Missouri Students Win Back LGBTQ+ Center — Mostly

Students at Southeast Missouri State University fought to keep their LGBTQ+ resource center open — and won. But the story doesn't end there.
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Published on October 9, 2023
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It started with a message in early September that wasn't even directed to students.

According to Peyton Redinger, head of the Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) Pride Club, the assistant to the president for equity initiatives sent an email to the group's faculty sponsor saying the LGBTQ+ resource center was closing.

[The student body] didn't even know a thing about it, Redinger said.

The email cited low usage of the center — which offered resources and support to SEMO's LGBTQ+ students and allies — as an explanation for the closure.

But Redinger, a junior biology major, wasn't buying it.

So he, along with his fellow Pride Club members, organized a petition. It called for the center to remain open and garnered over 600 signatures from students and faculty members in less than a week.

A week later, on Sept. 20, the university issued a statement acknowledging the support for LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff, and announcing that the resource center would remain open.

The brief battle over SEMO's LGBTQ+ resource center was over — and students had won.

Kind of.

The statement further declared that the center would be staffed through a combination of student employees and volunteers. It was a clear reference to what Redinger said was another of the university's justifications for wanting to close the center: They wanted to reallocate the funds they used to staff [the LGBTQ+ center] elsewhere.

But even prior to the announcement, it seemed, the university had already done so. Graduate assistants (GAs) traditionally oversaw the center, along with student employees.

Only, from the beginning of the semester, the university didn't hire a GA or any students, Redinger said.

The result was that the center was effectively closed before anyone even found out it was going to be shut down.

I had students asking me about the Pride center, and I'm telling them where it's located and they're like, Yeah. There's no one there, Redinger said.

It's actually this way still: With no one to operate it, the LGBTQ+ center — despite officially not closing — is closed. Redinger was emphatic, though, that it's only temporary.

[The university] is just getting things together before they reopen, Redinger said. They're cleaning the office and hiring. We've been told they're going to have one or two student employees to manage during peak hours. Other than that, it's going to be run by volunteers from the Pride Club and the [LGBTQ+] employee alliance [who sponsors the Pride Club].

The actual date of reopening is still unclear — SEMO administrators declined to comment on the closing or the reopening for this article. But Redinger said that since the petition, he has more people calling about the LGBTQ+ center than ever before.

It is a vast difference from before the petition when the center was, even Redinger conceded, underutilized — it just wasn't for lack of interest as administrators seemed to imply when they sought the shutdown.

Really, what [the LGBTQ+ center] had was an advertising problem. No one from the university talked about it. It was just kind of an out-of-the-way office on an underused floor of the Student Union, Redinger said.

It's no wonder Redinger had students coming up to him after the petition saying, I didn't even know we had an LGBT center.

The center opened on the SEMO campus in 2012. In addition to support and resources, like counseling and contraception, it offers programming like Safe Zone Training, which educates students and faculty members on how to create more welcoming scholastic environments for their LGBTQ+ peers.

It's a place of welcome, more than anything, Redinger said. Somewhere everyone can go to be accepted for who they are no matter how they identify.

The attempted closure of the center came amid similar controversies in states nationwide.

On college campuses in Florida and Texas, for example, LGBTQ+ centers have closed permanently due to statewide legislation banning all funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.

LGBTQ+ centers, including SEMO's, are frequently covered under the banner of DEI, though different states use variations of the title. In Florida, campus women's centers, intercultural centers, and interfaith centers were also classified under the “DEI” umbrella, and were forced to close with the signing of its state's anti-DEI bill, SB 266.

But even legislation hasn't stopped some students and supporters of LGBTQ+ centers, like those at the University of Houston (UH), from fighting back in ways similar to Redinger.

On Aug. 10, University of Houston administrators posted a flyer at its LGBTQ Resource Center saying the center had been disbanded in line with Texas' anti-DEI bill, SB 17. The move sparked an outcry among students who pledged to remain inclusive and supportive of the university's LGBTQ+ community despite the center's closing.

Although in name UH can't be exactly diverse and inclusive, it can still be a place of well-being and community, University of Houston Student Government Association President Benjamin Rizk told The Texas Tribune. You can't change what people think. It doesn't really matter what the hell you put on paper.

Days later, the university issued a statement in response, walking back the closure, and claiming that the announcement had been made prematurely and without the full consultation and communication process.

The university later closed the center anyway but pledged to open a separate office that, while not officially considered part of a DEI initiative, would offer reconfigured services similar to those of the LGBTQ Resource Center.

[The new office] will offer robust support to all students, ensuring they have the resources and opportunities to be successful, thrive, and graduate, a UH press release said. The new office would also, make available wide-ranging advocacy, and facilitate a variety of events and programs to foster student success, achievement, and community building.

Call it another win for students against anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives on campus.

Kind of.

Regardless, it proved that even in states like Florida and Texas, where anti-LGBTQ+ legislation targeting schools is a considerable roadblock, there is still a way forward for the programs and resources offered by LGBTQ+ centers.

And, most of all, for the LGBTQ+ students who rely on them to thrive.