A crowd of UNCG students walk on College Ave.

Wesley Payne, a music student in the class of 2010, had heard in high school that UNCG was “gay friendly,” but  academic excellence was the major draw for him.

Payne says that despite the lack of a dedicated LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Questioning) center, the environment at UNCG was a nurturing one for gay students like himself. Payne credits programs like Safe Zone, the UNCG Pride student organization and a move toward more unisex bathrooms for transgender students, as well as anti-discrimination policies.

I loved my experience at UNCG, but I cannot say whether it was because of my experience as a gay student or because of all the other opportunities offered to me as a student and as a person.

“I loved my experience at UNCG, but I cannot say whether  it was because of my experience as a gay student or because of all the other opportunities offered to me as a student and as a person,” Payne says. “I think that says a lot about the community, in that not as much emphasis is placed on being LGBTQ as it is on being a student.”

Indeed, LGBTQ students like Payne are benefiting from UNCG’s Inclusive Community Task Force, established in 2008 through the Provost’s Office. The task force was charged with ensuring a more inclusive and supportive environment for students, faculty and staff. In 2009, the task force transitioned to a university-wide Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which set a goal, among others, of increasing campus support for LGBTQ students.

The committee’s efforts appear to be working. Earlier this year, Campus Pride, a watchdog group that monitors safety and support for LGBTQ students on college campuses, gave UNCG 4.5 out of 5 possible points.

Of 279 American universities that undertook Campus Pride’s self-assessment and agreed to make those results public, only 19 schools scored 5; 42 scored 4.5. UNCG and NC State are the only UNC system schools to score as high as 4.5.

“This rating puts us on the radar for those who are seeking a sanctuary, as a school where issues of LGBTQ are acknowledged,” says Jack Register, who graduated from the UNCG-NC A&T social work program and now teaches in the Department of Social Work. “In this current politicized environment where rhetoric becomes the way we treat each other as people, we need safe places to grow, learn, and become.”

About 14 percent of UNCG’s undergraduates identify as LGBTQ, says Jeanne Irwin-Olson, assistant director for wellness programs at UNCG. Olson is proud of the high rating from Campus Pride, which she partly attributes to the university’s Safe Zone program, run through the Wellness Center.

Safe Zone educates students, faculty and staff about LGBTQ issues and resources, also providing a list of Safe Zone Allies who have been trained to help students. UNCG adopted the program in 1999, and Irwin-Olson says there is always a big demand for training, which has doubled this year to 45 people in each of the fall and spring semesters.

Irwin-Olson points out that funding for programs like Safe Zone comes from outside funding sources, primarily the Guilford Green Foundation.

The Wellness Center lists all Allies on its Safe Zone web site. Many allies choose to identify themselves as LGBTQ on the site, including Payne, who became an ally as a resident assistant.

Irwin-Olson would like to see a center dedicated to LGBTQ issues like the centers found at UNC-Wilmington, East Carolina, Appalachian State and NC State. Irwin-Olson serves on the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee, appointed by Chancellor Linda P. Brady. The need for an LGBTQ center on campus staffed by a trained professional was one of the main points raised by committee members.

And as some of UNCG’s lowest scores on the self-assessment were in recruitment and retention efforts for LGBTQ students, Irwin-Olson also wants to strengthen UNCG’s recruitment efforts at LGBTQ-specific recruitment fairs.

“Many of the students I’ve talked to didn’t know UNCG was known as supportive for LGBTQ students, but they knew Greensboro was,” she says. “And yet we’ve all heard the stereotype that’s out there. We should embrace the stereotype, turn it around.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations