F-M campuses roll out rainbow welcome mats

By: Marino Eccher, INFORUM

FARGO – When Kara Gravley-Stack started working at North Dakota State University, advertising the school’s gay and lesbian support services was a surefire way to draw criticism from anti-gay quarters.

“I’d get messages coming to me saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re supporting this,’ ” said Gravley-Stack, NDSU’s director of diversity initiative, “and other things I’d rather forget about.”

That was a little more than a decade ago – around the same time sidewalk chalkings for Coming Out Week were defaced with death threats, and anonymous fliers covered in swastikas and hate messages popped up on local campuses.

Today, despite that ugly past – and in some ways because of it – Fargo-Moorhead colleges and universities are vocal in positioning themselves as safe havens for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.

“We just feel like it’s so important to put ourselves out there in a very visible way that we are welcoming to all students,” said Donna Brown, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Like NDSU and Concordia, MSUM took out a prominent ad in the Pride special section of the High Plains Reader touting the school’s gay community and resources.

All three schools run a version of the Safe Zone program, which identifies and trains students and staff as designated listeners for anyone who needs to talk about gay and lesbian issues. All three are also sponsors of Pride weekend.

MSUM and NDSU both offer scholarships to gay and lesbian students and allies. NDSU has encouraged and mapped gender-neutral bathrooms across campus.

And MSUM makes a point of highlighting its GLBT resource center, located right in the middle of its student union, when it gives tours to prospective students.

“I think that alone sends a strong message,” Brown said. “Of if that’s not something that you value, this may not be the place for you.”

At Concordia, officials credit late president Pam Jolicoeur for pushing the Office of Intercultural Affairs to fold sexual orientation into a diversity agenda that previously focused mostly on race and ethnicity.

The religiously affiliated college has also taken its cues from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which three years ago voted to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers in same-sex relationships.

That and other gay-friendly teachings led many congregations to distance themselves from the church, but Concordia has embraced the message.

“We’re trying to live out the social teachings of the ELCA,” said Per Anderson, associate dean for global learning and a religion professor. “This is our way of responding to what we think our teaching calls us to do.”

Over the past few years, Concordia has beefed up its safe space program. Its Straight and Gay Alliance student group has become so popular it had to find a new meeting space to meet the fire code, said Sonja Paulson, assistant director of the office of intercultural affairs.

“We’re trying to expand safe space to a campus culture,” she said.

Anderson said they’re getting there, though there is work yet to be done to convince students Concordia – not traditionally known as a freewheeling, liberal campus – is a welcoming environment.

“There is good will and there is openness, but there is good reason for some of our students to be a little wary about where the college is,” he said.

NDSU’s Gravley-Stack said it’s particularly important for colleges and universities to support LGBT students who struggle for acceptance at home.

“In any given year, I meet with one or two students who are struggling with their financial aid package because their parents have found out their sexual or gender identity and are no longer financially supporting them,” she said.

Others, she said, grew up in areas where gay culture was simply unheard of and need the college’s support system to feel comfortable and safe.

It’s not a big-money program – the entire budget of NDSU’s equity and diversity center, which covers a multitude of issues, is about $25,000. The High Plains Reader ad cost about $1,000.

Gravley-Stack still hears from critics from time to time who don’t like the message.

“We certainly are aware that this isn’t something that everybody supports,” she said.

Sometimes there’s a silver lining to conflict, she said: When students who struggle to accept gay peers have a friend or a classmate come out to them, “it can have the impact of really changing their world view.”