Gender-neutral bathrooms, LGBTQ advocacy and the largest drag show in Oklahoma are things that some students might not have imagined at the University of Oklahoma just 10 years ago.
Now, as OU and the national atmosphere have continued to shift, employees at the Gender + Equality Center reflect on two decades of the office’s existence and the role it has played on campus.
Originally the Women’s Outreach Center, the organization’s mission focused on women’s health, breast cancer awareness, education and other women’s issues. As the years went by, the mission changed.
While the center was still recognized as a resource for women, a greater emphasis began to be placed on the need for a center for the LGBTQ community, as well as gender-based violence prevention and response, and sexual assault advocacy. In 2016, the new Gender + Equality Center was born.
The center will celebrate 20 years on Nov. 1. For two decades, this group has supported and continues to support marginalized groups on campus by providing resources and opportunities. The center has made its mark, and it doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
OU students are exposed to the center’s many facets their first year through mandatory meetings called “Step In, Speak Out.” The center is also responsible for the “Consent Never Goes On Break” and “My Costume Is Not My Consent” posters seen around campus in the past. These are all campaigns from the center’s gender-based violence prevention portfolio to educate OU students about sexual assault and how it can be prevented.
“We do a lot of work on the front end to make sure the worst thing never happens,” said Erin Simpson, director of the center. “But if the worst thing does happen, we’re home of the OU Advocates, which is our sexual assault, dating or domestic violence, stalking or harassment 24/7 advocacy group. We believe the student standing in front of us wholeheartedly and work to make sure they feel safe, supported and can continue their education here at OU.”
One of the longest-serving members of OU Advocates, Maggie Pool, said the program is unique because it is completely on a volunteer basis.
“An advocate is there to connect the student with resources and being there — being their advocate. Sometimes it’s just for them to know that someone is there for them and believes in them,” Pool said.
Pool said the program has evolved during her years as an OU Advocate through the increased availability of their resources. When Pool became an advocate, she said the advocate phone number was not made publicly available.
After the simple change of making the number more accessible, Pool said the amount of calls increased.
“I think that simple change of letting people know that this service was available was huge,” Pool said. “Because sometimes people don’t want to tell their professor or their resident adviser — they want it to be as confidential as possible.”
Additionally, Pool said the sexual violence culture has changed because of how much more attention it is getting than in the past.
“I think the culture is changing because people are talking about it,” Pool said. “Having a campus that offers these services changes the climate and culture of sexual violence.”
LGBTQ education and programming is an important facet of the center. The Aspiring Ally program, which provides training to help others advocate for the LGBTQ community on campus, was created nearly 12 years ago and has trained over 10,000 people about LGBTQ identities, experiences and ways to show support since its inception. The LGBTQ programming team also works to organize events like “Crimson and Queens,” Oklahoma’s largest drag show.
Along with the various programs the center offers, it has been a place of refuge. This safe space has inspired students to get involved and be part of an organization that helps people who may be in need of support.
Leanne Ho, English literary and cultural studies senior and LGBTQ+ Program Advisory Board chair, said the center had a positive impact on them upon arriving to OU.
“I came from a really homophobic, conservative background where I didn’t really have a chance to be outwardly involved in LGBTQ advocacy until I got to college, and I knew that was something I wanted to do,” Ho said.
Ho’s involvement with the center speaks for itself. Having been a peer educator for “Step In, Speak Out” and a gender-based violence intern, as well as working on the executive board for a student-led social justice conference at OU called “Mosaic,” Ho has seen firsthand the impact the center can make.
“Up until I got involved, I didn’t really have a queer community,” Ho said. “Getting to meet other LGBTQ people, especially people who saw their identities as sources of celebration instead of shame, that was really important to me as a young queer person.”
While today there may be more acknowledgement of LGBTQ identities and rights than in the past, Ho believes there has always been the need for a space for the community on college campuses.
“College is already hard,” Ho said. “Then you have this added burden of self-advocacy — whether it’s making sure your professors use the right pronouns or making sure you have access to gender-affirming bathrooms — and other things you have to think about that other college students might not have to.”
“It’s slow, and I wish it would come faster, but it’s happening.”
The world we live in today is much different from the world the Gender + Equality Center was created in. Today, there is more acceptance of different identities and more understanding of the issues women and LGBTQ students face. People of marginalized communities are assuming prominent roles on campus and making their mark, providing figures for people to look up to.
