By Bradley Donalson
If you’re new to Houston, you aren’t alone. With the population increasing by over 100,000 new residents every year, newly minted Houstonians enjoy being in a major metropolitan environment complete with all the perks of a strong LGBT support system. With the Montrose Center, the Diana Foundation, Legacy Community Health, one of the largest MCC churches in the country, and an active social scene, it is easy for people who have lived here for any length of time to forget that such perks are unheard of in places that aren’t that far away.
The Bearkats of Sam Houston State University (SHSU) are only 70 miles from central Houston, but that can be too far for someone looking to feel connected to an LGBT community. In 2008, Dr. Drew Miller (currently the school’s assistant vice president of student services and executive director for counseling and health services) and one of his colleagues decided to help LGBTIQ students on campus by starting the Haven program. Miller conceived the project in response to hearing students complain that “they weren’t really supported or understood or appreciated” and were unsure about who to turn to. Haven offers training sessions to anyone who wants to learn more about the community and the unique problems faced by people who identify as LGBTIQ. It also lists volunteer participants who can serve as safe contacts for students who are in need. From the get-go, Haven has attracted a steady number of faculty, staff, and student participants. The Haven website lists only email addresses for students, while the 42 faculty and staff currently listed have office locations, emails, and phone numbers published.
This web of support encourages a feeling of equality and acceptance on campus. When asked about Haven’s impact on the environment for LGBT students on campus, Miller claims it has definitely improved. He tells how LGBT students feel like they have a place at the table when dealing with the administration. “Even if they don’t get it right, [students] see the willingness of the administration and faculty to struggle with the issues in an effort to support them.”
Dr. Miller and the Haven project were also instrumental in helping form the student organization GSK—which can stand for either Gamma Sigma Kappa or Gay/Straight Kats—as the functional gay-straight alliance on campus. Charlene Perez is the current president of GSK, and she describes the organization as “the LGBT advocacy organization on campus at Sam Houston State University focusing on support, education, political activism, and building social relationships.” With events such as Freedom to Marry Day, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and an Ally Week on the campus mall, GSK helps to raise LGBT awareness in the entire student population.
One of GSK’s major celebrations is an annual Pride Week, which is March 14–19 this year. GSK recently reached out to Pride Houston’s co-chair Teresa Carpenter for assistance, and Perez says that Carpenter’s help has been invaluable in helping them reach out to local businesses, advertise Pride Week, and make plans to grow the event in the future. “[Carpenter] has brought such a great attitude and aura into our group,” says Perez. Events this year will include a movie night, Pride Prom, a vigil, a drag/talent show, a “Sex in the Dark” open discussion where anonymous questions about sex education are read and answered in a dark room, and a picnic.
As a counselor, Miller puts things in perspective by explaining the biggest frustration he hears from students is simply the difficulty with finding someone to date. “When you hear people being frustrated with things of that nature, the overall climate is not as bad as people [assume].”
More information about Haven can be found at shsu.edu/campus_life/haven, and information about GSK can be found at their Facebook page.
Bradley Donalson is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.