The Decade Series: The Students of Stonewall
The fight for LGBTQ+ rights
January 3, 2020
AMHERST — A three-story, brick-building is tucked away in a back corner of Southwest Residential Area surrounded by looming twenty-two-story towers with sticky-notes on windows. Above a small staircase and a glass door is an aged sign with the colors of the rainbow and block letters: The Stonewall Center.
In 1985, the flagship campus opened the nation’s third professionally-staffed lesbian, gay and bisexual college campus center. In 1992, the university created the first residential hall program for LGBTQ+ students in the nation. In 2018, for the 8th consecutive year, University of Massachusetts Amherst was recognized as one of the top 30 LGBTQ-friendly campuses, according to a UMass press release.
UMass wasn’t the only place that saw strides within the movement of equality. The last decade especially was marked by milestones for the United States LGBTQ+ community including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that would end the ban on gay men and lesbian women from serving openly in the military, a myriad of openly-gay American politicians, actors and athletes and the landmark civil rights case which ruled a fundamental-right to marry between same-sex couples.
Yet, did the university fight to protect these students along the way? If not, who was fighting for them? Who is today?
Genny Beemyn, who recently received an award for their work on transgender inclusion, has been the director of the center for almost 14 years. They are assisted by the work of the Stonewall Center’s assistant director Crystal Nieves and graduate assistant Hillary Montague-Asp. Each week, a team of six undergraduate students also go to work at the center lined with novels, pamphlets, aged couches and colorful posters.
Artemis Duffy, a junior, women, gender and sexuality studies and social thought and political economy major has worked on the Stonewall Center’s student staff for two years. Elienishka Ramos Torres, a sophomore journalism major, has worked there for a year.
The student staff members job is to program events, run trainings, greet people coming into the center, help run the center’s library and direct students to different resources when they call or come into the center.
Duffy had a hard first semester after coming to school from out-of-state and feeling like his friends were nice, but that he couldn’t always connect with them.
“I couldn’t indulge in the sameness or community because there were tons of things that just weren’t the same,” said Duffy about many of the people he first met, where there was a gap between experiences, from the way they dated, to the way they approached relationships with family members.
“It’s things that just when you are cis, straight and white are just different. That gap sometimes made me feel just very, very different, even if they weren’t intending to,” he added. Duffy applied to work for the center the second semester of his freshman year after a push from his mother.
Since coming to the Stonewall Center, Duffy and Torres have given a lot of time and energy to contribute to the needs and wants of the community. It isn’t just any other job.
“The work is inherently emotional. There’s no way to separate yourself from that. I feel like for most people who apply here, they want to have a hands-on relationship with the community and contribute,” said Duffy. “It’s hard because all of us are queer people and so this is not separate from us. It’s not an adjacent community. It is our community. We’re trying to serve ourselves and people like us, and people that love people like us.”
While many movements have been pushed forward in the last decade with the 2016 transition of power in the Oval Office, there have been major losses to that fight, including a ban that would restrict most transgender people from serving in the military and a current court case revolving around if one could be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
For Torres, it’s essential to continue to take a stand for her community.
“I want to serve the people who have had such a big impact on my life and what I do. I grew up appreciating a lot of queer art and queer things, but I could never really do that outside my family or room,” she said. “Working with the Stonewall Center is really important to me because I feel like I owe this community something because they’ve done so much for me and my confidence, in like who I am, what I believe in. I think it would be an injustice to not do something.”
The history of the center
According to a Center for Education Advocacy and Policy docu-series episode, a LGB (lesbian, gay, bi) center was created in 1984 as a response to student harassment and a rejection of student services. As we have seen more recently with strikes regarding climate justice and demands for a sanctuary campus, LGBTQ+ students and allies in the mid-80’s protested a list of demands to the current chancellor, Joseph Duffey, expressing concerns of safety and discrimination.
In the episode, Felice Yeskel, a human-relations planner, reported on her analysis of a campus questionnaire given out at campus events and posted in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Her analysis recommended university action for LGBTQ+ students.
She said the protest explained that queer students did not trust those who promised to help them — that they wouldn’t victimize them because of their own homophobia. This made the need for a L,G,B resource center essential. In the following year, Yeskel’s research led to a two-year trial for the program. After the center’s success, the university decided to keep the center and change its name to “The Stonewall Center” that was relocated in its current location is Southwest Residential Community.
To the student workers, whose opinions do not represent the center’s, they feel like the university does not do enough.
“When I first came here I saw UMass was pretty great because I saw all this stuff and I was like look at all this stuff they do for students and their passions. This is really nice,” Torres said. Yet, as she has continued her studies, she realized that the university only seems to do this to look good and avoid bad press.
In 2017, the university launched the “Hate has no home at UMass” initiative stating that they “stand united in defense of diversity and inclusion.” Yet, the university has continually remained under scrutiny for incidents such as a racist message written on a resident hall’s bathroom mirror, racial profiling of a Whitmore Building employee, Swastikas on campus property and Christian protesters who denounced homosexuality as sinful.
Duffy echoes Torres, saying that the university only responds when they are confronted with ongoing concerns, rather than realizing what needs to be done, what is actually right or standing for what the university actually believes in. Duffy brings up moments in the university’s history, like in the 60s and 70s, when black university students had to put in a lot of work to get an Afro-Am department or any of the cultural centers that came after.
“It makes me realize that the reason why this exists and the reason why cultural centers exists is because of students, not because of the university,” Torres said.
Amplifying Intersectional Voices
Duffy and Torres share that the rights for equality is not a linear path, where seemingly progressive actions can continue to silence voices that contain intersectional identities, without many even realizing. For them, a center that is actually helping is one that centers the most vulnerable people in the community.
“We are in a predominantly white campus. I don’t know if the center gets to everyone it needs to or even if its goals are being accomplished, which is really helping materially the most vulnerable people in the LGBT community, which would be trans women, queer people of color, queer trans women of color,” said Duffy.
Duffy said he has noticed that when Stonewall doesn’t coordinate a QTPOC (Queer, Trans, Person of Color) event, then it becomes a mostly white, queer space very quickly.
“That can be super alienating to the most vulnerable people on this campus.”
In the last year, the student workers have worked to create a more inclusive space, teaming up with cultural centers and other minority groups on campus. The QTPOC dinners started in 2018 and the small crowd has grown over the months. Duffy said it’s important to him that the center integrates the inter-sectionalites of wanting to connect with your culture, but also know that queer people of color are often ostracized from their communities.
“Although I have only been working for almost a year now, I believe the Stonewall center is really trying to make sure that marginalized people within the LGBTQ community whose identities are inter-sectional know that they are welcome and belong as well,” said Torres.
Duffy and Torres critique that the campus climate won’t change without education. Duffy suggests beneficial courses such as a black history class or a queer history class.
“I just think the people that need to know this never take classes like that,” said Duffy who thinks the requirement could be as simple as the standard English requirement undergraduate students must take in order to graduate.
Yet, in a college campus, there are never any guarantees.
“I think not everyone has the same goals when they come to a community space. For me, I’m like I want everyone to have a space, to uplift voices that are not uplifted, but some people just come into spaces not recognizing their other forms of privilege.”
Duffy said while they have seen a lot of improvements over the last several years, it’s hard to build community because on such a large campus, people tend to think they are the only ones.
“We’re trying to overcome that,” he said.
Email Caeli Chesin at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @caeli_chesin.