By Richard D. Reitsma, Ph.D. (he/him/his), Associate Professor & Chair of the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures & Cultures at Canisius University
When I was on the job market, I made a conscious decision to have an open CV that would not obfuscate my sexuality, which would be challenging considering the bulk of my research was on the topic of sexuality, and so were some of my classes. That didn’t make it easy to get hired. In fact, it was more often than not an impediment, particularly for long term employment. For these reasons, it came as a surprise to me when I was offered a tenure-track position at Canisius University, a Jesuit, Catholic institution.
I was hired to help increase the diversity of the College and thus raise its profile. And while there have been some bumps in the road, the institution as a whole has evolved in LGBTQIA+ terms.
When I started in January 2011, one of the things I decided to do was create an environment that I wish I had had as an undergraduate student, and which I felt was also lacking in some of my previous places of employment. I wanted Canisius to have a robust intellectual and social community supportive of LGBTQIA+ issues. To that end, I set up an LGBTQIA+ faculty and staff caucus. One thing this group did, which I am proud of, was develop a statement of diversity for our syllabi. The faculty and staff caucus has since run its course, but some faculty continue to incorporate variations of the statement of diversity in their syllabi.
During my second semester at the College, I set up an LGBTQIA+ speakers’ series. Gathering funds was challenging, but there was never a problem getting an audience. The series continues a decade later and has evolved to include a LatinX speakers’ series and class visits by LGBTQIA+ writers, filmmakers, advocates and actors both from Canisius and from our partner Jesuit institution, Ibero Puebla in Mexico, where I teach a graduate course in the summer.
Prior to my arrival at Canisius, there had been various other LGBTQIA+-centered activities and organizations. During the 1994-95 academic year, when a female student came out in the student newspaper, The Griffin, the community responded with some educational committees to address the issues of inclusion and respect, but the efforts faded within two years.
Seven years later, in 2001, the next major moment in LGBTQIA+ history at Canisius occurred when another student came out in The Griffin, calling for the formation of a student club for the community. In response, several students banded together and eventually formed the LGBTQIA+ and Allies student educational club, UNITY.
While UNITY started out small and remained relatively small for many years, I am proud to say that today, UNITY is one of the larger clubs on campus, with a respectable budget and weekly activities (including many that involve collaboration with other clubs). The club has an active presence on campus and the club room, once formerly a closet (yes, literally) is now an actual office space on the same passageway as other mainstays of campus life. UNITY hosts many events and continues to educate for change and awareness. We’ve increased LGBTQIA+ donor funding and have had a presence at Homecoming events.
When I became faculty advisor to UNITY, I advocated for the introduction of a Lavender Graduation ceremony, now in its fifth year at Canisius. This is a celebration for UNITY members and their friends and family to reflect on their years at Canisius and look forward to the future. While other campuses have been doing this activity since 1995, Canisius is now part of this broader national experience of reflection, honoring our members and building community.
In addition, Campus Ministry, under the leadership of a now retired-campus minister, Sue Fisher, started the Always Our Children (AOC) retreat, using as its basis the 1997 U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family statement advocating that Catholics view their homosexual children with love. The AOC retreats (run by Campus Ministry since 2003) have been a source of refuge, learning and community for the LGBTQIA+ and ally community on campus, bringing together students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members.
And for the last several years, Canisius students, staff, and faculty advisors have participated in the IgnatianQ conferences. IgnatianQ is a student-run and student-focused Ignatian LGBTQ+ conference that brings together the community of LGBTQIA+ folks (and allies) at Jesuit universities from across the U.S. every year.
Today at Canisius, students are writing theses on LGBTQIA+ themes across various disciplines. An increasing number of courses on LGBTQIA+ themes, or those with significant content from the community, are offered.
With encouragement from UNITY, the College is in the process of creating some gender-neutral bathrooms. Canisius also instituted a “Preferred First Name Policy,” which recognizes a student’s choice to be identified by a preferred name rather than a legal name. Such an accommodation helps to foster a more welcoming, supportive, and respectful campus climate.
In addition, the College is being more intentional in its efforts to recruit an increasingly diverse student body that includes LGBTQIA+ students, as well as African, Latino, Asian and Native American students. For the first time last spring, the Canisius Admissions Office hosted two new webinars for potential students: “A Place for You: LGBTQIA+” and “You Belong: Diversity at Canisius” each showcased Canisius’ increasingly vibrant population of students, organizations, and opportunities.
And there’s more.
The Office of Human Resources is sponsoring the creation of employee resource groups, including one for LGBTQIA+ employees. Canisius is also collaborating with the Pride Center of Western New York to develop a train-the-trainer program modeled after Safe Zone. In late October, the organization is hosting a faculty and staff workshop on campus entitled “LGBTQ+ & Effective Ally-ship.”
Because of the opportunities provided students through UNITY, AOC retreat, IgnatianQ, the LGBTQIA+ Speaker Series, the local embraceWNY scholarship, and the increasing opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people at Canisius and in our community, students are engaging in important leadership roles, serving as event organizers, club leaders, speakers, and learning how to be upstanding community leaders and advocates. Students are empowered to make their voices heard, to educate our community, and help push us toward increasingly embracing more deeply our mission to be people for and with others, and to “walk with the excluded” and “journey with the youth” as we are advocated to do through the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs). The benefit to students is seen in academics (theses, courses, scholarships), in improved mental health and personal wellness, in developing leaders and strong community partners, and creating networks of support and intergenerational learning and mentoring opportunities.
While there is a lot yet to do, Canisius continues to make important strides in accompanying, valuing, and incorporating the LGBTQIA+ community as an integral part of the College’s intellectual, social, cultural, and academic life. This is done in part because of how the College understands its mission and identity to stand with, and advocate for, all its members, embracing diversity as part of a path toward enriching the lives of all.
Richard D. Reitsma, Ph.D. serves at Canisius University as Founder/Director of the Borders & Migrations Initiative & LatinX/LGBTQ Speakers Series, and Faculty Advisor to Sigma Delta Pi, Spanish Honors Society, LASAF (Latin American Students and Friends) and UNITY (LGBTQ & Allies GSA).