Thirty years ago, an openly gay student arriving at Penn would have found few — if any at all — LGBT support services from the University.
Today, however, many in the world of higher education acknowledge Penn as one of the most LGBT-friendly schools in the nation.
Over homecoming weekend, students, alumni and staff gathered to celebrate the LGBT Center’s 30th anniversary.
“If you had told me back then that Penn would be seen as one of the top schools in the country for LGBT students, I would’ve had a hard time believing it,” said 1983 College graduate Liz Cooper, who was a student when the center first started. “The growth and the institutionalization of a safe home, an environment for gay students, is extraordinary.”
It’s been 30 years since the University first hired a staff person to deal specifically with LGBT issues, and 10 years since the center moved to its current location at the Carriage House.
Bob Schoenberg, the current director of the center, was that very first staff member. He was hired part-time in 1982 when he was a doctoral student at the School of Social Policy and Practice. At the time, Schoenberg was among the early wave of staff members hired at different colleges across the country to provide support for LGBT students.
Initially hired to work for two days a week, Schoenberg’s role quickly expanded in the years following.
“Somewhere along there, instead of being Bob Schoenberg, one point person for lesbian and gay issues, it became the program for the lesbian, gay [and] bisexual community at Penn,” he said. “I went from being a one-staff person to being a program with a couple of employees.”
The center hired its second full-time staff member in 1998, and then a third person in 2002. In 2002, the center also moved to its Carriage House home after receiving donations for a renovation in 2000.
The LGBT Center’s name has also changed throughout the years, with the decision to add “T” to its name being one of its more controversial name changes. T, which stands for transgender, was added in 1999.
“It wasn’t without controversy, because there are people who don’t understand why ‘T’ belongs to the LGBT community,” Schoenberg explained. “We actually hired a consultant to provide training to the staff and the interns about the needs of the transgender community.”
Since then, the center has provided a home base to all LGBT students, as well as support to student groups.
Although Penn’s LGBT community is thriving and growing, the same is not true for all campuses. Schoenberg pointed to the fact that there are nearly 200 LGBT centers or programs across the country, while there are far more institutions of higher education.
Kelly Garrett, a coordinator at Brown University’s LGBTQ Center, cited limited resources as one of the reasons for this gap.
“It’s all about resources — basically, what the school has available to them,” she said. “I do think it’s important to realize the limits.”
However, Garrett does note a positive trend in the number of LGBT centers on college campuses across the nation.
“It kind of exploded in the last 15 years,” she said.
Penn’s Center is unique among many of the existing centers today because of the amount of physical space it has, according to Schoenberg. Many centers are a part of an existing office or a building, where there are rooms for it. Brown, for example, has two offices and a lounge space.
The fact that Penn has a physical space for LGBT students is especially important, according to Graduate School of Education doctoral student Andrés Castro Samayoa.
“You have 10 years of a physical space, and I think that’s very important because that provides a physical home for a lot of these organizations,” said Castro Samayoa, who is conducting research on LGBT resources on college campuses across the country. “They’re looking for a space where they can come together as a community.”
Now that Penn’s LGBT Center has been well-established over the past 30 years, Schoenberg is planning to do more in the future to boost the resources at other centers across the country.
“With all due modesty, when you’re the best, you can’t turn to your peers, so where do you go?” he said. “I have the strong sense that there are places we can go — one of which can be to help other centers do what we’re already doing.”
Editor’s Note: A photo that previously ran with this article misidentified the Carriage House, which is home to the LGBT Center. The photo was in fact of the Potts Mansion at 3905 Spruce Street, not of the Carriage House, which is located at 3907 Spruce Street. The photo has been removed and replaced with a correct photo.
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