LGBTQIA Programs and Services Celebrates 10 Years

Jessica Turner

LGBTQIA Programs and Services celebrates 10 years of dedication and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and ally students this year. Though this acronym may seem long and overwhelming to some, UMKC’s history of pride and progress has paved the way for the success of not only the decade-old resource center, but for underrepresented students across campus.

The LGBTQIA Resource center, The Rainbow Lounge, boasts an expansive array of reading and study space. Orchestrating the center and all related events on campus is a university position many campuses are fighting to acquire: Coordinator of LGBTQIA Programs and Services. This position, held by Jonathan Pryor, serves as the primary voice in the Office of Student Involvement, and the University, for keeping the LGBTQIA community prominent at UMKC.

Events during Welcome Week brought a colorful set of programming, including Drag Queen Karaoke and an Ice Cream Social. T-shirts and a promotional “10-Years” logo aimed to reel incoming students into the celebration.

However, 10 years of LGBTQIA Programs and Services is just a small sampling of a rich University history of struggle, visibility and acceptance. Generations of UMKC faculty, staff and students have built a secure for the present and future, many never anticipating the University’s LGBT-friendly reputation. Scaling through the monochromatic pages of UMKC’s LGBT history, the facts clearly display a campus of growth and value.

Blast from the past: Celebrating from the Starting Line

“Forty years ago, I could have never imagined that we would have such an inclusive environment for our LGBTQIA students,” said Jim Wanser, associate director of Counseling, Health and Testing Services. “While we still have students that come from families and communities that are judgmental and not supported, they soon learn that when they come to UMKC, they are expected, welcomed and find community.”

Wanser is one of few individuals at UMKC that remembers a time before programs for the LGBT community existed, especially in 1975 when Wanser became open on campus about his sexuality. “While there were various student support groups that formed throughout the 70s and 80s, Pride Alliance became the first recognized student organization for gays and lesbians,” he said.

Wanser served as the faculty adviser to the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance, an LGBT organization co-founded in 1990 by Jim Giles, Reese Isbell, Julie Riddle and JJ’s restaurant explosion victim Megan Cramer.

Stuart Hinds, director of special collections and Pride Alliance co-advisor, oversees the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America in the Miller Nichols Library.  Though most of Hinds’ duties involve collecting items to preserve Kansas City’s LGBT history, he’s also lived through much of it during his time at UMKC.

“I came to this school in 1980 as an 18-year-old undergraduate,” Hinds said. “And there was no mention of L, G, B, or T at all. I mean, it was completely invisible.”

Hinds explained several factors contributing to the ongoing development of the LGBT presence on UMKC’s campus. Then, the topic was considered taboo. There wasn’t as much of a presence or interest and it was much more of a commuter school then than it is today. Hinds reflected on how impressed he is with how far UMKC has come in just the span of his one adult life.

“It just wasn’t visible like it is now,” Hinds said. “And to me, one of the most important things that resulted from the University’s support of this effort is just visibility. LGBT students coming in now know their options, and they can take advantage or not. It’s their choice, but those options are there.”

However, support from the University hasn’t always been an identifiable sentiment.

Opinions of the LGBT community were quite clear throughout the 70s when the UM Board of Curators were making statements encouraging identifying students to “seek medical treatment for the medical illness of homosexuality” and fearing they would enable “others who are similarly ill and abnormal” to share their sexual orientations.

Within the same year, the board rejected proposals for organizational status from LGBT groups at both UMKC and Mizzou. UMKC’s student group has been formed as early as 1971, but their attempts as recognition were foiled.

A lawsuit was filed by members of the organizations in a case called Gay Lib et al, v. University of Missouri.

The 8th District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the students, requiring the University to provide official recognition to LGBT student groups.

Many petitions for appeal were submitted by the University system but were denied by the Supreme Court, forcing the decision of the lower court to be upheld.

Through this newly acquired support, the first LGBT organization was officiated in 1978. However, this group still had hurdles in its attempt to be visible on campus and dissipated until 1990 when the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance was established.

As the student first group evolved, the acceptance and diversity on campus grew. The first official LGBT student group at UMKC was called “The Gay People’s Union”. In the ‘90s, it was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which was renamed the Queer Alliance, and finally the Pride Alliance, which is the still the name of the official LGBT student group today.

