I was 19 when I came out. It was 1982 and I was a freshman studying theater at Virginia Commonwealth University. Saying “I’m gay” publicly for the first time brought an indescribable sense of liberation. For me the sense of relief and exhilaration was almost instantaneous after years of denial. At the time, we had no organized institutional support for LGBTQ students at VCU. I found safety and acceptance among friends and colleagues in the theater department.
Fast forward thirty years. Since 2013, it has been my privilege to direct what is now called the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center at ECU. Founded in 2011 as the LGBT Resource Office, the Peel LGBTQ Center is now the largest center of its kind in the 17-campus UNC system. We have grown from 2,700 visitors in 2011/2012 to just under 8,000 visits last year. Last night, we hosted our annual Fall Welcome and Social which reached a record-setting 224 people, with at least 40 percent of that number being freshman.
We strive to offer a safe and welcoming environment for our entire campus—students, faculty, staff, alumni, and prospective students and their families, LGBTQ and Allies—and we promote understanding, acceptance, and visibility of the LGBTQ community through a comprehensive range of educational programming and advocacy services. With the leadership and guidance of our LGBTQ Advancement Council, our fundraising activities support students through scholarships, professional development opportunities, and the ongoing LGBTQ Legacy Project (an essay contest with cash prizes).
In 2018, ECU was recognized by Campus Pride for its institutional commitment to LGBTQ-inclusive policy, program, and practice. ECU received a 4.5-star rating based on a five-point scale on the Campus Pride Index, which is the primary LGBTQ national benchmarking tool for assisting college campuses to create safer, more inclusive communities and learning environments. The rating was based on an evaluation of eight LGBTQ-inclusive categories: policy, support and institutional commitment, academic life, student life, housing and residence life, campus safety, counseling and health, and recruitment and retention.
Student Health Services is now offering a Gender Affirming Care Clinic, so that our transgender and non-binary students can receive care on campus without having to travel to Raleigh or Wilmington. The Center for Counseling and Student Development offers individual and group counseling for LGBTQ students. The University Registrar is finalizing a system that will allow students, faculty, and staff to indicate a preferred name, pronouns, and gender identification in Spring 2020.
Students involved with the Center report a sense of safety on campus that they do not feel in Greenville. Students have routinely experienced of anti-LGBTQ epithets shouted at them from passing cars and trucks on Tenth Street.
We can do better serving the needs of our LGBTQ-identified students—particularly our transgender and non-binary students—in campus housing, though we must abide by the rules set forth the by UNC General Administration which dictates that housing assignments be made by sex. We recognize that some students—or faculty or staff—may not yet feel ready to be involved with the LGBTQ Center for fear of rejection by friends, family, or colleagues.
We live in a time when the national rhetoric and discourse around issues of difference is polarized, and open hostility escalating to violence seems to be acceptable—if not condoned—by those in leadership positions.
We work everyday to live the East Carolina Creed and, for me, most importantly that “I will respect and appreciate the diversity of our people, ideas, and opinions.” We are proud of what we have achieved, and, at the same time, we can do better.