A comparative study of LGBT resource centers at top academic institutions found that USC’s, at 169 square feet, is the smallest in the country for schools that have such centers.
In theory, the center serves 4,000 students, according to Alyssa Coffey, executive director of the Queer and Ally Student Assembly. The center’s director, Rev. Kelby Harrison, led the research project last year to see how USC compared to other major universities.
The study found that the average size of LGBT resource centers is about 1,200 square feet. Rutgers University’s LGBT center, which is the second smallest after USC, has an area of 700 square feet. Harrison said that, despite being below average, Rutgers’s center still has a study lounge, offices and a reception area, far surpassing its USC counterpart.
“[Our] space is not just small. It is embarrassing,” Harrison said. “We also looked at the California fire code [regulations], and 169 square feet should only have eight occupants at any given time. We have seven employees that work here, six students and me. Which means that at any given time we’ve maxed out our code should all of my staff show up.”
Harrison explained how the center’s small size affects the LGBT community as a whole.
“For retention and for the psychological flourishing of the LGBT community, students need a space that feels welcoming, that feels like a living room, a place you can come to and study and relax and meet people and hang out with friends and just be you,” Harrison said. “While it is colorful and identity affirming, it isn’t that kind of relaxed space.”
Harrison argued that because they hold meetings and student workers are always at the office, the LGBT center is not a space to “drop in,” but more of a space for the “business of the center itself.” She also said that this has led them to do programming in other locations around campus, such as the Office of Religious Life, Taper Hall and the Von Kleinsmid Center.
“[This] means that we don’t have all our pamphlets on hand, we don’t have our educational materials or our historical materials nearby,” Harrison said. “We are just back in a vacant University space.”
Harrison also commented on how the LGBT center’s relative success may be an impediment to it gaining additional resources. She said that because the center does a “great job on paper” and meets many of the benchmarks in institutional indexes, the higher administration could be overlooking needs that should be met.
“We’re doing too good of a job, so they don’t notice how poorly this center is actually serving our students,” Harrison said. “It’s a paradox of sorts.”
Coffey explained that a year ago the LGBT resource center had a brief opportunity for expansion. After the Center for Women and Men moved to the Engemann Student Health Center, Coffey said, it gave its unused office space to the LGBT resource center. But at the end of the last school year, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Division Initiatives and Operations Timothy Bessolo was involved in the decision over how to repurpose the space, and it was decided that it would be turned into an Innovation Lab and a space for Student Affairs staff.
“We had a much-needed ability to expand into that office, and they were just taking it away without consulting with students or even the director of the resource center,” Coffey said. “It was a decision that came down from the top.”
In protest, members of the center and the LGBT community staged a demonstration at the center in July. More than two dozen students crowded the small room, breaking fire code.
“I think [administrators] think they care,” Coffey said. “Every time that students show [the administration] ways in which they could be better supported, it’s a bureaucratic spiral, and nothing ever happens.”
Bonnie Johnson, a graduate student working at the LGBT center, talked about her undergraduate experience at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and how expanding the center will require students to be more passionate.
“Back home, all the LGBT kids would kind of gather together [at the LGBT resource center] and be really passionate because everyone on campus treated them like sh*t,” Johnson said. “Here, because all the LGBT or queer kids are not as persecuted, they seem to be more defocused. There’s not a huge presence at the center.”