should also note that there seemed to be an earlier period of rapid evolution in which domestic partner benefits and sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination policy were achieved.

The University of Minnesota (UMN), from the perspective of somebody who doesn't yet know the history well, seems from the outside to be a fairly well-advanced campus on LGBTQ issues. It has a cultural center, ranks well on Queer issues, et cetera. For me though, coming from Purdue, UMN seems to be backward on a few issues, and I think that comes from me being involved with an institution that was going through rapid evolution and then going to an institution in a steady state.

Because Purdue was rapidly evolving, we were actively thinking about the issues students were facing. We were actively asking the question of "What would a Queer-friendly Purdue look like?" We also could repeatedly say "We have to catch up to our peers!!!" and this enabled us to ask for things that some peer institutions had and others didn't. Thus, in addition to getting staff and an updated nondiscrimination policy, we were also able to get bias reporting online, address single-use bathrooms, etc. Personally, I then turned around and went to the cities that invented protecting gender identity and gender expression, and was shocked to see things like segregated single-use bathrooms. I was shocked to not be able to easily find online bias reporting (I don't think it exists here). It seemed super backwards after coming from a campus that was behind.

I'm going to speculate about why this punctuated equilibrium exists. The first I am dubbing the Glory Years Issue. It is the switch from thinking "How can we be a Queer-friendly institution?" to "We are a Queer-friendly institution." I'm dubbing it the Glory Years Issue because I think it is similar to things declining when people start thinking that their best years have passed as opposed to thinking their best years are ahead (this happens at a national level too). If one thinks their best years have passed, they are less likely to be active about making sure their future years are their best. Thus, thinking the golden age of Queer Activism is behind them, campuses get stale. An alternative hypothesis for this same prediction would be a Fat and Happy Issue where the people pushing the issues feel they got what they asked for, and thus they sit back. This could particularly be an issue for places that got white Gay male issues out of the way, and then issues facing non-Gay white male Queer people get left behind. (I will touch on a bit more of this later).

After the Glory Year Issue and Fat and Happy Issue, I speculate that there is something I will dub the Maxed-out Administration Issue. Essentially the people who have the power to say yes or no have been taken as far as they will go. At one time for Purdue, the administration had maxed-out at adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. It thus took administration changes and new forms of activism (in this case using student government) to overcome this maxed-out administration issue. I think a lot of campuses are currently maxed-out with regard to gender-neutral housing. While we can ask for a lot of things, gender-neutral housing beyond a case-by-case basis is just too far for the people who have the power to say yes or no, and so progress stalls there. A similar, but potential alternative, hypothesis to this I will dub the Method Death Issue. With this issue, it is that a particular method of activism won't work anymore and a new method needs to be tried. In the case of the nondiscrimination policy at Purdue, asking administration behind closed doors had reached saturation, and a new method (going through student government) was needed. The Method Death Issue and the Maxed-out Administration Issue are potentially related in the sense that the relevant administration has been "maxed-out" for a particular method of activism, but a different method can change the no to a yes.

If these four issues: Glory Years, Fat and Happy, Maxed-out Administration, and Method Death, are creating the observed pattern of punctuated equilibrium on campus Queer concerns, the next natural step would be to ask how these issues can be overcome. I think a lot of this comes down to a leadership change. If the Chief LGBTQ Affairs Officer changes, then people are likely to be broken out of Glory Year thinking because the new person will likely bring new ideas. The new person bringing new ideas also helps to overcome the Fat and Happy Issue because for them there is likely still a need for something. They will also potentially bring new activism ideas and administration might view the new person differently. It is highly likely that LGBTQ Affairs staff will have specialties. There are probably people who are excellent inaugural LGBTQ staff who should set up solid programs and then head somewhere else to establish solid programs. Universities looking for inaugural staff should try to recruit these people, and these people should be conscious to move between universities after they meet certain benchmarks. There are also likely people who are great at getting certain issues to go through. Thus if housing issues are a major concern, somebody with a housing specialty should be sought out. For bias reporting there is likely a different person. While we shouldn't necessarily pigeon-hole people, we should be aware of where their strengths lie when recruiting, and they should be aware of when it is time for them to move to a new campus.

Another suggestion I have would be to be aware of who isn't at the table. I think with Queer issues it is typically the people who aren't at the table who have the greatest needs. While I could discuss this further, I don't want to start Oppression Olympics type of discussion, so I will instead just say that at Purdue to LGBTQ issue table was dominated by white Gay men, and I think that was both indicative of some issues and a potential source of others (either directly or indirectly). I will also note that I don't think many people would argue with me suggesting that people in the closet probably need the most services, and thus we should be aware of the channels they can and cannot use (aka online and anonymous resources are especially important and should be easy to find because some won't even be able to ask about them to anyone but Google or from a URL on a flier they have seen).

To address these issues I would also highly encourage conference attendance. Hearing the issues facing other campuses and how people are addressing them is important in becoming aware of the issues that may cryptically exist on a campus. This also makes me think that the Queer-rights focused people should find some way to talk to grad and transfer students who were active on other campuses about what is happening there. This might led to some unexpected insights.

tl;dr Going from Purdue to UMN has led me to think Queer issues on campus go through punctuated equilibriums. The period of little change can be brought about by thinking focused on past achievements, how far administration is willing to go, who is at the table, and the methods of activism used. I then suggest changing up LGBTQ Affairs staff occasionally, being conscious of who isn't at the table, going to conferences, and talking to grad and transfer students to overcome some of these obstacles.

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