Spectrum’s 2022 “Drag Me to the Grave” show, featuring Ava Garcia. Photo: Kayla Kimball

When recruiting LGBTQ+ students in the digital age, it’s critically important for colleges to score high on the Campus Pride Index (CPI), a project of the nonprofit LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Campus Pride. 

One of CPI’s main goals is to “provide an accessible online tool for prospective students and families to search LGBTQ-friendly campuses.”

Based on the university’s optional participation in its self-assessment quiz, CPI currently gives Western a three-star rating out of a possible five stars, encompassing different factors sorted into categories like academic life, counseling and health, policy inclusion, and housing.

Many LGBTQ+ students consult the ranking before making their final college commitments. For some, poor rankings in CPI can discourage them from choosing particular schools. 

Our three star ranking places the Mountaineers last out of seven schools rated in Colorado, behind in-state recruiting rivals like Fort Lewis College (four stars) and University of Northern Colorado (five stars). Red Rocks Community College has the closest score in the state to Western, but the small two-year college in Lakewood still bests us Mountaineers with three and a half stars. 

Western’s current ranking represents significant improvement since January 2022, when Raechel Hoy wrote an opinion piece calling for better LGBTQ+ support. When that article was published, Western had just a star and a half.

That abysmal score several years back didn’t surprise Ashley Weinmeister, a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a senior at Western studying sociology and psychology. 

Weinmeister previously served as the president of Spectrum, the university’s LGBTQ+ club, which lapsed during the 2022-23 academic year due to a lack of institutional support, in combination with the typical, hectic college schedule that often makes it difficult to sustain student organizations.

Even when Spectrum was active, the overall lack of material support from the university can have real consequences for queer students.

“Most of my friends personally who have dropped out of college were LGBT,” says Weinmeister, hinting at a larger retention issue among queer students. “They didn’t get the support [they needed] so they weren’t able to continue [their education].”

Delving into CPI’s scoring system suggests some critical missing elements from campus that could help boost Western’s CPI score — and, more importantly, retain LGBTQ+ students and improve their experience as Mountaineers.

Those include free and anonymous HIV/STI testing, counseling, support groups, and mentoring tailored specifically to queer students, and dedicated faculty and staff training in the areas of gender and sexuality. 

Spectrum’s real impact

For many LGBTQ+ students at Western, access to safe and comfortable housing is a predominant concern. In the past, there’s been issues with Residence Life placing students in housing that didn’t affirm their gender identity and made them feel unsafe, as well as a broader lack of safe, supportive housing reserved for LGBTQ+ students. 

So, students in Spectrum took matters into their own hands, fighting to attain their own space for queer students. Eventually, their sustained efforts were rewarded with a dedicated LGBTQ+ floor within the Mears Complex, which Weinmeister says several of her friends have spoken highly of.

Spectrum members also advocated for student’s ability to change their names and gender identity on official university IDs and other documents, which later became Western policy. 

“Even with the low score on the [Campus] Pride Index that they were so worried about a few years ago, it would’ve been a lot lower without Spectrum and school still didn’t do anything to thank or support us unless it also raised the pride index score,” argues Weinmeister. 

She says that one of the major issues holding Spectrum back is the inability to secure a usable public meeting location on campus. Currently, Spectrum’s office is in one of the university’s residence halls, rendering it largely inaccessible to most students due to security protocols. 

“It’s super inaccessible and it’s just not practical in any way,” says Weinmeister, who is working with Dean Gary Pierson to potentially locate a new location.

She believes Western needs to take Spectrum more seriously as a student resource worthy of institutional commitment, as the club is vital to the experience of queer students for its utility as a social club and an advocacy organization.

Western’s LGBTQ+ social scene is quite small, and Weinmeister says that queer students typically find each other through Spectrum or in their classes. But with the club currently dormant, it’s more challenging for LGBTQ+ students to find each other at a time when many queer people may feel isolated or scared due to hateful political rhetoric across the country, which can rise to the level of violent assault.

One possible solution to accompany the (hopefully) resurrected Spectrum is the creation of a designated safe space for the LGBTQ+ community and allies at Western, which could operate similarly to the university’s Multicultural Center (MCC). The MCC houses five student clubs centered around different cultures and identities, each with their own leadership and structure.

That hypothetical organization could include a staff person, similar to Sally Romero’s director role with the MCC, who oversees the center and mentors students.

The space could not only grant LGBTQ+ students and allies a refuge of sorts on campus, but it could also serve a key function in initiating and promoting social and educational events tailored for the queer community. 

“Sometimes [students] aren’t comfortable in the dorm halls, and they aren’t comfortable in some of the other more public spaces,” says Weinmeister. “Even just [having] that one space would be a huge difference.” 

Western responds to hate

Those concerns over safety have been exacerbated recently with hateful incidents targeting the LGBTQ+ community, including one in Jan. 2023 in the Mears Complex where an anti-gay slur was utilized. 

“It was upsetting for a lot of people, because that hall is supposed to be their safe space,” says Ashley, who notes that stairwells in Western’s housing have been the site of a number of instances of harassment, leading some students to advocate for camera installation. 

“For those who are very out and open about [that] it can be a little stressful walking around campus because people know … and not everyone on campus is supportive,” concludes Weinmeister.

