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Promoting Pride
Promoting Pride

As institutions become more inclusive, LGBT alumni return to support the effort

By Lydia Lum


Katie Simmons-Barth



Although his two older brothers were Grand Valley State University graduates, Matthew Mokma still wondered when he enrolled as a freshman in 2005: How friendly was the Michigan institution toward openly gay students like him?

He found out when students and faculty welcomed him into classes and activities. Through Grand Valley's fledgling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender resource center, Mokma organized and attended campus symposiums on political, racial, and spiritual issues facing LGBT communities.

Mokma, a Grand Valley graduate and now assistant director of development and alumni relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago's business school, has thanked his alma mater for his empowering experiences by making charitable gifts and serving on a scholarship committee.

As institutions increasingly invite and integrate LGBT students into campus life, they are embracing alumni donors and volunteers like Mokma to support these priorities, says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the Charlotte, N.C.–based Campus Pride, an organization that maintains an index of LGBT-friendly institutions based on criteria such as academics, inclusive policies, and campus safety. The index aids families during the college selection process and shows institutions their strengths and weaknesses and how to improve. Campuses that have LGBT alumni recruiting and mentoring students typically have welcoming environments, Windmeyer says.

"This is a key benchmark," he says of former students' engagement. "An alumni network is a good sign of institutional commitment."

Yet acceptance of LGBT populations remains uneven in and out of academia. Activists and allies in some countries have called for a boycott of this month's Winter Olympics in Russia because of a law criminalizing pro-LGBT "propaganda." In the United States, attitudes continue to evolve—a Pew Research Center poll last May found that 51 percent of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriages compared with 33 percent in 2003—but hostility still exists. Last fall, during a University of Mississippi production of The Laramie Project—a play dramatizing community responses to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student—one or more audience members, which included football players, shouted homophobic slurs and heckled the actors.

After the play, Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletic Director Ross Bjork publicly apologized and condemned the derogatory behavior. In the ensuing weeks, faculty met with students in small groups to discuss why that insensitive behavior was unacceptable. Jones plans to step up LGBT sensitivity education through freshman seminars and cultural competence workshops for employees and students.

Homophobic incidents like these are why more LGBT alumni need to become engaged in campus life, says Ronni Sanlo, a Palm Springs, Calif.–based consultant on LGBT higher education issues who lost custody of her children when she came out as a lesbian in 1979. "We are their surviving parents and owe it to them," Sanlo says of today's LGBT college students. "At least they have us. We didn't have anyone to help us when we were young."

Righting historical wrongs

Engaging LGBT alumni isn't simple. The LGBT civil rights movement in the United States launched in 1969 when LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City rioted to protest long-running police harassment, but another four years passed before the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Meanwhile, academia mirrored society. Whereas universities nowadays are receptive to gender-inclusive dorm rooms to ensure student safety and well-being, expelling students discovered to be LGBT from dorms used to be acceptable. Faculty and staff members stayed closeted about their sexuality to avoid being fired. Not surprisingly, some middle-aged and older LGBT alumni are ambivalent toward or even mad at their alma maters, advancement and student affairs experts say.

Institutions wanting to apologize for past bigotry find it tough to target LGBT alumni. For privacy reasons, universities do not ask about a person's sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, nor do they document information that's volunteered.

Nonetheless, officials at some universities are trying to locate LGBT alumni, determined to prove their campuses are now safe and inclusive for this generation of sexual minorities. Because the Great Recession forced cutbacks in student affairs budgets, institutions are increasingly relying on philanthropy to fund enrichment opportunities for LGBT audiences and allies. Monies raised also aid students whose parents have cut them off financially upon learning they're LGBT. The LGBT resource centers at some institutions are now avenues to engage alumni, many of whom say they wished such facilities had existed when they were undergraduates.

Centers for change

These resource centers are helping institutions repair relationships with LGBT alumni who came of age in a less tolerant era. Take Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University. In 2007, a student was subjected to anti-gay slurs and assaulted. Following student demands for action, President John DeGioia established the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Resource Center, the first of its kind at a Roman Catholic university.

