Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lorraine Schroeder was a quiet child. “I don’t even remember talking before 7. I started coming out of my shell around the age of 8,” she recalls. But she eventually found her voice, and for the past 11 years she’s been helping hundreds of others in the LGBTQ community find their voices as the director of University of Houston’s LGBTQ Resource Center.
As the Center’s founding director, Schroeder has helped institute many LGBTQ-friendly policies at UH. When she started her role in 2010, there were few designated gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, and it was much harder for trans and gender-nonconforming students to correct their names and photos on their UH school IDs. Today, new or renovated buildings must feature at least one gender-neutral bathroom, and gender identity and expression are included in UH’s anti-discrimination policy.
Now, after nearly 12 years of empowering LGBTQ students and educating allies, Schroeder will retire this month.
Karina Hernandez, a UH sophomore and LGBTQ Resource Center student employee, says she will miss Schroeder’s welcoming presence. Hernandez says that Schroeder would often walk out of her office and talk to people who were at the Center by themselves. “She has this motherly energy to her, so for those of us in the community who don’t have accepting families, she fills that void.”
Jamie Gonzales, the Center’s former program manager, agrees with Hernandez. When a full-time student who had been struggling with mental illness and financial troubles came to the Center for assistance, Schroeder connected the student to campus and community resources. She also bought several bags of groceries for them the next day. “She always prioritized students’ needs on campus before administrative tasks, because she understood the urgency associated with housing insecurity, food insecurity, holistic well-being, and safety for our students,” Gonzales says.
In addition to helping LGBTQ students, Schroeder has facilitated UH’s Cougar Ally Training, a judgment-free workshop designed to educate participants on LGBTQ issues. “We’ll correct you, but we don’t shame you or judge you, and many people have appreciated that environment,” she says.
After a training session last month, an attendee wrote on an anonymous evaluation form, “I felt very comfortable to ask questions without fear of being shamed or judged for lack of knowledge.”
The Center has evolved quite a bit since it first opened. “The biggest change was making me full-time,” says Schroeder, who could only work part-time during her first three years as director due to budget constraints.
When she started in her role, the LGBTQ Resource Center shared a tiny building with the Women’s Resource Center (now known as the Women and Gender Resource Center, or WGRC). The space was so small that the Center had to host Cougar Ally Training sessions in a separate building.
The two centers now share a much larger building that features a lounge and study area, computer stations, a kitchenette, and a library where students can borrow books and DVDs.
When the Center began receiving more funding from UH, Schroeder was able to hire a graduate assistant and create a mentoring program that pairs struggling LGBTQ students with supportive LGBTQ peer mentors. She was later able to hire a sexuality and gender education program manager and launch the Sexuality and Gender Acceptance (SAGA) Squad. SAGA Squad gives students the chance to develop leadership skills, plan outreach initiatives and events for the Center, and spread awareness on LGBTQ issues.
Despite the impact Shroeder has made at UH, she admits she wasn’t interested in the position at first. “I’m a more complex person, and I don’t necessarily want my whole life focused on LGBTQ matters,” she explains.
But she couldn’t stop thinking about possible programs the Center could start to help LGBTQ students. Ultimately, she applied. “I’m really glad I did it. It’s one of the most fulfilling jobs a person could have.”
Schroeder has always had a passion for helping others. In her previous engineering job in Santa Barbara, California, she heard about a university psychology program that a friend of hers was a part of. Fascinated, Schroeder applied for the program the next day. The program accepted her, and she graduated in 1995 with a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University.
“I like learning about what makes people behave the way they do,” Schroeder says. “I also enjoy helping people and guiding them into a healthier state.”
Schroeder identifies as a bisexual lesbian, someone who is attracted to multiple genders and feels most connected to the lesbian community. Her sexuality journey started later in life. She thought heterosexuality was her only option until she kissed a girl for the first time at age 24, and “her whole life fell together.”
She later came out to a friend, who dismissed her by saying she was so insecure that she would go out with anybody who was interested in her. That response devastated Schroeder, and she didn’t come out to anyone else for another year.
Her background in counseling, psychology, and education, as well as her experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community, prepared her for her time at UH’s LGBTQ Resource Center. As the director, she has helped bring students together because she understands the importance of community and visibility.
For making UH a more LGBTQ-friendly campus, she won the Val DuMontier New Professional Award from the ACPA Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness in 2013. In 2015, she received an award from the NASPA GLBT Knowledge Community for developing the UH Pride Partners Program, which celebrates UH departments that have demonstrated their commitment to creating a welcoming, LGBTQ-friendly environment.
Schroeder is now looking to slow down in retirement. She wants to visit her family in Wisconsin more often and become more involved in the lives of her nieces and nephews. She plans on going on a trip with her mother to New York City to see several Broadway shows. She also wants to make more jewelry and become both a certified nutritionist and a small-dog owner.
She says she’s grateful to have had the chance to work with resilient faculty, staff, and students, and hopes the Center continues to meet the students’ needs.
“My hope is that the LGBTQ Resource Center advisory board moves forward with things that will make the University of Houston more inclusive for LGBTQ people, especially trans and nonbinary students.”
For more information on the UH LGBTQ Resource Center, visit uh.edu/lgbtq.
This article appears in the December 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.