Nearly half a century ago, Columbia was pulled to the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement by Stephen Donaldson, CC ’70, who founded the world’s first collegiate LGBTQ organization on campus in 1967.
The University continues to tout this distinction in admissions brochures, but Columbia now remains unique from its peers for a different reason: It is the only Ivy League school without an LGBTQ center.
Although resources and support for LGBTQ students are provided by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, queer and trans students are calling for the increased staffing and dedicated space that accompany LGBTQ centers at other colleges. The scarcity of space on campus, however, places the push for an LGBTQ center in competition with a wide range of other groups also seeking space.
As they stand, resources for the approximately 1,000 queer students across all four undergraduate colleges are scattered. Some students routinely meet in the living room of the special interest community Q House, or in the Stephen Donaldson Lounge located in the basement of Furnald Hall.
But because the Donaldson Lounge is located in a residence hall, Barnard and GS students do not have swipe access. Rainbow-colored stickers can be acquired to mark student IDs for entry, but queer students are quick to point out that this is not an option for those still in the closet. Q House, meanwhile, is not wheelchair-accessible, and serves primarily as a living space for its residents.
The Office of Multicultural Affairs’ conglomeration of queer-facing resources, labeled LGBTQ @ Columbia, is overseen by Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs and LGBTQ Outreach Chris Woods, who also serves as an adviser to Latinx and Muslim student groups. Even though OMA is an office for CC and SEAS students, Woods also assists any School of General Studies or Barnard students who approach him.
Queer students interviewed by Spectator praised Woods’ work with LGBTQ communities, but pointed out that the University would have to increase staff and dedicated space to a center for queer students to meet the standard set by other Ivy League schools.
“The Office of Multicultural Affairs does amazing work, but they’re overseeing so many programs and clubs and they only have so much space,” Miles Hilton, CC ’17, said. “The Columbia Queer Alliance is 50 years old this year, and it’s astonishing that we still don’t have one [LGBTQ center].”
Harvard’s BGLTQ center has its own coordinator and seven student assistants, Yale’s Office of LGBTQ Resources has five paid staff, and the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania has four full-time staff and seven student assistants. By contrast, Woods has one graduate student assistant.
The Ivy League school with queer-facing resources most similar to Columbia’s is Dartmouth, which coordinates LGBTQ resources through its broader Office of Pluralism and Leadership. Unlike Columbia, however, Dartmouth centralizes its LGBTQ-specific resources and lounge space within one floor of the same building.
Woods told Spectator that he is confident in OMA’s ability to provide LGBTQ resources, but understands students’ push for increased staffing, as well as a dedicated LGBTQ center.
“I personally see a lot of benefit to having the model, and there's an intentionality for why it exists in the way it does now,” Woods said. “But I also support students' desire for increased support … If they’re asking for that, I support whatever it is that they want to uplift.”
This lack of a center has prevented the development of an overarching queer community among undergraduates, according to Hilton.
“There are certain groups that meet at certain times and places and hold certain identities,” Hilton said. “It becomes very cliquey.”
Hilton added that the need for a shared space becomes pronounced in times of crisis. In December 2014, after a queer student committed suicide in Carman Hall, LGBTQ student groups scrambled to support others at risk of suicide, according to Hilton.
“That was obviously a super traumatic event for the collected queer and trans communities at Columbia, and I was treasurer for CQA (Columbia Queer Alliance) at the time,” Hilton said. “So, we, the leadership of these queer groups, tried to support the entire community.”
As the death came at a time directly before Woods was hired and his position was open, those student groups were required to operate more independently of the University, according to Hilton. During the weeks that followed, those student groups used both the Donaldson Lounge and Q House as makeshift meeting places.
“Some of the other student leaders and I had lists of suicide risks that we had to check in on … Students trying to study for their exams, also trying to do this,” Hilton said. “The collective support of the community, which is clearly important for avoiding a suicide cluster, would have been incredibly helped by having an LGBTQ center. Whenever I think of why we need an LGBTQ center, I think of those few super terrifying weeks.”
The push for an LGBTQ center on campus comes as a chorus of other groups call for increased space, including students of color, musicians, GS students, and researchers. Students have also broadly called for increased recreational space, reservable student group space, and study space. Hilton, however, sees an LGBTQ center as a need of queer communities that is not being met.
“There isn’t really anywhere where the entirety of the queer community can come and be seen and be held by the space,” Hilton said. “Because the spaces we have are so fragmented, they’re so small, and they almost always have barriers of some kind that keep certain people out.”
As queer students continue to push for a unified center, David Sierra, CC ’18 and an editorial columnist for Spectator, acknowledged that support from all LGBTQ students across the University may be necessary to effect change.
“It would be beneficial to have students from all levels of the University working together… It’s already fragmented, so we have to work even harder to breach that,” Sierra said. “This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but it’s something that we need.”