The January incident in Mears prompted a formal university response:

“As we take the necessary steps to reduce hateful actions like those we just witnessed, we must strive for justice, and we must empower those who were attacked. We must embrace our differences, make each instance of hate bring us closer together, and transform violence into love,” wrote President Brad Baca in a portion of his all-campus email. 

Weinmeister contrasted the tone in that email to a more strongly worded missive sent in the fall of 2022 regarding hateful graffiti and the use of racial slurs over the previous summer.

A portion of that email is excerpted below:

“We condemn these acts, but of course we cannot condemn without acting. Western shall do more than strongly condemn all acts of racism and discrimination. We do not accept the occurrences of such as “normal” or “expected”. As a university, we have an ethical responsibility to the campus and valley community to educate and develop training that results in real inclusion for all.  We have incredible human capital and resources which can help our community and broader society grow in its inclusivity, and active anti-bigotry.”

LGBTQ+ academic and social life

While the Campus Pride Index indicates that Western offers LGBTQ courses and an “LGBTQ studies program,” titles for queer-focused courses are fairly slim on the university’s website, but do include: “Borderlands: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality”, a class required for Western’s Humanities and Diversity minor, and “Human Sexuality”, a psychology offering. 

Theater Prof. Steven Cole Hughes also recently taught a course entitled “The History of LGBTQ+ Theater.” While these courses sound fantastic and are sorely needed, the claim that Western offers a program devoted solely to LGBTQ+ studies seems significantly overstated. 

To its credit, Western’s leadership seems at least somewhat aware of the university’s perception of falling short on LGBTQ+ issues, reposting a Gunnison Country Times article written by Abby Harrison on the school’s website highlighting the creation of a miniature queer library in Taylor Hall, complete with donated books. 

The queer library stemmed from the course on LGBTQ theater, and it stands to reason that other courses in a similar vein could inspire further action to promote queer culture on campus.

On a more personal level, Weinmeister commends Prof. Hughes, as well as Dr. Matt Aronson, a sociology professor who served as the faculty advisor for Spectrum last year, as faculty members who are committed to protecting queer students and bringing LGBTQ+ issues to the forefront on campus. 

“He’s just an incredible man who worked so hard for us,” says Weinmeister of Prof. Aronson, who is publicly out. Visible allyship and representation among staff and faculty is vital for creating a safe, inclusive environment on college campuses, and is one area where Western has had some recent wins.

This past June, the university released a series of videos and short articles for Pride Month highlighting LGBTQ+ representation and allies among faculty and students and touting past events and resources like the queer library.

But Weinmeister points out that the university, along with acknowledging some historical missteps, claims credit for instituting changes on campus and shifting towards a more inclusive culture. 

What Western leaves out in its account is the very active role that Spectrum and LGBTQ+ students have played in blazing that trail of progress — in addition to faculty and staff like Prof. Hughes and Aronson that have supported students and fought for positive change.

“It’s aggravating [to say] the very least when they try to take all of the credit for improving all of these things when it’s the students who lived those experiences and had to fight for it … in order to have it be inclusive,” she says. 

On the social side, Spectrum hosted annual drag shows (the last one in 2022), as well as lectures on LGBTQ+ topics. But considering the club’s uncertain future, Western’s organized LGBTQ+ social life at the moment could be considered minimal at best, despite checking five of the seven boxes on Campus Pride Index’s LGBTQ Student Life category, including “regularly plans LGBTQ social activities” and “regularly plans educational events on transgender issues.”

In reality, Western needs Spectrum — for its ability to aid in attracting and retaining queer students, yes, but also to push the university to become better. But it’s important to note that at an ideal university, students would not have to continuously advocate for themselves to secure safe housing and the right to change their name and gender identity on official documents.

Western sorely needs more faculty and staff advocates to step up and utilize their voices to improve the experience for LGBTQ+ Mountaineers, taking the burden off of students who, in most cases, have plenty to worry about between their academic and personal lives.

Doing better for the LGBTQ+ community

Given the recent efforts during Pride Month, it’s quite clear that Western would like to raise its CPI score and appeal more to the LGBTQ+ community, especially as the university seeks to boost enrollment to sustain its long-term financial viability. 

And while the university has worked to make campus more broadly inclusive through its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, particularly in the last several years since the killing of George Floyd spurred a national outcry for racial justice, Weinmeister says that to her knowledge no one from Spectrum has ever been contacted to speak with the group about the personal, lived experiences of LGBTQ+ students. 

In fairness, Western has undoubtedly made some strides as an institution, posting publicly about Pride Month and signaling that the university cares about these issues. But it’s far past time for some greater action to serve LGBTQ+ students, starting with designating a viable, safe space for Spectrum to meet — and supporting their events.

There needs to be ample training on issues of gender and sexuality for all faculty and staff, and LGBTQ+ students must be able to opt into housing that affirms their identity — and makes them feel welcomed, comfortable, and free from hate.

And finally, there needs to be an honest accounting of where Western stands. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for improving from one and a half to three stars (discounting Spectrum’s current inactivity, as well as other factors which you could argue make Western undeserving of even that mediocre mark), Western’s administration needs to invest significant resources and time in genuinely improving that rating.

That means listening attentively to students in the LGBTQ+ community and making strides towards a five-star rating, like CU-Boulder and University of Northern Colorado have already achieved.

Creating a social and academic refuge for queer students amidst a hailstorm of hateful laws and attacks on the very existence of young gay, nonbinary, queer, and trans people is not just the right marketing move, it’s a moral duty for a liberal arts university.

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