From Rejection to Support
Being out and proud isn’t always an easy feat at any university, let alone on a Catholic Jesuit campus. Santa Clara University has slowly progressed to make that experience easier, from rejecting a gay alumni group in 1995 to founding a Rainbow Resource Center in October 2010, which offers a physical space for LGBTQ+ students to find social, academic and financial support.
Whether providing maps of “all-gender” bathrooms and hosting “lavender graduation” ceremonies, or offering safe space trainings across campus and a Rainbow Buddies mentorship program, these efforts seek to increase cultural competency for the LGBTQ+ community through conversation and connection across campus.
The RRC proves especially vital as younger Santa Clara students can often have trouble finding acceptance at home, coming out within the broader community and building relationships with welcoming peers.
Ryan Quakenbush, a 2017 graduate who worked as an RRC student coordinator and co-created the Rainbow Buddies mentorship program, said the comprehensive education provided by the RRC helped leaders of clubs and student organizations increase inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students across the board.
“I can’t express enough how valuable the RRC was for me as a gay Bronco,” Ryan said. “Not only was it a safe haven for queer students, it was making the whole campus a better place.”
Located within the Benson Memorial Center, the RRC is a subset of the Office of Multicultural Learning (OML), which was formed in 1999 to support the development of more diversity in race, culture, ethnicity and other identities on campus, prompted by student protest against a lack of resources, awareness and allyship for marginalized groups.
The RRC celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2020. Most students hear of its services through word of mouth, annual orientation fairs, and events like queer film festivals and rainbow proms. A small group of students, faculty and staff marched in the Silicon Valley Pride Parade for the first time in 2018, the same year Dr. Joanna Thompson began overseeing the RRC as director of the OML.
“(Pride) was a moment to be able to be visible on and off campus, and show that we do have a growing queer population—faculty, staff, and students,” Joanna said. “Even though there are a lot of traditions within the Catholic Jesuit faith, there are folks who believe that you can be both gay and Catholic.”
While folks on the ground at SCU will refer others, upperclassmen tend to be more comfortable utilizing the center’s services, since simply entering the RRC can be an “outing” experience. However, offering a place for folks to hang out or do homework is important for students’ identity development outside the classroom, especially as many struggle with learning how to support their own mental health.
Joanna—a queer woman of color— arrived at SCU after spending eight years in Chicago, where she earned her masters and PhD in criminology and taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She offers expertise on identity development at the intersection of interpersonal violence, such as bullying, microaggressions and harassment – all common occurrences for people of color and LGBTQ+ folks.
Joanna blossomed into her own queer identity after coming out in grad school and worked alongside other queer community members to address hate crimes and inequities, including two years at the Center on Halsted, the largest LGBTQ+ community center in the Midwest.
As a Black and Latina woman, her subsequent move to SCU provided an opportunity to continue fostering broader conversations about intersectionality and social justice, this time revamping the OML and RRC offices. Joanna’s team became “fully staffed” for the first time in 2020 with 2.5 staff members—highlighting the lack of SCU resources dedicated to issues of diversity.
Joanna said the queer staff and faculty on the SCU campus help fill some of the gaps by fostering one-on-one relationships with students and keeping a pulse on what’s happening on campus. She has had students come out to her and ask questions, coming full circle from her own experiences on a college campus.
Despite the progress, any programming from the RRC is still seen as taboo by some traditional Jesuits, who have reached out to Joanna with concerns within her first two years on campus.
But LGBTQ+ students have been making waves since before the RRC came to be, including kicking off the school’s inaugural drag show in 2002. Despite being called a “talent show” for its early years, archives of the school’s newspaper said administration was supportive for the educational elements highlighting the campus’ diversity.
Even through friction between queer groups and Catholic leadership, Father Michael Engh—the university president from 2009 to 2019—was vocal about his approval of the community.
That support was made clear in October 2016, when bulletin boards were vandalized with a swastika and slurs against LGBTQ+ people. Engh donned a rainbow armband and joined 70 other staff members and students in a march of solidarity.
The number of LGBTQ+ students the RRC serves remains unclear, due to a lack of data. The school does not collect information on how many queer students are on campus, nor how many have been served by the RRC, as privacy concerns have halted any data collection beyond what is provided through college applications.
But even getting to this point wasn’t easy.
A group was founded for gay and lesbian graduate law students in 1984. However, the formation of a group dedicated to undergraduates was ultimately denied in 1987, based on beliefs that younger students are impressionable and being gay or lesbian was only a phase.
That abruptly changed in 1988, after fellow Jesuit institution Georgetown lost a lawsuit for similar denials. This news brought along a nondiscrimination clause inclusive of sexual orientation to SCU, and years later a group for LGBTQ+ staff and faculty began.
That change wasn’t initially extended to alumni, after requests for a gay, lesbian and bisexual alumni chapter were rejected in an 18-7 vote in 1995. School officials and faculty argued the decision was meant to avoid splintering groups within the association, despite having different chapters for geographic areas and academic achievements, as well as Asian, African-American and La Raza groups.
While LGBTQ+ alumni were welcomed to join any existing chapter, proponents said barring the community from gathering together in its own organization not only forced some graduates to stay closeted, but also violated the school’s own non-discrimination policy.
An LGBTQ+ alumni chapter was finally established in 2017—22 years after the first attempt. Joanna said it has been one of the most active across SCU’s alumni groups since then, even setting up an endowed scholarship for LGBTQ+ students.
Other LGBTQ-focused groups have since faded, including Gay and Straight People for the Education of Diversity, but a student-led group called Queers and Allies (Q&A) actively collaborates with the RRC. While SCU joins Georgetown as one of the more inclusive Jesuit institutions, with its RRC and Safe Space Initiatives held up as examples to follow, there’s still a long way to go.
The RRC continues to struggle against the students and alumni who hold traditional religious values on and off the Catholic Jesuit campus, including beliefs that homosexuality is a sin—one reason Joanna said some married queer faculty members don’t always hold hands on campus. Most recently in November 2020, a school-wide email chain about the Transgender Day of Remembrance was met with transphobic pushback, whether intentional or not.
These struggles can make recruiting prospective students and faculty difficult from the start, especially as progressive schools abound in Silicon Valley, such as San Jose State University and Stanford University—each of which were pioneers in offering support for the LGBTQ+ community.
But as SCU continues to grapple with its identity in modern times, the successes of the RRC and LGBTQ+ alumni group mark stark, positive transformations from the 1980s and 90s.