October is LGBTQ+ History Month, and to celebrate, I thought I would look into the history of LGBTQ+ people at the University of Massachusetts! In recent history, UMass Amherst was recognized in October 2020 as one of the top 40 LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. While this is our 10th consecutive year with such a distinction, efforts towards progress and inclusivity actually began at the university in the 1980s. Let’s take a look at how it all started and the dynamic work that continues to this day.
“We are one of the oldest LGBTQIA campus centers in the country, the third oldest actually going back to 1985,” says Genny Beemyn, director of the UMass Amherst Stonewall Center.
The founding of what became the Stonewall Center has roots in the fall of 1984, when multiple incidents indicated a hostile environment for lesbian, gay, or bisexual students on campus: discriminatory posters, counter demonstrations at LGB rallies, and perhaps most notably, the Student Government Association’s refusal to fund LGB programming. This culminated in a protest amassing 200 LGB students and community members who demanded that the administration take action.
The administration moved swiftly to hire Felice Yeskel, a human relations planner and advocate who would conduct research to determine the best ways to meet these demands. Several campus-wide surveys indicated negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ students were prevalent at the university—resulting in homophobic harrasssment and a lack of spaces accepting all sexual orientations.
Ultimately, this extensive research led to the formation of a program for gay, lesbian, and bisexual concerns in 1985. Ten years later, it was renamed to the Stonewall Center to allow for more inclusivity, and moved to its current location at Crampton Hall in the Southwest Area.
“We act as a resource in a bunch of different ways,” says Beemyn. “We can refer people to other organizations and to information. There’s a lot of information on our website, but also if someone has a question, we can try to funnel them to the right place whether that’s at UMass Amherst, whether that’s locally, whether that’s something that’s national.”
During their 14 years with the Stonewall Center, Beemyn has worked to make UMass Amherst more inclusive, especially to transgender students. “I want to make sure we’re doing the best that we can by trans students. I’m really trying to change the climate on campus to be one where trans students are not being misgendered, people are asking and respecting each other’s pronouns, and really trying to recognize that gender’s not binary,” they add.
Beemyn believes that many trans students choose to attend UMass Amherst because of the supportive campus environment: “For trans students, having a place where they can be themselves is just so critical, and at UMass Amherst we really provide that in a way that a lot of other institutions don’t. I’ve gotten calls sometimes from trans students, or more often from their parents, just to confirm we do indeed have whatever policy it might be, because they talked to other schools and they don’t have that. So that just demonstrates that a lot of schools still have a lot of work to do to be as trans-inclusive as we are. And of course, we’re also a really good place for cis-LGB students.”
The Stonewall Center also connects students to a variety of LGBTQIA student groups, bias reporting and crisis support, religious resources, and trans resources.
Although UMass has been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ support in higher education, the Stonewall Center is always advocating and seeking more social progress. “I’m always trying to have the campus do better. If I hear somebody else is doing something, it’s like, okay, we have to do that here at UMass Amherst,” Beemyn adds.
Life at UMass