A Missing Peace: The Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Individual's Place in the Cultural Pluralism Movement
Brian L. Watkins
There is a movement throughout higher education to promote cultural pluralism and combat ignorance and bigotry. Colleges and universities are working to ensure that diversity is embraced and supported on their campuses; however, many of these institutions fail to include the lesbian, gay, and bisexual culture in the spectrum of diversity (Sherrill & Hardesty, 1994). Although colleges and universities embracing the cultural pluralism movement work to combat many forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism for example, little, if anything, is done to combat homophobia and heterosexism. This paper examines the cultural pluralism movement and the failure of those involved in the movement to embrace the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture. The responsibility of student affairs professionals to affirm the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, as well as the role of higher education in recognizing the gay/lesbian/bisexual culture in the cultural pluralism movement, is discussed.
Multiculturalism does not simply mean other races and nationalities but virtually every conceivable human grouping that separates from the norm, develops a separate identity as well as its normative identity. Indeed each person is of many cultures simultaneously. One has a sexual identity; a racial identity; a religious identity; a class/work identity; a school identity; an identity from the friends one keeps; a family identity; several geographic identities: neighborhood, city, state, country, hemisphere, etc. Human tendency to be relatively unconscious of other cultures is dysfunctional in our society as well as any association, and it is clear that much hostility is created by ignorance of other cultures and the failure to recognize their existence. (Adopted, Executive Committee, Association of College Unions-International, July 1987)
Institutions of higher education are microcosms of society and as a result, are not immune to the issues existing in the larger community for gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (Evans, 1991). A University of Oregon report stated that "the university environment is neither consistently safe for, nor tolerant of, nor academically inclusive of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals" (cited in Tierney, 1992, p. 43). Colleges and universities are working to ensure that diversity is embraced and supported on their campuses; however, many institutions fail to include gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the rainbow of diversity.
Institutions of higher education
have a moral imperative to reflect the complete spectrum of
diversity, including the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture
(Sherrill & Hardesty, 1994). Although colleges and
universities embracing the cultural pluralism movement work to
combat many forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism for
example, little, if anything, is done to combat homophobia and
heterosexism. This paper is an argument for the gay, lesbian, and
bisexual community and the need to include this culture in the
pluralism movement. It is an examination of the cultural
pluralism movement and the failure of those involved in the
movement to embrace the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture.
Suggestions for unifying the movement and the responsibility of
student affairs professionals to embrace and affirm the gay,
lesbian, and bisexual culture are discussed.
Since the early 1900's the term "cultural pluralism" has gained much attention and criticism. First coined by William James, the expression "'cultural pluralism' underwrote efforts toward friendship on the part of peoples different from one another, but each regarding the other as potentially contributing to American society" (Feuer, 1991, p. 19). Later, John Dewey added to this notion of cultural pluralism, advocating "the integration of the best elements of all the cultures into an emerging novel American civilization" (p. 19). These definitions, however, did not facilitate understanding between people whose cultures were very different from each other; rather, cultural pluralism sought to dismantle elements of existing cultures in search of a truly "American" culture.
Today, developed from the early ideas of
"cultural pluralism," a new meaning has evolved. Henry
(1979) defined the basic concept of cultural pluralism:
Pluralism is marked by the existence of meaningful and functional interaction between diverse cultural/ethnic/racial groups and individuals from those groups. It exists where the quality of the interaction is a function of knowledge about the variety and similarity of the cultural spectrum and the ability to use this knowledge as the basis for conducting relationships with respect for the integrity of patterns of cultural function. (cited in Henry, 1991, p. 16)
In addition, a culturally pluralistic
environment is an environment
where knowledge about culture, respect for culture(s) of others and an understanding of the interplay of cultures is used as the basis of interacting with diverse persons and groups. Further, a culturally plural environment is one whose participants make a conscious effort to develop a common, just agenda. (p. 16)
Thus, in institutions of higher education the culturally pluralistic environment is one in which individuals develop an awareness and knowledge of all cultures differing from their own and recognize the "right of individuals to maintain their [cultural] identity while sharing a common culture with Americans from many different . . . backgrounds" (Gollnick & Chinn, 1990).
