Who knew that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is home to one of the friendliest college hangouts in the United States?
More people than you think, since Newsweek/The Daily Beast named UWM America’s No. 12 Gay-Friendly University in a recent national survey.
“This ranking is in large part about the work of Jen Murray, director of the UWM LGBT Resource Center,” says Laurie Marks, UWM alumna and director of the Center for Volunteerism and Student Leadership at UWM.
“The [LGBT] center is always busy and alive with great energy, meaningful programming, educational resources and welcoming folks for young people to connect with, often during the coming-out process.”
“I can honestly say my UWM experience would not be the same without the LGBT Resource Center,” says B Lovrek, a senior student in criminal justice who works in the LGBT Resource and Student Success centers. “The culture here is well-rounded, not just focused on one thing. All kinds of people come in here; it can feel like a big family.”
UWM is the only University of Wisconsin System institution to make the Top 25 list. Other schools recognized as most gay-friendly include Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Berkeley and Ohio State.
“I’m impressed that UWM was recognized within the Newsweek rankings,” Director Jen Murray says.
“But we’re just scratching the surface of what needs to be done to create a sense of inclusion that honors every aspect of complex, personal identities. Multiple, intersecting identities are a reality for most of us, and are at the heart of our work.”
For some students, though, it is the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, ally) experience that first brings them through the center doors.
Richard Tijerina came to UWM from Berlin, Wis., population 5,300, seeking a diverse, big-city experience for his college years.
“The center is the most welcoming area of campus,” says the freshman education student. “It’s super-diverse, very accepting. I’ve met some really great people here.”
A not-so-secret agenda
The LGBT Resource Center has been a fixture on the ground floor of the UWM Union since 2002. It’s one of several Student Services offices with an open-door policy and a focus on providing space and advocacy for students who can feel overlooked or alienated by “mainstream” campus culture.
But on a recent February afternoon, it became obvious that students also come to the center to engage in timeless college traditions like having fun and relaxing.
“We work to be present in the moment,” says Assistant Director Warren Scherer, over the din of 10 students chatting and typing and talking about same-sex marriage in New Jersey. “We talk about what’s going on in our world, our culture; about things related to our studies. But we also talk about family problems, breakups, just general-interest stuff.”
From general-interest to LGBTQ topics
Some things are not so obvious or easy to discuss – nor are they meant to be. Despite prime-time punch lines about “gaydar,” rainbow flags and purple T-shirts, gender identity and sexual identity are not the kind of thing every person wishes to wear on zir* sleeve.
“The LGBT population is a group that, nationally, is among the most marginalized,” says Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Michael Laliberte. “And as a culture, it is one that is not always easily identified.”
Nor should who a person is, nor how zie* identifies, be the subject of random inquiry or hostility, say students at the center. Yet national surveys indicate that many LGBTQ students in college settings remain the target of derogatory language and biased encounters.
“Often on a college campus, folks who identify as [LGBT] might not be ‘out,’ and they are marginalized in ways that are socially acceptable,” says Laliberte.
Freshman political science student Acee Laird felt that sense of isolation. He says it took time to get comfortable with himself as an out college student before he could walk into the center. When he finally did, the connection and camaraderie were instant.
“Every day here has really been an opportunity to connect with people who support me and believe in who I am,” Laird explains. “A space where peers can figure out who I am, but where I am not being judged at the expense of my sexuality.”
Inspired advocacy, solutions
To meet the needs of more UWM faculty, students and staff, the center worked with the university’s Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on LGBT Issues, ADA Advisory Committee, Physical Environment Committee and others to create more inclusive facilities – namely, gender-inclusive restrooms that now number more than 20 at UWM.
Murray worked with colleagues in the Office of Diversity & Climate and the Dean of Students Office to create the Hate-Bias Incident Report Tool, which can be used to report and track episodes of subtle or overt discrimination that impact the climate at UWM, but don’t rise to the level of police involvement.
In addition to cross-campus collaboration, the center hosts events and trainings throughout the academic year – from “Safe Space” trainings for university units and departments to the annual UWM drag show, which draws attendees in the hundreds. A lending library lines the center’s south wall. Pens, banners, leaflets and glossy sheets inform visitors of the latest in campus events and LGBTQ discourse.
“The opportunity for our students, faculty and staff to engage in dialogues that are diverse in opinions, culturally unique and broad in scope is a framework that shapes student success,” says Joan Prince, vice chancellor for global inclusion and engagement. “Jen’s untiring efforts on behalf of the center and inclusion overall is to be applauded.”
Visit the UWM LGBT Resource Center online at www.aux.uwm.edu/lgbt/ or in person in Union WG-89 (just off the Union Terrace).
The Hate/Bias Incident Report Form can be found online at: http://www4.uwm.edu/eds/hbr/.
Find out more about UWM Multicultural Student Services and centers at: http://www4.uwm.edu/msc/other_services/.
Register now for the 2012 Inclusive Excellence seminar:
Look into one of the university’s fastest-growing academic offerings – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Certificate program: