Janice Bechtel attended Millersville University in 1981 as an undergraduate. She had hopes that the campus would embrace a student continuing their education. But the climate of the area negatively impacted her experience, a significant reason why she did not complete her studies here. She learned that central Pennsylvania, being a largely conservative part of the state, did not support what she identified herself as – a lesbian.
“It was not a great environment,” said Bechtel, a graduate student of Millersville in the Masters of Social Work program, a graduate assistant of the Social Equity office, and sits on many of the committees and commissions for gender and sexuality. “Being homosexual on this campus was not a good thing at all. No support, nobody to talk to.”
The dialogue or discussion to spread the awareness and promotion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) community are absent in the larger community. There were pockets of people and groups that supported the efforts of diversity, but no one had stepped up.
“We’ve come a long way in the last 10 years,” said Hiram Martinez, assistant to the president for social equity and diversity.
In fact, the climate today can be compared to night and day – a dramatic change of acceptance and support for the LGBTQIA community.
Organizations and groups once dormant and silent found their voice for the Lancaster and Millersville community. Their members, consisting of straight and gay allies, visit the campus with the vision to provide an area of discussion and safety. Embrace Lancaster is just one of many. They are an interfaith organization whose mission is to assist individuals, faith communities, and organizations in their growth to affirm and welcome LGBTQIA folk and their allies.
The campus itself needed to make efforts and resources possible for students, who identified themselves as LGBTQIA or allies. Millersville realized that there was a concern that needed to be addressed. They took the necessary steps after receiving significant feedback from a campus climate survey. In the spring semester of 2009, Millersville administered a survey to undergraduate students, faculty, staff and administrators to gather information about campus climate. However, the response was low. The following semester saw a modified survey and made available to all undergraduate students. It received a much wider and constructive response.
“[The surveys] indicated there was a need to bring some awareness about issues related to LGBTQ students,” said Bechtel.
As a result, the President’s Commission on Cultural Diversity and Inclusion, along with the LGBTQIA committee, was born. They were given an “amazing opportunity” to support students on campus while also educating and raising awareness for diversity, sexuality, and gender. The LGBTQIA committee specifically wanted to look at and devote their time to addressing LGBT-related concerns. It worked for several years before the committee became lost within the large commission. In January 2013, Dr. Francine McNairy, the 13th president of Millersville, retired after 10 years of service. As President John Anderson arrived to campus in April 2013, there was an opportunity available for him to create a new commission.
Dr. Blaise Liffick, professor of computer science, wrote the proposal for President Anderson, of which he approved. This meant the LGBTQIA committee and the President’s Commission on Cultural Diversity and Inclusion were negated in favor of the President’s Commission on Gender and Sexual Diversity. Dr. Liffick, who served as chair for the committee, was named the chair of the new commission.
“It’s a matter of growth,” said Dr. Liffick. “We [had] outgrown the committee structure and wanted to do things that were a little more ambitious and a bit more of a budget. A separate commission raised the level of interaction [between] the people involved and the community.”
National efforts make it easier to accomplish campus efforts, Dr. Liffick said. Within the last five years, same-sex marriage has become legal in 14 states and in Washington, D.C. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, which banned members of the LGBT community from openly serving in the military, was repealed. Consequently, it makes society ready to accept the LGBT community.
But some people are not always ready to accept differences in the usual as normal. There are people who will continue to oppose or not support these efforts, using the Bible as grounds to oppose homosexuality and gender identity.
“I don’t believe the Bible in particular is a document that is completely understood by us humans,” said Dr. Liffick. “Certainly interpreting it is very difficult, if not impossible. For anybody to claim that they know what it says is the height of hubris.”
Bechtel said, “It’s impossible to change people’s perspective on different sexual orientation and sexual identity.”
But it is possible to readjust. Bechtel recalls interacting with other students in a course, who found out her sexual orientation. They were visibly uncomfortable about this information, but their experience with Bechtel, the person, and not what she identified as, allowed them to “see beyond the label.” She continued, “I am no different than they are.”
The Millersville community has plenty of resources available for those who want to seek help: from the social equity office to the existence of commissions, MU Allies, Safe Zone program, dialogue of diversity, gender, and sexuality. These are the efforts and programs in effect that were not here five years ago.
There is still more ground to cover and more room for improvement.
“Our greatest room for improvement is instruction in the classroom,” said Martinez. “How do we get faculty to get on board with using diverse issues as a competitive advantage in the classroom? You can build it in. You just have to have the right mindset.”
Even with a new commission and a handful of efforts and programs underway, there is still a long way to go for the vision set forth by the many offices, administration, faculty, and students involved.
We’re not perfect, but we are addressing issues and caring for the students, Bechtel said. “Millersville is a good and responsive campus.”