Closets of a College Town

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Self-Discovery at The Pennsylvania State University
Old Main Building, as it looks from College Avenue. [1]

Dear "Old State" is generally held in high regard by its students; not only are they filled with Penn State pride - but moving to the University Park campus gives many people their first opportunity to escape from home and experience the excitement of living on one's own. During college many students embark on the endless path of self-discovery; for example, students may start to explore their gender identities or sexual orientations. State College is a unique location for such self-exploration, as it has a very large population of athletically-inclined young adults, many of whom are involved with groups that have been typified as homophobic, including a large military program, an impressive Athletics Department, and the second largest Greek system in the country. While Penn Staters who identify with the LGBT community frequently report experiencing harassment or discrimination in situations "lubricated" by alcohol, other places where anti-gay remarks are commonly reported include military classes, locker rooms, and fraternities or sororities. Given the strong emphasis on Greek life and Athletics at Penn State, behavior observed in these environments intrinsically has a strong influence on the perceived and acceptable social climate around the University.

The generalized 1-in-10 statistic suggests that nearly 4,400 undergraduates at University Park may be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. A 2005 Penn State survey indicated that 79% of students knew of at least one student who was openly LGBT - supporting that the general population is aware of a University LGBT community. Interestingly though, 33% of students had no friends who identified as LGBT and 64% had 2 friends or less who identified as LGBT - indicating that most Penn Staters do not develop a deep connection to the Penn State LGBT community. In the same survey, 69% of students reported being comfortable with individuals who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual and less than half were comfortable with individuals who identified as transgender. These numbers corroborate with the 67% of the general survey takers who thought the University climate was supportive; however, only 33% of LGBT students agreed, indicating that the LGBT community largely has a different experience at Penn State than the general population. [2]

The unwelcoming climate experienced by LGBT individuals in the Penn State community causes an all too familiar scenario where closeted students are often left fearful and alone. (Many good resources are available for self-education on this topic, including an article titled The Ideology of "fag": The school experience of gay students, by George W. Smith.[3]) Unfortunately, the same attitude is often resonated throughout the lives of LGBT individuals - for example by their parents, other Penn State parents, or visiting alumni. While there are resources for students who are out or in the process of coming out, some students find it easy to escape the coming out process by focusing on non-personal (and perhaps more enjoyable) things such as Penn State Pride, football games, Greek life, and excessive drinking. Another popular output for closeted LGBT individuals are internet web sites where people can match up with anonymous partners without significant risk in outing themselves to family or friends. In addition to reducing fear and loneliness, the entertainment offered through such past times may also somewhat counter the national trend for LGBT youth who resort to using harder drugs such as heroin, opiates, and amphetamines. (In 2008, University of Pittsburgh researchers reported that LGB youth are, on average, twice as likely to use illegal substances as compared to youth who are heterosexual - while those who identify as bisexual and lesbian are nearly four times more likely to use them.) Although there has been no study to delineate drug use specifically among LGBT youth at Penn State, a blanketed study of drug use at Penn State suggest a generally low prevalence of hardcore drugs across the University that may be slightly increased in the Greek system. [4]

A night football game at Beaver Stadium.

Athletics and Tailgating
Traditional tailgates at University Park for Penn State football games.

As already mentioned, athletic events are a large part of life at Penn State, and the campus climate is greatly influenced by the behavior of student athletes and event attendees. Given that the atmosphere in State College is already politically contentious, and that the athletic events draw its large crowds from across the State of Pennsylvania, it is not surprising to see a louder and larger-than-average conservative voice at Penn State athletic events - and this can have lasting impressions for members of the University LGBT community. In recent years, University officials have increased their efforts to create a more welcoming climate for LGBT communities within the Athletics Department at Penn State. Although this is partially a result of a long history of open discrimination in the Department, some of the efforts have been successful at enhancing the campus climate and creating lasting institutional change. Unfortunately, while the climate in athletics has somewhat improved, the social aspects of State College are less influenced by Penn State infrastructure and generally reflect the conservative behavior that is typical in some rural parts of Pennsylvania.

Example incidents of alcohol-lubricated harassment and discrimination.
***Disclaimer: Videos may be loud and they contain sexual content, swears, and slurs.***

The following is a short documentary on sexual harassment at Penn State and was completed in 2007 as a project for a Women Studies class. Although the dialogue is specifically centered around sexual harassment, the video is representative of an average Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night in downtown State College. The video includes sexual language and harassment that may be offensive.


The next video documents harassment at the Pike (Pi Kappa Alpha) Fraternity after a football game with Ohio State in 2007. The party is representative of an average weekend fraternity party at Penn State. Although the incident centers around school rivalry (and the victims are members of the Ohio State Pike chapter), the assault with full cans of beer and extensive verbal harassment could easily be construed as something more personal. The fraternity was suspended shortly after this incident. The short video contains swears and slurs against gender and sexual orientation that may be offensive.


Interactions such as these are frequent during weekends in State College, where the campus climate may quickly become unwelcoming and unfriendly towards anyone - though especially for underrepresented groups who may be more easily targeted.

Fraternities and Sororities
Homecoming Parade as it passes the intersection of College Ave & South Allen St. [5]
Participants at the Interfraternity Council / Panhellenic Dance Marathon, performing their traditional, hourly dance.

It would be a mistake to mention only the conservative climate exuded at Penn State - there are many times when student groups, particularly energized by the Greek system, leave behind the unwelcoming climate when they come together to show "Penn State Pride" or work together in community endeavors. For example, 'Greek Week' is series of events during Homecoming where every fraternity and sorority competes against one another. The various events include a 5K marathon, a Dance Competition, a Talent Show, a Parade, and Homecoming Court. In addition to Greek week, many student come together and contribute to pull together the Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon - which is an annual event that raises funds for the "Four Diamonds" fund, benefiting cancer patients. Students involved in these events are substantially invested in each of them, as there are few places where students can "dress-up" or go all out show their passionate creative side in competitions that are honored under the guise of "Penn State Pride."

Pi Beta Phi, Sigma Phi, and Kappa Alpha Psi performed selections from "The Wedding Singer" in 2009 and took first place in Greek Sing.[6]
The Interfraternity Council / Panhellenic Dance Marathon, which benefits the Four Diamonds Fund.

References and Sources

  1. Attributed to: George Chriss. "Old Main Building 2006." Photo. 7 July 2006. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0. Retrieved 18 February 2010, from
  2. [1] Penn State Pulse. Retrieved 11 April 2010, from
  3. [2] Smith, George W. "The Ideology of "Fag": The School Experience of Gay Students." The Sociological Quarterly. 39:2, 309-55.
  4. [3] Penn State Pulse. Retrieved 11 April 2010, from
  5. Attributed to: Rick Zhuang. "Homecoming Parade 2005." Photo. 28 October 2005. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0. Retrieved 4 March 2010, from
  6. Attributed to: Tina Hay. "Greek Sing 2009." Photo. The Penn Stater Magazine. 2 November 2009. Retrieved 4 March 2010, from

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