Saying that the University of Cincinnati’s Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans* and Queer Center began in a closet sounds like the beginning to a bad joke. But the fact that the center, along with the university’s LGBTQ community, has flourished and grown exponentially since coming out of the closet isn’t just some ironic punch line. It also happens to be true.
Less than a decade ago, the LGBTQ initiative at UC was running a full-fledged center out of an old closet space on campus with the capacity to hold eight people at a time. As students and faculty rallied behind the cause, the LGBTQ Center (affectionately referred to as “The Rainbow Center” by many UC students) left its closet office space behind in exchange for a space that quickly became the epicenter of the LGBTQ community and its allies campus wide.
“It took awhile for students to migrate here to the LGBTQ Center once we got our own space — to sort of migrate here and feel comfortable enough to claim the space as their own,” says T.N. Vaught, program coordinator at the center. “We’ve seen students come in here who weren’t necessarily even out to us when they first walked through the doors, and then we saw them come out. They had the space here to be able to do that safely, and witnessing that is beyond powerful.”
Having a person of color and a member of the trans* community (the asterisk is used to include all identities that fall outside of traditional gender norms) as center director and program coordinator, respectively, helps break down those boundaries, explains Vaught, who identifies as a member of the trans* community and genderqueer.
“Students come to me and say that they never saw themselves in anyone around campus, but now they feel like they can be genderqueer or be trans* and out and be successful — kind of seeing themselves in someone else, either (Director) Leisan (C. Smith) as a person of color or myself as a genderqueer individual has really done wonders for our students,” Vaught says.
“Our students know that it’s a safe space for anyone,” Smith says. “It’s become a collaboration between the LGBTQ community and all the other communities around campus. We actually get to see diversity in action more and more, something that’s talked about so much in theory but often isn’t actually visible on the ground.”
The center’s work doesn’t end now that campus has become a safer place for LGBTQ students. Since many students will eventually graduate and become full-time members of the Cincinnati community after they leave campus, Smith and Vaught make an effort to go out and educate businesses and organizations about LGBTQ issues in order to make Cincinnati a safer, more inclusive and more enjoyable place for their students.
“A lot of the times when we go out into the larger community, we get people who have never actually heard or had a conversation about these issues before, so any progress made or any teachable moments or light bulbs going off — even if it seems like a small step — it’s a huge victory to us,” Vaught says.
“We used to say we wanted students to be able to leave this space and still be able to be their true, authentic self and not feel unsafe about that around campus,” Smith says. “We’re getting better there. They can venture out on campus and — for the most part — be OK. Now we want them to be able to venture off of campus and graduate and feel the same support they did on campus. We want to make not only the UC community safe for our students but move beyond that and make the Cincinnati community safe and inclusive as whole.”
Through education and becoming a more visible presence off campus, the LGBTQ community’s network of allies and supporters has grown exponentially. It also helps when one of the community’s greatest allies is somewhat of a celebrity around campus.
Throughout his nearly 40-year run as the university’s public relations mastermind, current Associate Vice President of Public Relations Greg Hand is perhaps best known for his plethora of 24/7 emails about robberies, assaults and other things University of Cincinnati students often gloss over. His name is well known around campus for his impressive web presence alone, but for the LGBTQ community, he’s much more than the signature at the bottom of a university-wide email: He is a friend, an advocate and an ally.
After deciding to participate in a demonstration after a hate incident on campus several years ago, Hand’s involvement crossed the period of what he refers to as being “a much loved stepchild” of the Women’s Center through the cramped temporary quarters upstairs at the Steger Student Life Center on campus, to getting a real office with a full-time staff.
“The most important aspect of the center for me, I must admit, was personal,” Hand says. “When I first introduced myself [as an ally], I was afraid. I was not sure how I would be accepted, and I was unsure how to act. What if I offended someone? And could I be accepting? What I found was a loving and supportive community who went well out of their comfort zones to make me feel welcome. I met the dearest people who endure ongoing judgment and criticism but are so full of love. If I had any part to play in helping the LGBTQ community at UC, I am happy.”
As Hand, who could often be found at the center year after year, plans his retirement at the end of June, a new generation of allies and LGBTQ students continue to find their way to the center, so even after the chapter of his life as a staffer and his journey as an ally at UC comes to a close, many students, faculty and Cincinnatians give Hand much to be happy about.
One such student ally making great strides toward equality for the LGBTQ community is Kalilah Montgomery, who began attending LGBTQ meetings and events at the request of her friend during her freshman year at UC.
Admittedly, when she began attending LGBTQ-related meetings around campus, she realized she still had a lot to learn — an experience she draws upon during her time as president of Genderbloc, a trans* activist group with the goal of making the campus gender inclusive, from creating gender neutral restrooms on campus to giving students the ability to choose their own pronouns and gender identities when filling out campus forms.
Even with her lack of knowledge prior to enrolling at UC, Montgomery felt compelled to commit to the LGBTQ cause around campus, and by the end of her freshman year she was Genderbloc’s secretary. Currently, she holds the title of president. One of the biggest lessons she’s learned is deceptively simple, she says.
“At the end of the day, all you need to do is respect what people tell you about their sexuality and their identity,” Montgomery says. “If they tell you their name and their pronoun, you simply just respect their wishes and drop your assumptions. It might seem small, but it’s a huge way to show respect and acceptance to someone who doesn’t automatically receive those things in their everyday life.”
Montgomery’s mission, like many other allies of the LGBTQ community, is to make people feel like they can be themselves when they’re around campus and out in the world, no matter how they identify.
“There are students who are worrying about hate crimes, whether or not there are these things on top of their college essays, on top of their SATs, on top of FAFSA, while worrying about finding a place where they can be accepted for who they are,” Montgomery says. “I want UC to be a no brainer when future students are searching for an LGBTQ community on college campuses. I don’t want there to be a problem with any aspect of identity — sexuality, race, gender, ability … any of it.”
“If the University of Cincinnati can show the rest of the city that LGBTQ students are accepted here and that this is a university where diversity isn’t just talked about as a buzzword, but actually celebrated and loved here and respected here, then we can uplift the Cincinnati LGBTQ community as a whole,” Montgomery says. “And that’s really what being an ally, an advocate and an activist means on campus and beyond.”
To learn more about the LGBTQ CENTER and the LGBTQ community at the University of Cincinnati, including volunteer opportunities, visit facebook.com/UC.LGBTQ.Center.