On the northwestern side of the University Union building (commonly referred to as the UU) is a door with the words “Pride Center” printed on it next to a large TV advertising LGBT-related events this quarter. Its position is rather unassuming, and somewhat hidden from the main entrances to the UU, but not quite. The door has been kept closed due to recent harassment events, but one of the regulars there did put a sign on the door saying, “Come in, we’re open!” Inside is a warmly-lit space. The overhead lights are rarely turned on, and most lighting comes from the lamps around the room. To the left are electrical cabinets that route power to different parts of the UU, a reminder of how the Pride Center is (quite ironically) a repurposed electrical closet. To the right are colorful pins for different pronouns and identities that anyone can take.
“When I’m alone in there writing an essay… I vibe. I work. I work really hard.” Allison 2 is a an asexual aromantic 3 first year history major, and like many other members of the queer community, she often visits the Pride Center to study and get her work done. “It’s a really comfortable space,” she added (Allison). Karl, a gay third-year math major, said that his favorite parts about the Pride Center are “the people in it, followed by the printing, followed by the fact that the lights are very low, the couches, the blanket…” (Zieber) There are two couches across from each other in the front, and you can often find people seated together doing homework, or just sleeping on them between classes. There is a section with desks in the back, with whiteboards above. Sometimes, the whiteboards have math and physics problems written all over them, from people studying and receiving help. Other times, people write more lighthearted things on there, like a tongue-in-cheek list of “cool trans facts,” with items ranging from silly things like “trans teens backwards is sneet snart” to actually cool facts like “trans women are responsible for computers working properly.”4
Queer people on campus face intense discrimination on campus. At Cal Poly in general, “LGBTQIA community members (15.1% of students) report a less positive experience than their heterosexual peers (84.3% of students)” (Williams 30), and this is reflected in the stories my interviewees recounted. Declan, a gay first-year political science major, heard slurs tossed around a lot when he was in a group with other queer people. “Nothing ever really directed at [him] personally, because” he typically isn’t the most queer-presenting person in those groups (Galli). It seems to have been worse; during Karl’s first year, his roommate called him a fag behind his back, and he came home to his dorm one day to see sticky notes saying “fuck Karl,” and “why is Karl gay?” Personally, as a first-year, I never had to deal with anything this direct, but I feel like it was a bit more subtle. When I lived on an all-male floor in the engineering dorms as an extremely closeted trans woman, I was openly bisexual, but I didn’t reveal my gender identity. I didn’t recieve any direct discrimination, but the environment felt hostile. The boys were always discussing girls in an objectifying way. Even if non-straight people like me were somewhat tolerated, gayness and anal sex were common punchlines for some of their jokes, and it felt like being gay had the connotation of being lesser. My roommates had a really transphobic conversation while I was in there with them, and I had to remain silent on that, no matter how uncomfortable I felt, for fear of any kind of conflict that would make life harder than it already was. I ended up moving out because I didn’t feel safe or welcomed there.
There are plenty of other people who afraid to come out of the closet in the face of this discrimination. Everest,5 who is a black nonbinary aerospace engineering major in their third year. They haven’t received much queer discrimination as an LGBTQ person, just as a black person, especially in the light of the blackface incident (Everest). They are afraid to come out because if they did, they would not only be the target of racism, but transphobia stacked on top of that.
That’s where the Pride Center comes in. It’s a place where LGBTQ people build community, make connections, and socialize. Jenna, a nonbinary first-year manufacturing engineering major, feels like the Pride Center is “[their] own space… It will have people that [they] know [they] have something in common with” (Jenna). Allison says that she “often talks about politics or sometimes other LGBTQ issues, or… global warming.” Allison recounted a time when she and several other people were “on the floor was discussing [a recent anti-abortion event in the UU] in a circle. That’s just what we do, we talk about politics and shit like this. Apparently, ‘normal’ people don’t do that?” She also mentioned how she “had a religious conversation in the Pride Center with a complete stranger… having a breakdown… [over] feeling unaccepted as an atheist” and bonded with them, reassuring them that “other people who don’t believe in God exist too.” In these discussions of sensitive topics, “even when you say something dumb… they’re very considering of the fact that you probably come from a different place, or maybe that you misunderstood something, or missaid something.” It’s a space free of judgement, where people support each other, and ideas can flow freely. It makes a great safe space where queer people can bond over shared struggles. I can relate to this as well: so many times, I get drawn into an interesting conversation that comes up, distracting me from more important things like profile essays for English class.
