Critic’s Pick: Sexual Assault Policies and LGBTQ-Inclusive Language

This post was written by SAFER’s awesome intern Avanti and originally published at Change Happens

After thinking about what consent means for people with disabilities, I want to explore other often marginalized identities and discuss how campus sexual assault policies use (or don’t use) lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer transgender and gender non-conforming inclusive language.

Let’s begin with some unfortunate news: I’ve searched a heck of a lot of these policies, and I have only found ONE that explicitly mentions LGBTQ people. Recently reviewing a student submission, I came across this statement in University of Akron’s policy:

Sexual misconduct and sexual assault is a serious crime that can affect men and women, whether gay, straight, transgender or bisexual.

This is good—a policy needs to be explicitly inclusive of different communities of people. University of Akron does not simply say something vague about “all members of the community” or exclude (like many other schools!) huge populations of students by only using “man” and “woman.” Where I could see Akron’s statement improving is in addressing gender non-conforming, or genderqueer, individuals. To specify, gender non-conforming refers to people who do not follow societal norms, such as dress and activities, based on their biological sex. Gender non-conforming people may present themselves as gender-free rather than clearly male or female; they may identify as transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual or none of the above. A more inclusive alternative to Akron’s policy might be: “Sexual misconduct and sexual assault is a serious crime that can affect any individual, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It can affect men, women, or gender non-conforming/genderqueer people, whether gay, straight, transgender, or bisexual.” While the wording is only slightly altered, it would have huge implications for many students. The unfortunate reality, however, is that Akron is still miles ahead of other schools in this regard—they may not offer the most inclusive language, but they are the only institution I found that mentioned the LGBTQ community at all.

When a school’s sexual assault policy does not even consider certain populations of students, what does that mean for those students who consider themselves part of these populations?

In general, sexual assault is hard to talk about. It’s already the kind of thing that makes people uncomfortable, that people want to keep quiet. Sexual assault within the LGBTQ community has received so little attention even from those whose job it is to discuss it: researchers, support services and the criminal justice system. The discourse around sexual violence is often so focused on heterosexual men and women that any person not in those categories may feel marginalized and ignored. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of a woman assaulting another woman or a man assaulting another man when no one ever brings it up—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. LGBTQ survivors of assault have the same basic needs as heterosexual survivors of assault, but this lack of attention serves to keep this topic even further under wraps, resulting in a lack of culturally competent support and very few resources for healing. Queer survivors have an equal right to be believed, validated, and supported to reach recovery and justice.

We live in a society with so many levels of internalized and externalized homophobia and part of understanding and changing violent behavior is acknowledging and challenging that homophobia. Although violence does exist within LGBTQ communities, their sexual orientations and gender identities are not the cause of that violence. Like all forms of sexual violence, assault within the LGBTQ community is used to assert power and maintain the status quo (specifically here, heterosexism).

There are several unique needs and problems that arise in the LGBTQ population when it comes to reporting sexual assaults. Just to name a few: fear of prejudice and victim-blaming because of societal homophobia and bias, fear of being forced to reveal their sexual orientation, fear of betraying the LGBTQ community if the perpetrator is also LGBTQ, and fear of having the experience minimized or sensationalized.

Looking at the wide range of campus sexual assault policies out there, it is shocking how few schools make explicit mention of the LGBTQ community. Even the most liberal campuses well known for having large LGBTQ populations don’t seem to directly address the issue. For all the reasons I mentioned above, it is not enough to simply use gender-neutral language.

Many schools, like College of the Holy Cross and Carleton College, limit the identities in their policies to “man” or “woman.” Although this wording recognizes same-sex assault (“by a man or woman upon a man or woman”), it does not acknowledge any gender identity outside of those norms.

Some campuses, like Macalester College and the University of Vermont, work to be inclusive of all identities in general, but do not name the LGBTQ community specifically. Tufts University provides a good example of this middle ground. Listed under the Survivor’s Rights, it says:

We will treat your case seriously regardless of your or any suspect’s sex, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and behavior, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, age, disability, or veteran status.

This isn’t terrible; it acknowledges the diversity of survivors of sexual assault and ensures that a case will not be unfairly minimized. However, there is something powerful about naming LGBTQ students as survivors. Especially on college campuses, LGBTQ people are often disproportionately assaulted, and therefore merit explicit acknowledgment. A study done by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault shows that from a sample of 412 university students, 16.9% of the subjects reported that they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual; the remainder identified themselves as heterosexual. 42.4% of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual subjects and 21.4% of the heterosexuals indicated they had been forced to have sex against their will. With this in mind, when policies explicitly include the LGBTQ community, it is validating and supportive in an active way that encourages individuals to come forward.

The majority of policies that I’ve seen fall under this last category, and while maybe it’s not the worst, there’s no good excuse for not being more explicit. The problem does not seem to be that schools are not aware of sexual violence against the LGBTQ community. In fact, many schools have fact sheets and other information about this very topic posted online to help. Check out these great resources from Illinois State UniversityLewis and ClarkHarvard UniversityGeorge Washington University,University of Minnesota, and University of California, Berkeley. The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention (OSAP) at Evergreen State College even states:

OSAP is committed to being a culturally competent, Queer-positive, Transgender-positive space and provides services sensitive to the unique needs of all students, staff and faculty, particularly those whom are members of groups disproportionately affected by sexual violence. OSAP collaborates with community agencies, First People’s Advising and student activities groups to provide advocacy and services relevant to each individual.

Not one of the schools listed above includes anything about LGBTQ students in its policy, however. It’s baffling that the great resources and knowledge that schools possess don’t translate into inclusive policies. The majority of policies that I’ve seen fall into the same category as Tufts with regards to inclusiveness, and while maybe it’s not the worst, there’s no excuse for not being more explicit. One or two sentences in a policy could make all the difference for many students.

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