Where true colors shine
First-of-its-kind community celebrates 30 years
When Andrew Curran ’22 was choosing housing at UMass Amherst, one factor ranked highly: “I wanted the queer community. There’s not a large community of gay people where I’m from and it’s always been sort of a lonesome experience.” When he came to live at Spectrum, the UMass defined residential community (DRC) for LGBTQ+ students, he found what he was looking for—as have hundreds of students in the 30 years since UMass created the first collegiate LGBTQ+ housing community in the country, each pursuing the freedom to live authentically, together.
First on the scene
Indeed, when Spectrum began in 1992 (then called the Two in 20 floor), the picture was very different for LGBTQ+ students. Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at UMass, says, “Back in the day when it was first created, it was designed to be a safe space, and the location was not publicized.” Tucked away on the fourth floor of Mary Lyon Hall, students could come and go from the building without being outed.
“Of course,” says Beemyn, “there are still occasions where people do horrible things, but it’s not the same situation that it was 30 years ago. People now live in Spectrum mostly because they want to meet other LGBTQ+ students, but there’s still a sense of safety, a sense of comfort.”
Without judgment, people can really blossom.
Wendy Darling ’97 moved onto “the queer floor” in 1994. “I became the LGBT issues editor for the [Massachusetts Daily] Collegian, so actually one of the things I was able to do by living on the floor was have a ready network of sources!” she recalls.
During her years at UMass, Darling says, “We were hearing all the time about safety.” LGBTQ+ students were still frequent targets of physical violence and hate speech. Still, she learned, “If given the opportunity, without barriers, and without judgment, people can really blossom. I don’t know what I would have been like if I didn’t live there.”
‘What a time to walk into that floor’
In 2008, legal same-sex marriage was far from a settled issue. As a young person who suspected he might be gay, Brandon Meyers ’12 wasn’t sure he was ready to come out. But he knew he wanted to go to college in “a place where I felt like I could become my true authentic self.”
You’re going to be entering into a community that’s really going to care for you and value you.
Meyers took the leap of applying to live on the Spectrum floor, but reached out to Eboni Rafus-Brenning ’08MFA,’11MA, the residence director at the time, to confess his jitters. “She said to me, ‘You’re going to be entering into a community that’s really going to care for you and value you. It’s been around for years and it’s going to continue to be here.’ And I just felt immediate comfort in that knowledge. Especially as somebody who was still kind of figuring out who they were, in this kind of weird historical era before LGBTQ+ marriage was allowed—what a time to walk into that floor and into that community.”
A few years later, in California, Tev Sugarman ’17 was doing his own research. By this time, Spectrum had been around for more than 20 years, and the Stonewall Center was also providing events, advocacy, programming, and support for the entire campus. It all seemed a sharp contrast with his previous experience at college. “Where I was coming from had pretty minimal resources for LGBT students,” he says, “and I was already out as queer, but I had just come out to my family as also trans.” Sugarman swapped coasts, schools, and majors, landing at UMass and almost immediately meeting his future spouse, as well as receiving assistance from the Stonewall Center to change his name and gender marker on identity documents, a hugely important step for him.
On the rise
The Spectrum DRC remains very popular, often receiving twice as many applicants as there are spaces available. Tyler Bradley, the current residence director, points out that “Gen Z has an even higher rate of identifying with LGBTQ+ communities.”
Thanks to many years of intentional, thoughtful support, the university maintains its reputation as one of the most supportive communities for LGBTQ+ students, garnering consistently high scores from advocate ranking organizations like Campus Pride. As Sugarman says, “The Stonewall Center paired with Spectrum was hands down the most effective LGBTQ+ support system in academia that I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect combination, like chocolate and peanut butter.”