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Image credit: Joon Park

Bursting the bubble: Why student activism matters

March 23, 2018

College campuses have been the site of countless historic protests and activist movements that have changed the course of history. From the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, to the Kent State protests in 1970, to the University of Missouri strikes in 2015, and last week’s National Student Walkout in protest of gun violence and government inaction, students have continually been leaders in igniting national conversation and action for social justice.

Part of the reason schools are often the center of protests and activism is that students are responding to the lack of safety and support they feel in their own communities. In the same year that the United States saw hate crimes hit a five-year high—with a notable spike in reported incidents occurring in the immediate months following the election of Donald Trump—college campus hate crimes increased 25%. Of the 1,300 hate crimes reported on college campuses in 2016, 49% of crimes were based on race, nation of origin, or ethnicity; 21% were based on sexual orientation or gender identity; 18% were based on religion; 11% were based on gender; and 1% were based on disability.

These numbers reflect what students with marginalized identities have long understood: even in the confines of our college campuses—our safe spaces—we are targets. What these numbers don’t reflect, though, are the experiences of students who are targeted for more than one marginalized identity. Many LGBTQ students embody multiple marginalized identities and may be targeted even more aggressively because of their intersecting identities.

Recent #MeToo advocacy on campuses, for example, is just part of the ongoing movement to address sexual assault and harassment experienced by young people who are targeted on campus because of their identities. The CDC reports that 46% of bisexual women have been sexually assaulted as compared to 13% of lesbian women and 17% of heterosexual women. Overall, 23% of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted while in college, and rates of sexual assault and misconduct are highest for undergraduate students who identify as transgender, genderqueer, cisgender women, and gender non-conforming.

Due to the lack of safety and support LGBTQ young people experience in the world, many campus environments attempt to take on the great responsibility of creating community and fostering acceptance for LGBTQ students. This reality leads many students living on the margins of society to regard college campuses as safe spaces. It is generally understood college and university environments foster progressive and inclusive values that enhance student experiences and broaden the perspectives of most who are privileged enough to attend.

Higher education environments, especially in the United States, are often the only places where students are formally taught about gender, sexuality, sociology, social issues, and other identity-based topics. A minority of adults experience a formal education in gender, sexuality, or race studies beyond perhaps a sex education course. Even young people today are unlikely to formally learn about sexuality, gender, or race in school until college, if at all. Feminist theorist, Gayle Rubin remarks, “in spite of serious limitations, the information on sexual behaviour at most colleges and universities is better than elsewhere, and most colleges and universities shelter small erotic networks of all sorts.”

Even in the universities, students-activists have long been disrespected for their focus on social justice and their areas of interest misunderstood as luxury, elite academic subjects, instead of critical interdisciplinary tools for creating positive social change. As a former Gender Studies major, I was often asked what I learned in my major and what could I possibly do with my degree—as if being highly competent in understanding current relations on sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression gave me no unique value in the workforce.

Post-grad and off-campus life can present even greater challenges to many students, as leaving their college community may open them up to harsher harassment. In fact, GLAAD’s 2018 Accelerating Acceptance report revealed acceptance of LGBTQ people is on the decline. The report revealed 31% of non-LGBTQ Americans feel very or somewhat uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple hold hands, and 37% report they would be very or somewhat uncomfortable if their child had a lesson on LGBTQ history in school. Those who report they are uncomfortable with LGBTQ people do not only live in stereotypically anti-LGBTQ regions and subcultures; they are our neighbors, our parents, our bosses, and they exist in every town. These alarming statistics underscore the need for fostering safety in the collegiate spaces student-activists work hard to create and maintain.

The phenomenon of students with marginalized identities feeling unsafe on or off campus is not new; neither is student activism. Yet the current state of college campuses in relation to violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and other forms intersecting oppression further demands our attention and requires us all to take action to support the students who are changing our world for the better.

To take action in your community, please continue to check out our student-activist-led campaign, revamp, as GLAAD’s Campus Ambassadors share insights on how to make your activism more inclusive and effective.

Clare Kenny is a Campaigns Manager at GLAAD. She leads GLAAD's Youth Engagement including the Campus Ambassador Program, Rising Stars Grants Program, and amp series. Clare is a graduate of Skidmore College.

the voice and vision of a new generation