Ask An Expert: Pride Month Special Edition

Friday, September 24, 2021

UNT System HR is brings you UNT World experts with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...


Susan Harper, UNT DallasSusan Harper, Ph.D. (she/her/hers), Coordinator of Student Activities, oversees Multicultural Programs, UNT Dallas: Dr. Harper holds a bachelor's in English and Anthropology from UNT Denton, a master's and Ph.D. in Anthropology from SMU, and an MA in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies from Texas Woman’s University. Prior to coming to UNT Dallas in 2019, she taught courses in anthropology, sociology, Women’s Studies and Queer Studies throughout Dallas-Fort Worth. She describes herself as a “cisgender, mostly-lesbian-identified bisexual woman,” but also really likes the word “queer” for a label. She and her partner of 12 years, Stephanie, share their home with a jungle of plants and the world’s three most spoiled felines.

Kathleen Hobson, UNTKathleen Hobson (they, them, theirs), Director, UNT Pride Alliance: Originally from Ohio, Kathleen received their bachelor's in Sociology from Ohio University and master's in Higher Education Administration from the University of Akron. They have worked in higher education full-time for nine years and moved to Denton in 2014 to open UNT’s Pride Alliance, where they currently serve as Director. Kathleen is a proud founding and executive board member of PRIDENTON. They describe themselves as a white, queer, genderqueer/trans/non-binary person who navigates the world with anxiety, depression and neurodivergence. Kathleen enjoys spending time with their cats Ailbhe and Séamus, and working on home and furniture projects.

As Pride Month winds down, our experts examine how their UNT institutions have expanded LGBTQ+ inclusiveness and affirmation, evolving societal views, the biggest issues facing the LGBTQ+ communities on our campuses and workplaces, and more.

What did efforts at LGBTQ+ inclusiveness and affirmation look like when you arrived at your UNT World institution? What history of these efforts existed on your campus, and what priorities had been set around them?
Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance): 
When I arrived at UNT in 2014, the Pride Alliance had just been created on the Denton campus and UNT had also instituted a non-discrimination policy that included sexuality, gender identity and gender expression. There was also a history of Ally/SafeZone trainings that had been conducted for several years and an LGBTQ & Ally Scholarship. UNT also had an LGBTQ Studies Minor, which had existed prior to my arrival. Coming from work in Ohio and New York, these were some of the reasons that I personally felt comfortable coming to work at UNT and in Texas. At that time, there were two different Queer and Trans student organizations, GLAD: UNT’s Queer Alliance and the Trans and Intersex Alliance of Denton (T.R.I.A.D.). There was also the Trans Taskforce, which had been meeting regularly to identify and expand all-gender bathrooms on campus and issues of equity for Trans students, faculty and staff. Faculty had the opportunity to get involved with the LGBT Faculty Network and the Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Faculty (part of Faculty Senate).

Harper (UNT Dallas): I’ve been at UNT Dallas since 2019. When I arrived, the formal efforts at LGBTQ+ inclusion were scattershot – there had been SafeZone/Ally Trainings in the past, but there hadn’t been one offered in a while. There was a Gay Straight Alliance for students on campus, but it wasn’t hugely active and the main forces behind it graduated my first semester at UNT Dallas. UNT Dallas certainly was part of the larger UNT World efforts – an employment nondiscrimination clause and so forth – and I felt comfortable being out throughout my application and interview process. One of the things that was requested of me when I came on board was to expand the LGBTQ+ programming through my office. We’ve been able to come a long way in the two years I have been here, and I’m looking forward to seeing where we go next.
How about from a faculty/staff perspective – was there a time when faculty/staff were not comfortable in being publicly “out”? Has that changed over time?
Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance):
 I started working at UNT in the Pride Alliance in 2014. Looking back through documents prior to 2014, there were private groups for Queer and Trans faculty and staff. People kept track of each other through handwritten lists and phone numbers. There was definitely a heightened fear for faculty and staff that they could be fired or discriminated against because of their sexuality or gender identity. Though I would say overall there are larger numbers of faculty and staff that feel comfortable being out, that is not a universal experience. I know that there are faculty and staff that feel hesitant being out at UNT for different reasons. This could depend on the level of acceptance in their office or department or privilege they hold in other identities, such as race, ethnicity, citizenship status and ability. Academia is still an environment that was created by and for white, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied men, and there are still risks in being out, no matter how far we have come.