As previously mentioned, despite the inclusion
of numerous cultures in the cultural pluralism movement, the
lesbian, gay, and bisexual culture remains unrecognized on many
of our college campuses; colleges and universities continue to
put money and energy into fighting racism and sexism, while
neglecting the issues of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual
community. In a 1990 survey conducted by USA Today and People for
the American Way, several colleges and universities stated that
sexual orientation, more than race or ethnicity, accounted for
the acts of intolerance on their campuses (Sherrill &
Hardesty, 1994). Despite this information, many institutions of
higher education continue to neglect the needs of the gay,
lesbian, and bisexual community.
Invisibility and Alienation
Unlike many other oppressed groups, like African Americans, for example, in which a person's identity is visibly evident, most gays, lesbians, and bisexuals remain invisible (D'Emilio, 1990). In an oppressive environment, such as the environment created in many institutions of higher education, it is incredibly difficult for any lesbian, gay, or bisexual individual to be open with others about his or her sexual orientation. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals live with a constant fear that exacts a heavy price, leading them to doubt their self worth and dignity. As a result of the perpetuation of heterosexuality as the norm, and the failure of many institutions of higher education to recognize the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture as an oppressed community, homosexuality and bisexuality have been completely marginalized and exist as "an invisible, unmentionable aspect of society" (Rhoads, 1994, p. 62).
In answering the question, "Why has campus
homophobia not been identified by colleges and universities in
their efforts to incorporate multicultural analyses and
diversity" (D'Augelli, 1989, p. 129), D'Augelli stated,
The answer is locked in "the closet" of lesbian and gay life on campus. It is a "closet" inhabited not only by self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, faculty, and staff, although they constitute most of the inhabitants. The "closet" is shared by heterosexual people on campus who know the needs of lesbians and gay men [and bisexuals] but who do not speak on their behalf. (p. 129)
As a result of this invisibility and the failure of people to embrace the gay/lesbian/bisexual community, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are the "easiest group for the academic and administrative leaders of a university to ignore" (p. 130).
In addition to invisibility, the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture experiences alienation. Smith (1989) stated, "in contemporary higher education, the condition of diversity is all too often a condition of alienation" (p. 2). What has occurred on our college campuses is a hierarchy of oppression in which several historically oppressed groups work to create a pluralistic campus community which respects and affirms the rights of their specific group, or culture. This hierarchy has created divisions in the cultural pluralism movement between race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, to name a few, causing several problems.
Because members of the college and university community view fighting racism and sexism, for example, as more important than combating homophobia and heterosexism, the needs of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community are seen as less important. Instead of recognizing the struggles of all historically oppressed cultures, members of the college community have entered into a debate about which group is more oppressed. Due to the limited focus of the cultural pluralism movement on many campuses, the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture is frequently alienated in any work to overcome oppression.
Furthermore, the divisiveness of the cultural
pluralism movement also forces many individuals who are members
of several cultures to choose which group to turn to for guidance
and support. For example, several offices exist on college
campuses to provide services for "underrepresented or
targeted groups" (Wall & Washington, 1991, p. 68). To
say these offices "only deal with one aspect of a person's
identity is not a criticism; it is a reality" (p. 68).
Pollard (1992) points out that the divisive view of cultural
pluralism "ignores the diversity that exists within each of
these groups . . . diminishes the reality that individuals hold
multiple statuses related to race, gender, social class, physical
ability, sexual orientation, and so on . . . [and] leads to a
stance of exclusion" (p. 1).