When the center opened in 2008, about two dozen alumni contacted Director Shiva Subbaraman, many to complain about Georgetown's historical treatment of LGBT constituents. Realizing this sentiment was widespread, Subbaraman reached out to LGBT alumni, collecting names from other graduates. Her list grew to 800, about two-thirds of whom she has emailed to introduce herself and explain the center's purpose and programs, which include supporting five LGBT groups on campus.

Subbaraman has spent countless hours apologizing for the past and absorbing alumni grievances, such as harassment by straight students who criticized their LGBT peers for a 1980 lawsuit. Georgetown had refused to recognize the Gay Rights Coalition campus group—the administration cited religious doctrine and Catholic Church ties—so LGBT students sued the university alleging sexual-orientation discrimination. The case dragged on for most of the decade, and as news unfolded in what became the child sex abuse scandal implicating Catholic priests, Georgetown's pro-church stance offended the plaintiffs and their allies even more.

Subbaraman has reconnected alumni to Georgetown through event and speaker invitations, such as the Lavender Graduation, a spring ceremony that celebrates seniors and the achievements of LGBT students. The event grew from 30 graduates in 2009 to 130 last year. Speakers have included elected officials who attended Georgetown in the 1980s and '90s.

"The university has nevChandler Tagliabue announces the $1 million gift she and her husband, Paul, a former NFL commissioner and Georgetown University’s current board chair, made to support programming at the institution’s LGBTQ center.er honored them, and this is our opportunity," Subbaraman says. "They're shocked when I ask, but no one has turned me down yet. We can't change the past, but we can impact the future. Whether they engage with the resource center isn't as important as [engaging] with Georgetown at large."

Another example of the institution's LGBT outreach occurred in 2011 when its governing board chair, a 1962 alumnus, and his wife gave $1 million to support the center's programming. Since 2009, Georgetown has also hosted annual receptions for LGBT graduates and their families at homecomings; reunions; and John Carroll Weekends, an alumni association celebration named for the university's founder.

Philanthropic potential

LGBT alumni who aren't donors may change course in certain circumstances. That's what happened at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Sanlo directed its LGBT center for 13 years until 2010. She and advancement officers raised about $300,000—not including planned gifts—from 1,000 alumni who self-identified as LGBT or straight allies and were mostly age 50 and older. Sanlo had one-on-one lunches with alumni at the center, which includes a 4,000-volume multimedia library. These guests also met students. The fundraising appeals had a 90 percent success rate.

"If [donors] were convinced the kids had a strong chance for success at UCLA, then they gave," she says.

To find prospects, Sanlo scoured student newspapers from the 1970s and '80s for words like lesbian, gay, and homosexual in articles about campus protests or the formation of student groups and fished out names of constituents. Next, she identified donors underwriting galas benefiting Los Angeles–area LGBT nonprofits. Alumni relations and development officers vetted the names for UCLA graduates.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumni, students, and staff celebrated the 20th anniversary of the campus LGBT Resource Center in October 2013. Festivities included a brunch featuring a performance by drag queen Veronica Bleaus, aka John Musser (center).At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the 20th anniversary celebration of its LGBT Resource Center late last year drew more than 100 alumni, students, and senior administrators.

For 18 months, organizers found alumni through social media and faculty referrals. The festivities featured a gala dinner, a drag-show brunch, and an oral history project in which participants gave testimonials about their student experiences.

The poignancy of the weekend moved a 1988 alumnus to give $2,000 during the event, and university fundraisers plan appeals to others.

As institutions foster more welcoming and inclusive environments, there's potential for more giving. Just ask Shaun Keister, who came out as gay while an undergraduate student about 25 years ago. Keister has donated an estimated $25,000 to his alma mater, the most he's given to any organization.

As a freshman at Pennsylvania State University's Mont Alto campus in 1988, Keister devoured news about rallies, protests, and activists' demands at the University Park flagship institution. There, activists called for more federal government funding for AIDS research and patient treatment in response to the national health pandemic. Keister found courage in the visibility of Penn State's LGBT population, despite the university's lack of targeted services or organizations at the time. What mattered, he says, was that these students were participating in campus life without retaliation; he joined them after transferring to University Park as an upperclassman.

Now the University of California, Davis' vice chancellor for development and alumni relations, Keister says Penn State's tolerant climate motivated him to reveal his sexual orientation. "For the first time," he recalls, "I felt free."

Just listen

Many LGBT alumni had far less pleasant college experiences, so some advancement officers have devised strategies for difficult situations.

