By Ángel de Jesus Gonzalez
Over the past several decades, the college student population has diversified greatly across all sectors of postsecondary education. According to ACE’s Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report, students of color made up 45.2 percent of the undergraduate student population in 2016, a substantial increase from 29.6 percent in 1996. However, higher education leadership predominantly remains the same: white, cisgender, heterosexual men. Data from ACE’s American College President Study 2017 show that throughout all institution types, leadership does not reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender differences of the students we serve.
Community college leadership
Community colleges enroll students from traditionally marginalized communities—such as first-generation students and students of color—at higher rates than other sectors. While national data capture many aspects of our students’ demographics, such as race and ethnicity and income, still missing from federal data is information on LGBTQ+ students.
Research shows that students are more likely to persist and complete when they see themselves reflected in faculty, staff, and leadership on campus. Even if we do not have a clear picture of how many LGBTQ+ students enroll in postsecondary education, we know that LGBTQ+ students exist at our institutions. As community colleges in particular enroll a more diverse student body, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at these institutions are particularly crucial. Wrapping LGBTQ+ identities into these initiatives—including hiring practices that ensure leaders reflect the students they serve—is an effective way to work toward inclusion for LGBTQ+ professionals.
Results from a 2017 survey of community college presidents show that respondents were more likely to disagree than agree that there were too few female candidates for community college presidencies, and tended to agree more than disagree that there were too few presidential candidates who were people of color. Although these perspectives give us insight into the pool of candidates for community college presidencies, perspectives around nonbinary gender categories and other LGBTQ+ identities diversity remain unknown. Like many surveys, the survey tool used here only included binary gender categories (e.g., men and women) and did not include demographics around LGBTQ+ identities, a critical issue in identifying our LGBTQ+ professional population. When the data are missing, the resources and supports needed to serve specific groups are not prioritized.
As a queer, Latinx, first-generation higher education scholar and practitioner, I have witnessed and experienced the void in support for LGBTQ+ students and professionals. A change in the way we collect information on LGBTQ+ students and professionals would allow us to better understand how to support their success at community colleges through funding and capacity building.
Breaking through heterogendered hiring practices to include LGBTQ+ individuals
The demands for leadership to understand and respond to the needs of students is evident now more than ever given the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Students from disproportionately marginalized communities have had to carry the burden and navigate the ongoing challenges exacerbated by the current social political context, especially within the community college setting. When leaders are too far removed from the lived experiences and identities of their students, it is inevitable that gaps in support will occur.
Yet very little has been done at a systemic level to radically change human resource hiring practices that fail to be inclusive of racially and LGBTQ+ diverse applicants within community colleges. Work done by CUPA-HR, the professional association for human resources personnel, provides institutions with some examples of how to be a better advocate for LGBTQ+ professionals. CUPA-HR has also developed a DEI maturity index that helps measure institutions’ progress on five areas:
1) Communication and education
4) Investment and infrastructure
5) Compensation, recruitment, and retention
Examining HR practices is a crucial strategy to hire and retain leadership that is not only reflective of but also responsive to students’ needs. Recent scholarship has explored how LGBTQ+ leaders navigate heterogendered norms found within bureaucratic systems of higher education, including the hiring process. Heterogendered norms assume that those in leadership are heterosexual by asking about gendered partners and by using binary language in work documents, and they also exist in the compulsory structure of institutions that promote and uphold the gender binary and heterosexuality as the norm.
Scholars have coined the term “traditionally heterogendered institutions” as a critical conceptual framework that describes how institutional policies and culture support the structures that inform conditions, experiences, and outcomes by othering LGBTQ+ individuals. These structures result in unwelcoming climates for LGBTQ+ students and professionals alike. However, the dearth of data on LGBTQ+ faculty, staff, and leaders creates an obstacle in fully capturing information on the experiences of these individuals.
