Bhargav ArimilliLife and Arts Editor
Correction: In a previous version of this story, the creation of Matt Johns’ role as Assistant Director of LGBT Programs and Zack Gentry’s involvement in the GWC’s name change were misrepresented. In addition, the proposal for Johns’ role was submitted to the Student Fee Committee. The Mercury regrets these errors.
A single door, decorated to commemorate National Coming Out Day, stood on the Plinth on Oct. 11 as part of the Galerstein Women’s Center’s series of programs to celebrate LGBT History Month.
The event was one of the first that the GWC organized after its appointment of a new director to focus on LGBT issues, part of a larger rearrangement to better serve UTD’s LGBT community.
Matt Johns assumed his new position as Assistant Director of LGBT Programs on Sept. 1 after working as a student development specialist at the Center for a year. The title is a significant step forward for the LGBT community at UTD, he said.
“It’s the first time in UTD history that someone’s had ‘LGBT’ in their job title,” Johns said. “We’ve always been serving LGBT students, faculty and staff, but now we have a specific role to recognize that the climate is changing — not only on campus, but in the United States and in the world.”
The GWC focuses on gender issues on campus and engages in community outreach and advocacy for women and LGBT individuals. However, Johns said the Center’s staff of four found it difficult to plan programming for both communities at the same time. This, coupled with an increase in LGBT visibility at UTD and universities nation-wide, prompted the GWC Director Lauren DeCillis to consider creating a new role that would focus solely on LGBT issues.
“With the current climate of the United States where a lot of LGBT efforts are becoming more and more prominent, it became very apparent that we needed to step up our game and make sure we’re properly serving the community,” he said.
The changes were the result of a year-long effort by the LGBT, Advocacy, Education and Programming Committee, a UTD multi-departmental collaboration that spearheads LGBT initiatives. Zackary Gentry, a literary studies senior who served on the programming subcommittee, was one of the students involved throughout the process and said Johns’ appointment came at a crucial time.
“There’s so much need from students for these LGBT services. … Having a person with the capacity and administrative power of Matt Johns now is just moving in the right direction,” Gentry said.
Part of the process for writing the proposal for the new position, which was submitted to the UTD Student Fees Committee and approved in the spring of 2016, included research into similar centers at other UT System institutions and universities across the United States. Johns and his team specifically looked into what services these centers offered and how these services were named in order to understand how best to support not only the LGBT and female populations, but the general student body as well.
“Whether it be through our counseling services, our events or through our advocacy efforts, we want everyone to feel that they’re welcome to come in here, even if they’re not a woman or an LGBT (individual),” Johns said.
To complement the establishment of a new role focusing on LGBT issues, the Women’s Center also submitted a proposal to the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement detailing a possible name change to the Center in order to better reflect both populations —women and LGBT individuals — the Center serves.
Gentry highlighted the impact that a name change would have on the LGBT population at UTD.
“We want to have visibility that there is an LGBT center, (but) when it’s called the ‘Women’s Center,’ it’s difficult for people to realize that they can get help here,” he said. “We wanted to be representative of our mission and there was a huge portion of our mission that was not being communicated.”
The Office of Diversity and Community Engagement, which oversees all GWC initiatives, declined to comment on the proposal. The Center is still awaiting a decision on the name change.
The Women’s Center has also implemented an increase in the frequency of Safe Zone Ally training, an optional course to all members of the UTD and surrounding communities. Currently, training is offered once every fall semester. Over 500 faculty, staff, students and community members have gone through Safe Zone Ally training, but to cope with heightened interest and to keep trainees up-to-date, the Center will offer multiple training sessions during both fall and spring semesters.
“If you have one big training (session), people go once and they think they don’t have to re-engage,” Gentry said. “I think having multiple small ones and mixing it up … and really tailoring it to the time allows people to get more out of it and continue to stay engaged.”
Though the Galerstein Women’s Center is undergoing several changes, Johns emphasized the vision going forward has not changed and noted it will continue with its advocacy and programming efforts.
“I think my goal at the end of the day is to make sure that (LGBT) students know that they have value on and off this campus,” he said. “And that if they ever feel like they don’t have value, or if they’re disrespected in any way, that we’re a place they can turn to.”