The same can be said for women fighting for equal pay in the workplace and victims of sexual assault speaking out against their abusers. The #MeToo movement went viral on Twitter in October 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet urging anyone who had been sexually assaulted before to comment “me too” under her post.
The tweet got an immense response, resulting in the hashtag’s use over 19 million times within a year of Milano’s initial post.
The #MeToo movement was started in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-wealth communities, find pathways to healing.
Today, the movement has inspired many around the world to speak up and even helped pave the way for the center to support students in new ways.
Political science and African and African-American studies senior Miles Francisco, a programming intern for the center who is also a “Step In, Speak Out” peer educator and an LGBTQ+ Program Advisory Board member, said the movement and societal attitudes have made an impact on college campuses.
“I think college campuses are microcosms of society at large,” Francisco said. “Everything that has happened in the world — whether it be the #MeToo movement, marriage equality or the exponentially high record of murders that occur that are perpetuated against transgender women of color — all of those things affect the initiatives, trainings and urgencies of the work the GEC does.”
With the help of OU Student Government Association funds, new additions to the center are on the horizon. These include a complete office renovation to quadruple the center’s space and two gender-inclusive bathrooms in the back of Beaird Lounge in the Oklahoma Memorial Union. The office is also in the process of hiring two new full-time staff members.
Simpson said last academic year alone, the center held 351 educational training sessions. With the increased number of sessions, these two new staff members will be a training and development coordinator and an outreach coordinator to build programming for people who hold multiple identities.
“That is a pace that is continually amping up, as more and more people ask for training sessions around implicit bias and LGBTQ identities, how to be a better ally, gender-based violence prevention or anti-racist things,” Simpson said.
The center strives to help make societal progress through events such as the “Crimson and Queens” drag show, which Simpson said didn’t exist when she was an OU student.
“It’s hard for me to imagine, in my undergraduate career, 700 people in a room cheering for a drag queen,” Simpson said. “I think back to my undergraduate time between 2001 and 2006 and I’m like, ‘I don’t think that would’ve happened.’”
In fact, Simpson said, such a large crowd wanted to attend the show last year that people had to be turned away.
“These are the moments that I think about where I can see change and progress,” Simpson said. “It’s slow, and I wish it would come faster, but it’s happening.”
“It’s difficult work, but it’s really important work.”
Kathy Fahl, former director of the Gender + Equality Center, said it is important to provide a place that supports vulnerable students, now more than ever before.
“It’s critical to support underserved, marginalized communities,” Fahl said. “I think also because there are not a lot of community-based programs for the LGBTQ community, it also serves a purpose for them in the community and opportunities to collaborate with some groups that exist in Norman.”
As for the center’s mission, Fahl said it has changed over time. Having served as director for 11 years, Fahl said one of the greatest accomplishments of the center, in her eyes, is advocating for change at OU.
“I think working toward institutional change goes beyond a program, event or even a student,” Fahl said. “I think those things (we work toward) certainly help students in the moment, but they help way beyond when students graduate.”
“For me, as a cisgender, heterosexual male, it’s really important for me to show up and be an advocate for women, queer people and transgender people, and to show that really visibly,” Francisco said. “Creating equitable, accessible alternative solutions for marginalized students, faculty and staff is something that I’m really passionate about.”
Francisco said his involvement with the center has not only allowed him to support others, but it also has been instrumental to his personal growth.
“The GEC has been a learning tool for me to constantly be working on myself and also to be working on all of the different spaces and areas that I get to work on that may not have such a distinct name as the GEC, like my fraternity or some of the other organizations I’m in,” Francisco said. “Bringing in the importance of intersectionality of equity and justice for transgender and queer folk into all of those spaces has kind of morphed into who I am as a student activist on this campus.”
Francisco said with the rising visibility of things like LQBTQ advocacy and sexual assault prevention, it has allowed for more important conversations to happen that might not have happened in the past. Additionally, he said it has allowed the center to evaluate itself and grow on its own.
“I think the main way the GEC has grown has been by critiquing itself, allowing itself to adapt to the time and really needing to bring in more diverse voices, perspectives and identities into the office,” Francisco said. “So I think that is the biggest way the GEC has grown — it’s who is in the room and at the table, and who is leading these conversations.”
As for the center’s impact on him, Francisco said the work is not easy, but it’s worth it.
“It’s difficult work, but it’s really important work.”