A Q&A with Terri Phoenix about the LGBTQ Center’s past, present and future
This spring, the UNC LGBTQ Center is celebrating a milestone birthday, recognizing 20 years of providing education, community, support and advocacy to the Carolina community.
The LGBTQ Center began in the spring of 2003 as the LGBTQ Office within the Office of the Dean of Students before it became a separate center in 2006. Terri Phoenix, PhD (he/him or T) has worked with the center almost from the start, joining in 2005 as a graduate assistant. T became the assistant director the following year and then director of the center in 2007.
Phoenix sat down to talk with University Development about the center’s anniversary and how it has changed over time.
Q: What is the mission of the UNC LGBTQ Center?
A: Our mission is to create a welcoming, inclusive and equitable environment for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.
We say it like that rather than the center being just for LGBTQ people because we feel that heterosexism, cis sexism, ableism, and racism affect everybody, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. We feel our center serves the entire University and quite frankly, the surrounding community.
Q: What areas does the center operate in?
A: Our program has three areas of focus. The first is education — like our Safe Zone training, our class engagements and internships.
Direct support and advocacy is our second area. Things like our Trans Talk Tuesday discussion group, our individual meetings with students, faculty, or staff as they navigate things like transitioning in the workplace, benefits or situations around harassment or alienation.
The third area is community building. We try to create a site of community for LGBTQIA+ people and their allies. We’re trying to make LGBTQ lives visible on campus and create a place for people to come together and celebrate those lives.
Q: What has changed since you’ve been at the LGBTQ Center?
A: The center wasn’t well known when I got here in 2005. I spent the first years on campus doing a lot of outreach to try and make people aware of the center. Additionally, I helped get us representation on various committees around campus, such as the Faculty Committee on Community and Diversity and the Employee Forum.
I also worked to standardize our Safe Zone training, which started in 1998. But when I came to the center in 2005, there weren’t records of people who had undergone the training. I started recording a list of people who had gone through the training as well as a web listing of Safe Zone allies who agreed to be listed online.
We have annual programming around the Week of Welcome, Trans Awareness Week and Pride Week at Carolina. We also have Lavender Graduation. Those are our anchoring events each year. We also have programming with speakers and around student activism.
The center has become bigger, more robust, more well-known, and I think it has much more of an influence on the everyday operations of student affairs and the University as a whole.
Q: As a campus policy advocate, what are some wins that you are proud of?
In 2005-06, I worked with the UNC Facilities Committee, and we were able to get a commitment from the University that every new building would include at least one gender non-specific bathroom. That remains in those design standards today. We’ve also worked with facilities to do a thorough examination of the single locking bathrooms on campus and try to relabel those to be gender non-specific where possible.
I worked with a couple different committees to get gender identity and gender expression added into the University’s Policy Statement on Non-Discrimination, and we were able to get that added in 2008. The center also did a lot of advocacy around House Bill 2 and Amendment 1.
Q: How has the center changed the campus climate in the last 20 years?
Every time we are able to adjust another policy, we are making a more welcoming campus. We have the ability to identify pronouns for students, staff and faculty. We have the ability to identify affirmed names. Student Legal Services assists students with legal name changes. These are all products of some of our advocacy and a lot of partnerships and relationship building.
There is a campus conversation about LGBTQ affairs and identities that wasn’t so much the case prior to the center being in existence on campus. The center certainly hasn’t made all of that happen but we have made a lot of that happen.
A lot of folks enter into these conversations through our Safe Zone program and then become engaged in the process of making their home department or organization more LGBTQ affirming.
The result of that is now we have an Office of Diversity and Inclusion that is dealing with LGBTQ issues; it wasn’t in 2005, when I first got here. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School has a pride flag flying out in front its building. I mean, there’s a lot of little things that I could point to that make the queer community visible on campus in ways that weren’t happening 20 years ago.
Q: Why is private funding important to the center?
We get money from the University to support the three full-time staff positions and the graduate student position at the center, and we have a programming budget. We have had to negotiate that budget many times over the course of the history of the center. Sometimes they’ve given us multi-year commitments;, sometimes they’ve given us one-year commitments.
From fall 2019 to spring 2021, we were not allocated a programming budget. That meant that everything we did outside of our salaries had to come from private donations. All of our student programming, all of our educational programs, our social programs, Lavender Graduation, National Coming Out Day and the LGBTQ Emergency Fund came from private donations to the LGBTQ Gift Fund.
Those funds really kept the center going. If we had not had that private support during those two years, we would not have been able to offer any programs.
Q: What do private funds currently support at the center?
Donations through the LGBTQ Gift Fund primarily go to our LGBTQ Emergency Fund. That is a fund that we co-manage with the Office of the Dean of Students. It provides broader and more flexible funding than some of the other student emergency funds because LGBTQ people face some unique challenges.
For example, most student emergency funds don’t cover tuition, but we know that often when students come out to parents or guardians, they’re cut off financially. A student may come out to their family in the fall, be cut off and not have support for spring tuition. The LGBTQ Emergency Fund can step in and provide that semester of funding, allowing time for us to get that student named as an independent student and apply for FAFSA on their own income.
Without that semester support, they could potentially leave school, and we know that when students leave school, it’s really hard for them to come back.
The LGBTQ Emergency Fund also supports gender affirming care for trans-identified individuals. We sometimes support or augment funding for critical procedures or help provide funding to pay for health insurance when a student is cut off from their family or guardian.
Other unrestricted donations help us fund things like speakers. Last year we brought in Adrienne Maree Brown. Big name speakers cost a lot of money. We also support our summer internship program, where we pay a student throughout the semester to intern with us. We’re looking at expanding that into a year-long internship. Again, the funding for that would have to come from donor support.
We also want to expand the way we connect our donors and students. One of the things I often hear from students is that they want to see LGBTQ adults. They want to see real adults being happy, being successful. I think having those role models and connections is really important.
Q: What do you see as the legacy of the center’s first 20 years?
I feel passionately that our educational programs are changing the future of the world. We’re talking to the future doctors, lawyers, dentists, nurses, teachers — all of these new professionals that are going out into their fields. Through our Safe Zone training, through speaking to them in class, we are helping the next generation of leaders gain skills and understanding that aren’t always available through standardized curricula.
Having a dedicated center on campus is important for so many reasons. Having an LGBTQ Center on campus creates that visibility for all queer and trans youth. They see that there is investment in their communities on campus by the University and that there’s somewhere they can go to get assistance and find community.
Every student over the last 20 years that we’ve managed to keep in school, help graduate and be successful in the way that they define success is an important achievement of the center.
The UNC LGBTQ Center will be celebrating its 20th anniversary April 10-14, 2023, with a LGBTQ art and history exhibition and reception on the evening of April 10 from 6:30-8pm at the Carolina Union Art Gallery https://give.unc.edu/donate?p=saff&f=606250