Laurentian University psychology professor Joël Dickenson has always been open with students and co-workers about the fact that she's gay.
That decision, though, has led to some situations that haven't been “100-per-cent pleasant,” she said.
For example, when she joined the university's faculty six years ago, she was known among her students as the “new dyke prof,” even though she's certain they liked her.
Dickenson has also endured “ignorant” comments from colleagues which seemed to question whether her son is really hers because she didn't give birth to him.
As well, sometimes she'll be in a meeting with people she doesn't know, and wonder what the reaction will be if she mentions she has a wife.
“Are people going to treat me differently?” Dickenson said. “Are they going to respond to me in a different way? Am I not going to be welcomed? There's still those questions that enter my mind, even though I am very out.”
As a member of the university's sexuality and gender diversity committee, made up of faculty, staff, students and administration, Dickenson is committed to ensuring this kind of thing doesn't happen to other queer people.
Last spring, the committee circulated a survey among students, staff and faculty members to find out if queer people think the Laurentian University campus is a welcoming place.
The Laurentian University Sexuality and Gender Diversity Climate Survey, which was completed by 438 people, elicited some striking results.
About 30 per cent of those who answered the survey self-identified as being queer.
But only 17 per cent of queer respondents said they were out to everyone on campus. Ten per cent of queer respondents said they had no one they felt they could talk to on campus about their sexual identity.
Twenty-one per cent said they'd feel uncomfortable speaking to a professor about their sexual identity.
Eighteen per cent reported having experienced harassment — in most cases, verbal — because of their sexuality. Sixteen per cent had experienced harassment because of the way they express their gender.
Twenty-one per cent of all respondents said they were uncomfortable on campus because of their sexual orientation, and 12 per cent because of the reception of their gender identity.
Of great concern to those on the committee is the fact that 75 per cent of all respondents weren't aware of Laurentian University's policy on human rights discrimination, which deals with issues such as homophobia.
Dickenson said the survey's most important finding is that a large portion of individuals who self-identified as being queer aren't feeling “they can completely be themselves in the university environment.”
Beyond the qualitative results, those responding to the survey gave specific examples of when their sexual orientation became an issue.
While some of the comments are clearly homophobia, there's others where the incident was caused by ignorance, Dickenson said.
One person reportedly said “throw them in the ovens and lock the ***ing door,” while someone else reportedly said “If you want to be treated like everyone else then act like everyone else. Acting differently gets you treated differently.”
Another person responding to the survey said they consider themselves to be out of the closet, “but don't bring it up with classmates because sometimes when they talk they say ... 'Oh that's gay,' which really isn't a compliment.”
Others, though, gave more positive feedback.
“I have had very good experiences with those I have come out to on campus,” one respondent said. “I've lived in (two residences) and have been well received by the friends that do know.”
Lee Benoit, the president of Pride@LU, the university's queer student association, said she hasn't really had any problems on Laurentian's campus herself.
In general, though, professors and classmates don't know about her sexual orientation, so it's not an issue, she said.
She's never had anyone come into the Pride@LU office and share a “terrible gay-bashing experience” either.
“I think people are a lot more accepting,” Benoit said. “They're older, and a lot more grown up than they are in high school. There's less immature reactions.”
Laurentian University human rights adviser Lise Dutrisac said the university is proud to see that many respondents do consider the university to be a warm, welcoming place for all students.
“We actively promote and encourage respect across campus,” she said, in an email statement. “In fact, we've just launched a new campus-wide campaign with that exact message: "Promoting a Respectful Community.'
“Under our 'Respectful Workplace and Learning Environment' policy, we've done quite a bit of training across the university, with more to come.
“It ensures our compliance with relevant legislation, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code and promotes the importance of respecting the dignity and worth of all of our community members."
But Laurentian women's studies professor Jennifer Johnson, who has also been involved in analyzing the results of the survey, said she hopes sensitivity training for university staff and faculty members will be expanded.
She said she'd like the university to earmark funds for this initiative.
Johnson said the plan is that some staff and faculty members will be given intensive training so they'll know how to help a student experiencing homophobia.
Stickers will then be put on their doors so students know where to turn.
In a more general sense, professors will be given pointers on how to avoid making queer students feel uncomfortable — for example, they might be lecturing in such a way that it sounds like they're assuming everyone in the room is straight.
They'll also be instructed on how to resolve conflicts between students involving homophobia — for example, if a student is using the term “that's so gay,” and is making another student feel uncomfortable.
Dickenson said the fact that administration has been supportive of the sexuality and gender diversity climate survey is telling.
“Laurentian University is committed to make the changes necessary to ensure that all students, faculty, and staff, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have a positive working and learning environment,” she said.
Dickenson and Johnson will share the results of the Laurentian University Sexuality and Gender Diversity Climate Survey at two different upcoming events.
-On Feb. 27, from 12:15-1:15 p.m., they'll be presenting at the Classroom Closet Conference, a Réseau ACCESS Network event for educators on making the classroom inclusive and safe. The event takes place at the Days Inn on Elm Street.
-On March 7, starting at 2:30 p.m., they'll be presenting to Pride@LU members in room L-516 in the Parker Building on the Laurentian University campus.