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'Worst List' names 180 colleges that are 'unsafe' for LGBTQ students

NBC News logo NBC News 10/26/2021 Jo Yurcaba
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An LGBTQ nonprofit on Monday released its annual Worst List naming 180 colleges and universities as “the absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ youth.” 

Campus Pride, which advocates for LGBTQ inclusivity and safety at U.S. colleges and universities, added 50 universities to the list since last year — the most extensive update since the list started in 2015, according to the organization.

The list includes colleges and universities that have either received or applied for a religious exemption to Title IX, a federal law that protects students from discrimination in federally funded schools, or have a “demonstrated history of anti-LGBTQ policies, programs and practices,” according to a news release.

At 180 schools, the list is the longest it has been in its six-year history. The list includes Brigham Young University in Utah; Seattle Pacific University; Malone University in Ohio; and Baylor University in Texas.

“These aren’t just bad campuses or the worst campuses — these campuses fundamentally are unsafe for LGBTQ students, and, as a result, they’re fundamentally unsafe for all students to go to,” Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, said. “They promote an environment of hostility, of discrimination, harassment, toward a group of people, and who wants — when you’re trying to be educated — to have that type of negative learning environment?”

Seattle Pacific University (Mat Hayward / Getty Images file) © Mat Hayward Seattle Pacific University (Mat Hayward / Getty Images file)

Windmeyer said that part of the reason this year’s update to the list was significant is because of changes the Trump administration made to the Title IX religious exemption process. Under President Barack Obama, religious schools had to submit a letter outlining why they needed an exemption to Title IX. The Trump administration changed that rule so that religious schools were automatically exempt from Title IX, which allowed them to continue receiving federal funds while, for example, enforcing a rule that prohibits students from engaging in gay sex or same-sex relationships.

The Trump administration also stopped publishing an online list of schools that have requested an exemption from Title IX. Campus Pride referred to that list while creating its Worst List.

Windmeyer said the Biden administration has republished previous lists of schools that applied for title IX religious exemptions, but it hasn’t clarified or changed the Trump administration policy undoing the application requirement. 

Before Biden took office, Campus Pride relied on student reports and news articles, Windmeyer said. This year, the group used the list of schools that requested exemptions to Title IX and court documents.

In 2019, 41 campuses filed an amicus brief in Bostock v. Clayton County in support of employers who argued that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t protect LGBTQ employees from discrimination. The Supreme Court sided with the employees.

Windmeyer said Campus Pride also included the 29 religious colleges and universities named in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Education alleging that the religious exemption is unconstitutional and that it allows religious schools that receive federal funds to discriminate against LGBTQ students.

“Religious organizations and colleges were emboldened during the Trump administration,” Windmeyer, who noted that all 180 schools on the list this year are religiously affiliated, said. “Biden has still yet to clarify if Title IX exemptions are mandatory or if he has an executive order that is going to make them mandatory, which I feel that if a campus is going to openly discriminate, then it should be mandated that they tell students and that they have a Title IX exemption on file with the federal government.”

The Worst List is in alphabetical order rather than rank, but some schools have appeared on it more often than others.

David Shill, a 22-year-old junior at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said he isn’t surprised that his school is on the list again because “things haven’t changed.”

BYU, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, forbids same-sex dating. Though it doesn’t specifically mention transgender students in the student handbook, the church counsels against medical transition for trans people; otherwise they face restricted participation in the church or even excommunication.

Shill, the president of BYU Pride, which is not officially supported by or recognized by the university, said that homophobia is “usually assumed” on campus. He mentioned a video taken in August in which a student defaces pro-LGBTQ chalk art on BYU’s campus and uses an anti-gay slur. In March, when about 40 students lit up the iconic 380-foot-tall “Y” on the mountain east of campus with rainbow lights, Shill said LGBTQ students faced cyberbullying.

“My first week back on campus I really felt like, wow I will never belong here,” Shill said. “And just seeing straight couples being couples on campus and like holding hands or hugging ... that coupled with the attitudes of some of my professors and classmates, just the whole day, it was hard to be here.”

A representative for BYU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A number of schools are on the list for the first time, including Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian university named in the class action lawsuit against the Department of Education. Affirm, a group of SPU students, alumni, faculty and staff dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ policies and culture at the university, began organizing in the spring in response to the university’s involvement in two lawsuits — the class action and a suit brought by a teacher in April who says he was denied a full-time job because he is gay.

In a statement emailed to NBC News, Affirm’s members said they are “saddened but not surprised” by SPU’s addition to the 2021 Worst List.

“For an institution that advertises our community as a place promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the name of Christ’s love, this sobering call from Campus Pride tells us in no uncertain terms how we have failed,” Affirm’s members said. “We must rebuild our existing campus structures, remove discriminatory university policies, and foster novel spaces where LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and AAPI folk are welcomed and celebrated for the priceless gifts they bring our community.”

A representative for SPU declined to comment.

Malone University, in Canton, Ohio, is also on the list for the first time.

This month, Karyn Collie, an associate biology professor at Malone, announced that she would be leaving the university because she’s marrying a woman next summer. She told The Canton Repository that she was hoping she and the school could find a way for her to stay employed, but that she was instead asked to resign. When she was hired, she signed a set of principles called the Community Responsibilities, which prohibit homosexual activity, according to the Repository.

Collie was a popular professor, and the news led to backlash from students, including a sit-in during a weekly worship service, the Repository reported. 

A representative for Malone has not returned a request for comment, but Malone President David King told the Repository that Collie isn’t the first professor to leave due to a conflict with the university’s Community Responsibilities. He also said that only employees are expected to adhere to them, and that students are not.

“All students are welcome here, no matter what their story is, whether they have a faith journey or not,” King said.

But Campus Pride points out on its Worst List that the school’s Community Agreement for Sexual Conduct, which all members of the Malone community commit themselves to, states that “Sex should be exclusively reserved for the marriage relationship, understood as a legal, lifelong commitment between a husband and wife.”

Windmeyer said that he hopes the Biden administration will mandate that all campuses have to apply for the Title IX religious exemption. “I think that’s the bare minimum our federal government can do to protect these LGBTQ young people,” Windmeyer said. “The President says, ‘trans people, queer people, LGBTQ people, we’ve got your back.’ Well, you need to start here with our LGBTQ young people.”

Many students, like Shill at BYU, don’t want to leave and think their schools can become better. He said BYU Pride is working with the university to change the Honor Code so that queer students can date, and the group is encouraging the university to develop a discrimination office that students and faculty can go to when they experience discrimination.

The group would also like to be able to have queer activities on campus, or put rainbow lights on the “Y” without approval. “Those kind of things like where BYU no longer is silencing us, and pushing us off campus,” he said. “Let us come on campus and be as gay as we want to be without having to hide it all.”

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