University of Central Florida’s programs for LGBTQ+ students are something to be proud of

University of Central Florida’s programs for LGBTQ+ students are something to be proud of
Photo by Bernard Wilchusky

There's nothing particularly special about Room 171 at the University of Central Florida. If it weren't for the four rainbow flags emblazoned on its entryway, one might easily mistake it for any other student lounge. But to the students inside, Room 171 is more than just a place to relax: It's a home away from home, a space where LGBTQ+ students are free to be themselves without exception or reservation.

"I went to three different high schools, two public and one private, and none of them really had any spaces like this," says Taylor Robbins, a sophomore biology major. "This is the first time I've been a part of a community like this, where there was something I felt was relevant [to me]."

Room 171 (aka Pride Commons) is one of several outreach initiatives sponsored by the university to show support for its alphabet students. These initiatives are coordinated and developed by the office of Social Justice and Advocacy, a student-faculty organization that advocates for multicultural and LGBTQ+ students alike. Its efforts are spearheaded by Justin Andrade, the LGBTQ+ services coordinator for the SJA.

"My position is responsible for LGBTQ advocacy on campus, which could be anything from policy inclusion to inclusion practices of housing, health services, to anything directly dealing with LGBTQ students, to ensure that we're being as inclusive as possible," Andrade says.  "We want to be sure that different offices, departments and administrators have LGBTQ students at the forefront of their minds when dealing with underrepresented students."

Programming sponsored by the SJA includes: the Lavender Celebration, an annual graduation ceremony for LGBTQ+ students; the Lavender Lunch, a back-to-school kickoff luncheon held at the beginning of each semester; LGBTQ+ History Month, which features a series of events throughout October; the Alliance Mentoring Program, which pairs students with LGBTQ+ staff or faculty mentors; the Q Guide, an online document detailing the various services available to alphabet students and staff; a speakers bureau, which invites LGBTQ+ individuals from the local community to speak with students; 17 gender-neutral bathrooms; and Affinity Groups, biweekly meetings for students to discuss issues ranging from the gender spectrum to LGBTQ+ spirituality to queer people of color, according to the SJA website.

In addition to being a place where students can study, socialize and relax, Pride Commons is one of three major Safe Zones on campus. Safe Zones are areas staffed by faculty or student coordinators who have received special four-part ally training from SJA that acquaints them with the concerns of LGBTQ+ students. Individuals who complete the training are presented with a placard they can place outside of their door to indicate that they've been taught how to be sensitive to common LGBTQ+ issues.

"Our Safe Zone series is a four-part training series that teaches how to become more inclusive in your classroom and offices," Andrade says. "It starts from very basic stuff in LGBTQ+ 101, where we go over some terminology and some basic history to start the dialog on LGBTQ+ inclusion efforts, and then branches off to advocate training, which deals with trans students; a workshop dealing with students coming out; and GOLD, which is our Gender, Orientation, Language and Diversity workshop, where we spend some time breaking down the differences in biological sex and gender identity."

Beyond the efforts of the SJA, groups like Counseling and Psychological Services center (CAPS) offer therapy and support groups for gay, lesbian and transgender students. These weekly services are held in groups of six to 10 and are led by one to two certified counselors.

"We offer a Questioning and Coming Out group to students who are working on coming out and the early stages of the process, who are working on self-acceptance, family concerns and the cultural norms that are shifting for them during this process," says Robert Dwyer, the support group coordinator and a counselor at CAPS. "And then there's the Trans Support group, which is a place where students can discuss their concerns and be supportive of one another."

Dwyer says that the most common issues he helps students cope with are feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. He says that attendance at the questioning group has fallen, and at the same time attendance at the trans support group has risen – a trend he says began around four years ago.

"We're wondering if there are other places on campus where students are being supported, and whether coming out is a less relevant concern for students who are coming to counseling," he says. "Meanwhile, our trans support group, which used to be more fledgling and inconsistently attended, is so popular that we're almost running out of space."

Support for trans students now extends to the housing process, which allows students to indicate a preferred name that will be filed with the registrar and used on most university documentation. Housing works closely with trans students to ensure that they are placed in a safe, trans-friendly environment.

"We don't have a specific process or accommodation for students who identify as gay or lesbian," says Meredith Varner, the assistant director of UCF Housing and Residence Life. "Within our housing application, we do ask the question if their gender identity is different than their legal sex on record: If they answer yes to that question, we send them a follow-up email that connects them with two staff members who will talk with them about where they are in their process, where they might want to live, who they might want as housemates – we do our best to find safe and appropriate roommates for these people, not anyone who's transphobic or wouldn't understand what they're going through."

While efforts by the SJA, CAPS and housing have done much to accommodate LGBTQ+ students – enough to earn UCF four (out of five) stars on the Campus Pride Index for gay-friendly schools – Andrade admits that gaps remain in the university's services when dealing with trans students. Public regulations prevent housing from pairing trans students with members of the opposite sex, and the medical center is able to fill – but not write – prescriptions for medications used in sex-reassignment therapy. A report compiled by the SJA detailing coverage gaps for trans students is currently under review by the campus administration.

"I really wish that there were more resources that they were actually able to give," says Johns, a trans woman who requested that her first name remain unpublished. "A lot of the stuff that would matter to me they can't do, or they're not allowed to do, like hormone treatment. It's kind of what I expected. I'm not upset about it, but I did expect [these services] to focus on gay and lesbians, rather than gender issues."

Overall, gay and lesbian students said they were satisfied with the type of resources the school offered them, and by their experiences with the student body at large. The most common complaint? Connecting romantically with other LGBTQ+ students.

"The students here are all nice, but maybe that's just our generation," says Thomas Fanek, a first-year accounting major. "I don't ever see anyone getting harassed. I feel pretty normal. The only thing is dating: because we make up such a small part of the population, so it's difficult to figure out whether someone you're interested in is interested back."

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