Honoring Pride Month, Year Round
When Rachel Adams joined the faculty at Howard Community College (HCC) in 2016, it didn’t take her long to grasp a welcome realization: Her new workplace’s culture was much different than the one she left at another institution of higher education.
“We have a lot of support here and it’s really fantastic,” says Adams, a professor in the Arts & Humanities department and co-advisor for the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA).
“When I was an advisor in Kentucky, the group a lot of times had to meet in secret because the students were so afraid of being found out. We got a lot of pushback when we tried to enact policies or things.”
SAGA was originally the Gay Straight Alliance until students voted to change the name a few years ago. They thought SAGA was more specific to who they are and the club’s activities.
“We encompass all kinds of gender identities and sexual orientations,” Adams says. “Also, a lot of high school clubs call themselves Gay Straight Alliance. We wanted to differentiate ourselves as a college and keep inclusion in mind, so it didn’t sound like only gay people were allowed.”
First and foremost, SAGA is a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a social organization that exists to provide support, acceptance, and friendships. That’s especially important for those who aren’t out publicly.
“It’s so sad to me that some students often live in households where they can’t be their authentic selves all the time,” says Joseph Ritsch, SAGA co-advisor and Producing Artistic Director for Rep Stage. “Some are not out fully on campus either. SAGA meetings give them a chance to be themselves and be with other students who identify with that community.”
Ritsch is also a co-chair of HCC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, which plans college-wide diversity activities, sometimes in conjunction with SAGA. The committee also promotes inclusion through campus policy and procedures, like creating all-gender restrooms in almost every academic building.
“It’s really important to have those restrooms,” Adams says. “For transgender or nonconforming individuals, going to the bathroom becomes a very stressful or anxiety-producing event. People might stare or whisper tell you that you don’t belong. All-gender restrooms remove that.”
Adams is proud of the school’s response in February 2017 when President Trump rescinded protections that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. But HCC refused to go along and continued to honor the previous policy.
That’s just one of many examples Adams points to when describing the school’s support and resources. Students can easily change their preferred name and honorific (Mr./Ms./etc.) by contacting the Registrar’s office. Students have access to LGBTQ+-friendly counseling services. And faculty and staff undergo regular professional development training on diversity and inclusion.
Faculty and staff can also undergo training to join HCC’s network of Safe Zone Allies, employees who are committed to openly and readily provide a welcoming and safe environment for LGBTQ+ students. These allies serve as educators, resources, and advocates, and upon completion of training receive stickers to put on their workspace.
“The training is done every semester and led by two wonderful people on campus, Tara Rupp, who’s with the Wellness Center, and Joy Stephens, who’s in the Counseling Center,” Adams says. “When you go through it, you learn more about identities, the language we use, and resources on campus. When you put the sticker on your door, students can walk into that space if they’re having trouble and know you’re someone who won’t judge them or ask inappropriate questions.”
SAGA usually doesn’t do anything special for Pride month because it’s celebrated in June, when students aren’t on campus. But the club always does events for other significant dates, like Transgender Day of Remembrance and Transgender Day of Visibility.
For National Coming Out Day, SAGA sets up tables at locations across campus, sometimes pairing with other student organizations. Members distribute ribbons with rainbows, buttons with pronouns, and HCC resources like the Safe Zone Allies map. “It’s really just a celebration of who you are,” Adams says. “Coming out is a huge thing. Last year, one campus organization brought rainbow donuts. It was so sweet.”
Ritsch says each SAGA meeting has different elements that can include discussions, watching a LGBTQ+ movie, or holding a potluck. Another popular feature is Cahoots, the mobile app that allows users to create their own trivia game. “We’ll often do LGBTQ+ history trivia sessions are really fun and have a fun level of competition,” he says. “At the same time, it’s great for a younger generation of the community either learning about history they didn’t know or being pleasantly surprised that they knew certain history.”
That history often is marked with adversities, and SAGA counts advocacy as a purpose alongside being a social organization. Adams says community support is crucial, but so is celebration.
“It’s really easy to get caught up in all bad things – violence, families not being accepting, harmful legislation,” she says. “In our meeting space, students are celebrated for who they are. No one’s going to look at you weird, say you can’t be here, or ask about your identity.”
“It’s so important for students to know that if no one else in the world accepts them, they can walk into SAGA and hear ‘Good to see you’ and ‘Come on in.’”