Seeking Safety for BGLTQ Students

Students say the College has more work to do in building a relationship of trust with queer and transgender students.

Niamh Mulholland

“Queer and trans students have been saying these things for years.”

Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16, an undergraduate intern in his third year at the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, said he was not at all surprised by the results of last spring’s Association of American Universities sexual conduct climate survey. That survey, distributed across the University, found a disproportionate prevalence of sexual violence against queer students at Harvard.

“Everyone who works in the queer community at Harvard was aware of disparate incidence of sexual assault in our communities,” he said. “The report confirmed what we’ve known anecdotally for years; it provided the data necessary to back those stories up.”

Jessica R. Fournier ’17, an organizer for Our Harvard Can Do Better—an anti-sexual assault student advocacy group—said the survey hardly shocked her organization either.

“I think that really no one at the University has any excuse to be surprised,” she said. “It was certainly a confirmation of what we knew to be true.”

In the wake of the survey, administrators emphasized the need for additional research on sexual assault prevention strategies specific to BGLTQ students. In a September email to Harvard affiliates, University President Drew G. Faust said assault against BGLTQ students is an area of concern that “merit[s] further exploration.”

Later in the year, when the University’s task force on sexual assault prevention released its final report, the group highlighted the need to provide additional support for BGLTQ students as one of six key recommendations. Steven E. Hyman, chair of that task force and a former University Provost, suggested the College work with queer students on campus to develop assault prevention strategies.

But even as administrators have welcomed the task force’s recommendations, many students, including Blecher-Cohen, say the College has more work to do in building a relationship of trust with queer and transgender students.

“I don’t think students have any more reason to trust that the administration will take them seriously than they did a few years ago or than they did 10 years before that,” Fournier said.

‘Not Just Higher, But Markedly Higher


Faust wrote in her University-wide email that the results of the AAU survey, released in September, revealed an “extremely distressing” prevalence of sexual assault at the College, emphasizing the higher rates of sexual assault reported by BGLTQ students.

Male and female undergraduates identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, questioning, or “not listed” reported higher rates of sexual harassment and assault than their heterosexual counterparts. Overall, 17.9 percent of LGBAQN female undergraduates reported experiencing “nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation” compared to 12 percent of heterosexual undergraduate females. {shortcode-b50db1c7dc00bd88b5dcd99cc2aa898f6b045341}

Meanwhile, 10.9 percent of male LGBAQN undergraduates reported nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching, compared to 2.7 percent of heterosexual male undergraduates.

Results in other categories followed similar patterns, a trend that Hyman said in a September letter demonstrated a “not just higher but markedly higher” prevalence of sexual assault against LGBAQN students at Harvard.

“It underscores the need for the University to work with the LGBAQN community and the Schools to obtain a full understanding of the realities of the LGBAQN student experiences on our campus,” Hyman wrote.

Harvard’s survey results are consistent with national trends. In a paper analyzing data from the Online College Social Life Survey, Jessie Ford and José G. Soto-Marquez—both doctoral students at New York University—found non-heretosexual students experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence.

In an interview, Ford emphasized the need for further research paying special attention to the experiences of BGLTQ students, particularly transgender students who were underrepresented on her survey.

The AAU survey, which featured data from 27 participating universities, similarly indicated higher incidence rates of nonconsensual sexual contact for LGBAQN students than for their heterosexual peers.

Advocating for Safety

Following the survey’s release, student groups like Our Harvard Can Do Better and Harvard College Queer Students and Allies have made efforts to advocate for the safety of queer and transgender undergraduates.


Ted G. Waechter ’18, a co-chair of QSA who emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the organization, said QSA tries to ensure there are “safe spaces” for queer and transgender students on campus.

“It’s really important not to frame safety as safety only for cisgender or heterosexual people,” Waechter, a Crimson editorial writer, said. “Cisgender” refers to a gender identity that matches the sex of an individual at birth.

In order to protect queer and transgender students at their events, QSA has designated trained board members who remain sober at parties and intervene when the safety of attendees is in question.

“A big part of our efforts has been in terms of educating folks who are coming to our events, making sure that there are visible people as resources,” Waechter said.

Our Harvard Can Do Better has pushed for more student groups to receive targeted trainings. Fournier said expanding sexual assault bystander trainings is key to reducing sexual assault of BGLTQ students on campus.

