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COMMENTARY: SDSU has come a long way, baby

(Editor's note: SDGLN Staff Writer Ben Cartwright, a SDSU alumnus, wrote this commentary which was originally published on SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.)

Hearing the news that San Diego State University will open its first official Pride Resource Center in January still seems unreal to me. When I first arrived at SDSU in the fall of 1998 as a first-year freshman, the LGBT students I met told me that university administrators would barely give us the time of day. Looking back, this perception was understandable.

From 1978-1996, Thomas B. Day served as president of the university. While he is credited with overseeing a tremendous amount of growth at the campus during his tenure, hIs time in office is not remembered as being particularly friendly to underserved communities. In fact, he was accused in 1994 of “gay bashing” by colleagues when he rejected a University Senate resolution supporting domestic partner benefits for faculty and employees – labeling homosexuality as “unnatural” and compared it to “adultery and permissive abortions.”

I came to campus just two years after his retirement, and the university was still trying to gauge the views of President Stephen L. Weber. SDSU has just celebrated its centennial in 1997 and the campus community was beginning to look toward the university’s next 100 years.

I learned that there were several dedicated faculty and staff members (along with various students over the years) who had been working on plans for a permanent LGBT Center on campus for many years. Amazing people like long-time students affairs staffer Doug Case, Women’s Studies professors Bonnie Zimmerman and Susan Cayleff, Associated Students Executive Director Dan Cornthwaite, and French and European Studies Professor Edith J. Benkov had put together a very detailed proposal outlining what such a center would encompass. There was even a professionally sketched drawing of what they envisioned the physical space to look like.

I was first shown these plans sometime around 1999 and immediately began dreaming of what it would be like to have a space on campus for the LGBT community to call home. As a student leader of the LGBT Student Union (now called the Queer Student Union), I immediately became interested in advocating for this proposal to be dusted off and put into action. But as a wide-eyed 20 year old, I didn’t realize that these things don’t always come as easily as we would hope.

That original proposal went through several rewrites over the next decade, with a group we formed called the Pride Action Committee taking the biggest leap forward by updating the original proposal, and submitting it to university officials in 2008.

Between 1998 and the time I left the my staff position at the university in 2011 (exactly two years ago this week), I had the privilege of working with so many dedicated students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni who literally changed the face of the university’s support of the LGBT community.

While the university has a rich history of activism within the LGBT community—including one of the earliest organized LGBT groups in the region, the Gay Liberation Front, formed at SDSU in 1970—it has not been until recently that the LGBT community has been welcomed with open arms.

In 2007, we organized the first Rainbow Flag Raising on the campus, to commemorate San Diego Pride weekend and the 30th anniversary of the rainbow flag’s designation as a symbol of equality for the LGBT community. While the university approved the activity, getting the word out was a challenge. I was told that the university would not be actively promoting the event, and that we were on our own if we wanted to get media attention.

Today, the July flag raising has become a campus tradition, sponsored by now President Eliott Hirshman’s office, and receives a significant amount of exposure across the university’s various communications platforms.

This is just one of example of the many challenges we encountered over the last decade in trying to get the LGBT community recognized, served, and taken care of at SDSU. The time had passed where rotating casts of student leaders would try to hold the glue together for the community, and where an unofficial network of faculty and departments across campus tried to provide services.

In just a few short years, we’ve seen SDSU launch an LGBT Studies minor, and then a major, launch a website dedicated to the LGBT community on campus, provide additional resources and support to the community, and in January, open the first ever Pride Resource Center.

That SDSU has achieved this tremendous step makes me think back and reflect on the many great people who worked to make this happen – many of them long before I ever even knew that SDSU would become such a major part of my adult life.

While no center, program, or event can completely wipe out the struggles that LGBT students face, this space will provide a cohesiveness for the flourishing LGBT community on campus that has been needed for a long time.

Congratulations to Anthony Keen who will serve as the coordinator of this new space, and here’s to a new era of equality at SDSU! I’m prouder than ever to be an #AztecForLife!