Central Connecticut State University’s LGBTQ Center is tucked away in a brick box, just inside Barrows Hall. The poster-wallpapered vestibule is lined with chairs and features a flat-screen TV and an Out magazine stand. The next room displays a framed, signed copy of Laverne Cox’s iconic TIME cover. A table covered by a skyline of books offers weathered copies of queer philosophy atop raunchy and bittersweet dreams about what it would have been like to live free before the AIDS crisis. The adjacent offices are decorated with student artwork on Post-its and whiteboards, pride flags, and portraits of queer and trans heroes from decades gone by.
The most striking fixture in the space is the seemingly ever-present gaggle of students, who relax their shoulders when they walk inside, like turtles emerging from their collarbone shells. There is an effervescent energy about them that permeates the space and brings vibrance to the bright colors all around. They speak avidly with one another, all at once, about topics that range from video games to family rejection and homelessness.
Queer and trans youth are often left alone in their struggles with persistent systemic issues. Even when they are not directly experiencing family rejection, they do not usually inherit the knowledge or support they need from direct ancestors and have to search it out on their own. The center offers a physical space for LGBTQ students to find the resources, community, culture, and history they require and otherwise would not have access to.
Mel Cordner, They/Them
Queer and Genderqueer
Former CCSU Pride club leader and student activist who helped found the LGBTQ Center, and current founding director for Q PLUS, a major LGBTQ nonprofit in Hartford.
As told to Tom Cody
Problems at Central in the Early Aughts
Name a resource and I can tell you why they would not help us.
Queer people, especially young people, are at much higher risk for everything from homelessness, to trafficking, to addiction, to whatever. All of that was happening.
We had a lesbian student’s roommate threaten to kill her girlfriend. We went to ResLife about it, and ResLife said, “Well, if you don’t like your roommate, you can move.” We had a kid’s car get broken into and somebody wrote “faggot” on the windshield. We went to the cops and the cops didn’t literally say, “Have you tried not being gay?”—but that was the attitude. They didn’t even take our report down.
Whenever a resource on campus was not queer friendly or queer appropriate, which happened very often, the only thing that would end up happening every single time was that whoever we reported up to would say, “Well, why doesn’t the Pride club fix it then?”
So we were doing professional development training we weren’t getting paid for. We were rewriting policies and doing consulting work and we were training the RAs on how to use pronouns and not being paid or acknowledged for that.
We went back and pieced together the [Pride student] e-boards of the last several years. Literally no one graduated for, like, seven or eight years—they all dropped out, a couple of them transferred and graduated from other schools. Literally the only way to get your degree if you were a Pride leader at Central was to leave, and it was terrifying.
Founding the LGBT Center
The idea of the center existing was that it would take all of the work that we were doing to improve or even just maintain campus climate, and it would put it onto the plate of an actual adult who is not trying to, you know, pass classes.
There was a lot of research. We reached out to probably every other [Connecticut State University] school, UConn, the other public schools, any group that had an existing center, which at the time was not many, got a bunch of stats and stuff from them as well. We met with the Central President and anyone else who would talk to us. A key player for us who is no longer there was the interim Vice President of Student Affairs, [who] had access to information—and more importantly funding—that we did not. So a big key here that does not happen often is that we had an ally really high up who had access to money that could make some of this stuff happen.
There was a space [on the third floor of the Student Center] that was walled off because it didn’t meet fire code. They had to fix things about that space to make it meet fire code. It was a combo of luck because if we had said hey, build an addition to this building, [it] never would have happened.
The trick to getting the school to care about anything is to align your goals within their goals and one of their goals was retention rates. So that was how we got them to start paying.
The LGBTQ Center, Early Days
The center was given restrictions and blocks that other cultural centers were not given, and did not have to deal with. They didn’t even have a budget, or have access to a budget. For a while they weren’t able—for some magical administrative reason—to use work-study students or to work with interns. So, we all kept working for free. It was a very slow process, like they hired someone, but they hired them [on] a very part-time basis.
There were certain things that were pretty immediate, like we stopped having to do Safe Zone Training because the center took that over pretty quick. But, from a professional, adult, standpoint, that is a very easy thing to do. It’s canned, you just do the same training over and over. [While] it was not easy for us to do, as the people who were impacted by those stories in those situations and those people in that room—but it was very easy for someone who did not have the experience of someone in the room being the reason we were training them in the first place.
Student Activism as a Life Skill
I can pretty much say I learned not a damn thing in the classroom that has helped my career. But every experience I had in student activities has helped me. I learned how to dance around the rules, how to dig between the lines and find the resources I needed, how to link my goals—which are very immediate and directly connected to someone’s life or death experience—to the goals of the powers that be in such a way that I could make them do something about it. [I learned] how to find allies somewhere, how to research anything from funding to mission statements. All of these things are things that we were practicing there. It definitely prepared me for running a nonprofit from scratch, because that’s basically what that was.
The bottom line is: don’t take no for an answer. They have the money, they have the time, they have the power, they’re trying to wait you out. Stay in touch with the people behind you and the people ahead of you. Don’t take no for an answer. Yes, they can fix it. And in fact, they have probably fixed it before and they’re counting on you not knowing that, so, don’t take no for an answer.
