Southern Oregon University's outreach programs for queer and questioning students have earned it a place among the top 25 universities in the nation who are LGBT-friendly, according to Campus Pride.
Portland State University and University of Oregon also made the LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index, compiled by Campus Pride, a national nonprofit helping create safer college environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
"We have an incredibly wide and supportive community here on campus, in residence halls, classrooms, clubs — we have it all," said Janelle Wilson, coordinator of SOU's Queer Resource Center, which led the effort to score a five-star rating on the index. "We're waiting with open arms for queer and questioning students."
Seniors Jaimie Armstrong and Kate Holub, who came out two years ago, say the Queer Resource Center helped them feel more comfortable and connected on campus. They got an affordable apartment together in off-campus student housing, and next June they will march in the Lavender Graduation, which honors faculty, staff and students who've done outstanding work in promoting sexual diversity.
"The Queer Resource Center was the main thing that helped," said Holub, a fine arts major. "It's a totally wonderful place to be. They have a fridge, tea, coffee, printing. You make good friends there and learn how to network the campus."
Armstrong said SOU offers incoming queer students a safe and comfortable place in a gender-neutral hall and proactively keeps them on track with queer-supportive programs and connections. The attitude extends into town, she adds.
"I've never had to deal with feeling threatened or unsafe here at SOU or in the community of Ashland," Armstrong said. "We're comfortable holding hands on campus or in town. In Medford, though, you don't hold hands. They booed us in the Pear Blossom Parade and someone yelled we're going to hell.
"We're in a nest here. If someone says a foul remark, we know everyone's behind us here."
The couple said they're using the list, which includes Princeton, Rutgers, University of Michigan and University of California Santa Cruz, to find a queer-friendly graduate school.
To make the top 25, universities must make five stars overall in sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, and at least 4.5 stars in all eight areas of policy inclusion, support and institutional commitment, academic life, student life, housing, campus safety, counseling and health and recruitment and retention, according to www.campuspride.org.
All of SOU's programs geared toward queer students are "inclusive of every one of our students and that's our mission as a university," Wilson said.
"Gender identity and expression are included in our non-discrimination policy."
Wilson said SOU recruits and works on retention of queer students. She explained that because there are so many gender identities, including and extending beyond gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, that "queer" is now used as an umbrella term for all.
Counseling Director Victor Chang said all staff get regular training, provide positive support to all students regardless of sexual orientation and "we reflect the Ashland community around us."
Housing is gender-inclusive, even allowing a partner-roommate who is not a student, Wilson said. Academic programs are supportive of queer identity and community, especially the class Gender Sexuality & Women's Studies.
Financial Aid staff help queer students secure loans, based on student income, if their families are estranged from their children and are not in the repayment picture, said Jennifer Fountain, director of Student Life.
Noting the suicide rate among LGBT students is higher than among other student groups, Fountain said, "we all work very diligently and deliberately to care for each student."
The Campus Pride ranking brings national acclaim to SOU, Fountain said.
"It says this is a fun, safe, learning environment for anyone. It shows that SOU is compassionate for LGBT and that is embraced by the entire university," Fountain said.
"Being a small college, it shows we're doing it without a ton of resources and people in high-powered positions. We're doing it out of the goodness of our hearts."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.