For a variety of reasons, many community college professionals will not disclose their LGBTQ+ identity due to the real fear of repercussions, such as workplace discrimination. Resources exist for LGBTQ+ professionals seeking employment. One such resource is the Movement Advancement Project, which provides interactive maps that showcase protections, policies, and laws by state for LGBTQ+ individuals. However, if we are to move beyond critical attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, higher education must not shy away from making intentional changes in institutional policy and practice in order to funnel, retain, and support LGBTQ+ professionals.
The Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County case in June 2020 was critical in the national standing of LGBTQ+ employees’ rights and existence in the workplace. The Equality Act, passed in the House during February 2021, amends Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and further exemplifies the current landscape of advocating for protection of employees on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. With this in mind, the charge to examine hiring practices and revamp outdated policies is crucial as we seek to advance support for LGBTQ+ students and professionals at community colleges.
Recommendations for practice
Other sectors, such as health care, are working towards promoting equitable conditions for LGBTQ+ peoples. Their work offers higher education guidance around implementing equitable HR practices for LGBTQ+ professionals at our nation’s community colleges. Although some of the efforts outlined below may be long term and require cross-campus buy-in to shift institutional cultures, others can be more manageable to accomplish.
- Hire LGBTQ+ content experts who can audit HR practices and help institutions incorporate more inclusive language across important hiring and personnel documents. For example, ensure board policies, institutional policies, and job postings utilize gender-inclusive language that moves beyond binary pronouns.
- Use software for hiring processes that is inclusive of demographic information for self-identification. Provide information as to why you are collecting gender and/or sexual identity information to ease any potential anxiousness from applicants. Additionally, when creating a new-hire portal or materials, ensure that the software allows for the creation of written correspondence that is representative of the person’s name and pronouns. Recruit via intentional networks to diversify leadership, and do not pigeonhole your LGBTQ+ hire just for LGBTQ+-related work.
- Train hiring committees and HR employees on LGBTQ+ matters and identities, such as terminology, pronouns, and implicit bias that explicitly covers LGBTQ+ examples.
- Establish an LGBTQ+ employee resource group so potential employees know there is institutionalized support when they arrive.
- Institute processes such as trainings on harassment or workplace discrimination that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ representation.
- Include LGBTQ+-specific support for all levels of employees during onboarding when discussing employee resources. For example, when explaining or reviewing health care services and coverage, HR should note any explicit support that might be covered by providers.
- Work collaboratively with campus partners to ensure they have services, software, and resources available to support LGBTQ+ employees, such as a way to place correct names and pronouns on hiring badges.
- Conduct regular check-ins with LGBTQ+ employees who can provide insight as to their experiences and campus climate for LGBTQ+ leaders at your institution.
As more LGBTQ+ students and leaders decide to disclose their true identities on our campuses, it is crucial to examine the conditions, experiences, and outcomes they face. For example, Kristen Renn’s call to action provides guidance for institutions on centering our experiences in research and practice. As with most phenomenon in higher education, issues are amplified when contextualized to community colleges, as these institutions enroll a higher number of students from minoritized identities; receive less federal and private funding than other sectors of higher education; and often have lower institutional capacity to provide LGBTQ+-specific resources on campus, such as staff and dedicated centers.
So much work remains to be done in advancing the existence of LGBTQ+ people in higher education. The lack of data perpetuates erasure and exclusion. As a result, this renders us invisible within the confines of these institutions. Data are beginning to emerge on this topic within broader human resources pieces and will require a critical analysis and examination of variables collected around LGBTQ+ identities. Federal policy changes will continue to influence our practice, which greatly emphasizes the need to examine hiring practices for LGBTQ+ leaders at community colleges. These efforts should be done in support with local, state, and national partners on LGBTQ+ matters to improve belonging, safety, and better student outcomes.
 Term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life. Definition derived from https://transstudent.org/about/definitions/.
 LGBTQ+ is used as a term to capture the fluid community that identify within a spectrum of sexual and gender identities while noting the complexities and challenges in this itself. See https://www.higheredtoday.org/2017/04/10/lgbtq-students-higher-education/.