LGTBQ students ring in semester
The University’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community kicked off the fall semester with an opening celebration for returning students and newcomers that included an appearance from Bebe Zahara Benet from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Nearly 200 students, staff and alumni gathered in the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus to celebrate the community, which also includes straight allies who attended as supporters.
Jenny Kurtz, director of the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, said the event informed attendees of different resources and programs at the University available to LGBTQ students.
“We’re here to celebrate the community — welcome everyone back to Rutgers and talk about some of the resources and programs we have,” she said. “It’s a big festive way to kick off the year.”
Kurtz came out 15 years ago and has become involved in the LGBTQ community at the University since she began working here four years ago.
In that time, Kurtz said she has seen much progress, especially when the center sets up tables around campus to make their presence known to students.
“When we table, it previously used to only be LGBTQ folks coming up to the table, and they might [have been] really be nervous,” she said.
But Kurtz said more people show up to the tables now, including allies who want to support the community.
Another form of support comes from liaisons between the University and students, Kurtz said.
Mark Sharp, reservations coordinator in University Student Life, acts as one of those liaisons. He said he is glad to provide support that he did not have when he attended the University.
While support may have been there, Sharp, a University alumnus, said it was not as accessible as it is now because students had to seek out help themselves.
He said his role is to be an approachable, humorous person for students and that he wears his pride pin every day to show he is open to talking with LGBTQ students.
“If I can put a student at ease and make them feel comfortable enough to come up and talk to me — and I am a 6-foot tall black man so sometimes, you know, it’s ‘I don’t want to talk to him’ — but it’s also ‘he’s a fun guy and I could have a great conversation with him,’” he said.
Randall Parker, a Mason Gross School of the Arts sophomore, said he was excited to see Benet perform at the event.
“I follow ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ very closely, and I was excited when she won,” he said. “I’m definitely excited to see her for free tonight.”
Benet lip synced to “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson and danced with students in attendance.
Parker said he was happy there was a big turnout, one that surpassed last year’s kickoff event.
“I’m glad that there’s a large showing,” he said. “It’s good that the community is coming together.”
Dominique Bryant, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student who works in the Center for Social Justice Education, said he views his job as a way to enlighten people.
“I think we can enlighten people and prevent discrimination,” he said. “You have to be willing to listen to other people’s opinions and be able to shed light without forcing your own opinion on them.”
Bryant said he feels showing students what is appropriate is the best way to inform them and open their minds to the LGBTQ community.
Kurtz said the Center for Social Justice Education hosts a number of events similar to the opening ceremony throughout the year and connects students to programs and the liaisons who can help them through the coming out process.
“We offer training to staff, faculty and students on topics of sexuality and gender diversity and also broader social justice issues,” she said.
The center works with two residential communities, Rainbow Perspectives and the Livingston Social Justice Learning Community, organizations that focus on reaching out to students interested in LGBTQ issues, Kurtz said.
“We do a lot of raising awareness, and we do a lot of community building,” she said. “We work with students who might need some support around issues like coming out to friends or family, thinking about their identity or self identifying, and the myriad of possibilities for college students.”