“I can’t believe it’s been ten years,” Hinds said. “It’s changed a lot since then. You know, when I first came it was over in the ground floor of what’s now the Student Success Center—but it was the Student Union at that point—tucked back in a corner, kind of hidden. And now, again, it’s much more visible. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the new building, but it’s more prominent.”

The changes Hinds has witnessed range from the attitude toward LGBT issues to the location of their organization’s gathering places. Today, LGBTQIA Programs and Services is located in the Office of Student Involvement in the Student Union next to the Rainbow Lounge in Room 325, which is a safe space for any student believing in UMKC’s core values: diversity, inclusiveness and respect. Members of Pride Alliance, LGBTQIA students and allies alike are all welcome to come and relax or socialize.

“I think the biggest hurdle is just getting the recognition of the student group,” Hinds said. “Because with that recognition comes the ability to coalesce and chip away at those smaller things, like gender-neutral housing or preferred name policy or same sex benefits on the staff and faculty side. So I really think that’s your biggest hurdle, and then that provides the venue through which you work to implement additional change.”


Progress in the Present: Keeping the Changes Alive

In 2003, a group called Diversity in Action, comprised of 10 campus diversity leaders including Wanser, came together and decided UMKC could use a few progressive changes. One suggestion was a full-time paid LGBT Coordinator.

“The goal was to provide better support for our LGBT students,” Wanser said.

And hence, the Coordinator LGBTQIA Programs and Services position was drafted. The role has taken many forms, but during such a watershed year for LGBT rights and accomplishments, the current coordinator has had plenty to work with.

In addition to values, recognition, and involvement, Pryor plans activities that allow LGBTQIA students to connect with and learn from each other. Pride Alliance Secretary Roze Brooks is planning conversations to encourage students to address LGBT issues.

“This is something that the Pride Alliance Board has been formulating,” Hinds said. “It’s just an opportunity to get into small groups and talk about some of these issues—like language, like the coming out process, like work issues—that are relatable to LGBTQ students, so that you can talk through some of the things that are in your head or that you might be encountering or that you have questions about in a really safe environment—you know, no judging, no repercussions—to explore whatever you want to explore.”

In the past, the programs and services coordinator and LGBT student organization have worked separately of each other. This year, the two entities are working together to enhance the quality of programming and exposure.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the work that Jonathan and his crew do,” Hinds said. “It’s just amazing, and I’m so pleased that he agreed to be co-advisor to PA this year. It’s just a natural fit. He’s so good at what he does, and it’s so beneficial for the students, which is the ultimate goal.”

Direct descendent of the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance, Pride Alliance, hosted a meeting in honor of Welcome Week on Aug. 23 to familiarize students with the group’s mission and philosophies.

Pride Alliance board members were delighted as students filled up the Rainbow Lounge to learn more about the organization. Pryor explained the objective of the room to new members.

“The Rainbow Lounge is your space, so please feel free to use it,” Pryor said. “I want [it] to be a safe space and what that means is that we respect each other—regardless of our identities—whether LGBTQIA or others. I hope that you’ll help maintain that. I think within our community, we have a lot of diversity and that provides a lot of great topics for conversation.”

Pryor indicated that those conversations, although diverse, should be welcomed and respected in the Rainbow Lounge for people within the LGBT spectrum and otherwise.

Following the introduction to the Rainbow Lounge, students migrated to the Student Government Chambers where the organization plans to meet every other Friday.

“The LGBTQIA represents a big part of our community, right?” Pryor asked. “And I think a lot of our conversations often tend to focus around LGBT, but the intention is for it to be as inclusive as possible. We want to respect all genders and sexual identities here. The intention of this is to get to know your peers, and realize that you all may have different backgrounds, but we’re all here for a single purpose.”

To welcome new participants and ensure the environment was casual and comfortable, Pride Alliance President Kalaa Wilkerson addressed students with a lighthearted sense of humor as the board was introduced.

“The purpose of this event is to get to know each other,” Wilkerson said.

The crowd didn’t have a problem fulfilling that purpose. With the help of refreshments, games, group activities and free t-shirts and pens everyone in the room knew at least one new thing about a handful of their peers by the end of the session.

From its Drag Show in October to its Slut Walk participation next semester, Pride Alliance will host several events throughout the academic year. The organization will also present a number of educational events and has lined up celebrations for occasions such as Bisexuality Awareness Day on Sept. 23, National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20 and Day of Silence on Apr. 19.

