In late April, thousands of students poured into Macky Auditorium at CU Boulder to hear their incoming president, Mark Kennedy, speak for the first time. It was a contentious visit. Kennedy had been selected by the Board of Regents to replace Bruce Benson as president of the University of Colorado system.
After the announcement, students were quick to dig into the former Minnesota legislator’s political record. They found a long list of anti-LGBTQ voting stances, including cosponsoring a bill to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman. Additionally, a gay employee at George Washington University, where Kennedy used to work, said in 2013 that Kennedy had created a hostile work environment for himself and other LGBTQ staff members.
Students (and some faculty) were quick to mobilize against Kennedy and held a rally on campus protesting his nomination. Kennedy released a statement saying that his position on same-sex marriage had evolved over time, which did little to win people over. When his visit to CU came around, students were standing outside Macky urging people to call the Board to express their displeasure.
Inside the auditorium, things weren’t going much better for Kennedy. He mixed up the words “inclusive” and “exclusive” (mistakenly saying he wanted to make CU the most exclusive school in the country) and stumbled over his descriptions of LGBTQ issues. He struggled to maintain control of the crowd, which heckled him throughout the event.
It is unlikely that Kennedy has a secret agenda to strip away LGBTQ rights at CU, and as president, he will not oversee day-to-day operations on campus. But the debacle hit a sore spot for many LGBTQ students, in that it felt like the university was once again merely paying lip service to the promises of diversity and inclusion.
CU has a mixed reputation when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Boulder has long been a buzzword for liberal enclave, and has a reputation as a queer haven. But, in truth, there is surprisingly little LGBTQ life in town. There are no queer bars in the city, and with its college-town atmosphere, Boulder can sometimes feel a little provincial. Many LGBTQ residents of Boulder say they feel more comfortable in Denver, a much larger city with a thriving queer scene and numerous LGBTQ bars.
On campus at least, there is a visible LGBTQ contingent. It’s difficult to estimate the actual number of students who are LGBTQ, but they are not few and far between. A range of student organizations supports the LGBTQ community, including a gay-straight alliance, a group for transgender students, and a group for queer students of color.
The university has several full-time staff members who focus on LGBTQ issues on campus (formerly CU’s Gender and Sexuality Center; they merged with several other student centers to become the Center for Inclusion and Social Change). The Gay Straight Alliance hosts a drag ball each fall full of student performers, and in the spring, the university holds a Lavender Graduation ceremony for matriculating LGBTQ students.
Support for transgender students is becoming more prevalent on campus as well. The university holds the TRANSforming Gender Conference each spring, which invites transgender speakers from across the country to campus. The sharing of pronouns is becoming more common among students and faculty, and gender-neutral bathrooms are spreading to more parts of campus. While the older buildings on campus rarely have gender-neutral bathrooms, the C4C has a large gender-neutral bathroom, and gender-neutral bathrooms are being added to each floor of the new student dormitory opening this fall in Williams Village.
The Center for Inclusion and Social Change has been pushing to get more data on the population of LGBTQ students at CU, and is rolling out a voluntary question on CU’s college application form that asks students about their gender identity and sexual orientation. This follows the University of California’s college application, which voluntarily asks students about their sexual orientation. While this data will not be perfectly accurate, as many students don’t come out until after starting college, it will give the university a better sense of how many LGBTQ students are on campus and whether the resources they are providing are accurate.
Data about LGBTQ students doesn’t always turn up pleasant things. In 2014, the university conducted a social climate survey for graduate students that found that LGBTQ Master’s and PhD students were twice as likely to leave their programs without completing a degree as their straight peers.
A deeper look into the survey data found that LGBTQ grad students lacked the support that LGBTQ undergrads had, and that the very hierarchical and departmentally segmented structure of graduate school could be isolating for LGBTQ students.
The dean of the graduate school took steps to improve the climate, including implementing a peer mentoring program that can pair LGBTQ students together. Another social climate survey is expected to be conducted this fall.
Despite the tumult, CU continues to rank highly among best campuses for LGBTQ students. As students come back to school this fall, Mark Kennedy will start his first year as CU’s president. Whether he will embrace CU’s ethos of pride or struggle against them remains to be seen.