Especially for first years, though, it’s a great place to meet queer upperclassmen and get advice from them. Declan has learned about “what it’s like being an out queer person in SLO, as a same-sex couple or queer couple, or what places you don’t want to go. Mostly it’s OK to go within SLO. You don’t want to go to Atascadero, I’ve learned.” It’s not just advice for queer people, either: I’ve gotten help with planning out my class schedule and navigating the Student Portal. Declan got help with withdrawing from a course, too. The Pride Center isn’t just a provider of resources; the community it builds up is a resource.
However, the Pride Center wasn’t always such an inclusive space. Kimi, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major who is non-binary, took a peek inside as a “really closeted” freshman. “It looked very homogenous in there, as in… a lot of white cisgender gay men, and [Kimi] did not fit that bill.” They were a bit “intimidated” by it, putting them off from going in (Kodama). Iris, a fifth-year computer science grad student who is a trans lesbian, described a similar experience, adding that the regulars at the Pride Center “were very racist, they were very transmisogynistic.” She even felt that the atmosphere was borderline “TERF-y”6 at times, too (Kohler). In recent years, though, it has gotten better. She saw more people of color at the Pride Center during her third, fourth, and fifth years, and “the space became a lot healthier for people of color.” Kimi finally went into the Pride Center last year after they went to a meeting for a club on campus called Queer and Trans People Of Color (QTPOC). It’s really shocking how different Iris’ and Kimi’s experiences were from everyone else I interviewed, as well as my own experience. As a person of color and a trans woman, I felt included there. Everyone who came to Cal Poly after Kimi reported a positive experience, and also felt very included. So many of the people I see in the Pride Center now are people of color, and there are so many womxn-identifying people7 that the Pride Center has run out of she/her pins. They form such a central part of our community, it’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like without them. The older students’ experiences emphasize why spaces like this can’t just focus on a single identity; it needs to accommodate all kinds of intersections of identities.
Being in a relatively public place in the UU, which is at the center of the school, there have been some incidents of harassment around it, often by Christians. A few incidents occured in Fall Quarter 2019, and at least five incidents that all happened in a single week in January 2020, some of which I personally witnessed. One time in January, I was studying in the Pride Center when a man and a woman from Mercy Church, an evangelical Christian club on campus, walked into the Pride Center and distributed flyers for some kind of prayer event that night. This incident wasn’t directly confrontational or queerphobic, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. Even though Christian queers do exist, many members of the queer community have not had a good experience with Christianity in general, particuarly of the evangelical kind. A few hours later, Everest was in the Pride Center when
[A] creepy guy… who kind of looked like he was a custodian, but didn’t look like the average age of even a graduate student on campus… didn’t even say hi, he just walked in, sat down, and then he was looking at our books… [giving off] Christian proselytizing sort of vibes… It got more and more uncomfortable… It’s kind of making the Pride Center a little less… safe to be in.
To my knowledge, that man went back to the Pride Center the next day, and harassed some more people before getting a restraining order from the police. Everest, who is Catholic, “understands the sentiment” of these kinds of proselytizing people: they think “our lives are just, only suffering” and are trying to “make themselves feel better” in a way. I know of someone who was there for four out of the five incidents, and I can see how people can be drawn away from the Center in light of this. It demonstrates that safe spaces need strong protection in order to back up their safety.
Previously, administration required that the door be left wide open, but now, they allow it to be kept closed due to these recent harassment incidents. Iris thought that it was about time for this decision to be made: “Our administration needs to actually listen to students more, especially people who have been here for 5 years and know that ‘hey, it’s a bad idea to constantly leave the door open!‘” I think this is a welcome change; I always felt like I was being judged by people staring in from outside. However, Kimi knows some people who might want to take that a step further. “There’s been a debate between whether or not it’d be better if the Pride Center was in a less open and obvious place, so if you walk in and out you don’t feel like you’re getting watched as you’re walking out of the closet… by everyone who’s around.” Since they present androgynously, they often “get some interesting looks when [they] walk out of the Pride Center.” It’s interesting how the act of going into the Pride Center and sitting there reveals to everyone around me that I am queer. In a twist of poetic irony, to walk into the closet, you end up walking out of the closet.
