LGBT-focused organizations discuss unity, relationship with administration

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Ava Weiner/Daily
Monday, September 11, 2017 - 2:31pm

LGBTQ-focused student groups on campus aim to foster welcoming communities and enhance professional opportunities for LGBTQ individuals and allies, at several of the University of Michigan’s schools and colleges.

Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Out for Business, and Outlaws are just three of the organizations with such missions.

oSTEM

New York Times columnist Manil Suri once asked, “Why is science so straight?” He wrote while the statistics are difficult to find, an analysis by Rice University says the government-STEM field has 20 percent fewer LGBTQ workers than should be expected. Another study, in 2015, shows 43 percent of LGBTQ workers in the field are in the closet. Suri theorizes it could be because the culture of STEM suggests personal identity could interfere with neutrality.

Engineering senior Caity Hines is on the executive board of oSTEM and President of Society of Women Engineers— an organization meant for LGBTQ students in STEM fields; she works in event planning and serves as a liaison between the group and other campus organizations, as well as with the administration.

The organization is registered through the College of Engineering, though it is open to people in STEM fields and beyond; it is also part of a national oSTEM organization.

Hines said the group has a positive relationship with the Spectrum Center and the administration, especially as a result of an effort by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative to “hear all voices” on campus. 

“I’ve had administrators ask specifically if somebody from oSTEM was going to be present at different meetings with other student organizations,” she said.

Hines explained how within the College of Engineering there are DEI-focused meetings that include oSTEM and other identity-based organizations. She specifically noted a meeting that occurred the day after racist and anti-Semitic emails were sent to University engineering and computer science students.

Though not directly affecting the LGBTQ community, the email incident, Hines said, was addressed in an oSTEM meeting; she noted an intersectionality of identities in the group.

“There has not been a lot of direct homophobia; it’s a lot more indirect — just attitudes — and then we have a fair number of students of color in the org,” she said. “Last year the majority of our board was students of color. So the intersectionality … has played into our activity.”

Currently, Hines said, there are 30 to 40 active members, which she noted is to be expected seeing as there are not a lot of people in STEM fields who are openly LGBTQ; however, she added low numbers can be difficult when trying to organize events.

Engineering sophomore Jaim Befeler is a student from Costa Rica and member of the organization. He said the organization is important to him because in Costa Rica it is hard to be out and in the science field, and added Costa Rica is a very conservative country. He learned of oSTEM at the annual Pride Outside event when he was a freshman.

“Coming here and being able to have people understand me not only for my identity, also for what I love doing, it was really supportive and it … made me feel like I am not alone,” he said.

Befeler, who is studying computer engineering, noted one feature of the organization that has been an asset to him is the academic support.

“It was really, really nice when I started coming to the meetings and having discussions and having people that told me, ‘If you need help in your class I can help,’ or ‘Don’t worry, I’ve been through that, it’s going to be fine;’ it was a sense of relief, so it was really, really nice for me,” he said.

LSA sophomore Allie Batka is studying chemistry and is also a member of the organization; she echoed Befeler’s comment, saying she likes having role models who can relate to her experiences.

“For me, it was also important to have role models who are also queer and in STEM — the upperclassmen, the board leaders and also the graduate students in the program,” she said. “For me, I found out about oSTEM before freshman year actually, because I had asked around about LGBTQ+ orgs on campus and somebody mentioned oSTEM and it sounded perfect for me, because I’m studying chemistry and I’m queer.”

Batka said she has made a lot of friends in the organization. She said she has also tried to bring friends from outside the group to oSTEM meetings.

In terms of collaboration, the group coordinates several events with other student organizations, such as Out for Business, Outlaws and Out in Public, as well as with other identity-based engineering organizations, such as Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.   

In addition to the annual Pride Outside event, which took place last week, oSTEM and many other LGBTQ groups participate in the Autumn Pride and Winter Pride events — mixers for anyone who identifies as queer, including staff, faculty and alumni. Additionally, there are networking dinners in the fall and winter terms, at which representatives from big companies like Google and Microsoft — most of whom identify as LGBTQ — come to the University to meet with students and discuss internships, their jobs, and the environment at their companies.

Outlaws

Second year law student Joel Richert is the co-chair of Outlaws, the LGBTQ affinity group in the Law School. The group engages in mentorship and outreach with incoming law students and those on campus; it also partners with firms to give law students a sense of what it is like to be openly LGBTQ in the field of law and similar professions.

“LGBTQ+ — while there is more visibility than there was 10 years ago or 20 years ago — it’s still sort of a diversity position to be gay and to be out in law,” Richert said.

