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Exploring a World of Change

Exploring a World of Change

This is the speech I gave as the keynote speaker for El Paso Community College's diversity conference, Exploring A World of Change. EPCC recently incorporated sexual orientation and gender identity as part of their nondiscrimination policy. As a response, Human Resources put on this one-day conference for its employees to learn more about the LGBT experience. I was honored to be asked to give the opening address.


Hello and thank you so much for inviting me to speak at your conference today. First let me start off by saying congratulations. Not only congratulations on adopting a policy that will protect the rights of a population that is still actively marginalized and discriminated against and often times harassed for who they are, but congratulations for not stopping there. This conference is just the first step in what I hope is an ongoing conversation about how does El Paso Community College create a welcoming and opening campus climate so that all students faculty and staff can thrive.

You can say I’ve been a professional gay for over a decade. I have worked as a student advocate raising awareness of LGBT issues, I have also worked with several universities in developing policies and trainings on sensitivity and ally building for several years around the country.

I gathered a few statistics to give you a picture of why taking this first step in including sexual orientation and gender identity in your nondiscrimination clause is so important. These statistics are taken from a book I own, The Gay , Lesbian and Bisexual Student’s Guide to Colleges and Universities.

Out of the 128 colleges and universities that this study surveyed…

  • Of the hate crimes reported by colleges and universities, sexual orientation was the reported reason more often than race/ethnicity
  • GLB students were two to three times more likely to attempt suicide then their heterosexual peers
  • One-third of GLB students will drop out of school because of coming out issues (this includes bullying, loss of support of family, and lack of community)
  • 40% of GLB students report they do not feel safe expressing themselves (be it personality, relationship status-which includes the use of pronouns in everyday language) on their campus

Now this is students from across the country. What about students here in El Paso? In 2006, I wrote an article entitled, From Boots Boas: Gay Life on the Border. I interviewed only a handful of students, but in those interviews, they talked about (almost verbatim) the same challenges that I just told you came from the study.

This study doesn’t even mention the experience of transgender college students. Research is still being done on their experience, but in a survey conducted in 2010, over 80% of transgender students indicated their gender expression as a basis for harassment. Campus safety in general and lack of sensitivity from campus police were other issues trans students articulated.

Every member of this institution has a responsibility to guarantee its members’ safety and success. What is your role in this?

I remember as a college student knowing what members of the faculty and staff I could turn to, and what members I knew to stay away from. As a staff member at a university, I was keenly aware of when I didn’t have to worry about what pronoun I could use when talking about the person I was dating, and when I had to cover who I was. Even though I have been out of the closet for more than half my life, and I am one proud homo, there are times when I don’t necessarily feel safe, or even that my employers would have my back.

Something to think about: I’ve heard it said that gays flaunt themselves. I would argue that heterosexuals flaunt themselves just as much. How many of you are wearing your wedding ring? At least in Texas where lesbian and gay couples cannot legally marry, your wedding ring flaunts your sexual orientation. How many of you have a picture of your wife or husband in your office? How many of you have mentioned your wife or husband in a casual conversation. All of these examples are ways where I am reminded that I live in a predominately heterosexual community.

Remember a time when you were made to feel less than. What did that feel like? What support, if any did you seek out?

Discrimination doesn’t have to be someone saying directly, “faggot” in the hallway comments. Discrimination can be a look, it can even be silence. As a faculty, staff or administrator, your silence can be seen to LGBT students, faculty and staff as acceptance if you don’t speak up against inequality.

What special issues do LGBT students have? (Adapated from Promising Practices for Inclusion of Gender Identity/Expression in Higher Education created by The Pennsylvania State University)

Self-esteem and identity

  • With most other minority groups, identity is talked about and shared openly and there tend to be outlets where positive role models can be shown.
  • Right now, there is still very few positive role models (although growing) specifically with the population that EPCC serves, how many openly LGBT role models are there on your campus that students can see themselves represented?

Religion and Spirituality

  • A large part of this community is shaped by the religion that we practice. And beyond just the services attended, communities such as ours often develop their own sense of community around the church.
  • When LGBT identified individuals are told that they are not welcomed, not only do they have to give up that church, but also the people and community formed there.

Relationships and Intimacy

  • In the opposite-sex dating community, individuals learn how to negotiate relationships and intimacy at an early age. Scripts and TV shows all exist on teenage dating rituals and rites of passage.
  • For LGBT youth, college is often the first time they feel liberated in even contemplating how to date someone of the same sex. Often because of this, dating know-how is delayed and the college campus is the first time young people can practice dating and everything that entails

Academic and Career Issues

  • College is often a stressful time for many students. Students from this region many times have to juggle school and homework with family obligations, work obligations and sometime language proficiency issues.
  • LGBT students often have the same challenges along with feelings of isolation if they feel they are the only one. Language used in the classroom that doesn’t necessarily include their experience. Often times LGBT students worry if they are “passing” or if anyone will figure them out, and if someone does, what does that mean for their experience in school. This is especially difficult for LGBT students who were harassed in high school.

What is your role as faculty or staff or administration? The El Paso Community College Board of Trustees made an important decision when they recognized that unfortunately individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, 2-Spirit, Bi-Gender, Same-Gender Lovin, etc. continue to be marginalized in our community, and that it is important that we protect their rights and allow them to learn and work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination.

That’s no small order. You are the individuals who have to figure out what that means on a daily basis. How are you going to be conscious about how people’s sexual orientation and gender identity are just as important to our students, faculty and staff as their race, gender, religion, veteran status, etc? It shapes who we are, and if we are in a group that is often times under attack, finding a community that accepts us for who we are can quite often become lifesaving.

I thank whoever decided that holding training on sexual orientation and gender identity in light of the new nondiscrimination policy was important. I hope this will not be your last. Trust me, the information that you receive today only touches the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Thank you.

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Diversity Talks | Victor Santana-Melgoza | Ph: (541) 231-4768 | victor@diversitytalks.com