March 10, 2013

University Reflects on Shift in LGBT Presence on Campus

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Cornell’s LGBT Resource Center promotes an understanding of issues pertinent to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning community on campus, according to students and administrators. But some community members said that it would have been hard to imagine such a center decades ago, when Cornell’s LGBT presence was largely kept hidden.

Formed in 1994, the LGBT Resource Center was originally run by three full-time staff members until the economic downturn in 2009, according to its current director, Matt Carcella.

“All three of the people who were in those positions happened to leave those positions around the same time,” Carcella said. “Because of the situation that Cornell was in financially, the department was able to rehire one of the positions. They chose to rehire the director position.”

When Carcella became director in the summer of 2009, the resource center was very “fragmented,” according to Carcella.

Still, even though the center faced financial struggles, it has come a long way from the past, when LGBT students’ presence on campus was mostly concealed, according to Genny Beemyn ’89, current director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s LGBT resource center.

The first signs of LGBT presence on campus came in the form of the Student Homophile League, Cornell’s first LGBT student organization and the second gay rights group on a college campus, according to Beemyn.

Cornell’s Student Homophile League was officially founded in 1968, and at first received primarily skeptical and negative publicity. According to Beemyn, the league was mostly underground, with members operating under pseudonyms and including straight members to reduce stigma for its gay members.

As it became more active in fighting for civil rights, the Student Homophile League was renamed the Gay Liberation Front in 1970, and was gradually joined by other student groups across the country, mostly without the support of University-sponsored LGBT centers, according to Beemyn.

In response to larger numbers of students coming out, more student initiatives, some bias incidents and protests, LGBT centers began popping up around the country in the 1990s, according to Beemyn.

“When I was at Cornell back in the 80s, we were trying to advocate for there to be an LGBT center and really had no luck,” Beemyn said. “It took a while to build up the momentum to make that happen. … Institutions look at what other institutions are doing. Students saw that other schools were doing it, and gave them the ability to tell their institutions.”

Carcella said that it is important for Cornell to have a staff-run LGBT center, even though there are active LGBT student organizations on campus.

“To me, it is really important to have an administrative voice and a seat at the table within the university structure to address LGBT issues,” Carcella said. “At an institution like Cornell, which is so large and so wide-reaching in its programs, and a very diverse campus, [there] definitely needs to have an LGBT center on campus in order to serve its students, its staff, and its faculty.”

According to Beemyn, fewer than 200 colleges or universities in the country have a staff member who is paid to do LGBT work on campus, evidenced by their presence in the LGBT Consortium of Higher Education. This number is very low compared to all institutions in the U.S., according to Carcella.

Beemyn, who has published several articles regarding LGBT youth, recently performed a study that affirmed the helpfulness of an official university center for LGBT students.

“The colleges that are the most LGBT-friendly, colleges that have the most supportive policies in place for LGBT students, are colleges that have LGBT centers,” Beemyn said. “If you have an LGBT center, it means you have somebody whose job it is to get these kinds of policies in place, to try to create a supportive atmosphere on campus for LGBT people.”

Though Beemyn found that student-run groups are not as able to address issues as an official center, Beemyn’s research shows that LGBT student groups have often influenced the inception of LGBT centers, as well as their levels of inclusion.

Looking to the future, Carcella said he would like there to be more focus on education about gender and sexuality, as well as increased awareness for social justice at Cornell.

“Everyone on campus has a sexual orientation,” Carcella said. “Everyone has a gender identity, everyone has a way they express that gender … Moving forward, the work that we should be doing is about supporting everyone in their ability to be their ideal person, to explore these notions of sexuality and gender, and to help them understand where and how they can form communities around their identity.”

Olivia Tai ’11, former Haven president and current secretary for public relations for Cornell University’s Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association, said she finds the resource center to be invaluable not only to the University, but to her personal growth.

“The LGBT resource center is essential to maintaining a strong and supportive LGBT community at Cornell,” Tai said. “The resource center has grown to be this community space that LGBT student and straight allies can find comfort in. I hope that students can look back at our history and feel empowered by how far we’ve come.”

Current students echoed Tai’s sentiments, saying that the LGBT Resource Center is a site for support.

“It helped me become a leader,” said Nick Chartrain ‘13, a co-facilitator of the male-focused sub-group of Haven, OUTReach. “It gives me purpose.”

Both the outgoing and incoming presidents of Haven, Emily Bick ’13 and Jadey Huray ’14 say they have found the resource center’s support — especially through director Matt Carcella, who also advises Haven — invaluable in fostering a sense of community.

“It’s a home away from home,” Huray said.

Original Author: Noah Rankin