The group hosts a weekly pro bono clinic in Ann Arbor, as well as a Know Your Rights project for transgender outreach, name-change clinics, as well as general legal services and advice for queer, nongender binary individuals.

According to Richert, the group’s email list has about 180 people; Richert noted not all of them are LGBTQ-identifying.

Richert said the administration at the Law School works with Outlaws to do recruiting for the Law School, and provides the organization a lot of support. He said recently two of the organization’s administrators from the Admissions Office and Office of Student Life at the Law School left to take other positions. Currently, the organization is working with the administration to select someone to take over those positions; Richert said the administration has been great about including Outlaws members in the interview process.

“The administration works with a lot with affinity groups to make sure the campus is diverse and that we’re having visibility in the Law School,” he said.

Richert said the organization does not do much work with the wider University administration, as the Law School is somewhat secluded, though it does collaborate with other LGBTQ organizations like oSTEM and Graduates Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“One of the things we want to work on this year is becoming more integrated with the larger University community,” he said.

He said it would be nice to have a little more contact with the other graduate-level programs on campus; however, he noted the Law School is such an intense experience that it makes sense to have a more confined group.

Richert said the organization maintains positive relations with the student body in that many of its events are offered to all students.

“I think both the student body and the Law School and the faculty have been really great, and they definitely see Outlaws and LGBTQ+ diversity at the Law School as central to the mission of the administration and the school’s mission,” he said.

Out for Business

Out for Business serves as the LGBTQ student association at the Ross School of Business. Rackham student Sean Pavlik, who is pursuing an MBA at the Business School and an MS degree at the School for Environment and Sustainability, is on the leadership board of the organization.

The organization operates at the graduate and undergraduate level to foster understanding, professional development and advocacy of LGBTQ issues for the business community, according to Pavlik.

Pavlik said the organization’s membership consists of more than 100 LGBTQ-identifying people as well as allies who do not fall under the LGBTQ category but are still supportive of the community.

“Some of the items are specifically geared toward our LGBTQ+ members such as professional development and recruiting efforts, considering it’s a professional degree program, but a large component of what we do is engaging that larger community — understanding that the LGBTQ+ population at any school, but of course at Ross, as well, is a relatively small percentage,” he said. “We view our mission as not just supporting dialogue and community for that smaller group but for the larger Ross community as well.”

Pavlik said the group also has DEI staff at the Business School with whom they work to put together ally training as part of National Coming Out Week; they organize an event where they focus on coming out stories, at which students tell of the time they identified themselves as LGBTQ to their families or friends.

Pavlik said the group has a positive relationship with the administration at the Business School, and seeks to engage the DEI chair at the Business School in the coming year to educate the larger Business School community on its work.

Pavlik said he couldn’t recall a negative incident of negativity that the group had to address within the University community; he said he is proud of Out for Business for standing with groups on campus that may be targeted, as a result of diversity issues.

Pavlik said he thinks the organization provides an important network.

“I found that being involved in clubs such as Out for Business has been a really great way to develop those connections, both for friendship and community, as well as professionally, and understanding some of those opportunities and learning from each (other’s) professional experiences, thinking about being a graduate professional-level program, that’s definitely part of the club,” he said.

Pavlik said one aspect of the group, being affiliated with the Business School is that it participates in a national LGBTQ conference, called Reaching Out MBA.

“That’s a great professional opportunity for members of the LGBTQ+ MBA community to come together and network with companies and understand more what it’s like to be an out professional in the business world,” he said.

Noting the LGBTQ community may be considered a minority group in the business world, Pavlik said visibility is extremely important. He said the number of open LGBTQ CEOs is very small. Pavlik said the group strives for visibility, seeing as most individuals in the Business School do not identify as LGBT; he added it is important for allies of the LGBT community to understand the complexity of navigating the business environment for LGBT-identifying people.

In 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook became the first openly gay CEO at Fortune 500 company. In a 2016 list of the most powerful LGBT executives in the world from Business Insider, Gigi Chao — vice chairman of Cheuk Nang Holdings, a property management company in Hong Kong — topped the list. Also on the list was Stacey Friedman, general counsel at JP Morgan Chase; in 2016, she won a case to overturn a ban on gay adoption. Jonathan Mildenhall — the chief marketing officer at Airbnb — made the list as well.

In the past five years, Pavlik said Out for Business has seen a lot of growth in membership and activity, especially as a result of increased engagement in the BBA community; Pavlik said undergraduate students at the Business School have reached out to bring the group to the undergrad level.

“(We’re) just seeing a lot of growth in visibility and support in the past several years at Ross,” he said. “I’m definitely proud to be a Ross student and proud of the support that our group receives and the role our group plays on campus.”