Harper (UNT Dallas): This is one of those things that varies so much among people, especially when we take into consideration the other identities that intersect with LGBTQ+ identity. I can certainly say that in general, many more people in the U.S. are comfortable being out of the closet at work, and I have several colleagues on my campus who are out about their LGBTQ+ identity. But I am equally sure that I have colleagues who aren’t out at work, or who are out to a select group of colleagues with whom they work closely, but not to everyone on campus. UNT World having a nondiscrimination clause that protects LGBTQ+ people likely helps people feel more comfortable here – LGBTQ+ identity is not federally protected nor is it protected statewide, so there is a long history of people being closeted at work for fear of being fired (which is totally legal in many states, including Texas). I also think there are probably very different experiences for cisgender LGBTQ+ folks and trans folks of any sexuality when it comes to being out, since there are often additional issues they face with documentation, ID, etc. 
How do you see societal views of LGBTQ people having changed over time?
Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance): Societal views of Queer and Trans people have changed drastically in the last few decades. There is more education and information about sexuality and gender identity and more public and visible representation of Queer and Trans people in politics and the media. The average age of “coming out” continues to get younger and younger. I see and more and more students coming to UNT who are already firmly rooted in their identities. That being said, society and our UNT community still have a long way to go. There is by no means universal acceptance and equity for Queer and Trans people. Many of our laws and policies are lacking in access and protections for Queer and Trans people around housing, healthcare, adoption, and carceral systems. Queer and Trans communities are still at risk for physical violence, particularly Black Trans women.

Harper (UNT Dallas): There are still many prejudices and misconceptions about LGBTQ+ people, as we can see with the slate of anti-trans laws that we’re seeing in Texas and across the nation. The societal needle has moved more towards acceptance in just my lifetime – for instance, the acceptance of same-sex/same-gender marriage is at an all time high, and we’re seeing more companies adopt nondiscrimination policies and inclusion efforts. I think people now often see LGBTQ+ folks as not these strange exotic creatures, but as their friends and neighbors and coworkers. That said, however, cisgender heterosexual folks tend to be more accepting of LGBTQ+ folks who look and live like them, which means that LGBTQ+ folks who don’t adhere to the middle-class heteronormative model of life and family may not experience the same kinds of acceptance that those who do adhere to those norms do. There are certainly pockets of intense homophobia and transphobia in this country, though I do think that generally speaking people are more accepting of LGBTQ+ people now than they were even 20 years ago. But that acceptance can be uneven both regionally and across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I do find that many of my students come to UNT Dallas already having had friends who were out of the closet in high school or even younger, which was definitely not my experience as an undergraduate in the 1990s, when I didn’t know anyone out of the closet until college. I’ve recently worked with the Upward Bound students at UNT Dallas and some youth leadership students across the country and found that they are much more aware and accepting of LGBTQ+ people at 16-18 than I could possibly have been at that age.
Can you describe the way in which your UNT World institution has worked to become more inclusive and affirming? Is there a program or initiative you’re especially proud of in this area?

Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance): I would absolutely love to see more visible and proactive initiatives from UNT World. It is difficult to know what exists in the way of programming, training and inclusive policies for Queer and Trans students, faculty and staff at the other UNT campuses. The Pride Alliance often gets requests for training and programs from the other UNT campuses and, unfortunately, we not have the capacity to provide services. With one full-time staff position, it is difficult to meet the needs of just the Denton campus alone. Some of the programs and initiatives that we have been excited to create on the Denton campus include the OUTfits Clothing Closet, Lavender Graduation, Lavender Leaders Retreat, Chosen Name Change Policies, the Dr. Enedelia Sauceda Award for Supporting Student Wellness, partnerships with community organizations like PRIDENTON and Outreach Denton, and an interactive Google map of all-gender restrooms on the Denton campus (coming in Fall 2021).

