As it surpasses two months since President Joseph R. Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, an LGBTQ+ rights bill heads to the Senate after being approved by the House of Representatives.
The Equality Act, a federal civil rights bill that would extend protections for the LGBTQ+ community, passed with a 224-206 vote on Feb. 25. While there is no date yet for the beginning of the Senate hearings, the bill will need 60 votes to pass. No Senate Republicans have endorsed the bill so far.
At Slippery Rock University, efforts to further equity, diversity and inclusion continue with the creation of the diversity and inclusion strategic plan and Campus Inclusion Response Team, among other inclusive policies.
Cindy LaCom, the gender studies director at SRU, and who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, said the diversity and inclusion strategic plan committee spent a lot of time coming up with its definition of diversity. Comprised of students, faculty, staff and administrators, the committee decided that the term includes race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious diversity, linguistic diversity and people with disabilities.
“I certainly think that at a predominantly white institution, racism is a massive issue on our campus and in our country,” they said in a Zoom call. “But I feel like one of my roles is to continue to put gender, sexual identity, expression and orientation and issues of ability and disability back in the center of the plan as well.”
SRU President William Behre said the community can’t address issues of inclusion unless white people change their behavior. He believes it’s important to give voice to minority communities.
“Whatever group has privilege has to be willing to engage and invite their peers who don’t have that privilege to the table,” Behre said. “That could be based on sexuality, ethnicity, religion… There’s a group that needs allyship from the group that has greater privilege.”
The strategic plan committee projects that the first draft will be ready during April. Lyosha Gorshkov, the assistant director of the Pride Center and the Women’s Center, and who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, said the plan will be implemented in September of the fall 2021 semester.
The committee also wants to appoint a chief diversity and inclusion officer. Terrence Mitchell, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, currently serves in this position, until July. Behre said that after July the university will use a professional search firm to fill the position.
Although some of the initiatives are not yet “written in stone,” according to LaCom, the university’s intentions for the plan include recruitment and retention of students, recruitment of a diverse faculty and staff, and implementation of standards for equity on campus.
Once the strategic plan is ready, LaCom said, the campus community must hold itself accountable to its policies for it to be effective. Having clear messaging to stakeholders, primarily students, is essential, they said. Rather than email being the primary source of communication, LaCom suggests TikTok, Twitter and Instagram for different ways to reach students.
LaCom added that the Social Justice Committee passed an initiative through the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF) about bias training. They said the Slippery Rock University Student Government Association (SRSGA) may require executive board members of SGA-funded student organizations to conduct implicit bias training.
The Slippery Rock University President’s Commission for Gender Identity and Expression and Sexual Orientation (GIESO) serves as a connecting role between the student body and the administration. The commission informs the administration about the needs of the campus community, advocates for particular issues, and implements educational programming. It also serves as a support for the Pride Center. GIESO is a main part of the development of the strategic plan.
GIESO spreads awareness of LGBTQ+ issues with campaigns on campus. Vanessa Vought, a co-chair of GIESO, said before COVID-19, the commission would put out yard signs and banners around campus, especially during Pride month and LGBTQ+ History Month. Vought admits these campaigns and programming are more difficult now because of COVID-19. But she hopes that in the fall the commission can start carrying out more of these “wider-campus efforts.”
“As a commission, while specifically focused on LGBTQ, we want to show solidarity to other communities on campus,” Vought said in a Zoom call. “That was something that we did last year, and now, because of COVID, it’s been a little bit more difficult. I think we’re focusing a bit more internally on things.”
In developing the strategic plan, the university created the Campus Inclusion Response Team (CIRT). The CIRT was designed to act when incidents of bigotry, harassment or intimidation by or toward people of the community occur, according to an email from SRU Communication. The response team is comprised of nine members, including a student and a faculty representative.
The CIRT is called upon when a reported incident is identified. The response team serves as an advisory role to Behre in shaping the university’s response to the situation. Gorshkov said the main goal is to implement and develop best practices in terms of response to the campus community.
“[The CIRT] was created as a response to the lack of response or missing points of the administration of the campus,” Gorshkov said in a Zoom call. “[The team makes sure the president] includes topics he sometimes may [forget], not purposefully, though. He cannot live the experience of groups that he’s never been a part of. So, that’s why the group consists of different people from different walks of life.”
In 2018, the university implemented the Chosen Name Policy that allows students to choose a first name instead of using their legal name. The policy lets students use the selected name on a diploma, email and class rosters, LaCom said. The chosen name would also appear in the university’s system.
LaCom said this policy helps with the ongoing issue of deadnaming—defined as intentionally or unintentionally referring to a transgender or gender-expansive individual with their birth name, according to the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). LaCom hopes to see a zero-tolerance policy implemented for instances when someone is purposefully deadnaming or misgendering another person.