It is increasingly evident that everyone on our college and university campuses must embrace all oppressed cultures in the struggle to overcome injustice and inequality. As stated by Paulo Freire (1993), the only way anyone will be free from the bonds of oppression is if all oppressed people are free. Institutions of higher education must develop a cultural pluralism movement which is not exclusive of specific groups of people, as evidenced in others' inability to embrace the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community; rather, colleges and universities need a cultural pluralism movement which reaffirms the value of every culture. According to Pollard (1992), we need to "devise actions that reaffirm the existence and value of diverse standpoints" (p. 7). Diversity is "an asset to be celebrated, enhanced, and, even more importantly, . . . a source of strength for equity work" (p. 7).
The ALANA (African, Latino, Asian, and Native
American) community, women, the disabled, the
gay/lesbian/bisexual culture, and all other oppressed groups,
must join together, finding strength through unity, to overcome
oppression. However, in constructing a more unified pluralism
movement, it is important that we "not lose sight of the
specific natures of the different struggles, even while we
recognize their similarities and interrelatedness" (Harper,
1992, p. 63). If we join together and learn from one another,
"if we understand the similarities and the subtle
differences between the . . . different types of oppression, . .
. then we can make significant strides in combating . . . [all]
injustices and thus move our society that much closer toward full
democratic freedom" (p. 65).
The Role of the Student Affairs Professional
In 1989, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) published Points of View, a document designed to present a perspective on the student affairs profession and "the essential assumptions and purposes that underlie our work in student affairs" (p. 1). The 1987 report, "A Perspective on Student Affairs," serves as "a foundational document for the student affairs profession" and reveals "what the higher education community can expect from student affairs" (p. 1-2).
Points of View (NASPA, 1989) states,
Each Person Has Worth and Dignity. It is imperative that students learn to recognize, understand, and celebrate human differences. Colleges can, and indeed must, help their students become open to the differences that surround them: race, religion, age, gender, culture, physical ability, language, nationality, sexual preference, and life style. . . .
Bigotry Cannot Be Tolerated. Any expression of hatred or prejudice is inconsistent with the purposes of higher education in a free society . . . There must be a commitment by the institution to create conditions where bigotry is forthrightly confronted. (p. 12)
The document continues, "Each student is unique, yet all students should be treated equitably; . . . Student affairs professionals must advocate for the common good and champion the rights of the individual" (pp. 18-19).
In reflecting on the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community and the failure of many college and university administrators and faculty to include the gay/lesbian/bisexual culture in the pluralism movement, several questions come to mind. Have student affairs professionals lived up to the expectations set forth in Points of View? If so, why are so many student affairs professionals unwilling, or even afraid of, "championing the rights" of the gay, lesbian, or bisexual individual? With a document such as Points of View, which clearly outlines the role of the student affairs professional, why are so many gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals suffering from the heterosexism and homophobia rampant on our college campuses? Given the oppressive campus environment, what exactly can student affairs professionals do to assist the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community?
In changing the campus climate, several steps
1. Institutions of higher education must ensure equitable treatment of every member of the college community, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, age, socio-economic class, or physical ability, in an effort to ease human suffering and provide the best possible educational experience for all. John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, stated that "over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign . . . [and] the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others" (pp. 68-69). Thus, the college community must ensure the individual's right to liberty and include the gay, lesbian, and bisexual culture in the cultural pluralism movement. Many administrators and faculty will argue this point on the basis of religious doctrine, saying that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students have no place in the academy and, therefore, deserve no equitable treatment. Any argument of this sort is a blatant disregard of the dignity and respect that is the right of every human being.
2. Administrators, faculty, and staff must develop moral courage (Tierney, 1992). Being morally courageous means being vocal, condemning harassment and discrimination, and advocating for the rights of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. As Pharr (1988) stated, having the courage to speak out may result in loss of privilege. However that loss may reveal itself, the benefits for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, as well as the entire academic community, will be far greater. As educators, we have been granted "the extraordinary privilege of thinking critically as a way of life," and as critical thinkers "we should be astute enough to recognize when a group of people is being mistreated systematically" (D' Emilio, 1990, p. 18). This kind of critical thinking is a privilege which will never be lost.