Tom Buchanan, director of development at the University of Arizona's Institute for LGBT Studies, recalls one such instance last year. Buchanan's gift officer colleague visited an out-of-state alumna who had graduated in the early 1970s and become a financial services executive. The gift officer told the alumna about research in several academic disciplines without getting any reaction. But when she broached LGBT studies, the alumna gasped, declared it impossible that the university would ever sanction it, and peppered Buchanan's colleague with questions.

The gift officer couldn't answer every question about the institute, which was established in 2007, so Buchanan took over the conversation through phone calls and emails. It turned out that as an undergraduate, the alumna's parents had cut off financial support and disowned her when they learned that she's a lesbian. No one on campus came to her aid. "She felt she had no one to turn to," Buchanan says.

He answered the alumna's questions about courses such as queer cinema and LGBT histories of North America along with the forthcoming launch of an academic journal, Transgender Studies Quarterly. As talks continued through the summer, the alumna's venting waned, and her comments and compliments about the institute increased. Convinced that the campus is now more LGBT-friendly and she could help further the progress, the alumna donated $1,000 to the institute last October—her first university gift.

Buchanan didn't press for more details about the alumna's undergraduate struggles. This habit of respecting the privacy of prospects has guided him in securing five planned gifts totaling at least $25 million since assuming his post in 2010.

That doesn't mean fundraisers should dismiss bad memories. "People need to be heard and taken seriously," Buchanan says. "Their perceptions are their reality. It's fine to tell someone we're sorry for their bad experiences. Just don't tell them, ‘I understand how you feel,' because odds are, we don't."

Relationship building and cultivation are as important for LGBT initiatives as they are for other institutional fundraising priorities. Take the Gay Games, scheduled for August 2014 in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. After 18 months of negotiations, the event's corporate hotel partner finalized its sponsorship of the international sports and cultural festival, says Stephen Sokany, co-chair of the Gay Games and senior associate vice president for institutional advancement at Ohio's Kent State University.

Sokany says donors to LGBT endeavors typically include straight allies who are honoring relatives or friends or want social justice. Therefore, these fundraising efforts should include broad and targeted appeals. Sokany cautions against assuming that individuals who support LGBT causes will do so for each one; people have myriad interests.

Beating bias

But what if a wide appeal unearths prejudiced complaints, especially among long-established donors?

Sanlo recalls a public university that received multimillion-dollar gifts from a benefactor for whom a campus building is named. When the woman read an article about the opening of an LGBT resource center on campus, she told the university president that the facility represented moral decay and demanded it close. Or she would halt her gifts.

"The president said they would miss her money," Sanlo says.

Six months later, the benefactor made another gift to the institution without mentioning the LGBT center, and the philanthropic relationship resumed as if she had never complained. Sanlo applauds the president's strategy and recommends senior officials elsewhere stay committed to their LGBT initiatives.

But even prejudiced complaints can fuel LGBT-friendly philanthropy, as was the case at Canada's University of Toronto, which published its "Out and Proud" cover feature in a 2009 alumni magazine issue. The article detailed 40 years of LGBT activism at the institution. An openly gay alumnus was appalled to read subsequent letters to the editor that blasted the piece as wasted magazine space, including comments from a critic who called the LGBT community "fringe." The alumnus responded with a CA$100,000 gift to U of T's sexual diversity studies program for scholarships.

The U of T alumnus is among many former students pleased with their undergraduate experiences, Campus Pride's Windmeyer notes. When his organization releases its annual list of the top 25 LGBT-friendly institutions, he gets hundreds of emails from alumni asking why their alma maters are missing. This level of interest gives him hope that campuses can—with alumni input and support—expand improvements for LGBT constituents. "How it gets done is up to each campus," he says.

Penn State alumnus Keister is optimistic too. More than a decade ago, he and his partner endowed a scholarship for students who promote a positive identity for their LGBT peers at Iowa State University, where Keister was a senior development officer. The couple stipulated that if Iowa State's LGBT resource center becomes obsolete and closes, the scholarships will go to other underrepresented, historically marginalized students.

"It's not unrealistic to think that 100 years from now, LGBT people are so widely embraced that things have completely changed," Keister says.

About the Author Lydia Lum

Lydia Lum is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

 

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