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How colleges and universities across Connecticut are welcoming LGBTQ+ students

September 10, 2021 / Youth

It’s fall, and that means many high school students are making college choices, doing their homework, visiting campuses. For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary and queer university students, they want to know that a campus is supportive and accepting—and that as students they’ll be safe, free to live authentically and supported. Here in Connecticut, colleges and universities are committed to these students, as CT Voice discovered as we talked to more than a dozen institutions across the state about their systems and services to foster greater acceptance, inclusion and representation of LGBTQ+ individuals and what mental health resources are provided.

We also consulted Campus Pride, a leading LGBTQ+ non-profit organization for its annual benchmarking index of inclusive higher education institutions.

Even as there have been concerning reports about challenges in campus life for LGBTQ+ students around the country, the Connecticut schools stand out for their commitment—and their programs.

Connecticut State Universities and Colleges

“I won’t be gay at work as long as you’re not straight at work.” That’s what Joe Bertolino tells anyone who questions his suitability as an out and proud gay man and  president of Southern Connecticut State University. His orientation was never his focus when he was applying for this kind of leadership role.

“You’re not hiring me to be the gay president,” he says he told one college’s review committee. “You’re hiring me to be president, who, by the way, just happens to be in a committed relationship with a man.”

That said, Bertolino said he is open about being out. “I’m very student-centered,” he said. “If there is a gay student at my institution, and they see that the leader of their institution or that an executive at their institution is a member of the community, I think that sends a terrific message to that student.”

SCSU offers multiple resources for LGBTQ+ students, from support groups and its Open Door Closet clothing exchange to a Lavender Graduation. Jenna Retort is the director of the university’s Sexuality and Gender Equality (SAGE) Center, and a cisgender heterosexual ally. “My goal is to bring people into the fold,” she said, “and help them see the lived experiences of people in the community.”

The New Haven-based university has an enrollment of almost 7,700 students. While SCSU scored a 3.5 on the Campus Pride index, Central Connecticut State University was awarded a 4. No other schools in the system were rated.

Each of the state’s 12 community colleges and 4 state university campuses has its own LGBTQ+ Pride group, and students have been actively offering feedback, ideas and suggestions on ways to make Connecticut State Universities and College campuses more LGBTQ+-friendly. “There was a working group that developed a Use of Gender Identity and Pronouns policy, that was driven by student leaders and students across the campuses,” said Angelo Simoni, executive director for student relations and compliance for the Connecticut Board of Regents. CSCU already has a preferred name policy that allows any of its 90,000 students to change their name on student I.D. and class rosters.

CSCU operates counseling and health centers at its universities during regular operating hours. Community colleges have partnerships with local organizations providing mental health support. All campuses provide online resources for after-hours needs.

Quinnipiac University

Although Quinnipiac didn’t earn any rating from Campus Pride, the university has committed to use that index to analyze its LGBTQ+ climate and “address areas of underperformance.” That’s one of six affirming steps in QU’s new plan of action on the Hamden campus; Another one is an LGBTQ+ student leadership retreat.

“It’s for those students that are interested in really taking a leadership role in the community and driving conversation around making a more inclusive and equitable campus environment,” said Vincent Contrucci, director of community service and inaugural staff fellow.

“We know that institutions of higher education are a microcosm of a larger society. We haven’t solved racism, sexism, homophobia in the world,” said Don C. Sawyer III, Quinnipiac’s vice president for equity, inclusion, and leadership development. “But what I think is important is, as an institution of higher education, that we step in and halt that and respond to these behaviors and let people know where we stand as an institution.”

Quinnipiac has full-time mental health counselors on campus 12 months out of the year, and one on-call all-night, every night, Contrucci said.

Trinity College

Trinity has an active and vibrant LGBTQ+ community and a 4-star rating on the Campus Pride Index.

“This is one of the best academic schools in the region, with an outstanding faculty,” said Laura Lockwood, the director of Trinity College’s Women and Gender Resource Action Center. She is the lesbian queer woman pulling double duty as the contact person for the Queer Resource Center, a house on campus that at this writing is closed due to COVID-19.

Hartford, a city with a majority Black and brown population, stands in stark contrast to Trinity’s student population of just over 2,000. “It is a PWI: a predominantly white institution,” Lockwood said. “We work really hard in the division and in our individual departments or offices to educate, to raise awareness, to bring visibility to these issues and to dialog, to do activism and social justice work.”

Trinity College has a counseling and wellness center staffed by licensed social workers and psychologists, but only during weekday business hours.

Tunxis Community College

This two-year community college with an enrollment of 3,900 students is part of the CSCU system. Tunxis in Farmington has a Gender and Sexuality Alliance group, the Got Pride Club. Dean of students Chuck Cleary has been the club’s advisor for 15 years and is a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“As a community college, we’re sending people either out into the workforce, or on to a four-year school,” said Cleary. “So, our job is to be their steppingstone.”