Tierney (1992) stated,
In educational communities, we have an obligation to speak out on issues of social justice . . . the president, administrators, and faculty need to speak up and denounce attacks against any individuals on their campus . . . If we cannot expect moral leadership from the president and faculty [and administrators], than who can we expect it from?" (p. 46)
Not only should administrators vocalize their support for all oppressed groups, including the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, they must also take action against intolerance and work to educate the campus community. Aristotle (1976) reminded us that "the man [sic] who faces . . . the right things for the right reason and in the right way and at the right time is courageous (for the courageous man [sic] feels and acts duly, and as principle directs)" (pp. 128-129). What better reason to act than oppressive injustice? What better way than to advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals? What better time than now?
3. In keeping with the spirit of moral courage, gay, lesbian, and bisexual administrators, faculty, and staff need to "rethink their silence and invisibility" (Tierney, 1992). Research shows that when a gay, lesbian, or bisexual individual comes out to a heterosexual family member, co-worker, or friend, the heterosexual individual's homophobia decreases (Tierney). Thus, when a gay, lesbian, or bisexual student affairs professional comes out to his or her colleagues and students, opportunity for education exists. Cullen and Smart (1991) both agree that "for heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals alike, visibility is imperative if any education and role modeling is to take place" (p. 185).
4. Institutions of higher education must actively work to eliminate heterosexual privilege, as evidenced in the following ways: spousal memberships to college health clubs, pools, and other recreational facilities (Washington & Evans, 1991); health care benefits and insurance; social activities geared toward heterosexuals (Washington & Evans); ability of heterosexual married students to qualify as financially independent of their families; "married" student housing; live-in positions for heterosexual couples; and the list goes on. Equitable treatment must be given to all individuals regardless of sexual orientation.
5. Recognizing the visible and educational role
of student affairs professionals, these administrators must
"take an activist stance to counteract the misinformation
about gays and lesbians [and bisexuals] that many members of the
university community have, the cultural prejudices that are still
endemic in the United States, and the growing problem of
hate-motivated incidents" (D'Emilio, 1990, p. 18). This can
be accomplished in the following ways: action by administrators
and staff to "face their own homophobia and wish to erase it
from their emotional vocabulary" (McNaron, 1991, p. 22);
sensitization of residence life staff regarding
gay/lesbian/bisexual issues (D'Emilio); quick response to
incidents involving harassment and/or discrimination (D'Emilio);
regular programming which appropriately represents the diversity
of the entire campus community; hiring of personnel, especially
in counseling positions, who foster self-acceptance rather than
self-hatred (D'Emilio); development of a lesbian, gay, and
bisexual resource center to be utilized by all members of the
college and university community.
Colleges and universities "must reflect the values of a pluralistic society, provide a forum in which these values can be tested, and seek solutions to persistent issues and problems" (NASPA, 1989, p. 18). In an effort to promote values of respect and acceptance, institutions of higher education have passed anti-discrimination policies to protect the rights of certain individuals. Colleges and universities have embraced the cultural pluralism movement in an effort to make the campus environment safer and more enriching for all members of the community; however, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual culture continues to remain unrecognized.
Student affairs professionals have a
responsibility to recognize the struggles faced by gays,
lesbians, and bisexuals and to encourage the campus community to
embrace all oppressed groups of people. McNaron (1991) stated,
The time has come for our nation's college and university leaders to step forward and take initiative on behalf of all the diverse elements in their midst . . . everyone will prosper in an academic environment that practices more of what it preaches about the pursuit of all truths and the commitment to a freer and better universe for all who populate our campuses. (p. 22)
Through careful and educated leadership,
student affairs professionals can and must work to promote
diversity and understanding and "champion the rights"
of all individuals. Every member of the college community must
act with moral courage, recognize the dignity of every human
being, ensure equitable treatment of all individuals, combat
prejudice, and work to educate others. Until then, the idea of
cultural pluralism will remain a quagmire, failing to include all
cultures in the struggle to overcome oppression.
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Brian graduates from Hope College with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1993. He is presently in his second year at The University of Vermont in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program.