BENNINGTON -- A national poll has named Bennington College the most accepting campus for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, although the ranking is strongly disputed by some students.
TThe college ranking conducted by Unigo and featured recently in the Huffington Post was based on responses from more than 30,000 college students grading their own colleges on a list of topics, including, for the first time, "Best LGBT Scenes," characterized as schools "where there's pride and no prejudice."
The Unigo ranking describes the student body at Bennington College as "open and accepting."
"The attitude of its student body seems to be an almost unconscious belief in the diversity and equality of sexual orientation and gender identity," the ranking says about the school.
he ranking may not necessarily paint the entire picture of acceptance at the private liberal arts college, though, according to Brooke O'Donnell, who identified herself as a queer student and a leader of the college's LGBT student group called "Queer*."
"To be completely honest, I do not agree with the ranking," O'Donnell responded through e-mail. "There is a definite ‘live and let live' outlook when it comes to sexuality with most students. Perhaps if it were ‘top LG-friendly schools' the ranking might be more accurate, but definitely not LGBT."
Another student, Jayden Sparke, agreed with O'Donnell's perspective of the college community being receptive of gay and lesbian students but not so toward bisexual and transgender students. Sparke, who was a lesbian his freshman year and by sophomore year began the transition to become a male -- which included medical treatment by his junior year -- said he was welcomed as a freshman but has since experienced negative and threatening behaviors from students and faculty.
"Bisexuals are told to make up their minds, and even viewed as traitors when they are attracted to someone of the opposite sex; transgender people are intentionally misgendered, mocked, and even harassed," Sparke wrote in an email.
Many times, Sparke said, he has been ridiculed and told, "You're not actually a guy" and, "You make a much better girl."
While some at the college are more accepting than others, Sparke said he does not feel welcome on campus and even some faculty and administrators refuse to refer to him as "he" and requests to have his preferred name of "Jay" and sex changed in the college system have been denied.
Sparke said there are other transexual students on campus who are afraid to come out because of the way he and others have been treated.
"I will never agree with Unigo's choice to have it on the list of LGBT friendly schools at all, much less in first place," Sparke wrote.
In her four years at Bennington College O'Donnell has found students to be apathetic and uninformed regarding issues of gender variance or sexual orientations such as bisexual and transgender students. "I've even seen people outright mocked for such identities, especially with trans students. On top of that, administration and even teachers can be hellishly unpleasant if you aren't gender-normative, especially with names and the respect of preferred pronouns," she wrote.
The accompanying article with the Unigo rank states that Queer* (which recently changed its name from Queer@Bennington) has not been around for as long as LGBT groups on other campuses because there is little need for such a group at Bennington College. "Different sexualities and gender identities are already so accepted by the community at large, so goes the logic, that the whole campus functions as a safe space for LGBT students."
O'Donnell said the student body is generally accepting of gay students but there is also a sense of apathy for them, which in her mind makes the group very important. "We actually do need a way to gather the people that are actually passionate about doing something," she wrote.
Queer* aims to build a community and safe space for students to express themselves and be supported. "We want to educate the student body as a whole by bringing in speakers, publishing zines, and other things of the like, as well as connect with the student population as a whole through hosting parties and musical performances," she wrote.
While O'Donnell refuted aspects of the ranking, she did acknowledge Bennington College is more receptive of LGBT students than many other institutions.
Dean of Students Eva Sutton said the poll is reflective of what she observes daily.
"Overall, we have a really open environment where students from lots of different backgrounds feel comfortable and supported," Sutton said. "I think it is an environment where students who are out feel comfortable."
In recent years, Bennington College has also appeared among the top 10 LGBT-friendly colleges numerous times in The Princeton Review's annual rankings -- most recently ranking seventh.
Sutton said such publicity is beneficial and likely helps prospective students get a better understanding of Bennington College as they consider different schools.
"I think for students who are looking at climate issues it probably does help them," she said. "My hope is they see Bennington as a tolerant place and that makes it appealing."
Just behind Bennington College in the ranking is New York University and Amherst College rounding out the top three. University of Vermont also cracked the top 10, coming in at number eight.
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