“We have a lot of stuff coming up this semester,” Wilkerson said. “We’re a pretty open group, so if students want to stop by, we’d encourage them to. We don’t shut out anyone, no matter their gender, sexuality, heritage, color, or anything else. If students have an interest in [Pride Alliance], they can just come and hang out in the Rainbow Lounge. Someone’s always in there.”


Painting the future: Sharing the Safe Space

Each year, the Pride Empowerment Scholarship Breakfast raises thousands of dollars for students whose financial stability suffered after coming out to family, or other extenuating circumstances.  Colleges across the country fail to retain LGBT students who experience this same low blow, but don’t provide support.

In addition to this emergency fund, UMKC offers two other LGBT specific scholarships.  One is housed through the College of Arts and Sciences and focuses on student’s personal accomplishments. However, the newest scholarship, the LGBTQIA Leadership Scholarship, was awarded for the first time this semester.

The funds for this scholarship stem from an interesting source: Chick-Fil-A.  At the suggestion of Vice Chancellor Mel Tyler, this award was created out of funding funneled into the University through the Chick-Fil-A on campus, operated by Sodexo. After the announcement of this scholarship at last year’s Lavender Graduation, an award ceremony for LGBTQIA students and graduates, the scholarship was endowed, ensuring its accessibility for years to come.

Few colleges provide official campus programming groups for the LGBT community. The New York Times covered this in a January article called “Generation LGBTQIA.” UMKC was mentioned as one of these colleges providing an LGBTQIA Resource Center along with many other resources such as gender-neutral restrooms on campus. UMKC is continually being recognized for efforts in the LGBTQIA community as a whole.

In 2011, Newsweek ranked UMKC the 5th most LGBT-friendly campus in the country.

Last week, KCUR published “How UMKC Paved the Way for Gay Student Groups across the Country”.

“It’s an amazing story,” Hinds said. “I mean, it’s really, really something. The language from the Board of Curators and representatives at the University was just harsh and ugly and hateful. And what I find really interesting now, 33 years later, is that it’s as unthinkable to not have an LGBTQIA Programs and Services Office as it is to not have a Women’s Center or to not have an Office of Multicultural Affairs. It’s so integrated and people are so conscious of this particular minority group that you just wouldn’t dream of not having services to provide for that population. It would have had to have happened somewhere. “It’s just interesting that it happened in Missouri.”

In February 2014, UMKC will play host to the largest LGBTA regional college conference in the country. The Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference will be hosted downtown and is expected to bring in more than 2300 LGBTQIA identified students for a weekend of workshops, keynote speakers and networking. Janet Mock and Robyn Ochs are already listed as presenters at the event.

Running for its 22nd consecutive year, this will be the first time the conference will be held in Missouri.

Although UMKC is making a name for itself, Wanser believes there is more that can be done.

“We have an excellent LGBT Coordinator and many great activities, but do we have a stand-alone entity? That was the original intent of creating the LGBT Office and coordinator position,” he said commenting on the current position being housed in OSI.

Wanser believes progression on campus would benefit specifically from more services being provided for the transgender community and from diversity-based groups garnering more LGBT students in its membership, and finally, eliminating institutionalized debate about LGBT students on campus.

“The legitimacy of who we are as a community should no longer be part of our academic debate” he said. Hate is hate. Oppression is oppression no matter how it is framed.”

The climate for LGBTQIA students at UMKC has come a long way since 1975 and continues to evolve. An LGBTQIA Partnership Committee comprised of approximately 20 members from each facet of campus serves a similar charge as the Diversity in Action group Wanser was involved with 10 years ago.

This committee specifically discusses issues and improvements surrounding LGBTQIA identified students’ experiences on campus.

A climate study will be circulated throughout campus this semester to gather real statistics about student’s experiences on campus with LGBTQIA issues. Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black has been announced as the Pride Keynote speaker sponsored by the Division of Diversity, Access and Equity. And the Martha Jane Starr Foundation has granted funds for programming in March 2014 for a speaker and breakout sessions revolving the topic of LGBTQI families to be held at UMKC.

“Think of the future,” Wanser said, “When one’s sexual orientation or gender identity has no merit of conversation because it has been fully accepted as the normal that it is.”

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