Brian Patchcoski envisions an inclusive campus
by Michelle Simmons
In October, Editor Michelle Simmons visited Brian Patchcoski, director of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) services, in Landis House. Patchcoski had arrived in August to launch the new Office of LGBTQ Services, and amid still-unpacked boxes, they discussed his plans for the college. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How long have you been doing this type of work?
During the last five years at Penn State I was engaged in this, and before that I worked with University Misericordia in Dallas, Pa. That was a broader scope of diversity work: It wasn't LGBTQ focused; I worked with businesses, colleges and nonprofits around making or forming inclusive environments. Penn State is where I completed my graduate work and really refined my skills at the LGBTA [allies] Student Resource Center.
What are the primary challenges or needs facing LGBTQ students in general and, more specifically, at Dickinson?
There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., but only 192 LGBTQ centers. During the last year there've been 12 new centers created, and Dickinson is one of those—which is exciting. There's a new momentum, which reflects some of the changing pieces in our society: It's a recognition that there's a need for students to have a supportive resource; there is a need for education and outreach on college campuses around these issues.
Visibility about LGBTQ issues across the country has really increased, and we are recognizing bullying in our schools and communities. We see statistics like nine out of 10 LGBTQ students in high school experience some sort of bullying related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Can you tell me a little bit about the campus climate in general?
Campus climate nationally is not as ideal as we think it is, especially for students coming from marginalized identities. If we look at the 2010 national campus-climate survey—which I participated in with [education professor] Sue Rankin at Penn State—that study highlighted tremendous inequities for LGBTQ-identified individuals, not only for students but also for faculty and staff.
You're based in Landis House, with the Women's Center and the Office of Diversity Initiatives (ODI). How do you see the Office of LGBTQ Services fitting within the larger diversity rubric and initiatives at Dickinson?
I think it's tremendously valuable to be located in this space. A lot of my work is focused on intersectionality, or the intersections of identities. We need to look at our identities, not just as LGBTQ, but what it is like to be an LGBTQ person and identify as a person of color or identify with different religious or spiritual backgrounds. What does it look like to be from varying social classes with this identity? What's really important for me is that not just one person is doing this work; the entire campus needs to be doing this work in some form. I think that's where it's really wonderful to be in this space in Landis and interacting with the other offices and doing really collaborative programming.
Tell me more about that.
We've been coordinating gender-discussion groups with the women's and wellness centers and really challenging gender and what gender looks like on campus. It's an opportunity to talk about issues, from transgender or gender nonconforming identities to images in society that represent sexual orientation and how that connects with gender.
With the Office of Diversity Initiatives, we're definitely working very closely in planning the GSA Leadership Summit. We've also been working with Pride@Dickinson, recognizing the history of the initiatives and where this office has come from. Paula [Lima-Jones, director of ODI] and I have really had close connections working on the Pride Reception, which was during Homecoming & Family Weekend. We also co-sponsored Out on Britton this year.
Earlier, you mentioned religious identities, so have you been working with the Office of Religious Life or with the Asbell Center?
Spirituality and religion are part of my own personal work and research interests. Before I started my undergraduate work, I was in the seminary to be a Roman Catholic priest, so this religious and spiritual piece, along with sexual identity, has been really important to me.
I've seen wonderful progress around these issues, and I've seen wonderful conversations about these issues, so in the spring, I plan to work more intentionally with the Asbell Center and the Office of Religious Life to really build a foundation. At Penn State, we created wonderful community resources, so I want to engage our community partners and have partners who are doing this work in Harrisburg and Carlisle.
Right now you're obviously focused on students and programming, but you're also interested in engaging faculty, staff and the larger community.
One of the most exciting things that has happened so far has been the launching of the new Web site for the office. On the site are faculty and staff sections, an ally section. There's a section for resources and parents and families, alumni and friends. Those are the constituents that I believe, from my experience, this office needs to engage.
As the office grows, there are two main programs that will launch in the spring and will engage several of these groups. The first is an LGBTQ mentorship program, which will pair prospective students with current students and current students with alumni. I've been building an alumni base since I've arrived, and I would love to continue growing and fostering that and finding out what our alumni are doing, where they are and how they can continue to be a part of Dickinson and engage with our students.
Whether it's, "This is how I am out at the workplace, this is the place I'm in and this is what it's like," or "This is the country I'm in, and this is the climate and this is the negotiation process you have to do with your identities," this is the conversation I want to see between alumni and current students, and with current students and prospective students.
We need to have good conversations about what it's like to be "out" at Dickinson. We need to have that message for our prospective students that they can make change right now at Dickinson. This is the time to be involved in this brand-new office. They get to be a part and make this what they want it to be. The mentorship program is really exciting, because there are very few other programs nationally that are about these connections.
In mentioning students or alumni studying or working outside the U.S., you bring up a really good point: Dickinson is a global community. Talk a little bit about that.
We are this global community and global entity. We send students around the world. There are still five countries that punish homosexuality or perceived homosexuality by death—such as Saudi Arabia. I've worked with students in these countries. We at Dickinson should be well versed in having these conversations with students, like "if you're going there, and this is who you are, how will you go forward? How will you negotiate your identity in different circles? How will you be safe?" What are Dickinson's resources to support that student while they are there? These types of conversations are critical, and institutions are just beginning to have them.
Let's talk about someone who might be skeptical and say, "Why do we need an LGBTQ office?"
This office is not just for the LGBTQ community. This office is for the entire Dickinson community, our Carlisle community partners, our alumni, parents and families and friends of Dickinson. If we look at Strategic Plan III and where we want to be, we're this global institution that wants to promote a culture of inclusivity and respect. Part of that respect is understanding the identities that make up that diversity sphere/umbrella. And LGBTQ identities are part of that. I tell students that, yes, my title is director of LGBTQ services, and yes, I do LGBTQ work and my research is here, but what I'm really doing is human work. It's really engaging with humanity and our identities as a whole.
What can allies do?
Oh, I have lots planned. Along with the mentorship program, we're launching the Pride @Dickinson Safe Zone Program: Creating an Inclusive Community, which begins with a three-hour baseline training for everyone who wants to be recognized as a supportive individual on this campus. Faculty and staff can go through it, as well as students. There also will be continuous education sessions—ones around transgender and gender nonconforming identities will be hugely important.
In almost any educational or training setting that I'm in, I always say, "Whatever your idea is leaving here, just because you've been here doesn't mean that you should go out into the community and say to the next gay person that you run into, 'I just had this conversation with Brian and I know how you act as a gay person and I know how to treat you now.' " That's never what I want to do. And it's comical, but it happens.
There are really good intentions behind that, but we need to continuously educate and challenge ourselves. Just because we went to one training session doesn't mean we're the expert. Just because you've been in this field for 10 years doesn't mean you're the expert. Things change, our communities change, the issues change.
Dickinson has tremendous potential for national impact in how we support the LGBTQ community. There are no words to explain the energy here, but I'm excited about it, and I'm excited about where this office will go. I want Dickinson to be visible; I want us not to be afraid to embrace these things but also to ask questions if we don't understand. That takes courage, but we as an institution are there. We just have to continue building on that.