Initiative aims to improve services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students

Courtesy of Inge Hansen Inge Hansen portrait

Inge Hansen, Weiland Health Initiative program manager

Stanford student affairs professionals hope the Weiland Health Initiative, a new partnership between Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the Vaden Health Center and the LGBT Community Resources Center, will improve health services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and help members of the university community better understand their needs.

Created in autumn quarter, the initiative is designed to develop best practices in providing health care to students across the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientation. The program also offers training to student affairs professionals who seek to create a more welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

The initiative already has sponsored a summer conference for professionals who work with LGBT students. Among the other new offerings under the initiative are on-site counseling at the LGBT Community Resources Center, specialized training for Vaden Health Center staff, a postdoctoral LGBT fellowship in CAPS and the development of a university interdisciplinary clinical consulting group.

The initiative results from a gift from the late Ric Weiland, a Stanford graduate who was a software pioneer and one of the first employees of Microsoft. In addition to the initiative, Weiland and his partner, Mike Schaefer, created some 12 different funds at Stanford, supporting everything from graduate fellowships to professorships in the schools of Humanities and Sciences and Medicine.

Stanford a recognized leader

Psychologist Inge Hansen, Weiland Health Initiative program manager, said that Stanford is already recognized as one of the nation's leading universities for LGBT students.

"We have good reasons to be proud," Hansen told a recent campus-wide gathering of student affairs professionals attending the quarterly Student Affairs Forum. But, she said, all schools can do better, especially in what she termed "language and belonging."

For instance, even the best-intentioned staff and faculty can stumble on gender-neutral pronouns that signal understanding and acceptance, especially to students transitioning from one gender to another. The term "ze" has become preferred to "he" or "she" among people who do not identify as either male or female.

Professionals who serve LGBT communities increasingly are rejecting the notion of binary identities – gay versus straight, male versus female – and recognizing that most individuals fall somewhere on a continuum in terms of both sexual orientation and gender identity. "It's more accurate to conceptualize gender identity and sexual orientation like a snowflake – that is, unique to each individual," Hansen said.

Hansen outlined terms that are specific to LGBT communities. She simplified some to draw clearer distinctions, including sexual orientation – "who you date" – and gender identity – "your inherent sense of who you are." The word "queer," she added, is a formerly pejorative term reclaimed by the gay community to describe any identify that doesn't fall under so-called societal norms.

Language, safety and connection

"Language can be a means of creating safety and connection," Hansen said, "or it can be the opposite." Stanford students, she added, "find they belong in some places and not in others."

LGBT youths are coming out – meaning embracing their identities – earlier than in previous generations. Especially emerging at Stanford, Hansen said, is the community of students who identify as transgender. How many Stanford students identify as LGBT is unknown, Hansen said, although she considers 10 percent a reasonable estimate. Even that estimate is misleading, however, as sexual orientation and gender identity are better understood as less definitive.

Transgender students in particular often face substantial challenges when family and friends struggle to accept their transitions. Colleges and universities can sometimes unintentionally add to their stress through something as simple as failing to issue on a timely basis identification cards that acknowledge new names and identities.

Hansen said other colleges and universities support partnerships between counseling centers and LGBT centers, but none, she said, follows the model being pioneered at Stanford through the Weiland Health Initiative. Success, she said, will be measured through ongoing program evaluation, including national surveys that measure climates for LGBT students nationwide.