Harper (UNT Dallas): We are fortunate to have strong administration support for a more LGBTQ+ inclusive and affirming campus in President Mong, which helps set the tone. My office has started offering SafeZone/Ally trainings again, though I am in the midst of revising the curriculum to be more effective on our campus – many of those materials are very white-centered and also assume that people still need to be convinced of the reasons why LGBTQ+ people should be treated equally, and that’s just not appropriate for our campus. I find that the people who arrive at SafeZone are already aware of the need for LGBTQ+ inclusivity and equality – they just aren’t sure what steps to take to help us get there. Many of our LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff also exist at the intersection of LGBTQ+ identity and Black or Brown identity, which brings into play a number of different factors and experiences that need to be acknowledged in the training. I’ve sought out trainings done by LGBTQ+ people of color so I can more effectively advocate for our campus, whether by revising trainings I give or bringing in experts from outside. We’ve also expanded our programming for LGBTQ+ History Month and also brought LGBTQ+ identity into our other multicultural programming (Black history programming, for example). I think this helps students who are not LGBTQ+ see the importance of this community and gives our LGBTQ+ students a chance to see themselves mirrored and affirmed. My campus has a growing number of faculty and staff who include their personal pronouns in their email signature and who wear pronoun pins – small acts of allyship that have been shown to have powerful and even outsized effects on the well-being of trans students. We adopted gender-neutral language when naming our lactation space (often called a Mother’s Room) in the Student Center – it is simply called the Lactation Room. As I work with students, faculty and staff, and learn more about what challenges they face and what feels affirming to them, I adjust my programming plan and advocate for larger changes on campus.
What are the biggest issues still facing the LGBTQ+ community from a student perspective? From a faculty/staff perspective?
Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance): 
Student Perspective: Right now we are currently working with all of our incoming first-year students in their orientation sessions. They are busy trying to arrange their room assignments for the fall and Trans students continue to struggle to find safe and inclusive housing options and roommates. My office currently works with Housing to help Trans students find spaces in the residence halls and roommates that feel like a good fit. However, this current process requires Trans students to out themselves and advocate for their needs in order to access our assistance. This is a far larger burden than any incoming cisgender students have to carry in order to arrange housing. It can be a frustrating and nerve-wracking experience for Trans students, and is certainly difficult for the Pride Alliance and Housing to work with each individual student to try to introduce them to prospective roommates and place them together. This process is a band-aid and is not at all equitable. What students need is an official Open Housing Policy, that allows any student to opt-in to gender inclusive housing, which would allow them to room with other students, regardless of gender identity or sex assigned at birth. We  have been advocating for an Open Housing Policy since 2015. Additional concerns for students include: access to funds for gender-affirming healthcare, access to housing and funding if abandoned by parents and guardians, not enough all-gender bathrooms on campus, and general lack of knowledge about gender and sexuality from their peers, faculty, and staff.
Faculty/Staff Perspective: While there are many concerns I could speak to, one of the main concerns that faculty and staff report to my office is lack of access to gender-affirming healthcare. Because UNT has insurance through the state of Texas, faculty and staff are not able utilize their insurance for hormone replacement therapy, gender-affirming surgeries and additional types of care. Employees are forced to pay out-of-pocket for services and care that can be very costly. Gender-affirming care is often assumed to be “elective,” when in reality it is necessary and often life-saving.

Harper (UNT Dallas): This is a big question and, of course, I hesitate to speak for anyone but myself. But in talking to students, I find that many of the issues trans students face -- their official university records not reflecting the name they use and the appropriate gender, because the student has not changed their government ID (which is complicated), being called by the wrong name or misgendered in class or by peers – are important and pressing. Figuring out ways for students (and faculty and staff for that matter) to have their identities respected even if they have not (or choose not) to change their legal documentation is key. In talking to many of my students, I also find that a common struggle is reconciling Christian faith and being LGBTQ+. That’s not just an issue for our community, of course, but the central role that the church plays in many of our students’ family and cultural lives means that this can be especially painful. Having spaces to talk about this and access to LGBTQ+ affirming Christian spaces in the community, is vital. And our students are well aware of the epidemic of violence against Black and Brown trans women, including those who have been killed in our own community, and I know this is on their minds. As to faculty and staff, I know that we face some of the same issues as our students. Many of us also think about the issue of employment protections, access to healthcare (especially given the number of religious objection bills that have been floated in the US, which would allow medical care providers to refuse care to LGBTQ+ people if those providers object on religious grounds), and other aspects of daily life where discrimination is still prevalent. Nationwide, many university staff who are LGBTQ+ remark on how often we are expected to do the emotional labor of educating our peers on LGBTQ+ issues even if it’s outside of our job duties – a colleague of mine in the financial aid department at another university is the only out member of the staff in that area and ends up being the “go-to” for questions and training, even though that is far outside of their job description. This is an issue that BIPOC face about issues of race on campus as well, and is a whole other conversation! Also nationwide, LGBTQ+ scholars tend to be over-represented among the ranks of adjunct faculty and under-represented among the ranks of full-time faculty, with multipliers for people who are women, Black or Brown, disabled, and trans or gender nonconforming. This is an issue not just of economic justice but impacts who students see in the classroom, what ideas and materials they are exposed to and ultimately what campus climate is like.

