While the Rainbow Center has served as the center-point of the University of Connecticut’s LGBT community since 1998, there wasn’t always a designated space for queer youth on campus.
During the ‘70s, when the Student Union was a quarter of the size it is now, gay and lesbian students used to meet in a trailer parked where the UConn Police Department stands today.
When Jim Palmieri, a professor of floral arts and manager of UConn Blooms, went to the “intercollegiate trailer” for the first time, he took the scenic route, doing everything he could to make it look like he was only there to pick up his car.
Palmieri, one of four panelists who spoke Saturday afternoon at “Pride from the Past” in the Rainbow Center, said the trailer had become notorious on campus – everyone knew that if you walked through that door you were at least questioning your sexuality.
“It was a refuge for us, just like you have this Rainbow Center, but you can easily walk in here, we just didn’t have that confidence in ourselves,” Palmieri said. “What made me feel comfortable was that my TA from the black history course I was taking was there.”
Seeing a familiar face gave Palmieri the resolve to dive into the LGBT community, which at the time focused more on the ‘L’ and the ‘G’ than anything else, he admitted. Palmieri would later go on to help start Project Hartford, where he worked to inform the public about safe-sex practices and queer issues as chairman of the Outreach and Education Committee, and ran a support group for HIV positive gay men during the AIDS epidemic.
“I have to say that I’ve lost probably about 45 friends over all these years who died of HIV/AIDS, so it was a very sobering time,” Palmieri said. “We grew up together, we found ourselves in the early ‘80s.”
Kristin Van Ness, academic advisor for the human development and family studies program, said she also came alive as a queer student at UConn in the early-2000s.
“My experience coming out was saved because of the Rainbow Center. I am not the most outgoing person in the world, but my wife is,” Van Ness said. “She took my hand and dragged me in here.”
Since then, Van Ness said she’s encountered few obstacles to being out in the workplace, although she does have two versions of her résumé – a “lavender” resume that includes her work at the Rainbow Center and Central Connecticut State University’s LGBT Center and a toned – down version that’s less specific about her work history.
While Van Ness said she’s made a commitment to being out in the workplace, having a résumé that’s vaguer about her work with the LGBT community has helped her get callbacks from more conservative employers.
The Rev. Matthew Emery, senior minister at Storrs Congregational Church, and Louis Mitchell, a community engagement officer with Transfaith, also shared their experiences with becoming church leaders as they came to terms with their identities as a whole.
Emery, who graduated high school at 16, said he received “the call” to join the ministry his junior year at Michigan State University, shortly after he came out as gay for the first time. From there he went on to meet his partner, who is an ordained Episcopal priest, and to study at the Chicago Theological Seminary in Illinois.
The biggest obstacle for Emery growing up in a small Michigan town, he said, was the absence of an accessible LGBT community.
“Part of the dynamics of my coming out simply had to do with lack of exposure for my parents in that community,” Emery said. “People sometimes ask me if I’m regretful that I cut high school short, and I have no regrets about that, because when I was ready to come out to somebody I was already a freshman at Michigan State, which was a much better environment.”
Mitchell, a transgender black man who became more deeply involved with the church later in life, said he believes most people’s discomfort with LGBT individuals stem from misunderstanding rather than antipathy, particularly when it comes to bisexual and transgender people.
“They spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back about ‘L’ and ‘G,’ and then just sort of throw the letters together to they don’t have to do anything for bi and trans people,” Mitchell said. “It’s all of us, or none of us.”
Though faith has become the center of Mitchell’s life, he said it can sometimes be difficult to find a place for it within the largely secular LGBT movement because of some Christian’s vocal opposition to same-sex marriage and other basic rights for queer people.
“I understand that church burn and that trauma is real, people who claim faith have been murderous, insensitive and, in my opinion, distinctly unchristian,” Mitchell said.
Much of Mitchell’s work at Transfaith focuses on working with congregations to advance their understanding of sexuality, gender, race and other social issues that intersect within the queer community.
“They want to really embody what they view as the body of Christ, the body of unity, and their perceptions, fears and world view stand in the way of it a lot,” Mitchell said. “I challenge people in so many ways, and they challenge me right back.”
When Mitchell first came out a transman to his mother in a letter, he said she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to understand his decision to transition. More than a decade later, she’s his biggest advocate.
“We don’t waste time with the BS, we just shoot straight to the love,” Mitchell said.
Tyler Lemoine, an eighth-semester pathobiology major, said he helped organize “Pride from the Past” to so that LGBT students could have a better understand their history.
“The goal for this was to have people in the community hear from elders,” Lemoine said. “We wanted people to see how far the movement has gone and where professionals think it should go.”
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.