Gorshkov added that although the Chosen Name Policy is important and a great first step, it’s “still not ideal,” and there are issues with the policy that should be worked on.
Among inclusive policies on campus, single-occupancy restrooms were converted to over 70 all-gendered restrooms in 35 buildings in 2016. Gorshkov said the university is still working on putting these gender-inclusive restrooms in certain buildings on campus.
Vought said the pride index is another beneficial resource for LGBTQ+ students to “get an idea of just how inclusive a campus is.” According to its website, the online tool allows students, families and those interested in higher education to search a database for LGBTQ-friendly campuses that prioritize the community’s academic experience and quality of life on campus. Vought said that it’s a good way to hold schools accountable for their inclusive efforts.
The university has increased its score on the pride index by implementing the Chosen Name Policy, making restrooms gender-inclusive and by creating trans-inclusive housing policies, according to LaCom.
The Pride Center at SRU is a safe space for LGBTQ+ students and allies. Its goal is to support and affirm the identities and lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people by offering programming and education to the community, according to Gorshkov, the assistant director of the Pride Center.
“We try to deliver to the [LGBTQ+] community,” they said. “We’re here for you so you don’t have to be on your own.”
The Pride Center has recently been working with the Student Counseling Center to start an LGBTQ+ support group. Gorshkov said some LGBTQ+ alumni are interested in being involved with the change of the campus climate, so they’re developing an alumni group for students who have graduated.
The Pride Center also advocates for the importance of RockOUT, the student LGBTQ+ and ally organization at SRU. Members of the organization educate the campus and the community about LGBTQ+ issues. All information shared at their meetings is “held in confidence,” according to the RockOUT Facebook page. First-time attendees are required to sign a confidentiality form stating that they won’t disclose personal information that was shared at meetings.
As the Assistant Director of the Pride Center, Gorshkov said the difference between the Trump administration and the Biden administration is Biden’s devotion to LGBTQ+ rights. Although optimistic, they are “cautiously positive” in Biden’s capabilities.
“I know that [Biden] is a centrist… so we won’t see that radical change in [LGBTQ+] issues that have been [issues] for years,” Gorshkov said. “But at least he’s getting back to the Obama-era of LGBTQIA protection.”
President Biden pledged in his presidential campaign to pass LGBTQ+ rights legislation in the first 100 days of his administration. He stated that he will “reverse the discriminatory acts of the Trump-Pence administration” and make efforts to end discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order preventing and combating discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. In a statement on Feb. 19, he urged Congress to “swiftly pass this historic legislation” and secure the protections of LGBTQ+ people with the Equality Act.
“[N]o one should ever face discrimination or live in fear because of who they are or whom they love,” Biden said in the statement.
LaCom identifies the Equality Act as a “key piece of federal legislation if and when it passes.” Although the House and Senate are Democrat-controlled, the bill may be difficult to pass mainly because of conservative religious leaders.
As The Rocket previously reported, the Senate voted to confirm Amy Coney Barrett—an “originalist” or “textualist” in her proceedings—to the Supreme Court in October 2020 after the passing of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some believe Barrett could steer the court in a more conservative direction on issues like same-sex marriages and LGBTQ+ rights, including the Equality Act.
Gorshkov believes there “could be trouble” with the passage of the Equality Act in the Senate because of the filibuster, or the delaying of a bill or other issue by prolonged talking.
“I guess they are going to postpone the voting of [the Equality Act],” Gorshkov said, “because they have more, for them, pressing issues, which is ridiculous. Every single issue with discrimination is pressing.”
Gorshkov added that it’s “hard to judge” what President Biden will do for LGBTQ+ rights during his presidency, but they’re glad that he overturned the transgender military ban and continues to push for the Equality Act to be passed.
Five days after his inauguration on Jan. 25, the Biden administration overturned the ban on transgender military service. In a National LGBTQ Task Force press release, Executive Director Rea Carey said Biden signed an executive order that reversed the “discriminatory ban on transgender people” serving in the United States military.
“Once again, qualified, dedicated transgender servicemembers and trans people who have waited to serve our country with honor and respect may bring their talents to every branch of the service,” Carey said in the statement.
LaCom said the conversations of people opposed to the Equality Act are “sexist, condescending and disingenuous at best.” They reiterated that “commitment to diversity is habitual,” and cultural and institutional changes don’t happen overnight. This goes for the SRU campus and in the country, they said.
“How do you change a culture?” they said. “That’s really the question we’re asking. In western Pennsylvania, in a racist, homophobic, transphobic country, how do we create a small oasis of diversity and inclusion? Diversity is the what, and inclusion is the how; they are not the same thing. We can come up with all these policies and procedures, but if we don’t have the inclusion part—which is the ‘How do you do it?’—then we’re not going to do it.”