LGBTQ students express welcoming campus community at SUNY Oswego

Lyndsey Hurlbut and Kyerstan Langdon had been dating for two years when it came time to decide on colleges. Hurlbut, wanting to go into a zoology program, did not find many choices for schools. Torn between a university in Florida and SUNY Oswego, Hurlbut knew Oswego would probably be more accepting of her sexual identity. Since Langdon was also interested in Oswego, the couple decided to live together.

When they started at SUNY Oswego, they were one of the only same-sex couples out on campus. Hurlbut would sometimes get weird looks walking into the women’s bathroom, despite identifying as female. The people they met at Riggs Hall, though, were friendly, and the couple found a very welcoming environment living in the dorms.

“Nobody ever questioned [our identities],” Langdon said. “We were just treated like any other resident of the dorm hall, really.”

Now, the two live in the Premier Living Suites, with enough distance to see the positive changes that have happened for LGBTQ students on campus and in housing. What they and others have found is that SUNY Oswego is changing into a more inclusive and accepting campus working to make every student feel comfortable in their housing.

Jessica Wickham and Katie Short

Juniors Lindsay Hurlbut and Kyerstan Langdon have been a couple for over four years. Photo taken on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Mac Shafer, a junior American studies major and president of the Pride Alliance on campus, said he meets a lot of students at Oswego that are LGBTQ, even those that are not a part of the Pride Alliance.

“I don’t know if it’s just the circles I run in, but in my experience, there’s a very large LGBTQ+ community on campus,” Shafer said.

That community is partially why Victoria Hill, a freshman art education major, said she felt welcomed once she moved to Waterbury Hall.

“Everybody’s really open and accepting. Everybody’s really nice,” Hill said. “It’s really easygoing, and I think that’s the most important thing, is that nobody’s going to judge you for anything.”

Hill is out and proud on campus, complete with pride buttons and posters scattered around her room and on her backpack. Her roommate even went with her to sign up for the Pride Alliance’s email list. Hill said her experience in housing has been positive, and no one around her as expressed any problems, either.

Jessica Wickham and Katie Short

Freshman Victoria Hill sketches at her desk in Waterbury Hall on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018.

“I’ve never had anybody come up to me and express that they had an uncomfortable experience with housing,” Hill said. “Everybody seemed very content, and nothing was brought up that was a negative experience for anyone, which I think is great. I think it’s awesome.”

Hurlbut, a junior wellness management major, said times have changed in just the past 10 years, to the point that she did not worry too much about her roommates accepting her and her girlfriend.

“If it was several years back, like 2010, I would definitely take into consideration everything,” Hurlbut said. “More people are feeling comfortable to actually show themselves.”

Langdon, a junior accounting and operations management double major, said the changing times have benefited everyone in the community. It becomes a positive cycle, where the more open people are, the more other LGBTQ students feel comfortable expressing their identities.

“If you see even just one couple who are out and just going about their day how anyone else would, it kind of gets you that sense of safety that you can do it, too,” Langdon said.

The campus administration is making efforts to keep that momentum going. Currently, two residence halls – Waterbury Hall and Scales Hall – have gender-neutral privacy bathrooms. Richard Kolenda, assistant director of Residence Life and Housing, said he and the SUNY Oswego administration are planning to construct individual privacy bathrooms in Funnelle Hall and then west campus, slowly incorporating them in every residence hall on campus.

“It’s expensive to do that, so that’ll be over time, and eventually, they’ll all be done, but it’ll take a number of years to be able to do that,” Kolenda said.

Langdon described a story of her transgender friend who was mid-transition and asked her to go with them to the bathroom as a safety precaution because they were scared they would be attacked or kicked out of the bathroom. Shafer also said his experience living on campus and using the female bathrooms in the dorms was difficult to handle at times.

“I never had anything that was proof of a negative experience, but when I would go to the bathroom, I was always aware like, ‘What if someone says something? What am I going to do?’” Shafer said.

Hurlbut, Langdon, Hill and Shafer all said the gender-neutral bathrooms help to alleviate these issues and therefore matter a lot to the LGBTQ community, so they are glad Kolenda and others are trying to expand their presence.

“It’s a beautiful thing because if that was how it was when I had been here, I wouldn’t have been worried at all,” Hurlbut said. “It wouldn’t have been even a thought in my mind.”

In addition to the gender-neutral bathrooms, Kolenda said he has submitted a proposal to SUNY administration to allow opt-in co-ed living in the residence halls, which is currently only available in the Village Townhouses. In this situation, students can go to Residence Life and Housing to ask to live with both males and females in their particular hall.

Shafer said a policy like this will help the LGBTQ community feel more comfortable living on campus, especially the transgender community, which he knows from experience. Previously, when his trans friends would go to him on recommendations for trans-friendly campuses, he used to warn them that SUNY Oswego was lacking in its housing policies.

Junior Mac Shafer, president of the Pride Alliance, speaks positively of an opt-in co-ed housing option on campus, on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

“I talk to a lot of trans people online, and a lot of [them] are thinking about college,” Shafer said in a February 2018 interview. “It’s so unfortunate for them when I’m like, ‘We don’t really have a solid gender-neutral housing policy yet’ … and just seeing them kind of deflate.”

The new policies and moves give Shafer hope, though, and he sees the gender-neutral bathrooms and housing options as beneficial for all students.

“Personally, I think it’s a great idea, not just for LGBT people,” Shafer said.

Hurlbut and Langdon said the co-ed living would also give opposite-sex couples the same opportunities as same-sex couples get to live together.

These and other measures are all part of helping every student feel comfortable on campus, regardless of their identity, Kolenda said.

“One of the things we have to do is be fair and consistent to all students,” Kolenda said. “We have to try to provide support for all of our students, through our hall directors, the RAs and their trainings. We want everybody to succeed, to be open-minded, to participate and be engaged.”

Hill echoed the sentiment that LGBTQ students on campus just want to feel as accepted as their non-LGBTQ classmates because the two groups are not all that different.

“I’ve never felt that there was a difference between me and somebody who is heterosexual on housing,” Hill said. “I haven’t heard any different experiences, which, I think, is actually a good thing. If you feel different, they’re going out of their way to make you feel different.”

Shafer, Hurlbut and Langdon all live off campus now, but they have seen a lot of positive changes since the last time they lived on campus. Shafer had a few bad roommate situations when he lived in Oneida Hall, but living off campus has helped solve that situation. Hurlbut and Langdon said they see same-sex couples much more often now than when they lived in Riggs.

Shafer is proud of his leadership role on campus. Photo taken on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

Each of the students is finding their own ways to keep the campus community accepting and welcoming to everyone. Though Hill, Hurlbut and Langdon are not officially part of the Pride Alliance, Hill receives the weekly emails, and Hurlbut and Langdon try to help others like them find their place on campus.

For Shafer, he likes being president of the Pride Alliance because he gets to be a role model and lead the way toward a more accepting campus community.

“You can be out in Oswego, and you can do other things than just go to Pride Alliance,” Shafer said. “You can be involved in other things, and you don’t have to sacrifice either of your identities. And you can just be at Oswego and know it’s a good and safe school to be at.”