LGBT-Friendly: On Amherst’s 5 Stars
Remember the college application process senior year in high school? What a hot mess.
Imagine how much more confusing and dicey that process is when you’re an LGBT student…
For me, this was the case. I was gay and not out. I looked furtively look through my Fisk College Guide looking for gay-friendly schools. I would say to my father, rather euphemistically, that I was looking for an “open-minded” (read: gay friendly) school, with a “diverse” (read: had plenty of gay people) student population, who would be “liberal” (read: would not burn me at the stake).
I was accepted into Amherst College, and after a few years, I’ve managed to carve out a nice little queer niche for myself where I feel comfortable and happy.
I was reminded of my senior year search, when I recently checked out the Campus Pride list for the top fifty LGBT-friendly schools of 2012, displayed on the Huffington Post– a list that my younger, closeted self would have ogled at for hours.
After scrolling through the rankings I was struck with some surprise that Amherst College had a 5 out of 5 star ranking. I mean, Hampshire College was given 4.5 stars out of 5. Now, don’t get me wrong–I think Amherst is a perfectly reasonable place for queers but we beat Hampshire College?
What then, makes a safe and enjoyable place for the queer community at a college?
I’ve decided to break down the Campus Pride Index (CPI), section by section to evaluate whether these factors are relevant and meaningful to a healthy and happy LGBT atmosphere at Amherst College (or anywhere). Prospective queer-frosh, listen up!
First, ACADEMIC LIFE:
Queer academics are important because they make LGBT issues/history relevant to a classroom. Queer courses give people the opportunity to question and engage on an intellectual level about a relevant social and political topic that is often not discussed on an academic level in high school.
Professors and their comfort level with sexuality/gender inclusiveness is a good indicator of whether or not you will want to hit your head against the wall for an hour and twenty minutes or want to marry them (Massachusetts, FTW).
According to the Campus Pride Index, Amherst College has a 5 out of 5 stars here. Amherst College, in my opinion, doesn’t actually have a strong queer academic standing. But I think the criteria for this section is sound (ex: whether or not the school has a LGBT studies program, courses, gender neutral bathrooms in academic buildings etc.) I’m not too certain what Course Catalog the CPI used (perhaps we were confused with our neighbor, Hampshire College?). I think, at most, there are two or three courses that one could take specifically about queer people. Furthermore, there is no LGBT studies program. As a whole, faculty and facilities are sexuality/gender inclusive to students, but sometimes with age–of buildings and professors–you might find a little less openness to these inclusive ideals.
Because you should have a life outside of your academics, student life–you know, when you can actually interact openly about all the juicy gay drama—is essential to making or breaking your college experience as LGBT.
When I looked at Student Life score for Amherst (5 out of 5 stars) I didn’t quite agree with our score. Okay, Amherst College has many of the things that are considered important for the criteria (LGBT/Ally Safe Space zone, resources, events, a paid LGBT staff, etc). But just because there is safe space and organization that hosts events does not mean people actually attend (weekly meetings boast a regular attendance of ten people and these people are the main attendees at speaking events—it’s like preaching to the choir, a really small gay choir).
The criteria for Student Life appear superficial and allows for ambiguity in interpretation. I think NESCAC schools attract a certain type of person that will be generally accepting or, at the very least, outwardly tolerant (though this isn’t ideal) of LGBT students. But, that’s it. It’s general. Having a Rainbow Room certainly helps, but it doesn’t make the vibrant gay life that 5 out of 5 stars would imply.
POLICIES AND PRACTICE:
If the Administration of your college is not down with your sexuality, you are likely to have more problems if other people are opposed to your sexual/gender identity. That is why LGBT safe policies are also important if worst comes to worst with LGBT discrimination. Good administrative and institutional policies can indicate whether or not the campus is LGBT friendly (read: a place worth going to, for your own safety and sanity).
