Taking Pride in UConn’s Rainbow Center as Leaders Look at Work Beyond Celebration

Building toward an ambitious agenda of events and engagement for the Fall 2022 semester

The UConn gateway sign lit in rainbow colors in observance of LGBTQIA+ pride month.

The UConn gateway sign lit in rainbow colors in observance of LGBTQIA+ pride month. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

As communities throughout the nation mark Pride Month with parades and festivals, movie marathons and fun runs, the leaders of UConn’s Rainbow Center have their sights set on what comes outside the celebrations – continuing education and ongoing outreach.

Planning for a school years’ worth of events starts during the summer, and for the Rainbow Center the month of October – LGBT History Month – brings with it a calendar of activities, including the second annual Rainbow Center Symposium that’s set for Oct. 21.

“Pride Month in June is more of a celebration. It’s a time to find community, celebrate our resilience, and be together,” center Director Kelsey A. O’Neil says. “Pride Month is a good time to recognize the history of the LGBTQIA+ movement, to keep the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in 1970 at the forefront of our minds.”

It’s also an opportunity to learn about gay rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, along with the Cooper Do-nuts Riot and Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, O’Neil says, urging people to “remember that Black and Brown trans folks were at the center of fighting for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.”

To mark Pride Month, the Rainbow Center will host an LGBTQIA+ coffee hour at the center on Tuesday, June 7, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., O’Neil says. There also will be a PRIDE 2022 page on the center’s website, highlighting educational resources and links to events happening around the state.

“But I see LGBT History Month in October as more of our educational month, which is the core of what we do,” they say.

Fall Semester Will Bring New Opportunities to Get Involved

October also falls within the school calendar, a time when holding well-attended events and activities is easier in support of the center’s mission of providing programs, informational access, retention, identity development, and community building for students, staff, and faculty.

Last year’s symposium provided a day of workshops on topics ranging from “Growing Up Trans” to “Asexuality: A Guide” and “AIDS @ 40.” The subjects came from faculty, staff, and graduate students who pitched ideas and led the discussions. Anchoring the day was a keynote address.

It’s an event from which everyone at UConn can benefit, O’Neil says, noting it’s a good opportunity for professional development in departments with supervisors looking for a way to provide ongoing education for their employees.

With that as the focus of the fall, O’Neil says the resumption of in-person academic classes also likely will prompt a return of the social programs that have become staples of the center’s schedule, including the Welcome Back Bash and Spooky Social.

They’d also like to host a fall FAMILEE Mentoring Program dinner for the group – known by the long name Fostering Academics, Maturity, Independence, Leadership, Empowerment, and Excellence – that pairs incoming and transfer students who identify as LGBTQIA+ with current students who know their way around. Between 30 and 40 students usually participate in the program.

“Academic success is linked to belonging and we know that for all of the traditionally underrepresented identities that can be challenging,” O’Neil says. “We know peer mentoring impacts retention and success in college students and that’s why we’ve been trying to grow that program every year.”

Providing Space for Students to Meet, Learn, and Collaborate

In support of LGBTQ staff and faculty members, O’Neil says the affinity groups Queer BIPOC and QUE, Queer UConn Employees, are working year-round to engage and support their members. And there’s an Out to Lunch Lecture Series that focuses on gender sexuality and community in a weekly noontime get-together that serves as a three-credit course for students but is open to anyone at UConn.

“A lot of institutions have an LGBTQ center of some kind, but UConn, I like to think it’s special in its approach,” O’Neil says, noting the University has 4½ stars out of 5 from the nonprofit Campus Pride Index on its list of LGBTQ-friendly schools. “The amount of space we have is very unique. It’s something that drew me to UConn when I came for my on-campus interview in 2018. Just seeing the lounge space, the way we have classes in our space showed me the upper administration has a connection to LGBTQ students, which I think is unique.”

At almost 4,000 square feet, the center has a full kitchen and all-gender bathroom, along with plenty of meeting and conference room space, on the Student Union’s fourth floor with other student centers, like the Asian American Cultural Center and Women’s Center, giving an easier ability to collaborate.

With 15 to 20 student staffers at a time, the center is open extended hours during the school year and over the summer Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

‘We Have a Lot of Programming that Really Helps a Student Find Belonging’

The hope, O’Neil says, is that in the fall there will be dedicated hours for a gender-affirming closet that had been in the gender-inclusive housing in Brock Hall until a few years ago when a student approached the Rainbow Center to re-locate it there. Then the pandemic hit, and the items sat until last fall when it opened by appointment.

The closet is a place where students and graduate students can find clothing and accessories from gently used flannel shirts and dresses to new binders and shapewear. Items are free and in different sizes, and donations are welcome, O’Neil says.

“If people are interested in donating, especially folx who are allies during Pride Month, if they just did some spring cleaning and they have gently used items that they would like to donate just contact the Rainbow Center,” they say.

As for next spring’s activity schedule, O’Neil says the annual Drag Show – which was a sellout in April – again will take place, along with the annual Lavender Graduation during which graduating students who register for the event receive a lavender stole and a small celebration in their honor.

“We have a lot of supportive staff and faculty on this campus who go above and beyond for our LGBTQIA+ students and we also have a lot of allies in different department, and they make a great deal of difference in the way students are able to access support,” O’Neil says. “We have a lot of programming that really helps a student find belonging. I would just always encourage us to keep moving forward.”