My first exposure to Temple’s LGBTQIA community was a missed connection.
It was at the student organization fair during Welcome Week of August 2013. I had a new friend attached to my hip, and rainbows beckoned from the Queer Student Union table, but I couldn’t find the courage to walk over.
I wasn’t yet sure enough of my identity to feel like a rightful recruit, and more importantly, I didn’t know how my new pal would respond. Putting my name on that mailing list seemed like the equivalent to publicly and prematurely outing myself on Liacouras Walk. I couldn’t do it.
LGBTQIA-identifying freshmen shouldn’t have to feel this same vulnerability. And luckily, they don’t have to anymore. OuTU is a Welcome Week event organized by the HEART Peer Educators of the Wellness Resource Center. This past Welcome Week, the event was held for the second year in a row. The event is geared specifically toward LGBTQIA students, offering them resources and a chance to more easily meet other LGBTQIA-identifying students
One of the event’s organizers, Lydia Smith, said the WRC works to make LGBTQIA students feel included.
“When I was a freshman, I wasn’t out to anyone,” said Smith, a senior social work major and program assistant for gender and sexuality inclusion at the WRC. “Becoming part of the WRC was really important. It was such a welcoming, supportive environment that I was like, ‘OK, I can be out here.’”
It can be intimidating or dangerous for a LGBTQIA-identifying student to be open about their identity.
The WRC’s event allowed students to meet LGBTQIA-identifying upperclassmen like Smith, hear their stories and learn about LGBTQIA resources and opportunities at Temple and in Philadelphia. Interactive panel discussions introduced students to non-straight and non-cisgender campus life, available support systems and channels for responding to discrimination.
Being introduced to those on campus who are available to talk about LGBTQIA issues is important for new students who may have questions as they make their transition from high school to college, which can be hard for students who are not straight or cisgender.
For example, in shared living situations that are often considered a staple of college life, LGBTQIA students can be wary of being placed with a homophobic or transphobic roommate. It can be intimidating or dangerous for a LGBTQIA-identifying student to be open about their identity. This position can lead students to stay closeted, putting them under extra mental and emotional strain and causing them to feel socially alienated.
Bernadette Karpf, who studied theater at Temple from 2014 to 2016, was affected by Temple’s gendered dorm policies during her freshman year. Karpf, who identifies as transgender, was in the process of changing her legally registered gender marker when she came to Temple, and she was told that she couldn’t live in women’s housing until the change was complete. She was forced to live in a single room until the following year.
“Living in a single, frankly, sucked,” Karpf said. “It made me feel like an outcast, like I wasn’t a real girl. I just felt like an outsider.”
This is the type of situation that incoming transgender students may face and should be able to hear about firsthand from upperclassmen who’ve already experienced it. Karpf said she would have liked to experienced an event like OuTU during her freshman year.
“Having a way to meet a community would have been really awesome and given me an easier time making friends,” Karpf said.
It is also possible that professors and staff members will treat LGBTQIA students disrespectfully or discriminatorily when in class. Considering the unequal power dynamics between students and faculty in the university setting, students can feel powerless to respond to a faculty member’s inappropriate comments or behavior if they are unaware of the institutional outlets for reporting discrimination.
The potential for these scenarios makes OuTU an even more important event. Being exposed to LGBTQIA-friendly faculty and staff during their first days at Temple allows freshmen to know there are people in power to turn to for guidance.
Events like OuTU are important in making LGBTQIA-identifying students feel prepared for the next four years of their lives on Main Campus.
Smith said her goal was to provide incoming students with safety and support through OuTU. That goal seemed to have been achieved from my perspective. I overheard one attendee who said, “I feel relaxed for the first time this week.”
During OuTU this past Welcome Week, I found myself sitting in a circle alongside nervous and excited faces, introducing ourselves with the names and the pronouns we use. I wished my freshman self could have sat beside me. Maybe she would have felt safe and supported and would have owned her non-straightness sooner. Maybe she would have put her name on the mailing list.
Alexandra Wallace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.