03 Nov

Even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2015, a strange dilemma persisted. An LGBTQ person could marry legally in all states; however, that person could then be fired from his or her job, denied credit, or refused service by a business. The Supreme Court’s historic ruling was seen as a hopeful and positive step by many individuals. Nevertheless, as David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, noted, “With limited or no federal protections, an LGBT person can get legally married in most states but then be evicted from an apartment and denied a home loan.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has remarked on remaining challenges for LGBTQ individuals in American society. In support of the Equality Act (last introduced in 2015), he said, “The time has come for us as a nation to be bolder and better in ensuring full rights for the LGBT community. Every person deserves to live free from fear of discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love.” The Equality Act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation. Merkley said, “Enacting the Equality Act will bring us another significant step forward in our nation’s long march towards inclusion and equality. It will extend the full promise of America to every American.”

In extending the “full promise of America,” several Omicron Delta Kappa members have been on the front lines to address discrimination in their communities, provided leadership and role models for the LGBTQ community and others, and guided OΔK to become a more diverse and inclusive organization.

Confronting and Recognizing Discrimination

Ricardo Benavidez, a 2013 initiate of the Grand Valley State University Circle and a former GVSU student government president, said, “For the longest time, I held the notion that being gay didn’t affect my life. I didn’t feel as if I were treated differently or had diminished opportunities as compared to my heterosexual peers… However, as I have gotten older and taken in more experiences—my time as a college student and my short stint thus far in the

professional world—I have come to realize that while my initial understanding of how my sexual orientation affected my experiences was based in partial truth, it was also slightly askew from reality.”

Benavidez went on to say, “I wasn’t exempt from the effects of society’s perception and actions towards the LGBTQ community, but there was a tandem subconscious and conscious effort to mitigate those effects. As I reflected I realized (and [continue to] do so even today) that my actions were greatly impacted by how I thought others perceived me. The way I spoke, the way I laughed, my posture, the topics of conversation I allowed myself to delve into, and even my leadership style have been, and continue to be, shaped by the way I feel my peers and those with whom I interact perceive me.”

Dr. Joseph Bertolino, a 1992 initiate of the East Stroudsburg University Circle and current president of Southern Connecticut State University, noted that while societal expectations have changed some, when he speaks to audiences about his life and the ongoing discussion of LGBTQ issues, it is often “difficult for people to conceptualize the challenges” he and his partner faced early in their careers.

Key elements in leadership include personal responsibility, involvement, and self-awareness directly relates to how we accept and treat each other. As Benavidez stated, “The feat of creating greater equity and inclusion is daunting … Small accomplishments and acts will build together a society that appreciates difference and strives for inclusion, resulting in greater equity across the board. Harkening back to the idea that small changes over time will leave a greater impact, if you begin to make these changes, you’ll see a shift in your way of thinking and your actions. You will become more aware of injustice in all forms and, hopefully, you will work to eradicate them. We won’t change systems if we don’t know that they are broken. Bringing awareness to yourself and your surroundings is paramount to the passion that great leaders feel for their cause.”

Creating Greater Understanding

Bertolino indicated that he believes today’s students are coming to college much more familiar and comfortable with gay and transgendered people. He said that many students come from a variety of family types, and as time passes, future generations will talk about these issues more easily. He said, “Students today are already engaged in the conversation concerning equity and acceptance. By the time students reach college age, a number have already engaged in the educational process.”

Benavidez agreed, adding that, “today’s youth are simply more vocal about their experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The younger generation of today has more transparency afforded to it than their older peers. This allows them to have more awareness surrounding LGBTQ issues. The conversations are present in the media, in politics, and in education. Regardless of their political and ideological leanings, students have more exposure to these topics. If you think even twenty years back, our society did not have such open and in-depth discussions regarding the LGBTQ community. These conversations were guarded and met with opposition. The tides are definitely changing on the topic. Such as with technology, conversations surrounding LGBTQ issues have been with today’s students since they were young; it doesn’t feel new or out of place.”

Bertolino suggested that college campuses often become the site for this sort of interaction and dialogue, with students he has encountered often pushing for initiatives and education. He stated that people can “engage in real, substantive conversations on campuses,” that campuses have the “opportunity to provide space where these conversations, difficult as they may be, can happen. Yet the common theme comes back to the willingness to educate and engage in the conversation and to listen … and to do so in a productive manner.”

