With the onslaught of legislative attacks on trans rights, LGBTQ+ books, and drag shows, laws that target inclusion efforts in higher education can fly under the radar. Meanwhile, some state legislatures have been dismantling college and university departments of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), with consequences that include reduced support for queer individuals on campus.
Florida recently banned DEI programs at public universities, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued his hostile takeover of the once progressive and queer-friendly New College of Florida. Texas has outlawed DEI departments in higher ed, while in Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a Republican attempt to cut the state university’s budget by $32 million—roughly equal to its DEI expenses. Other state legislatures around the country have passed or are debating similar restrictive measures.
The 22-year-old lawmaker strongly opposes LGBTQ+ rights.
Elsewhere in the U.S., however, many academic institutions are making key advances for LGBTQ+ students. Some colleges and universities have enhanced their accommodations by providing queer-affirming housing and health insurance coverage for gender-affirming care, while most colleges that were created for cis women (already historically queer-friendly places) have opened enrollment to other marginalized genders.
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Supportive academic environments like these are essential. A 2022 Trevor Project survey revealed that while 45% of LGBTQ+ youth ages 13 to 24 had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, those who attended LGBTQ+-affirming schools reported lower rates of suicide.
Where can students go?
Fortunately, providing an identity-affirming environment for queer young adults doesn’t require a university-sized budget—and in fact, one innovative queer-centered program is hosted by one of the country’s smallest (and most unconventional) colleges. Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an “early college” in the small town of Great Barrington, MA, enrolls high school students who are ready for higher education by the end of their sophomore or junior years.
Earlier this year, Simon’s Rock announced the Bard Queer Leadership Project (BQLP), a B.A. program designed to empower LGBTQ+ students to become future leaders in the workplace. Cishet allies interested in queer community advocacy are also welcome. The school plans to expand the project into the world’s first intentionally queer-serving college.
By developing individual leaders, the college aims to enrich the face of workplace leadership. “We still have this vision of leadership that’s very based in male heteronormativity and cisgender status and whiteness,” John Weinstein, Simon’s Rock provost and vice president and founder of the BQLP, tells LGBTQ Nation. He hopes that “10 years from now, 20 years from now, we have a diverse pool of leaders of all different identities, and we’ve done work not only to promote the queer community, but to expand this notion of leadership in all fields.”
Even pre-BQLP, Simon’s Rock had earned a reputation as a queer-friendly college, and it has a large proportion of LGBTQ+ students. In November 2022, The Campus Pride Index gave Simon’s Rock 4.5 stars out of 5.0 for its commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
The BQLP has roots in Weinstein’s own professional experience. “As someone who is a gay man of a certain age, you can reach the point in in your career where you look around and there’s not many people like you… There’s not a lot of people, certainly in my own occupation, to be mentors or even peers,” he says.
Beyond its quest to create more of those mentors and peers, the B.A. program teaches queer history and culture, queer theory and methodology, and potential career paths. Requirements include a senior thesis and at least one work or internship experience.
While the BQLP planning process, which engaged working groups of faculty, staff, and students, produced a detailed description of the program, Weinstein says it will evolve in response to students’ identities, interests, and goals. “Because we’re a small institution, we’re able to pivot pretty easily,” he says.
Jennifer Browdy, PhD, a professor of comparative literature and media arts, as well as a working group member (also an alum and the mother of an alum), says she looks forward to this evolution. “I’m excited about co-developing this leadership program with the people who come, so it’s not like, we have it all figured out and we’re going to impart our great wisdom,” she says. “We want to be in the cauldron figuring it out [together].”
The college hadn’t planned to open BQLP enrollment to non-Simon’s Rock students until fall 2024, but Weinstein says worsening conditions for queer folks in many parts of the U.S. prompted the team to do so a year earlier. “We thought if there are students who want it now, we’re not going to tell them they have to wait, because, like, where are they going to go? They may not actually have an option,” he says.
One of the participants in the BQLP this fall is current Simon’s Rock student Sam Habein of Great Falls, MT. When the 19-year-old learned about the program, they appreciated the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of queer history and explore other academic areas, as they told LQBTQ Nation. “The project sounded promising, and I was excited by the idea of being able to customize the program to suit my specific interests,” adds Habein, who studies art with a digital arts focus and plans to work in IT.
What does it actually mean to be a queer leader?
While the phrase “queer leader” may bring to mind a person who dedicates their life to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, Weinstein says the purpose of the BQLP is to help each student become a queer leader no matter their career path. “It may be that someone’s working in an occupation where… just being an out person in the workplace is actually a huge step,” he says.
Brian Mikesell, director of the college’s Alumni Library and a working group member—and, as Weinstein’s husband, the college’s “first gentleman”—has embodied that representation himself. Students have thanked him for being an out queer person who is happy and successful. “It was kind of profound to hear from a student that just by living my life, that somehow changed their life,” he says, “but that’s that quiet way that you can be a leader without really having to be out there being a visionary, or feel like you have to be in charge of things.”
Victoria Bokaer, a collections librarian at the Alumni Library and alum of Simon’s Rock who also served on a working group, envisions the BQLP as expanding typical leadership development through intersectionality. “[We should be] mindful about not just recreating the same power structures but now they’re queer,” they say. “Like thinking about, OK, how does whiteness play into this? How can we find the voices that aren’t in the room and ask why they’re not in the room, ask how can we get them in the room? Ask how that’s impacting our own viewpoints of what we’re trying to deconstruct.”
Within the context of the BQLP itself, those absent voices belong to queer youth whose personal circumstances make attending the program impossible. Bokaer hopes its existence can still lend some support. “Just knowing that there is a place where this work is being done, and where queer people are valued and sort of considered and at the forefront, I think that is a bit of a balm for people, even if you’re not going to go to the program itself,” they say.
Beyond Bard: What should a queer-focused academic program look like?
Lee Means, director of family equity + justice at Family Equality and a former teacher who consults on culturally responsive K–12 education, says he’s excited about the BQLP. “I think that they address some of the real issues, which is that navigating queerness in a space dominated by a heteronormative lens can be exhausting, and so having a space where your queerness is an asset or viewed as an asset is revolutionary and wonderful. It’s resistance.”
In addition to the areas of curriculum set for the BQLP’s inaugural year, Means believes that in general, queer-centered leadership education should encompass “the hierarchy of oppressions”; queerness and race, including racism and bias within the queer community; queerness and feminism; queerness and religion; queerness in sports; credibility politics in the workplace; and coalition- and alliance-building. Intersectionality is essential to any such program, he says.
Citing “the reckoning of the trauma inflicted by white supremacy” within the queer movement, Means says that future queer leaders must acknowledge the community’s “dirty little secret” of its segregated spaces, including white dominance in queer spaces like Provincetown and Fire Island, and its overall racial othering.
Means also says that these future leaders need to recognize other types of oppression and intolerance that frequently coexist with anti-queerness. “Every state in which there’s anti-queer, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, there is also anti-Blackness at a huge level there, there’s anti-immigrant status, there’s anti-woman legislation and action taking place,” he says.
Beyond a program’s academic focus, Means recommends that any college teaching queer leadership should be mindful of equity when considering “who is leading and teaching in our community, because that is a stronger message than the content, and that has a greater impact. Because young people need to see representations of themselves, and they need to see representations of other people who don’t look like them as well.”
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.