Jamie Gonzales, a former program coordinator at the University of Houston’s LGBTQ Resource Center, hasn’t slept well ever since she heard that the center will be disbanded in accordance with Senate Bill 17, a law banning diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, known as “DEI”, at public higher education institutions.
Although she knew the closure was coming after the bill passed in April in a 19-to-12 vote in the Texas senate, she still found herself emotionally ill-prepared to grapple with the reality: an end of an era for a place that served as a beacon of acceptance, safety and support for thousands of queer “Coogs,” as UH students often call themselves.
“There were a lot of special moments held in that space,” said Gonzales while crying during a phone interview this week.
SB 17, which takes effect on Jan. 1 2024, will require that all state-funded colleges and universities close their DEI offices, and it also bans any mandatory diversity training.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law June 17. Houston-area Senator Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who filed the bill, said in a June statement that it would promote a “merit-based approach” and “[w]hat sets SB 17 apart from other proposals is that the legislation delivers strong enforcement with mandates to return Texas colleges and universities to their core mission– educate and innovate.”
He confirmed in the statement that the law does not affect student-led organizations. But UH’s LGBTQ Resource Center was a university-run program, and falls under the law.
Before Thursday, the effect of the law at UH was unclear to many students, alumni and faculty. But all that changed last week when students noticed a flyer taped to the door of the center that read: “In Accordance with Texas Senate Bill 17, the LGBTQ Resource Center has been disbanded.”
Afterward, university officials said the flyer was posted “prematurely” and “without the full consultation and communication process.” But the unauthorized announcement went viral on social media, and gave many a harsh glimpse into a reality that they weren’t yet ready to accept.
Currently, both the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion – a university-run multicultural center – are still operating. But a UH spokesperson confirmed in a statement that there will be changes to university policies to comply with SB 17. The statement clarified that those changes will impact both centers and “require a reconfiguration of departments, employees and their scope of work.” The university plans to present a full implementation plan to the Board of Regents later this month.
Although an official plan is coming, the university’s initial lack of communication left some students, faculty and alumni in anguish, concerned about the future and unsure of what to do next.
The center offered a safe space for many students to be their authentic selves, navigate their identity with peer mentors, and seek training in allyship, sensitive language and gender-neutral pronouns. Besides providing a physical space, the LGBTQ center had also organized activities such as a student trip to Washington in 2018 to speak to legislators. Gonzales said that upon their return, the impact was evident. “I remember there was one student out of the group and when we came back, I remember her changing her major to government. That next year, she ran for [Student Government Association] president and won. That hadn’t even been on her radar before,” she said.
A center decades in the making
Maria Gonzalez is a current UH associate professor of English who was among the core group of faculty, staff and students who helped establish the LGBTQ resource center. The group, formerly known as the “Cougar Allies”, made incremental strides toward developing a more inclusive university, she said, such as convincing the university in the years before gay marriage was legalized to use the word “guest” rather than “spouse” in communications. But it still took more than a decade of activism before the center officially opened in 2010, she said.
“It was one of those progressive things that took a while to get done,” Gonzalez said. “This is a conservative state; still is. Adding gender identity, gender expression, creating all these things was seen as provocative and most universities weren’t particularly interested in leading the charge for such things.”
The current UH Student Government Association president, Benjamin Rizk, said that regardless of what the law says, Texas legislators can’t change culture or people’s beliefs.
“Although in name UH can’t be exactly diverse and inclusive, it can still be a place of well-being and community,” he said. “You can’t change what people think. It doesn’t really matter what the hell you put on paper.”
Although it’s infuriating to regress on the progress they’ve made, Gonzalez said the fight isn’t over. Her mission now is to put the onus on faculty and staff to find ways to support the LGBTQ community.
“I’m telling people to double down,” she said. “All the programs on this campus have to realize that they can’t depend on the LGBT resource center to do anything anymore because it doesn’t exist. So it’s their job to take care of their LGBT students now. Now it’s everybody’s job.”
This story has been corrected to clarify the date the bill was signed by the governor.