“[We’re] demanding that any training that this University does… should be mandatory for all students, for all four years, or for however many years they’re on campus,” Fournier said.

The University’s sexual assault prevention task force—convened in 2014—recommended mandatory yearly trainings for all students in its final report. The College is currently considering the task force’s recommendations, Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich said.

“A lot of good thought is going into exactly all of the ways that the College will respond to this,” Friedrich said. “Those recommendations are being finalized.”

Beyond training, Our Harvard Can Do Better is working to ensure that students know their rights under the federal anti-sex discrimination law Title IX, Fournier said. The College is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after Our Harvard Can Do Better filed a Title IX complaint in 2014.

The University survey indicated that 36.6 percent of female undergraduates and 35.7 percent of male undergraduates were “very or extremely knowledgeable” about where to get help for themselves or a friend after an assault.


“Students don’t really understand the policies and procedures, and if you don’t have that kind of basic understanding from the student body, students a) don’t trust that they will be able to be protected if they bring something forward and b) students won’t know what their rights are,” Fournier said.

After the survey, the University’s Title IX office expanded and clarified a list of frequently asked questions on Harvard’s sexual harassment policy and procedures. University Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides said her office, in conjunction with the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, is working to improve and reinforce students’ knowledge of policy through a number of avenues, including an online Title IX training module for students. The new module is tentatively set to launch in the fall.

“There will be some type of general introduction, an introduction to the Title IX coordinators, information on the policy and procedure,” Karvonides said, referring to the planned online training, which will also include student vignettes.

Although Karvonides acknowledged such online trainings are not sufficient on their own, she said a standardized module will create a common baseline for other conversations about University policies and procedures.

‘It’s Not Add Queer People and Stir

Although some students acknowledge administrators are working to expand BGLTQ resources, many said the University must first establish a greater level of trust with its queer students.

“Harvard has never responded well to these issues,” Fournier said, referring to sexual assault. “I think students don’t trust the administration because the administration has not shown that they can be trusted.”

A supplement to the University survey found that both male and female LGBAQN students were less likely than their heterosexual counterparts to believe that Harvard would “take a report of sexual assault or misconduct seriously.” Those students were also less likely to trust that the University would “conduct a fair investigation” or “take action against the offender(s).” {shortcode-dd95007f79913a193488fde723091a94a4a6330d}

“The College takes very seriously the safety and well being of all of our students on campus, including our BGLTQ-plus community,” Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said.

Both Waechter and Blecher-Cohen said having queer voices present in conversations about sexual assault is key, but the College has more work to do in including their perspectives.


“In other meetings with administrators not about sexual assault, they have mentioned sexual assault parenthetically, but we haven’t had any concerted outreach from the administration about the issue of sexual assault,” Waechter said, referring to QSA.

Karvonides said she meets frequently with student groups to discuss sexual assault, including issues specific to gender and sexuality. She added that her office has made concerted efforts to expand its own knowledge on issues pertaining to students from a variety of backgrounds and identities.

“Cultural competency in this area is really important for us within my office but also across all schools’ Title IX coordinators,” Karvonides said. “We see issues around sexual orientation, gender identity... or prevention of discrimination, really being embedded in all the work we do.”

Some students are also calling for more examples that incorporate queer experiences and gender-neutral language into bystander intervention trainings. Groups across the College have increasingly participated in training workshops, in part because of an Undergraduate Council mandate that some student groups receive trainings from OSAPR.

“[We’re] demanding that any training that this University does... should include gender inclusive language and should pay attention to the special issues of the BGLTQ community and to all marginalized communities,” Fournier said. “It’s not a little thing—it’s not ‘add queer people and stir.’ It’s about the entire way we talk about these issues.”

OSAPR Director Alicia Oeser said her office has modified workshops in recent years to ensure their trainings are gender-neutral and more inclusive of multiple identities. Before 2013, trainees were separated by genders, which Oeser said could make transgender or gender nonconforming students uncomfortable.

“We… try to make all of our general programming gender-neutral and explicitly queer-friendly,” Oeser said. “We have made the decision, when I first came in, to go gender neutral. I think that that is a huge shift in the field of sexual violence prevention.”

Oeser said she also has a personal interest in ensuring queer students feel comfortable during trainings.

“I am a queer person,” she said. “I don’t profess to know all of the issues for all of the people because of that, but I do hope that that’s relevant in that I have a vested interest in this myself.”

–Staff writer Jonathan G. Adler can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.


–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.