Erica Whitaker’s short hair and choice of clothing drew people to speculate about her sexuality during high school. She enjoyed her time there, and graduated with a GPA of 3.6. Once she reached college at WMU, her grades dropped from A’s to D’s.
Whitaker, along with thousands of other Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender (LBGT) students face an array of new challenges when they transition from high school to college life. What will my roommate think of my sexuality? Is the campus accepting? Whitaker’s challenge was to deal with emotions related to her sexuality that she ignored during her high school years.
“I repressed my feelings during high school, and when I came to college I had to deal with it,” Whitaker said.
Her internal struggles lead to deprived academic results and she was close to failing one of her semesters at WMU. Whitaker received guidance and support from LBGT Student Services at WMU, in addition to OUTspoken, the LBGT student organization on campus.
“I’ve come to accept myself now. The coordinator at the office for LBGT services helped me a lot,” Whitaker said.
Today she is the vice president of OUTspoken, and has a GPA of 3.2.
Coordinator for LBGT Student Services, Jennifer Hsu, said the transition from high school is not linear, and many factors affect why a student would change their academic performance once they reach college.
“The students that I have seen find an inviting environment have been less likely to leave Western,” Hsu said.
Because the transition from high school to college is known to be tough, especially for LBGT students, the First Year Pride Alliance was created this fall. The program lasts throughout the entire year, comparable to the First Year Experience, but functions as an optional resource for LBGT students.
“The program goes specifically into sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Coordinator Amberose Nolan. “It’s important to have [this program] because it improves the campus climate, and studies show that it improves conditions for LBGT students.”
In a 2011 study by Campus Pride measuring LBGT friendly campuses, WMU placed No. 21, and scored 4.5 out of 5 points on their Campus Climate Index.
University of Michigan (U of M) scored 5 points on the same index: the only university in Michigan to receive that score. U of M opened its LBGT office in 1971, and was the first university in the nation to do so.
“I think the new curriculum and programs we implemented this year will boost our ranking,” Nolan said.
Nolan’s high school experience involved a lot of hardship.
“A lot of people gossiped about me in high school, and said that I got around a lot because I was bisexual,” Nolan said.
The high school Nolan attended had a gay-straight alliance (GSA), but not all high schools in Michigan have that program.
“I went to a high school in a town with 2,000 people,” said Christine Babcock, a third-year student at WMU.
Even though Babcock’s high school lacked of a GSA presence, she did not experience any discrimination from other students when she came out as a lesbian. To her, school was a “safe haven,” because once she was “outed,” her parents would not let her socialize outside of school.
“My parents are ministers,” Babcock said. “They do not approve because they legitimately believe I will go to hell. It’s out of love. It has taken me a long time to realize that.”
Babcock adds that there was a lack of information about the LGBT community in her high school.
“One guy that was sitting next to me in class said it was like sitting next to an alien, because he didn’t know a lesbian existed in real life,” said Babcock.
Greg Lowe, a junior at WMU, came out to his mom the summer before attending WMU.
“She didn’t mind, she just told me to vote Republican at every election,” said Lowe as he chuckled. “I guess she thinks being liberal is worse than being gay.”
OUTspoken President Brendan Shaw said he was worried about how his freshman-year-roommate would react to his sexuality.
“I was nervous to see if he was homophobic. He wasn’t, he was a cool guy,” said Shaw. “I haven’t experienced discrimination directly towards me at WMU, but I get annoyed when professors assume everyone is heterosexual.”
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), is an organization that measure the experiences of LGBT students in the U.S. The most recent study released by GLSEN found that LBGT harassment is declining in the country.
Despite the decrease, 6 out of 10 LBGT students reported that they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. Coming out in school increased levels of victimization, but also resulted in a healthier mental state. You can access the entire 2011 GLSEN study here.
Common Bond at Sindecuse Health Center is another resource for LBGT students at WMU. The support group is directed at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Allied (LGBTQA) students, and had its debut this spring semester.
“I talk to a lot of students who have been bullied in high school because of something they cannot change, such as their sexual orientation,” said Sarah Cook, who coordinates the support group with Brian Fuller.
Anxiety and relationship issues with friends, romances, and family members are the most common among LBGT students according to Cook.
“It’s difficult to adjust to college for many of these students,” Cook said. “We try to help students know about OUTspoken, and other pro-LBGT activities.”