Dr. Karen Whitney, who was initiated into the University of Texas at San Antonio Circle in 1999 and is the current president of Clarion University, shared similar observations. She said, “College students continue to be more aware of LGBTQ issues and want to have the conversations because they are more likely to personally know someone who is LGBTQ. In fact, this generation of college students is not only more open but is more likely to have parents, grandparents, and other loved ones who are LGBTQ. Once the political becomes personal, there is great relevance and importance to engaging in a conversation.” She found that “student-driven events can be transformative experiences for everyone involved. When students organize speaker series, film series with panel discussions, or art or musical events involving LGBTQ people, culture, and issues of concern, it is powerful, relevant, and the kind of educational moment that leaves participants forever changed.”

Whitney also suggested that awareness and responsibility help create the right climate for conversations about change. She said, “The first thing each of us should do is to take full responsibility for ourselves as members of society. Each of us has a responsibility to learn about, appreciate, and respect one another. My hope is that each student at the university will choose to live each day committed to equity and inclusion. My hope is that each student will develop an awareness that leads them to engage and work toward eliminating bias on their part as well as among others throughout their life. I know I ask a great deal of students, but I believe it is worthy of ‘the ask.’”

OΔK’s Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

Throughout Omicron Delta Kappa’s nearly 102-year history, the organization has evolved to initiate, welcome, and embrace An ever-diversifying membership. As a leader in the higher education landscape, it is crucial that OΔK be well positioned to be an organization that is inclusive and supports the further development of leaders to lead in a world that becomes more diverse with each passing day. With its far-reaching network of members and circles, Omicron Delta Kappa has an avenue to reach many people.

Ben Williams, a student member-at-large of OΔK’s Society Board of Directors and a 2011 initiate of the Georgia State University Circle, stated, “OΔK is uniquely positioned to lead these conversations with our focus on leadership and supporting our collegiate members. The culture and demographics of our country are changing and as a leadership honor society we can support our members’ learning in these areas. We are going to intentionally integrate topics of diversity, inclusion, and multicultural leadership into our programs, moving forward ranging from sessions at our conventions, to drive-in conferences, to potentially exploring other avenues to support our circles and staff.”

In April 2015, OΔK National President Michael Christakis appointed a Diversity and Inclusion Work Group comprised of members of the Society Board of Directors and chaired by Williams. Christakis charged the group “with identifying processes and policies that support the involvement and engagement of a multicultural membership. The work group will evaluate the current benchmarks for diversity and inclusion found within Omicron Delta Kappa at all levels of the organization. In addition, the work group will develop programmatic recommendations related to topics of leading in a diverse world and supporting leadership development in marginalized student populations. Included in these programmatic Recommendations will be suggestions on adding specific multicultural content to convention, drive-in, and online resources as well as to staff and board member orientation programs.”

In addition to reaffirming the organization’s diversity and equal opportunity statements (see sidebar), the work group presented a set of convention site selection guidelines that were adopted by the Society Board of Directors. The guidelines recommend that OΔK identify cities where comprehensive non-discrimination policy that provides protection for attendees based on race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, veteran status, ability, and all other protected classes to provide or a positive convention experience for all of our members.

The organization will also look for host communities that have a comprehensive nondiscrimination policy that provides protection for attendees based on race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, veteran status, ability, and all other protected classes. Lastly, in determining locations for future conventions, OΔK will seek to partner with host institutions that have a comprehensive non-discrimination policy that provides protection for attendees based on race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, veteran’s status, ability, and all other protected classes. Also, OΔK will work to ensure that accommodations support the needs of attendees related to gender, identity, and ability.

Gradually, by raising public awareness through education and dialogue, people in the LGBTQ community, including OΔK members, have begun to receive some greater acceptance. As Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), one of the authors of the Equality Act, stated, “Brave men and women in every generation throughout America’s history have mustered the conviction to fight for freedom and equality against all odds—from abolitionists and suffragettes to civil rights activists. With each fight for justice, ordinary people have challenged our nation to become a more perfect union.” ●