Dustin “Dusty” Rader, He/Him
Interim Director of CCSU’s LGBTQ Center and Adjunct Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
As told to Nicole Rivera
I came out as transgender when I was in high school. I didn’t even know for sure if we had a gay student or a gay teacher at our school. There were over a hundred teachers, easily, at my school, and not one of them was out as gay.
Knowing that it’s possible to just be a regular trans person in the world was a lot for people. I came out when I became a high school English teacher, and students who were not in any of my classes came and found me and said, “Thank you for being out,” you know, “I can’t be out at home and I can’t be out at school.” I feel like this is where I’m meant to be—to be able to work with students, advocate for them, help them through their difficult moments, and get them the support that they need. [I’m meant to] provide a safe space where they know that they can be themselves.
I wasn’t super involved [at the LGBTQ Center] when I was pursuing my masters at CCSU in 2019. I spoke at Rainbow Breakfast once, and I did a training, but [was] not necessarily involved with the LGBTQ Center.
[Today,] I am a public figure on campus. I walk around with my pullover that has the LGBTQ Center logo on it. My aim is to be that person who is identifiable. If people have questions about the LGBTQ community, if people have questions about support and services on campus or off campus—I want to be that beacon, that resource. That’s what the LGBTQ Center is. It’s a resource center, it’s a support center. And yes, the focus is for LGBTQ+ students, but ultimately, I don’t ask students what their identity is.
The center is here to help students graduate, to help students get through problems with their family or with their friends, [to help with] problems that they’re going through for whatever reason. We’re here to give them the opportunity to have a job or volunteer for the first time.
We also provide training on campus, which is critical. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the news right now that people just aren’t hearing all the sides about. We present the side of the people who are being attacked, and talk about LGBTQ students and what it means to be transgender, nonbinary, gay, straight, [or] bisexual.
Additionally, we plan events on campus just to celebrate our community, because our community is truly beautiful. We work with the other organizations on campus to make sure [the work we do] is intersectional. We’re always looking for recommendations for events. We are planning a panel of political commentary from out queer legislators and potentially some cisgender heterosexual legislators.
As the world keeps getting more and more focused on anti-trans legislation and anti-LGBTQ legislation, the work that we’re doing at the center just becomes more and more important.
The Clothing Closet
[The clothing closet] started as a clothing swap way, way back. People who were transitioning could get rid of their old clothes and trade with other people who might be on the opposite side. When [the LGBTQ Center] was still in the Student Center, they had a rack, and they would set it up every day and people could take or leave stuff. It was a trade.
When I got here, we had this little room across the hall that’s become the [clothing] closet. It’s called Queer 4 U. We have to have at least a thousand items of clothing just chilling in there. We want people to be able to come and get them and it’s free. We don’t ask you why you need it. There are some students who are not out, or who want to dress differently, and can’t afford clothes. We don’t ask what you’re taking. It’s not just for trans people, it’s for anybody. We will give you a bag that is opaque: it’s just a bag, it could be filled with anything.
We just had a board game night to get people to come down and meet each other, and sort of see what we were up to, at the beginning of the semester. We do a lot of things; we do want to grow.
Queer/Pansexual and Nonbinary
LGBTQ Center Student Worker
As told to Dame Martin
What It’s Like Being a Student
You come here [and] you’re just like, “I feel like I can breathe.”
For a lot of us, by the time we’ve gotten to college, we’ve struggled having felt hopeless for a really long time, and it’s hard to come up with solutions when there are no solutions. For commuters living in their parent’s house, it can be extremely unsafe. Unsafe doesn’t need to mean physical abuse, there is a huge psychological, mental, and emotional impact on being told you’re not allowed to be who you are.
Helping Other Students
I try to provide solutions [to other students] because I’ve actually gotten out of a situation that wasn’t great. And a lot of the times, like, they didn’t even know that these kinds of solutions existed. It’s because I’ve come out the other end, and Dustin especially has also come out the other end. We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and we’ve gotten there because it was achievable. Both Dusty and I [were able to do] that because of having some sense of community around us.
You can study with ease in this environment, even if people are loud around you, because you feel safe and comfortable, and you understand that this is a place for you. And we have people who are just allies that come in here; there’s one out there right now. We’re all just vibing and chilling. It’s different from the chaos of an unhealthy home. You can come here, and it’s almost like [there’s] no anxiety.
I want all the students to pick up where I left off. Please continue on. Don’t follow in my footsteps. Please do more, go harder, go above and beyond as much as you can. Go above and beyond for the things that really matter to you. Since I got this taste of community, this is everything. I felt so fucking alone for so long. I’ve dealt with severe depression and felt so isolated for most of my life.
It’s just what everybody’s probably heard, right? “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going anywhere.” So you know, great, cool, get used to it, but also, like, you can become more comfortable by asking questions. Address your feelings and those negative feelings. Ask: why? Start asking yourself why because you’re asking yourself, where did you learn this stuff? Who were the people that taught you it? Where did they learn it? And what was that really built off of? Start answering your own questions. Yeah, you can go on Google, but instead of just that, come to places like this: the LGTBQ Center.
You can be involved in anything and still decide that you want to expand your mind. And it’s a choice to want to change. It is a conscious decision to say, “I’m going to keep an open mind.”
Tom Cody, Dame Martin, and Nicole Rivera are Staff Writers for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header Image Courtesy of Dustin Rader.