Story and photos by RACHEL JACKSON
The expansion of the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah has enabled the center to provide more assistance for members of the LGBT community, as well as a judgment-free zone for all students to study.
The first LGBT center, which opened at the U in 2002, was housed in a cleaned-out utility closet in the A. Ray Olpin University Union. And now, 10 years later, the center has doubled in size, to nearly 1,000 square feet, thanks to the David Bohnett Foundation, an activist group from California, which gave the LGBT center a grant of $15,000.
“We broke out of the closet,” said Kai Medina-Martínez, LGBT Resource Center director. “Last year the space was expanded and we now have a larger area to work in.”
The center on the fourth floor of the Union also offers a larger lounging area for all students, including a printing center with computers that students are able to use with no cost to them.
Before the grand “re-opening” on Oct. 17, 2011, students had to meet in the library for advocacy groups and training classes. Now everyone who is interested has an exact place to go for information on LGBT issues and the staff has the chance to be more organized.
The resource center offers a variety of informational classes and training on LGBT issues, such as Safe Zone training, which is designed to educate participants about the LGBT community and how to stop discrimination.
“We make sure the policies of the university are inclusive of LGBT and other identities also,” Medina-Martínez said.
The policies that Medina-Martínez has been working on are important, because they focus on equality for all. This includes all students in general and specifically trans-gender or non-gender-conforming students who might be in a transition stage.
“One of those policy changes that occurred about a year ago … is any student regardless of how they identify can go on [the student system] and choose a preferred name,” Medina-Martínez said. This was a way to allow people who are going through a gender transition to be identified in class by a name that more appropriately matches the gender they wish to identify with.
Another top priority for Medina-Martínez is to have a place for transgender students and everyone in general to have private, single-stall bathrooms that they can access on campus.
The LGBT Resource Center website has a list of unisex and single-stall bathrooms that includes the areas on campus where the bathrooms are located and on what floors.
“So these policies even though they start out to be inclusive of a certain group, they actually expand to everybody to be able to utilize,” Medina-Martínez said.
In the College of Health building (HPR) on campus, some trans-identified students were unsure of where they could go on campus to shower. Medina-Martínez was able to have some shower curtains installed. This was for the benefit of the trans students, but also for students in general who prefer privacy.
On Aug. 21, 2012, the U was named one of the top 25 friendliest LGBT campuses in the nation by Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization striving for a safer environment for LGBT students all over the country.
The top schools were chosen based on data from the Campus Pride Index and rated on a 5-point scale according to policy inclusion, student life and academic life. The study included a total of 339 universities and colleges.
Even though the U excelled above several other schools in areas of policy and acceptance of LGBT students, Medina-Martínez said work still needs to be done in the area of gender-neutral housing on campus.
“Many of these things couldn’t have taken place in the small closet our office used to be,“ Valerie Velarde, a student worker at the center, said in an email. “This is a highly important place to come hang out in, gain community, or even do homework in comfortably.”
One way the center encourages community is by hosting an event called Fabulous Fridays once a week from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. This brings people together to enjoy free food, play games and meet new people.
The continual goal of the center is to create a place where students can meet peers with similar interests and experiences.
“It’s a great place to connect with others,” said Brandon Vanschoiack, a senior double-majoring in political science and philosophy.
Vanschoiack said he has been going to the resource center for a year since it has moved locations. He keeps coming back, because he feels a kinship with other students who visit and likes to share experiences “of feeling unwanted.”
Unwanted is something he never feels at the LGBT Resource Center.
“When you walk in there are no flashing lights that go off and say, ‘gay, gay, gay,'” Medina-Martínez said. “Anyone is welcome to come up.”
This type of environment is what the center has worked toward since its original opening in 2002.
Vanschoiack said, “It’s really a safe place I can go to be myself.”