By LAUREN OWEN
The small office of the Gender and Equality Center is almost hidden within the lunch-time chaos of the Oklahoma Memorial Union. The GEC, which was without a director until November, has faculty, interns, and students that work to bring inclusion to the University of Oklahoma.
On Oct. 21, The New York Times revealed the Trump administration is considering defining gender as being based on the biology of a person. While there have been no changes so far, many members of the LGBTQ community are protesting to try and keep this change from happening.
At the beginning of November, Erin Simpson was named the new director and OU advocate coordinator of the GEC. According to the GEC Instagram, Simson has served the GEC as an OU advocate for the past 12 years. In those 12 years, she has also gained experience in residence life at OU.
The mission of the GEC, according to the OU website, is “To foster social justice by advocating for the rights of women and LGBTQ students, empowering those without a voice, and challenging inequality.”
Although the GEC is staying out of the political side of the situation, much is being done by the faculty and interns to make sure students know the office doors are always open. Students can have people to talk to, to voice concerns to and have resources to help ease their fears.
Crissy Young, the office manager and assistant to the director in the GEC, said there are many LGBTQ support groups on and off campus that are there to listen to any concerns students may have. Young said it is important that students have someone to talk to.
“They aren’t alone in their struggles and there are people that understand,” Young said.
Eli Sullivan, who is the case manager and in charge of OU Advocates at the GEC, said they try to make students feel safe and included. She said when the news of the possibility of a change in the definition of gender came out, she had a concern for her students. She said she wanted to make sure that they know that they matter.
Within the last year, the GEC office has been affected because it works with minorities and victims of trauma. Sullivan said she first and foremost wants students to know that they are heard, supported and believed.
Sullivan said the administration knows the GEC is necessary for students. She said the GEC wants to help students feel valued and be able to succeed on campus and in the future.
The mission statement of the GEC says that it challenges the injustices of society. Sullivan said that they are there for those who feel like they do not have a voice.
Tayana Ghosh, a master’s candidate in architecture and the residential mentor for the fifth floor of Headington Residential College, is a LGBTQ ally through the GEC. Last summer, Ghosh went through LGBTQ Ally training.
During the training, Ghosh said she learned about LGBTQ experiences through role-playing situations and hearing guest speakers from both people from OU and off campus. She said the training was similar to the mandatory online training students do, except that it LGBT Ally training is in person.
Ghosh said that she also was taught the definitions of terms used within the LGBTQ community. She said she thinks it is important that the GEC teaches people these terms because, as someone not in the LGBTQ community, she does not have the same life experiences.
Before Ghosh became an ally, she said she had friends who were LGBTQ. She said she always imagined their life was the same as hers, but now knows that is not the case.
Ghosh said that students have come out to her throughout her time as an residential mentor. She said that she thinks that if she had not had the training, she would have responded to them differently.
“It was really life-changing,” Ghosh said.
Ghosh said that the GEC has expanded and become more inclusive since her freshman year. She said she thinks it is important to have this training to be an residential mentor because residential mentors interact with students with different backgrounds.
Ghosh said that she tries to push students out into the community to interact with people similar to them. She said she gives out any resources students need.
Young said that the GEC relies on input from students for things like campaigns, pink and black ball planning, and other events. They also rely on input on how to address issues within OU.
Young said amid recent changes that the GEC is trying to keep everything consistent on campus by staying out in the public and staying approachable to students.
“We wanted to make sure that people knew that even though we were searching for a director, that the GEC was still there for them.”
Between this past June and November, the GEC did not have a director. Both Young and Sullivan said the leadership role was being filled by all the faculty of the GEC, as well as the interns and other students.
Kristen Partridge, the interim for Student Affairs and associate dean of students, has taken over the role while the GEC was without a director. Partridge, who took over for Clarke Stroud, has many jobs at OU.
Sullivan said the GEC made a search committee for a new director. She said they want to make sure more voices are heard and that everyone had had different experiences with the director.
There were three rounds of interviews to make sure they could find the best candidate. The third round of interviews included faculty and students.
Sullivan said the challenges the GEC faced before November when it was without a director are that they did not have a direct supervisor. She said that Partridge is often busy, making the GEC rely on other workers.
The interns of the GEC help support the full-time staff through events, said Sullivan. They help organize and put on events for the GEC. The LGBTQ Advisory Board, peer educators, and student volunteers also help put on events.
Beth Nondorf, who is a fifth-year math and computer science senior, is a member of the LGBTQ Program Advisory Board. She has also gone through ally training.
As a member of the LGBTQ Program Advisory Board, Nondorf holds office hours every week and lets people come to her for concerns about the LGBTQ lounge in the Oklahoma Memorial Union. In the past, Nondorf said there were issues in with inclusivity and intersectionality.
Nondorf said that they are trying to organize social events, but have gotten busy and not all of the events have worked out. She said she has gotten help from Jordan Weaver, the program coordinator and advisor, who is also in charge of the LGBTQ programs. She said he took over the initiative for Fahl.
“It’s been nice to have to know there’s a place I can go if I needed that help.” Nondorf said.
Nondorf said that being apart of the GEC has helped her get more involved in the LGBTQ community.
Sullivan said that the GEC, before Simpson was hired, was missing the core person to fill the mentor role that a director has. She said that the last director, Kathy Fahl, was a mentor who helped supervise, guide and develop staff and students.
Sullivan said that Fahl knew the positions and knew what was needed to be done. Fahl had been the director for 11 years before her departure. Fahl is now the assistant dean of students at Ohio University. She said that, without a director and new staff members, the office has had more time to bond.
“We’ve really bonded as an office.” Sullivan said.