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The Student-Led Resistance Against Senate Bill 17

UH GLOBAL and Rice PRIDE students lead the fight against the anti-DEI law.

Rice University students walking in the 45th Annual Houston Pride Parade on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

With Senate Bill 17 on the horizon, students from the University of Houston and Rice University have begun mobilizing to counter the effects of the bill.

SB 17, proposed by Republican state Senator Brandon Creighton of Conroe, effectively prevents public higher education institutions from receiving state funding if Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) programs, including LGBTQ centers, are not dissolved. Creighton has been quoted as calling DEI programs “exclusive.”

“They have been shown to be ineffective and politically charged,” Creighton said. “Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

Although the law is set to take effect on January 1 of 2024, UH closed their LGBTQ Resource Center on August 31, raising concern from students who depend on the center for the community and resources it provided.

“Discrimination happens everywhere, but the LGBTQ Resource Center provided a home and a safe space from that,” says Kaitie Tolman, president of GLOBAL, a queer student organization at UH. “To have people who have never stepped foot on this campus write a bill that takes away the center of our [LGBTQ] community is heartbreaking.”

In response to the closure of the LGBTQ Resource Center, Tolman helped organize a protest on August 23 that garnered over 90 supporters—including Texas House Representative Jolanda Jones. She plans to facilitate a walkout in the near future. “We ask that staff support us by excusing attendance, and we invite any organizations interested in collaborating with us to reach out,” she says.

Following the center’s closure, UH announced that they would be opening a Center for Student Advocacy and Community. According to a statement released by Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Daniel M. Maxwell, this center will focus on advocacy, the development of educational workshops and resources, and community support.

“[The center] reduces barriers that inhibit academic and personal success by identifying areas of need, providing connections to resources, and supporting student-led programs and initiatives that strengthen our community,” the statement says. An opening date has not been announced yet, but the center aims to be a “one stop for advocacy” resource for students.

It is important to note that this new center does not specify specific target populations for its usage, as it is still bound by the same restrictions propagated by SB 17 and is not designed to replace the LGBTQ Resource Center. Tolman also notes that the protest revealed many in the UH community had strong personal connections and experiences with the LGBTQ Resource Center that cannot be replaced—
including herself.

“When our former GLOBAL Vice President Corey Sanders passed away, I initially planned to organize it myself,” Tolman says. “After I asked the LGBTQ Resource Center if we could host the service there since it was Corey’s favorite spot on campus, they took it a step further and helped plan it within three days. It was amazing to see the space packed with Corey’s friends and family—it would’ve taken weeks to make that happen without the center.”

Prior to its closure, UH’s LGBTQ Resource Center provided students with scholarship opportunities, spaces for free speech and protest, peer mentorship, allyship training, and advocacy resources. The center had been active in efforts to change the sociopolitical climate at and around UH since 2010.

Since the center’s closure, GLOBAL has begun hosting events in other spaces across campus. One of the new spaces students at UH can now access is not only off campus, but located at a different university entirely.

A few miles west, students at Rice University—a private institution unaffected by SB 17—have responded to the bill by extending honorary membership in Rice PRIDE, a queer undergraduate organization on campus with over 300 members. The initiative to offer membership to public
university students affected by SB 17 has been student-led. Plans include asynchronous activities, local community events, and access to Rice’s Queer Resource Center (QRC).

“We’ve received over 100 applications from across 20 different universities,” says Rice PRIDE co-president Cole Holladay, who uses they/them pronouns. “We initially didn’t expect to have so many students interested in joining, but it’s exciting to have this opportunity to create community across the state.”

In 2017, the newly created QRC combined with Queers and Allies, another LGBTQ organization on campus, to create Rice PRIDE. Rice’s QRC still functions as a space for students on campus to access safe-sex resources, a library with queer literature, and community—though unlike UH’s LGBTQ Resource Center, it is run primarily by student volunteers.

“The QRC being student-led is a strength because I think it incentivizes people to utilize it and create community,” Holladay says. “A caveat of that is it’s a lot of responsibility to put on students, and I think having staff to support the students—at least with the burden of some of the logistical work—is something we hope to see.”

Rice University—whose policy is to “not only celebrate, but actively seek out broad diversity across  the student body”—has a history of student-driven movements that have arisen in response to institutional issues with diversity. Recent examples include the push to remove the statue of William Marsh Rice (due to his history of owning slaves) and the petition to sever athletic ties with Brigham Young University over its anti-LGBTQ history.

Students from both Rice and UH have echoed similar concerns over SB 17 and have taken complementary approaches to tackling the bill.

“We are hoping to gain more institutional support because this is a very critical time for the university to put forth some new initiatives, especially with its privilege as a private institution [unaffected by
SB 17] in Texas,” Holladay says. “We know how detrimental losing queer spaces for students is, so our main motivation now is to foster community with those students in any way we can.”

For Tolman, the fight against SB 17 has just begun. “We’re hoping to get this bill overturned, not just for UH, but for everyone.”

Follow UH GLOBAL and Rice PRIDE on Instagram at @global.uh and @rice_pride.

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Martin Giron

Martin Giron is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine. He is currently a resource navigator for the SAFE Office at Rice University.
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