What are some basic but powerful actions you think people can take to create more LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces on campus?
Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance): Add your pronouns to your email signature, nametag, website, business cards, and any introductions you do. Know where the closest all-gender bathrooms are in or near your work space and make sure that information is accessible in your space. Examine the language you use and how you can practice being more inclusive. Do an assessment of what actions your office or team is taking to intentionally be inclusive of Queer and Trans people, both students and faculty/staff. Request Pride Alliance Training for your office or department. Through training you will learn about inclusion and equity around gender and sexuality and can apply that to the specific work you do.  Educate yourself about the resources for Queer and Trans people on UNT’s campus and in the DFW area.

Harper (UNT Dallas): When I was adjunct faculty at several universities and colleges in DFW, I started each semester with a “getting to know you” sheet that each student filled out. In addition to asking what name the student liked to be called, their major, etc., I made space for students to indicate their pronouns and also to tell me more about themselves. Those questions were optional, but students tended to answer them and express how appreciative they were that I had asked. Sharing your pronouns (especially if you are cisgender!) in meetings and inviting (but never requiring) others to do the same is also a powerful act and models that your space is aware of gender diversity and wants to respect it. Gender-neutral bathrooms, doing away with binary gender language on forms, making it easier for students to amend records to include a name they use even if it is not their legal name – all these help to provide a more affirming environment. And also, always, just checking our assumptions. For instance, I no longer say that I had X number of men and X number of women at a program – because I can’t tell someone’s gender just by looking at them. I encourage people who do programming and education around relationships, violence prevention and the like to move away from assuming all relationships are heterosexual or heteronormative – we need accurate relationship education, sex education and violence prevention education that acknowledges all types of relationships and realities. I encourage faculty and staff to go through SafeZone training – even if you’ve done it before, you can always learn something new. (Trainings will be offered once a month this fall – email me for more details.) Challenge homophobia and transphobia when you hear it, and learn more about how to spot the more subtle but equally damaging forms this can take. Include LGBTQ+ issues and writers in your courses, even if it’s not a class “about” gender or sexuality.
Any additional issue or topic you believe should be discussed in this space?
Hobson (UNT Pride Alliance): 
As I mentioned before, I would absolutely love to see more visible and proactive initiatives from UNT World as a whole. I would like to feel seen and valued, and would like to see our Queer and Trans students, faculty and staff feel seen and valued. I would love to experience movements toward equity, inclusion, recognition and celebration of Queer and Trans members of the UNT community that are emanating from areas other than offices or departments whose main focus is diversity and inclusion.

Harper (UNT Dallas): I’ve been thinking a lot since I came to UNT Dallas about the time I spent as an undergraduate at UNT in Denton. It was a very LGBTQ+ campus even then – I can’t say it was “friendly” but it definitely had a very visible and active LGBTQ+ student population when I was there from 1993-1997. But I also remember trying – and failing – to get sexual orientation added to our nondiscrimination statement, and facing resistance from administration in that effort. I remember the meetings of the LGBTQ+ student organization, which was called Courage at the time, being disrupted by some of the more homophobic religious student organizations on campus. My first semester at UNT, a girl in my residence hall had her parents demand that she be put in a different room so that she wouldn’t have to room with a lesbian. I was just newly figuring out my own identity at the time, and during a time before the internet, I had been relatively sheltered from a lot of the realities of LGBTQ+ life in my small hometown in South Dakota. Even though I grew up with my life being shaped by AIDS, and even spending some time in queer neighborhoods in New York when I went to visit my grandparents, I really didn’t know what it was like for LGBTQ+ folks to just navigate the world. I remember one of my first friends at UNT telling me that, because he had DARED to bring a boyfriend to his senior prom in Rockwall the previous spring, all pictures of that event had been mysteriously damaged in processing and thus none showed up in the yearbook. I was horrified. I am intensely proud of how far UNT World has come in terms of creating inclusive spaces, from adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination statement, to having robust LGBTQ+ programming and even LGBTQ+ Studies courses, and the amazing work being done by the Pride Alliance on the Denton campus. Eighteen-year-old Susan would never have believed that we’d come this far, as a university system or as a culture – for that matter, she’d probably be surprised to be answering these questions for a newsletter that will go out system-wide!
We’ve come far in this country in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, but we have far to go. Contrary to what a majority of the country believed immediately afterward, the Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality did not outlaw all other forms of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. A more recent Supreme Court decision affirmed that LGBTQ+ people are covered under laws against gender discrimination in hiring and employment, but many states still do not have employment protections, housing protections and healthcare protections for LGBTQ+ people. Even in places where cisgender LGB people are protected, trans folks (whether LGBT or heterosexual) are vulnerable under the law, and LGBTQ+ people are still more likely to live at or near the poverty line (especially women and people of color, with trans women of color being the more vulnerable). We have work to do to create a culture and a society where LGBTQ+ equality and justice are a reality.