Moving the Pride Center to a new place might also help with another common complaint that it needs to be a bigger space. When I asked Declan what he wished the school could do, his eyes lit up and he immediately said, “Make us a bigger building! Give us, like, you know, several rooms at least? You know, more than 50 square feet?” Iris noted that it used to be even smaller: “the roof used to be lower” and there was even “a storage closet within the closet,” which “was the source of many jokes.” However, she thinks “it’d be nice to have an actually good space… one that isn’t zoned as a utility closet with a maximum occupancy of nine, because we’ve been breaking that consistently.” Additionally, they want more resources for cisgender, heterosexual allies. Declan says that “people don’t know all the terms,” and he would like to see “information sessions for people [about allyship]… mythbusting all the terms.” Iris wants resources for LGBT people about “how to be a better ally to other [LGBT] people. Plenty of LGBT people who are say, white, or able, or cisgender… can still have a lot of bigotry” and having reasons for “why we should be allies to these communities as much as they should be allies to ours” can reduce this.
Being queer can be scary, but seeking out a community for support can make the world feel a little less scary. When I asked Kimi for advice for other queer folks, they said, “Sometimes, you have to go… seek out the resources. They won’t come to you. It can be really scary to seek out those resources.” Everest said, “You can come to the Pride Center without feeling like you’re completely out to everyone you know on campus necessarily.” Kimi added, “You can literally go in questioning and people will still celebrate that.” Allison said, “I know for all the introverts, it seems like it could be a lot worse, but it’s actually not that bad… If you need a place to study and you don’t know where to go, I would consider the Pride Center a very good place. Just pop in some headphones and no one will talk to you.”
I wish I had been told this earlier: I learned about the Pride Center during SLO Days, but I was too afraid to go in until a friend wanted to meet with me there. That first time was a bit awkward, especially as a person who is a bit socially anxious and timid, but I continued going there afterwards. That was for the better, because I met a lot of great people there who helped me through tough times. Everest sums it up best: “The Pride Center is a safe space for you to be yourself if you feel like you can’t be yourself anywhere else on campus.”
- Allison. Personal Interview. 27 January 2020.
- Everest. Personal Interview. 30 January 2020.
- Galli, Declan. Personal Interview. 27 January 2020.
- Kohler, Iris. Personal Interview. 30 January 2020.
- Jenna. Personal Interview. 28 January 2020.
- Zieber, Karl. Personal Interview. 30 January 2020.
- Kodama, Kimi. Personal Interview. 29 January 2020.
- Williams, Damon A, et al. “Embracing the Journey: The CPX Research Study Executive Report.” Cal Poly Diversity and Inclusion, California Polytechnic State University, 2019, content-calpoly-edu.s3.amazonaws.com/diversity/1/images/Cal_Poly_ExecReport_Final-2.1_compressed.pdf.
- Allison is using a pseudonym.↩
- Asexual (the A in LGBTQIA+) means she doesn’t experience sexual attraction to anyone. Aromantic means she doesn’t experience romantic attraction to anyone. For her, this means “no penis, no vagina, no cuddles, no spoons,” but others may have a different experience due to it being a spectrum. For example, a different asexuals may be more willing to have sex, but not as much as non-asexual people.↩
- This is a reference to transgender computing pioneers like Sophie Wilson and Lynn Conway.↩
- Everest is using a pseudonym.↩
- TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” though the ‘feminist’ part is a misnomer. It describes a person who appropriates feminist rhetoric to make their transphobia seem less conservative. Not only are they transphobic, but they often end up reinforcing gender traditional gender roles and stereotypes, harming cisgender women as well, which is antithetical to actual feminism. Recently, TERFs have been trying to distance themselves from the term, attempting to label it a slur (which is not) and rebranding themselves as “gender-critical.”↩
- Womxn is a term that is used to explicitly include transgender women and femme-identifying nonbinary people.↩