Mental health counselors are available on campus during weekday business hours and CSCU offers crisis phone support 24/7.

U.S. Coast Guard Academy

In September, a group of cadets at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London will mark the tenth anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  That repeal was the spark for the creation of the Spectrum Council in 2011, which was the first group of its kind at any U.S. service academy. The council includes not only LGBTQ+ cadets but allies as well.

“Right now, we have about over 150 cadets who are part of our Spectrum Council and many of them are not lesbian or gay or trans,” said Dr. Aram deKoven, the academy’s chief diversity officer.

Spectrum members also helped draft the new Coast Guard transgender service policy that enables anyone who wants to serve, to serve openly, he said. “Talk about being moved to tears,” deKoven told CT Voice. “It’s very important work. It’s mission critical. And I don’t use those words lightly. This work of being active and inclusive is absolutely essential for mission success.”

The Coast Guard Academy offers cadets mental health counseling on campus and online resources.

University of Connecticut

Campus Pride awarded UConn 4.5 stars on its index, the highest score in the state, tied with Connecticut College. LGBTQ+ students turn to the Rainbow Center for a wide variety of resources, events and programs. Founded in 1998, the center is one of five cultural centers on the Storrs campus and is part of the university’s office for diversity and inclusion. Kelsey “K.O.” O’Neil, who identifies as trans masculine and queer, is the director of the Rainbow Center. UConn has the largest student population in the state: 32,000.

Mental health services are provided exclusively via telehealth due to COVID-19.

University of Hartford

The campus straddling the border between Hartford and West Hartford has a total enrollment of 6,600 students and its own Spectrum club, run by students.

“As the advisor of Spectrum, I see a warm, welcoming environment for students in our community,” said Dr. Kristin Comeforo, the graduate program director and associate professor of communication. “Over the past eight years, I’ve seen it become easier for students to have their authentic living names listed on class rosters and used for their email addresses. I’ve seen All-Gender bathrooms added on campus.” And on a personal note, Comeforo added: “As a queer faculty member just coming out as nonbinary, campus has always been a welcoming space for me and my non-conforming gender identity.”

Mental health services are only available via phone or video due to COVID-19 and only during weekday business hours.

University of St. Joseph

Founded in 1932 by the Roman Catholic order of nuns known as the Sisters of Mercy, the University of St. Joseph has an enrollment of fewer than 2,400 students. Its undergraduate population is just over 900. And St. Joe’s—as it’s known locally in West Hartford—welcomes LGBTQ+ students, it employs out and proud LGBTQ+ people.

One is James “Jay” Henderson, the university’s assistant director of student affairs. He’s a Black, gay Baptist from Virginia who admitted, he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived on campus three years ago.

“I envisioned walking around a corner and seeing a sister wearing one of the habits,” Henderson told CT Voice. “The Sisters of Mercy are different than some of the other groups. They are very welcoming, and I think that that feeds into how this institution approaches diversity issues.”

For example, he said the university supported the creation of an LGBTQ+ student group, Sexuality and Gender Acceptance, or SAGA, over faculty objections.

“One of our core values is development of the whole person,” said Rayna Dyton-White, SJU’s director of diversity and Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator. “How do you make sure they feel included? I think you make them feel included by treating them like people.”

Mental health services are provided weekdays during business hours in-person and via telehealth, and there is an after-hours emergency contact.

University of New Haven

Campus Pride awarded the University of New Haven 3.5 stars. In addition to hosting two LGBTQ+ student organizations and celebrating community events, the university created a new position to serve its LGBTQ+ community, said Carrie Robinson, director of diversity and inclusion. It also has two new crosswalks painted in the colors of the LGBTQ+ flag. “So, the moment our students step onto campus they feel a sense of welcoming and belonging,” Robinson said.

Counseling and psychological services are available 24/7.

Yale University

“Support for LGBTQ+ students at Yale is broad and multifaceted,” said Seth Wallace, LCSW, the assistant director of Yale’s office of LGBTQ+ resources. He is a queer, married trans man who came out and transitioned on the job at the university.

Yale offers students dedicated support groups, event programming, resources and more across the New Haven campus. “Each of our other cultural centers hosts a student-led LGBTQ+Q group and we often collaborate on activities and events which reflect the intersectional experiences of our community members,” Wallace told CT Voice.

Yale, with a total enrollment of 12,000 students, offers a broad array of mental health resources, from counselors and clinicians to 24-hour hotlines.

Look up other LGBTQ+-friendly colleges and universities in Connecticut and beyond at campuspride.org

BY DAWN ENNIS

Photo by Isabel Chenoweth: Southern Connecticut State University President Joe Bertolino

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