by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA
As the co-president of the Lesbian Gay Student Union in Spring 2005, Bonnie Owens, a senior in gender studies with a minor in human rights at the University of Utah, wanted to make a difference and pass on the legacy.
“We changed the name from LGSU to Queer Student Union in 2006 because we had amazing support from the administration, people were always talking about it and we were supported throughout the community,” said Owens, 21. The addition of the word “queer” unites with academics and professors using the word in their curriculum, and gives the title more prestige and makes it more inclusive. “The word ‘queer’ is more of a freedom term — powerful, cultural, generational and changes with time,” she said. Altering the name took two votes and a series of discussions.
“For the past three years, we have been the community center for the entire QSU population and now we have incorporated other areas like Uswerve and Queer Students of Color,” she said.
Owens began her journey with the LGBT Resource Center as a volunteer in 2004. Now, she gets paid to be a staff intern. The center included 12 dedicated students and grew to 25 devoted members with meetings ranging from 20 to 50 people this year.
Over the past three years, Owens has taken on more and more responsibilities for an annual event sponsored by the center. Initially, she sat on the Pride Week committee as a member, then as a student chair, and this year as the chair. She said it was the leadership changes, like hiring Cathy Martinez for the director position, and the reorganization of the office that allowed her to take the lead. This year’s variety of events came from conversations and discussions with fellow queer students, faculty, staff and the community.
“The dog show was the most fun to plan and coordinate, and although it rained, we had four pooches,” Owens said. She enjoyed listening to Lisa Diamond, assistant professor of psychology and gender studies, who emphasized the importance of the queer community. She also liked watching the nine contestants who participated in the spelling bee. “We Googled gay words and made up others,” Owens said. “After it was over, the contestants would explain to me how they thought the word they missed was Greek, not Latin.”
Owens said the goal of this year’s Pride Week was “Pride on a budget” — offering a wide variety of events and activities with support from numerous sponsors and the community. If she could go back in time and change anything, it would be scheduling the week-long event before inclement weather sets in and using more posters to advertise the events.
Owens’ next project is a “staff, student and faculty mixer” for students to be able to meet and mingle with fellow queer faculty and staff. “My peers are my role models and LGBTQ students need adults to look up to,” she said. Owens met her role model when she was 16 years old. While writing a report on Judaism in high school, she interviewed a lesbian rabbi whom she found to be very intelligent and compassionate.
Her mother, a previous role model, died while Owens was still in high school. Since there weren’t many photographs left, Owens had a difficult time recalling memories of her mother. It is then that she decided to express her artistic vision through photography. “I like remembering people and I like to remember things,” she said.
Owens said she had a “crappy” camera in high school, so she decided to upgrade to a digital camera when she went to Europe in 2005. She then took a digital photography class at the U in spring 2006 and fell in love with photography once again. This time, she was inspired by a professional photographer, Heather Franck, who became her girlfriend.
She is currently taking a basic photography class through the Department of Communication in which her genre, “violence against queer bodies,” reflects her passion for nontraditional portraiture — taking pictures of people in different situations. “I chose this genre because I first thought about portraying what it meant to be queer, but then I saw violence as a big part of our culture and society,” Owens said. She finds inspiration through people around her and believes everyone is photogenic. “I saw a woman and positioned her in a way to make her strong and vulnerable while empowering her at the same time,” Owens said. “I get satisfaction from looking at a photograph over and over again and knowing that it’s mine.”
For Owens, empowering others and giving rights to individuals means being equal and fair. She believes passage of the employment non-discrimination bill is critical; without it, she said, employers can justify decisions not to hire LGBT employees since they have no legal choices. She thinks people take many things for granted, like not being afraid to be yourself in the workplace.
“The problem is how we take identity and lose the individuality,” Owens said. She respects anyone on the capitol who is out and proudly fighting for equal rights.
“When a bill passes, when a member of the LGBT population dies, when someone looks at me with disapproval, when someone says something — every little thing wears me down. It is a difficult feeling to live with knowing that I don’t deserve it,” she said. Sometimes, she feels overwhelmed, but conversations and dialogue keep her going.
“The important thing to realize is that it will be different in 30 years,” Owens said. She believes people don’t stay oppressed forever and that revolution is coming, as community organizations take the lead and the LGBT population fights back. She hopes people will finally understand that oppression in any form ultimately hurts everyone, thus empowering individuals to work toward social justice.
Owens’ goal is to have her own nonprofit organization that keeps oppressed youth off the streets and helps them pursue higher education. She believes individuals with a college degree have a better understanding of the world around them and go on to vote, become involved in effecting change and instill ideas to their future generations. “Since I am in higher education, my mindset is here and there are so many things I want to do that I told myself to choose one, and this is it,” Owens said.