HOUSTON — Many LGBT students at the University of Houston say they feel like they can no longer express themselves safely now that a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons on campus is in effect and classes have begun.
“I feel like I can’t speak up for myself anymore," Robyn Foley, 22, a transgender and intersex student who majors in anthropology, told BuzzFeed News. "I can’t correct someone on my pronouns" — Robyn's pronoun is "they" — "I can’t stand up for my transgender friends, because if I do and someone gets pissed off all they have to do is pull out a gun.”
A number of other students eating lunch at the campus LGBTQ Resource Center nodded in agreement.
"School stresses us out enough without us having to worry about the people who already yell at us for being 'sinners,'" added Michael Allen, 29, an arts major with green hair.
On Aug. 1, just before the start of classes at the state school, Senate Bill 11 — known as the campus carry law — went into effect, allowing students at state universities in Texas who have licenses to carry concealed handguns to bring those guns anywhere on campus, with the exception of "exclusion zones."
These zones include the majority of dorms — though some rooms in the dorms are not exclusion zones — as well as some research centers and other buildings containing classrooms, and any religious centers, day care centers, and health centers.
The building containing the LGBT center, as well as the veteran students' center, is not an exclusion zone, which many of the students in the LGBT center didn't realize until someone looked it up during a conversation with BuzzFeed News. The students sat in stunned silence for a moment before Foley said, "Wow, I just assumed it was, out of common sense."
"That's actually really scary," another student, who went by K, added. (K asked not to have their full name included because they haven't yet told their parents about their gender identity.)
Guns must remain concealed at all times, but Allen told BuzzFeed News he had already seen a man with a gun visible on his belt in the parking lot.
Some students said that the fact that the guns can't be seen makes it even more intimidating. "Anyone you get into a philosophical argument with in class might have his hand on his gun while you're talking," one student, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told BuzzFeed News. "I already feel it affecting my education."
Robyn Foley, left, and Michael Allen at the University of Houston's LGBT Resource Center.
Some of the students thought about protesting, but they didn't think it would be safe. "We would also out ourselves in the process, which isn't safe for many of the LGBT students on campus," Foley added. "Especially now."
Last week, students at the University of Texas at Austin held a large protest against the campus carry laws. Hundreds of students waved dildos and held signs reading "Cocks Not Glocks." So far no protests have occurred on UH's campus.
K added that when the law was passed last year, the administration promised to provide resources to increase a feeling of safety on campus — such as areas for people to check their weapons before going into the exclusion zones. "I haven't seen a single one of those yet," they said.
Elizabeth Gregory, the director of UH's gender and sexuality studies department, told BuzzFeed News that many faculty members she's spoken with have been concerned about how campus carry will affect class discussions, particularly in her department, where many of the subjects covered in their classes are "controversial to begin with."
"The whole point of being at university is being able to speak your mind," she said. "This dampens that because people never know what the person next to them might be thinking about what they are saying."
She added that she and her department have had discussions about taking action, though no specific plans have taken shape. She believes this is mainly because UH's campus community is less tight-knit than UT Austin's.
"I think the community was hoping there would be some reason [campus carry] would be taken off the table," Gregory said. "Now we have to come to terms with it as a reality."
Many of the LGBTQ students told BuzzFeed News they regularly experienced intimidation on campus before the law was implemented — both from fellow students and from non-student religious protest groups on campus, which the students refer to as "Hell Yellers."
Many non-student religious groups, including one called Bulldog Ministries, show up on UH's campus during midterms and finals and yell at students, the students at the LGBT center told BuzzFeed News.
On Bulldog's website, men can be seen in various locations in Houston holding signs reading, "WARNING: drunks, homosexuals, abortionists, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, witches, idolaters, HELL AWAITS YOU."
Because of UH's freedom of expression policy, the group is allowed to remain in certain areas on campus as long as they don't physically assault anyone. But Allen and Foley said they have watched the groups push people protesting their protests. Bulldog didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Allen said he was more worried about these groups being able to carry guns on campus than he is about UH's students. "These people come here with the purpose of spreading hate, they come here looking for conflict," Allen said. "That's what worries me really."
Neither the UH administration nor the UH police press office immediately responded to BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
Ethan, 19, a trans student who identifies as male, told BuzzFeed News that before the campus carry law he was already worried about using the men's bathroom and having someone say, "You don't look right, you don't belong here." Now those people might have guns, he added.
Foley said they have had slurs yelled at them and been "intimidated" on campus before. Other LGBT students said they have had similar experiences.
Many of the students said that despite not wanting the guns on campus, they were comfortable around guns, or even "loved" them.
"I grew up around guns," Ethan said. "My parents had them for protection." But having them in a college environment was just different, he said.
Foley said that they also grew up around guns, and that their boyfriend of nearly five years keeps a gun on their beside table every night. But this doesn't stop Foley from fearing the actions of their peers.
"But the good thing is, maybe this will make our campus start paying more attention to local politics," Allen said. "Maybe this campus will actually start voting."