Diversity is what makes each of us unique, be it individual backgrounds, personalities, life experiences, beliefs, or sexual orientation and gender.
At Southern Utah University, these differences positively impact the campus community. The Center of Diversity and Inclusion hosts nine clubs focused on promoting diversity on campus. One of those clubs is the Pride and Equality Club.
PAEC is led by its president, Christiana Guerra. The goal of the club is to bring awareness to queer issues and to encourage positive change within the community through services on and off campus. Each semester, the club hosts events like National Coming Out Day, the Drag Brunch and Ball, Pride Week and a film festival.
Guerra and other LGBTQIA+ students are grateful that SUU offers a safe environment for their community through the CDI. In 2017, Guerra discovered PAEC during freshman orientation and instantly felt at home and accepted.
“I met the best people to ever enter my life and we are still friends to this day,” Guerra said. “There’s a level of support you feel from people within the CDI and PAEC that always amazes me.”
Through PAEC, Guerra and other LGBTQIA+ students found a home where they could openly express themselves, find support and discuss challenges they face within their community.
Even though SUU has evolved in accommodating its LGBTQIA+ students, there are still ways the university can improve at the institutional level. Most classes do not have gender neutral syllabi, there are only a handful of gender neutral bathrooms and some students are continually misgendered.
“Sometimes discrimination like being misgendered or called by the wrong name comes from SUU and that shocks me,” Guerra said. “A student shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to feel respected by being called by the right name and referred to as the right gender.”
Discrimination hits home
SUU freshman Sammy Bennett explained that throughout their life, they faced discrimination from families and friends. Bennett is gender fluid and goes by she, he and they pronouns. They said that their family is not accepting of different pronouns other than the ones that were assigned to them at birth.
“When it is the people that are supposed to love and accept you the most, it is really hard,” Bennett said. “It feels like they don’t care about you and it creates this emotional rift between the people that you love the most.”
Bennett said that they never connected with the gender binary. They felt like they were not a woman but they were not a man at the same time. That is why they label themselves as gender fluid.
“I love how [gender] can be fluid,” they said. “However, when a person misgenders me, it conveys a message of disrespect just as well as using my dead name does.”
A person’s dead name refers to what transgender and nonbinary individuals were called before changing their name, often the name they were given at birth. Many choose to change their names because their dead name does not reflect how they see themselves.
Bennett said that at the end of the day, everyone just wants to be treated equally. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are people and the golden rule should be extended to them.
SUU Professor Kelly Goonan hosted a safe zone training for the LGBTQIA+ community on March 18, 2022. Goonan believes that these instances of discrimination can be minimized with more education and awarness about the community.
“We need community conversations that let people from minoritized identities share their experiences,” Goonan said. “SUU should require safe zone training for all staff and student leaders so we have more understanding about what people experience.”
Letting people in, not coming out
SUU junior Indigo Howard wrote about their experience of finding their identity in poetry. At the end of 2021, Howard realized they had created enough poetry to make several books.
Howard wrote these works without the intent to share them since they contained some of their most private thoughts. Some of Howard’s friends read their poetry, however, and encouraged them to publish the books because of their relatability.
In the poetry, Howard writes about themes of bipolar disorder, depression, mania and the experience of being nonbinary and gay in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I grew up Mormon so I knew very little about identity until my senior year of high school,” Howard said. “Then one day, I realized I knew nothing about [the LGBTQIA+] community so I started questioning it and came out as bisexual by the end of high school.”
It was not until Howard moved to SUU and found an accepting friend group that they allowed themself to express their identity more.
“I am still evolving and changing since I learn new things about the community everyday,” Howard said. “It is something that is never going to stop changing because it is so fluid.”
Shimmers of hope
Even though members of the LGBTQIA+ community still face intolerance and bigotry at the individual, institutional and societal levels, there are shimmers of hope that shine through.
Organizations like Equality Utah, the state’s premier LGBTQIA+ civil rights and advocacy organization, are fighting for equality and awareness.
“Utah is probably the most progressive red state because of Equality Utah,”’ Getler said. “The organization puts in work to protect our community by raising money and endorsing candidates that support LGBTQIA+ legislation.”
Encircle is an LGBTQIA+ family and youth center that offers therapy, daily programs and hosts friendship circles for different identities within the community. The nonprofit organization strives to create a safe environment for LGBTQIA+ people in a deeply religious state.
SUU’s Counseling and Psychological Services hosts an LGBTQIA+ Support Group that meets every Wednesday from 1-2 p.m. through Zoom and the Pride and Equality Club is always open to new members.
“The more you get to know a person, the harder it is to hate them,” Getler said.
Article by Danielle Meuret
Photos by Mckayla Olsen