Big Queer Potluck Kicks Off New Initiatives for LGBTQIA Students

On Thursday, Sept. 29 about thirty students, faculty, and staff attended the Big Queer Potluck and Open Forum for Inclusivity on campus. The potluck was the first in a planned series of events intended to embrace LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) students, faculty, and staff at St. Mary’s. Students discussed their experiences as part of the St. Mary’s campus community, and talked about services addressing the needs of LGBTQIA students that St. Mary’s already provides or that could be added to campus.

The college has begun new initiatives to assess the needs of LGBTQIA students on campus, including the establishment of a review panel comprised of students, faculty, and staff. This review is part of an ongoing action by Student Affairs to improve campus life and community for all students. According to their website, “Student Affairs uses the standards set by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education to conduct a comprehensive review to ensure that [St. Mary’s is] employing best practices. [These reviews] result in an action plan for ongoing improvement of our services and programs, designing new programs, staff development, strategic planning, [and] budget allocation.”

Laura Bayless, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, advocated for the new review panel of LGBTQIA services and for new staff positions to organize the review process and implement new campus programming directed towards LGBTQIA community needs.

In past years, the college had combined several Student Affairs offices to downsize and streamline the department. However, Bayless said that through this process it became clear that “we didn’t have anybody focused on LGBTQ students,” and the college wants to “give support to as many different students as possible.”

Responsibility for the review process was given largely to Clint Neill, the Assistant Director of Student Activities. According to Neill, the process is still in its early stages, where the review team and its organizers are “trying to come up with what we need to be doing.” Steps toward assessing campus needs may include climate surveys and gathering statistical data about inclusivity on campus in addition to anecdotal information about students’ and staff experience.

As part of the new initiative, Neill is hoping to have an LGBTQIA program monthly, where there are a “mixture of social programs and educational programming for the entire campus community.” These programs could potentially include “films, speakers, and workshops,” Neill said.

Senior Wesley Watkins, the Co-President of St. Mary’s Triangle and Rainbow Society (S.T.A.R.S.), was hired by the college as the LGBTQ Student Services Program Assistant to assist Clint Neill and the review team. Watkins said, “my job is to assess need on campus as I see it, to provide active and passive programming of relevant issues, and to provide resources and be a resource to anyone that might be interesting in any sort of LGBTQ services.”

Although the review board has taken no specific actions yet, students have expressed an explicit desire for a “focus on the needs of transgender students,” according to Neill. Watkins said, “My particular interest, as a student, not related to my duties to the review team, is what campus policy addresses the following issues: hate crime or bias reporting, the role of Public Safety in LGBTQ student services, transgender students, and gender neutral housing and bathrooms.”

Watkins said, “I love the campus and the student body. We’ve all had our own struggles throughout college. It’s the intersection of newfound independence, fermenting ideas, and wild experiences. As student fellow, there are a lot of opportunities to encourage students to talk about their experiences and advocate for themselves amongst possibly new groups of people. I suppose I [am] most attracted to the idea that I [can] facilitate discussion and help others articulate their struggles.”

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