Following failed legislation both at Texas A&M and at the state level that would defund LGBT centers and clubs in Texas, UT’s Gender and Sexuality Center remained a place for queer students and their allies on campus who need support, guidance and friends.
The center offers students space to learn what gender and sexuality means and how to talk about it by utilizing trained professionals, a library on LGBT studies and connections through LGBT student groups, according to center director Ixchel Rosal.
“The center is open to all students irrespective of how they identify,” Rosal said. “Students don’t have to make the choice about which piece of their identity they bring into a room. Anyone, including non-LGBT people, can come in to learn and not worry about being labeled one way or another.”
The center hosts more than 100 training sessions and educational programs to groups that request the information, according to education coordinator Shane Whalley, who works with groups and organizations on campus to understand the topics and learn to be allies if they are not LGBT individuals.
“When you come out as LGBT identitified, it’s not like someone gives you a manual that explains all about your identity,” Whalley said. “This is a place where people come to learn more about themselves, in a place they know they’re going to get good information. People share stories and experiences.”
A difficult balance
The center opened in 2004 as a joint effort between a group of students who wanted an LGBT resource center and a group who wanted a women’s resource center, Rosal said.
UT alumnus Martin Torres can remember being on the 40 Acres at a time when being openly gay was not nearly as well supported.
Torres, who graduated in 1984 with an advertising degree, said trying to navigate his sexuality during the same time he was trying to discover who he was in college was a difficult balance, even without the fear of being ostracized.
“I think it was being rejected by friends and or family [that worried me most],” Torres said. “That was actually a common theme then — people would come out and their family and friends would reject them, and I think people today, through more visibility, are seeing that that’s not an acceptable thing to do.”
Torres said the mindset about being gay in the 1980s was completely different because of various factors, such as a much smaller number of public gay role models, which affected the way of thinking back then.
Torres said institutional support was mainly sought out by members of the LGBT community who were already comfortable with their sexuality. Others who were less secure in their sexuality had fewer places to go without running the risk of being judged by peers.
“There was some sort of LGBT — or I guess just GL — organization at that time, but it’s like joining a club that you’re not quite sure you want to be a member of,” Torres said. “But the kind of support that I got was from my friends. I had very supportive friends and some not so supportive friends, but the friends who did help me helped a lot. That was key to making me feel okay with who I was.”
Home away from home
Ash Hall, a psychology senior and StandOUT co-director, said her organization promotes queer issues through advocacy and political activism.
“The culture of the space is one that gives students a break from sexism, homophobia and trans-phobia while allowing them to build community together,” Hall said. “It is an amazing, revolutionary space that makes lives on this campus happier and easier. Students can reliably come to the space and feel free of judgment and interact with their peers. They don’t have to hide any core parts of their identities.”
Hall said the center is significant for symbolizing the University’s goal of being an accepting campus for the LGBT community.
“It was a home away from home, something especially important to me after a semester at a homophobic university,” Hall, who transferred from Baylor University, said. “The center gave me a community, taught me how complex gender and sexuality really are, helped me develop my leadership skills and assisted me in finding a purpose in life centered around social justice.”
Kennon Kasischke, biology and psychology senior and Queer Students Alliance director, said the center is a connection point between the student LGBT community and the University. Kasischke said by working with student organizations promoting equality for LGBT people, the center has a relevant sense of student concerns and initiatives and can help accomplish them.
“I want it to be more visible to students on campus but still be a safe space and make sure students feel safe,” Kasischke said. “The center is also a growing resource for women issues and the student body should see the value in what the center has to offer people interested in these issues.”
Visible and out
Whalley said although the University has made strides to create an inclusive campus environment through having the center and encouraging student expression through organizations, there is still room for improvement at a cultural level.
Kasischke proposed legislation at Student Government last week in support of maintaining funding for the center through student tuition costs and keeping the center a priority of the University and student body. Kasisichke said this was prompted by recent legislation at the Texas Legislature and Texas A&M University’s Student Government Association aiming to stop funding a similar center.
The SG assembly will discuss the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.
Whalley said when all students feel safe to express their gender and sexuality in public, the campus will be fully inclusive.
“I hear people say it is a private matter, but I don’t think heterosexuality is a private matter,” Whalley said. “People should be able to be visible and out. You can see couples on campus, but you don’t really see gay couples on campus. There should be more respectful curiosity with the LGBT community, the way there is with heterosexuality.”
Printed on Thursday, April 18, 2013 as: LGBT center stands out from other universities'
Updated at 11:02 PM on April 18, 2013