When Dean of Students staff member Andrea Barker and Professor of Practice Mark Orrs (photo, right) were interviewing for their respective positions at Lehigh a few years ago, they had the same question: Is it okay to be gay here?
For Andrea, her position at Lehigh is her first after graduate school. “I came out as a lesbian when I was 19 and had the storybook situation,” she said. “My parents were great, it was all great.” At Lehigh, she was entering what was for her the unknown. “It was the first place where I was going to come out in a professional setting. When I was interviewing, I wondered if this was going to be a comfortable setting for me.”
Since arriving at Lehigh, both Andrea and Mark found a welcoming community of scholars and staff. They also learned that there was a long-standing network of LGBTQ+ and allied employees. The network had begun during a time when most LGBTQ+ staff and faculty weren’t out at work, so most of the group’s social gatherings took place off campus.
The network now has a new name – The Lehigh Faculty/Staff Pride Network – and a commitment to being more visible on campus. As the current co-chairs of the Pride Network, Andrea and Mark are excited to build it into an even more vibrant and effective organization for the university’s LGBTQ+ employees and their allies.
Currently, the Pride Network’s listserv, which is its primary communication tool, has about 70 subscribers. The group’s mixers and happy hours regularly welcome 40 or more staff and faculty. “We’re really building on the work and success of last year’s co-chairs, Ainsley Lamberton and Jeff Heflin,” Mark said.
When we sat down to talk, Andrea and Mark were getting ready to welcome students, staff and faculty to a mixer in Lamberton Hall. This event was aimed at showing undergraduate and graduate students that there is a community of LGBTQ+ and allied professionals on campus.
“We don’t ask people to self identify in terms of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the Pride Network,” Andrea said. “The most important thing to us is to provide the support. So, you can be a great ally or advocate or you can be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, we have no way of knowing, and that’s fine.”
Goals – Social and Lofty
While the Pride Network has been growing, Mark and Andrea want to expand it further. There are still many employees who don’t know that the network exists, and they want to change that.
“Visibility is the number one goal this year,” Andrea said. “We want to keep the social events up and keep people engaged.”
Steps to help build awareness of the Pride Network are already underway. For example, the Network is now included on the Human Resources and Diversity and Inclusion websites. And recently, the Network’s promotional magnets were added to new employee information packets. Pride Center Director Chelsea Fullerton and Andrea also recently presented at an Employee Relations Advisory Committee (ERAC) lunchtime learning session.
Mark and Andrea agree that it’s also a goal to begin discussing issues of concern to the LGBTQ+ employee community. “There are a range of issues related to health care benefits, adoption, parental leave and other items that we’d like to start a conversation about,” Mark noted. “When I interviewed at Lehigh, I was impressed by the level of benefits and the equality of those benefits for same sex couples, but there may be situations unique to LGBTQ+ staff and faculty that haven’t yet been considered.”
Andrea recognizes these are lofty goals. “These are big items, but we are starting in a good place,” she said.
Much Progress, More to Come
A lot has changed at Lehigh and in the wider world since the first group of LGBTQ+ and allied staff and faculty started a listserv to find each other and offer support. Yet there is more work to be done.
“I have to take pause a lot to remind myself that not everyone is ready to be out at work. At the same time, a decade ago this article might not have even happened,” Andrea said. “So there has been a lot of progress.”
Mark says while there is not a large contingent of out LGBTQ+ faculty at Lehigh, he is trying to set an example. “I’m open in my classroom when I teach. For instance, I give examples that might include my boyfriend,” he said. “Some of that’s proactive and some of that is just ‘why shouldn’t I be able to be who I am?’”
Andrea hopes anyone interested will join the Pride Network listserv, which is where the Network shares upcoming events and other information. Moreover, she wants current staff and faculty and those considering joining the Lehigh community to feel they are welcome.
“I want someone to know when they’re applying, that there’s a space for them, that they will be accepted for who they are,” Andrea said. “Everyone in the room at one of the Pride Network’s happy hours is someone you can be yourself with.”