Though Tennessee isn't exactly making strides in its legislation and policies concerning the state's LGBT population, the University of Tennessee just might be. Thursday, Feb. 25, will see the opening of OUTreach, UT's new lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and ally (LGBTA) resource center. Located in Melrose Hall just across from the entrance to Hodges Library, the new center is meant to provide both a physical presence and a stronger sense of community for the university's LGBT students, faculty, and staff.
Plans for the center began in the summer of 2008, when then-interim UTK chancellor Jan Simek (now interim president of the UT system) met with the Executive Board of the Chancellor's Commission on LGBT People. When the commission stated its goal of creating an LGBT center on campus, Simek suggested a space in Melrose that was soon to be vacated. According to Lynn Sacco, chair elect of the commission, the location was ideal—a highly visible spot that would be easy to find.
Securing a home for the center was, of course, only the first step. Members of the commission then had to decide what, exactly, the center would be, and how it could best serve not only UT's LGBT community, but the institution at large.
"We envision it as a place where the LGBT community can meet and hold events and programming, but it is also more than that," Sacco says, in an e-mail interview. "UTK as an institution will benefit because it will be more successful in attracting and retaining LGBT students, faculty, and staff. Realistically, we all know that no one wants to be in a club that doesn't want you—the resource center will send the message that UTK does value its LGBT students. And this message also needs to be delivered to those who, for personal, religious, or inexplicable reasons, deem LGBT people appropriate targets of their hate, fears, or pranks. There is a huge lesson in the meaning of diversity and tolerance here that, unfortunately, in a city that is so homogeneous, cannot be repeated enough."
Since recent budget cuts at UT mean the center is not receiving any official funding, it was up to the commission and its supporters to gather resources as best they could. According to Sacco, members of UT's administration were helpful in donating material resources, like the center's computer. Members of the commission also donated an assortment of materials, including the books, movies, and magazines that will be available to the center's visitors.
George Hoemann, current chair of the commission, emphasizes the importance of making UT as inclusive an environment as possible. "I believe that the campus administration understand that for UTK to be fully competitive in the market for the best and brightest faculty, students, and staff, that the campus must be as welcoming and inclusive as possible in word, tone, deed, and benefits," he says. "The Resource Center is another step in that direction—including sexual orientation and gender identity in the campus non-discrimination policy statements were among the first steps."
OUTreach is located in Melrose F103; an open house will be held on Feb. 25 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. The center will open in connection with two talks given by prominent historian John D'Emilio. D'Emilio's first talk, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Feb. 24 in the Crest Room of the University Center, will spotlight Bayard Rustin, the chief strategist for Dr. King's 1963 March on Washington. The second talk, entitled "Leaping and Creeping: How Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People Have Fought to Achieve Equality," is scheduled for Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. in the Black Cultural Center.