Story and photos by ANDREW LURAS
Salt Lake City is known as being one of the most Mormon cities in America. And to counter the common knowledge of that, it’s also known as one of the “gayest” cities, which many people find hard to believe.
With it being known as this type of city, many different students from out of state are probably wondering how the University of Utah may reflect those values.
The conversation of the LGBTQ+ has always been around, but it’s become such a widespread debate through politicians, news, and just everyday conversation. This community is constantly fighting for its well-deserved rights in this country, as well as the freedom to walk around safely without the lingering fear of running into the many hateful people who reside within America.
LGBTQ+ students are seeking out which colleges and universities to attend based on many differing factors such as how accepting toward them will their future campus be. With the U, at new student orientation, the staff will kindly ask you to state your name, without it even having to be your birth name, and your pronouns, such as he/him, she/her, they/them, etc.
The LGBT Resource Center is located on the fourth floor in room 409 inside the U’s A. Ray Olpin Union building. The center was founded in 2002 by Stayner Landward and Kay Harward, both retired and moved on. This was during a time when the Mormon church was “anti-gay” with many of its teachings and practices showing some distaste toward gay marriage, according to Whit Hollis, the director of the Student Union. It started out as just an LGBT student organization with weekly meetings garnering a range of 80 to 250 students.
Hollis attended a few of these meetings. “There was a clear need for services for that group of students, faculty, and staff of course due to the sheer size of the student organization,” Hollis said. When creating the resource center, Landward and Harward found support from the student body and administration at the U but it wasn’t always like that.
Proposition 8, also known as Prop 8, came about during 2008. It was a ballot proposition against same-sex marriage. During this time the LGBTQ+ found themselves being targeted for hate-speech and microaggressions. “They would tell us, ‘Why do you need more rights, you already have equal rights,’ which was bullshit,” Hollis said.
“Things have definitely been better recently. There’s still these microaggressions going around but the U has improved since the resource center first started,” Hollis said. He commented on the many different locations the resource center has occupied as it’s grown. “There was a point where I had to convert a storage closet to be the center’s main room which was ironic for the gay director to put all the gays in the closet,” Hollis said as he laughed at the idea.
“Right now it seems to be quite successful, but we all can strive to do better, no matter where we are,” Hollis said. “The U isn’t as safe as it needs to be and that we must always strive to make the U a safe campus for all students, faculty, and staff who attend or work here.”
As of February 2019, the resource center’s director is Clare Lemke, the former assistant director of the Center for LGBTQIA+ Student Success at Iowa State University. “I was looking for my next step and Utah wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “I’ve been looking for different opportunities in the West and this job came up.” Lemke had been moving in order to try to find something closer to her partner’s career. When this job opportunity appeared, she became surprised by the vibrancy of diversity in the U’s campus with the many queer and transgender people she has been able to meet on campus.
Originally, she thought she was studying to become a professor but over time she found that working in a resource center felt more “collaborative” than being a traditional educator. Currently at the resource center there are three full time staff members and two student staff members. “All of our staff here bring a wealth of different backgrounds and personalities. It’s refreshing to see for the students who visit the center,” Lemke said.
When it comes to the changes the U has gone through in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, Lemke feels as if the U “isn’t just a place you go to and leave at 5 p.m. anymore.”
Lemke finds that the U is very different from her previous institution. “I don’t think I’ve been anywhere with so much of its influence being made by the different cultures within the U.” She added, “We’re constantly striving to make the U a safe space for queer and trans students, we just want to make sure we don’t let these negative experiences an LGBTQ+ student might have affect the rest of their life here.”
One student in particular, who asked to be identified as “G,” said she had some pretty odd experiences at the U as an LGBTQ+ member. “I’m a business major and a lot of the students in those buildings in particular are pretty discriminatory towards my sexuality.”
G also said her Mormon peers have invited her to church. “They would be overly friendly at first,” she said, but she felt like they were only inviting her to change her sexual orientation.
G doesn’t know how accepting the rest of campus is, but that experience left her with much anxiety. She found it harder to reach out to many of her peers or professors about this issue but she found solace in the many other friends outside of school who were LGBTQ+ accepting. G used to go to Westminster College and she felt the transition from there to the U was “an odd experience.” G said there is room for improvement at the U and we should be looking for ways to help students have an overall great campus life.
“I’ve been to the resource center a few times,” G said. “Clare [Lemke] and the staff at the center are very helpful, though I had trouble finding it at first. If you are a part of the LGBTQ+ you should definitely check out the resource center, they’re a really great group of people, especially if you had an experience on campus like mine.” Even with G’s experience at the U, she has decided to stay and not let it affect her pursuit of a business degree. This is just one in the many cases of what it’s like to be a student at the U who is a part of the LGBTQ+.
As much as Salt Lake City has this good image on being an open and welcoming city to the LGBTQ+, students, faculty, and staff at the U are always working on improving upon the areas they may be lacking in. Whit Hollis believes we need to focus more on the safety of our LGBTQ+ members. And Lemke knows we must prioritize these students because the negative experiences they might have on campus may affect their education here. As Hollis, Lemke, and G have agreed on, the U should always be striving to do better in order to figure out the best way to serve its students so they can have an educational, safe, and happy experience here on campus.