By Erika Webb
When Dr. Susan Rankin told her audience at Stetson University Feb. 12 that she'd been forced to leave her job at a major university "for being a gay coach," she wasn't retrospectively high fiving. She didn't utter the words "irony" or "karma" or "hypocrisy."
The institution of higher education that, she said, excluded her on the basis of sexual preference was Penn State.
The year was 1996.
"You wouldn't know I was queer unless I told you," Dr. Rankin said. "You could guess ... short hair, softball coach."
Her statement was met with laughter.
"I know," she said brightly. "That's funny ... still."
With the word "still" the expression on her face went from playful to somber.
Dr. Rankin described herself, in part, as a "first generation low-income kid from Brooklyn."
Her parents didn't have high school diplomas.
"They were probably the smartest people I knew," she said.
Because she was "good at basketball," she earned a scholarship to Montclair State where she studied to become a science teacher.
She went on to earn a master's degree in exercise physiology and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Penn State, where she served for 17 years as the head coach for women's softball and as a lecturer in kinesiology. Dr. Rankin was the recipient of the ACPA 2008 Voice of Inclusion Medallion, an award which recognizes individuals who embody the student affairs values of social justice.
Today she is a researcher who has collaborated with more than 70 institutions and organizations to implement assessments and develop strategic plans regarding social justice issues. She has presented and published widely on the impact of sexism, racism and heterosexism in the academy and in intercollegiate athletics, according to a Stetson University news release.
"Her current research focuses on the assessment of institutional climate and providing program planners and policy makers with recommended strategies to improve the campus climate for underserved communities," the release stated.
Dr. Rankin is a founding member of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals.
In short, it's not OK with Dr. Rankin that any human being is not "invited to the table," is excluded or made to feel unacceptable.
Her talk at Stetson was part of the university's Social Justice Lecture Series and the topic was "Out of the Shadows: Building Inclusive Communities."
Dr. Rankin discussed the importance of climate, as it pertains to a sense of belonging, on college campuses.
Her primary focus is those students, faculty and staff who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) -- and all others within the spectrum.
But she also noted the importance of faculty and staff feeling worthwhile and included.
"I don't talk about diversity anymore," she said. "It's not about diversity for me, it's about community."
She looks at, among other things, whether being a man or woman student athlete changes the academic experience.
"Student learning is influenced by climate," Dr. Rankin said.
"Faculty is more productive when they feel included," she added.
There was a time when she wasn't invited to a party with her educator peers because, she said, "I didn't have a spouse, I had a partner."
Dr. Rankin's extensive research yielded chart after chart on LGBTQ students, faculty and staff at college campuses as well as in other settings.
But in between the statistics she got to the heart of the matter -- intolerance and exclusion.
"That's when students are going out windows and off bridges," she said. "That's why I do the work I do. I'm tired of going to funerals."
She showed a slide featuring the fresh young faces of several boys. Their races were varied. Their destinies were not.
Each of the boys shown had committed suicide as a result of being "different" from his peers because of sexual orientation. Each was bullied because he "didn't fit the stereotype of what a man should be."
The year was 2010.
"These are my children. These are your children," Dr. Rankin said. "And I can't rest until I know this isn't happening."
"Climate matters," she reiterated.
Colleges need safe spaces for LGBTQ students, she said. And, she ventured, the institutions of higher learning should provide hormones for those undergoing the transition from one gender to the other so those individuals aren't forced to get them from unsafe sources.
The Cass Identity Model, developed by Vivienne Cass in 1979, describes a six-stage process in gay and lesbian identity development.
Dr. Rankin pointed to the first three: confusion, comparing and tolerance.
"Gay people are the biggest perpetrators of crimes against gay people because they are (gay) and don't want to be," she said. "They're afraid of their sexuality."
"Being able to identify who I am is so powerful," she added.
Terms matter to people, too.
They are as varied as the individuals who apply them.
Dr. Rankin identifies as "queer" because it allows her to not conform to any discrete categorization of sexuality, according to her work entitled "Campus Climate for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People: A National Perspective."
"I was born a woman, I am a woman and I love women," she explained.
She loves God, too. The church where she is a deacon permits it.
Alexis Trybinski is a senior at Stetson. The psychology major attended the lecture for culture credit. Students need 24 credits to graduate.
"This doesn't apply to me but some ... avid in their religious beliefs ... how do you change their minds?" Ms. Trybinski asked.
In many cases you don't, you let the closed minded and open mouthed go, Dr. Rankin advised.
"I am Christian and I am gay," she said, explaining she lives in a small town surrounded by Amish communities.
"It's the most accepting place I've ever lived," she said.
"Do unto others ..." is the one concept every religion has in common, Dr. Rankin asserted.
When she discovered she was homosexual, Dr. Rankin was afraid it meant she could no longer attend church.
"My mom said, 'God doesn't make mistakes. In Biblical terms, he made you in his image. He doesn't make mistakes,'" Dr. Rankin said.
She applauded NFL prospect Michael Sams who came out publicly as gay earlier this month. She is one of many, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, included NFL coaches, players, executives and the Obamas lauding his honesty and courage.
Still, the Times reported, Mr. Sams' father has concerns: "As a black man, we have so many hurdles to cross," he said. "This is just one he has to cross."
Dr. Rankin said she's had some "never-in-my-lifetime" moments in the last two or three years but she still doesn't think "we've come a long way" since her 2003 assessment concluded that:
More than one-third (36 percent) of GLBT undergraduate students have experienced harassment within the past year, as have 29 percent of all respondents.
Those who experienced harassment reported derogatory remarks were the most common form (89 percent) and students were most often the source of harassment (79 percent).
Twenty percent of all respondents feared for their physical safety because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 51 percent concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid intimidation.
Her conversations with Stetson students revealed prejudicial problems persist.
"This can't keep happening in 2014," she said, her voice breaking.
More conversations must take place and more inclusion-advocacy must be front and center before legislators, she said, reminding the audience the 2014 session starts March 1.
"I couldn't fight my job loss at Penn State because there was no policy to protect and no law in Pennsylvania to protect me," Dr. Rankin said. "If you're gay and say you're not political, it's B.S. I wake up every morning next to a woman. I'm political."
Meanwhile, she's thankful for resources like The Trevor Project, a national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline (at 866-488-7386 or thetrevorproject.org) for gay and questioning youth where young people can call and speak with a peer.
Role models matter.
"The voices of those who own these (identities) are the voices you need to hear," Dr. Rankin said.