LGBT-Friendly Florida Colleges: First Place is Florida International University

Florida International University offers participation in several organizations, programs and workshops for LGBT students, staff and allies, including the MPAS LGBTQA Initiatives, Stonewall Pride Alliance, H. W. College of Medicine Gay-Straight Alliance and LGBTQA Mentors Program, among others.

The MPAS LGBTQA Initiatives, now in its sixth year, is part of the Department of Multicultural Programs and Services and the Division of Student Affairs at FIU. The campus department works closely with many organizations in the South Florida area. FIU has one full-time staff member and two graduate students that are paid staff for the program.

“We oversee all programs and initiatives at both the Biscayne Bay (north) and Modesto Maidique (south) campuses,” said Dr. Gisela Vega, associate director of the MPAS LGBTQA Initiatives, who was hired as the first full-time staff member in 2012. “We are the first university or college in South Florida to hire a full-time staff person to work with our LGBTQA population.”

Vega said the Stonewall Pride Alliance is FIU’s oldest student-run LGBTQA group on campus. It was started in 1991. While the group has been around for 27 years, Vega has advised this group on and off for about 20 years.

“All of these programs and organizations have come about based on the need to advocate for the LGBTQ community,” said Richard Moreno, graduate assistant of the MPAS LGBTQA Initiatives at FIU. Moreno said it is important for the university to have a large visibility in the LGBT community.

“Visibility is crucial in bringing about awareness and education for the LGBTQ community,” Moreno said. “We strive to create programming that represents FIU as a safer and more inclusive environment for LGBTQ students and a place where they can safely navigate their identities without fear of violence.”

FIU takes part in several LGBT-related activities throughout the year, including Pride Month, National Coming Out Day and Miami Beach Gay Pride, of which the university has been a part of since the parade’s inception 10 years ago. Pride Month was created by the MPAS LGBTQA Initiatives.

“We have a series of events that happen throughout the month to celebrate, educate and create awareness about the LGBTQA community,” Vega said. “Our office has a simple but clear motto: we S.A.V.E. our students. This acronym stands for student Support, Awareness, Visibility and Education. Pride encompasses all of these important aspects of everything we do.”

The Lavender Graduation and Leadership Recognition dinner for graduating LGBT seniors took place Monday, April 23. FIU has had a Lavender graduation for almost 20 years. Vega said three years ago the university opened it up to all high school and other college Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) graduating seniors to rebrand it as the FIU Annual City-Wide Lavender Graduation and Recognition dinner.

“The Lavender Graduation has been essential in providing students with the opportunity to celebrate with their community and be recognized for their achievements as LGBTQ students,” Moreno said. “For many trans students, they might have the opportunity to celebrate their graduation with their name and identity recognized, which is why we create that space every year to ensure they do have that opportunity.”

Both Vega and Moreno say they don't know how large their LGBT student population is compared to other colleges and universities.

“I know we are getting more LGBTQA students attending FIU based on the services we are providing LGBTQA students,” Vega said. “The size of the LGBTQ population at FIU isn't something I can comment on. However, I can safely assume the more students on campus the increased likelihood there will be more LGBTQ students on campus,” Moreno said. “Many students may still be questioning their identity or still withhold that information from others for safety reasons.”

Moreno said FIU doesn’t often directly collaborate with other Florida universities on LGBT-related issues or events aside from attending conferences held on those campuses.

“Our collaboration is more focused on the LGBTQ organizations around the area, like Pridelines, Aqua Foundation, TransSocial, etc.,” Moreno said.

On whether FIU is more LGBT inclusive than other universities, Moreno said he can't compare FIU to other Florida universities, but he said “there is always more to be done to make a campus more inclusive for LGBTQ students.”

Programs like Safe Zone and the LGBTQA Mentoring Program help “facilitate that inclusive environment,” Moreno said. The Safe Zone program is geared towards developing awareness and training faculty and staff on campus to assist and serve as resources and support networks for the university’s LGBT community.

The mentors program provides support, safety and guidance to LGBT students and aims to match those students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning with members of the LGBT faculty and staff. The student will receive support and encouragement from the faculty and staff member inside and outside of the classroom.

Around 2015, FIU started to build more gender-neutral bathrooms, but Moreno said “it is a heavy misconception that gender inclusive restrooms are only available for and used by transgender students. Gender inclusive restrooms on campus are needed everywhere regardless who is using them.”

More recently, to further their commitment to LGBT students, FIU piloted a program in Spring 2017 called the LGBTQA Ambassadors Program, which recently won the Outstanding Diversity Program award at the Student Life Awards, hosted by FIU's Division of Student Affairs.

“We felt there was a need to bring in LGBTQA students and focus on developing their leadership and professional development through working with our office,” Moreno said. “Since [LGBTQA Ambassadors] is a new program, it is currently evolving and we have exciting changes coming to continue its success with our students. [This program is] just one more example of how we continue to fill the needs of our LGBTQ student population as we continue to grow as a department.”

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