According to the Amherst College Honor Code,” Any behavior which constitutes sexual harassment or other verbal or physical abuse of any member of the community for reasons that include but are not limited to… sexual orientation, gender… will be regarded as a serious violation…” Discrimination at Amherst can result in suspension, among other punishment. Amherst College has a solid administration in terms of LGBT/gender support (4.5 out of 5 stars). I mean, half of the staff is some form of gay (side note: I have no proof of this, only an assumption based upon the fact that Amherst, Massachusetts is a kooky, liberal town filled with open-minded aging hippies). But all blanket statements aside, the school has serious policies and a commitment to preserving the integrity of every student.
Another group you want behind your back if the going gets tough: the campus police force. I hope that your school is safe and open-minded enough that the police would not have to intervene, but it’s always nice to have a little more safety on your side.
Amherst College has a well-trained and respectful police force and was given 5 out of 5 stars. I have no personal qualms about the police force, I have heard of only one instance in which a newer police officer acted rather brusque to a masculine looking female and another female holding hands while they walked down the street late one night. I believe this was an isolated incident and this aside, Amherst College police are very respectful to the LGBT community.
HOUSING AND RESIDENTIAL LIFE:
Where you live and who you live with can be shit-show for a number of different reasons, though you’d hope sexuality/gender identity should have nothing to do with it. That being said, LGBT friendly housing is important because where you sleep and live should really be a source of comfort. If you dread going home because of awkwardness and discomfort due to your sexual/gender identity, then isn’t really a place you can call “home.”
Amherst College was given 4 out of 5 stars, which I would deem kind of appropriate, because the criteria allows Amherst to look better than it actually is. Only this past year has Amherst included gender-inclusive housing policies to its housing options–leaving us a little delayed on progressiveness among many other elite colleges. Furthermore, the criteria of “Gender-neutral/single occupancy restroom facilities in campus housing” is true…sort of. There are only a few housing options that promote this, none of which are actually on campus. Lastly, Resident Counselors (our version of RA’s) are trained on LGBT issues in housing, but they can be a hit or miss, depending on their comfortability, bias, and actual concern for their LGBT residents.
COUNSELING AND HEALTH SERVICES:
Much like the other administrative aspects of colleges, physical and mental health should be inclusive, responsive and helpful to your sexual and gender identity because health and well-being takes precedence over all else.
Amherst College was given 5 out of 5 stars for their health services, and I can’t really complain here. I’ve had no problems, as a lady who likes ladies, expressing any health questions related to my sexual identity–other than that general awkwardness that seems to persist between a patient and a doctor. That’s something nobody can fix.
Lastly, RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION EFFORTS:
Other than this being an unfortunate name for criteria (the thought of some large gay drill instructor, going to high schools and recruiting all the queers, is running through my mind) it’s important to consider how well your school actively seeks and retains LGBT students.
Amherst College receives a 4.5 out of 5 stars for this one, despite only having 3 out of 5 criteria checked off on the CPI. As the CPI found, there are no LGBT scholarships or ceremonies for graduating LGBT seniors at Amherst. But in terms of welcoming new LGBT students, there is a big welcoming party for the LGBT incoming freshmen (although, the huge party pizza might have something to do with that). Also, there is a concerted effort to help incoming freshmen with the process of adjusting to gay life on campus. Many of our recruitment efforts for high school students are not due to lack of interest or concern, it’s more like a lack of funding. But this is still a problem, because it hinders us in finding fantastic LGBT students who can contribute to the community.
Overall, Amherst is administratively supportive to LGBT students and the students are in general, passively accepting of LGBT students. This makes for good policies and a sort of lackluster queer scene on the campus. But at least it’s a safe scene! The CPI provides a good evaluation and you generally can’t go wrong with its criteria, but there are some questions that can allow for ambiguity and may not give the whole picture. I am both impressed and confused that out of all of the ‘Cac, Amherst College received 5 out of 5 stars. But I’ll take it—I’m sure it can help some overwhelmed queer high school student along the way.