University supports LGBTQ+ students during challenges posed by pandemic

Michael Martin Garrett
August 13, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Despite challenges posed over the last several months by the ongoing pandemic, the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (CSGD) at Penn State has remained committed to outreach, engagement and support for LGBTQ+ students across the University.

Brian Patchcoski, CSGD director, has helped lead a concerted effort to stay connected with the many students who benefit from the center’s programming and services. When the University announced a shift to remote instruction for the spring 2020 semester, the CSGD hosted a virtual community check-in with students – the first in a line of events and programming created or adapted to meet students wherever they were during trying times.

“Having a sense of community is always important – it becomes your support system, especially if you’re away from home,” said CSGD Graduate and Professional Student Engagement Coordinator Kinsley Ballas, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns. “Building that community is important, especially in stressful times where things are changing. Having that support system helps keep a sense of normality and continuing that connection with students is vital.”

Some of the events and programming the CSGD staff has hosted over the summer include ongoing discussion groups among peers of different identities, recognizing graduates at the Lavender Graduation ceremony held remotely this year, leading weekly exercise and workout sessions over Zoom, and using social media to explore LGBTQ+ history and the meanings of different pride flags. Another major initiative was a virtual summer camp called “Camp Crystal Queer,” which was envisioned and brought to life by CSGD Program Coordinator Eric Duran.

CSGD program coordinator Eric Duran at Lake Perez

Eric Duran, program coordinator for the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (CSGD), speaks with students over a virtual platform from Lake Perez -- part of the Stone Valley Recreation Area operated by Penn State -- as part of the CSGD's "Camp Crystal Queer" series of events over the summer.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Eric Duran

“We really wanted to embody what a queer camp might look like in digital form,” Patchcoski said. “Each staff member has open hours on Zoom so students can chat with ‘camp counselors’ and we’ve hosted all sorts of events – create your own s’mores, community conversations around the campfire, lessons on the history of pride, even sharing ghost stories around the fire and some of the myths and traditions at Penn State. We wanted to help instill a sense of what Penn State is, and what a queer Penn State is.”

The CSGD community, including the undergraduate and graduate students who find a sense of belonging with their peers at the center, continued to stay engaged with the center and its virtual programming. Patchcoski noted that the center recently hosted its most well-attended keynote speaker event ever with activist, actor and online personality Chella Man, and that the event was so successful because it was hosted virtually with accessibility options for all audience members.

But Patchcoski noted that some queer students may have found themselves in homes or areas that are not accepting, or where it otherwise is not safe for them to be themselves.

“One of the things most difficult about doing digital programming is how to make it accessible for students who are not ‘out’ at home, or are in a living situation that isn’t supportive or safe,” he said.  “We’ve also tried to create ‘innocuous’ programming that doesn’t seem obviously ‘queer’ – like our digital pen pals program. When you’re in a place that isn’t supporting, it is so important to have that community support system and have someone who understands you.”

The center has also continued its work partnering with colleagues across the University to support LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff across the commonwealth. One initiative has been working with Clothing Transit– which provides free, gender-affirming clothes to transgender students – to create an online reservation and pick-up system starting this fall so students can continue to benefit from this service while still following public health guidance during the pandemic.

Other efforts have included partnering with Admissions to connect incoming students with information about the CSGD and the resources available to them. The “Spectrums of Success” program also works with incoming students by connecting them with advocates in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the Gender Equity Center and Multicultural Resource Center so that students have a range of support across their multiple identities.

Making sure that queer students receive ample support across the entire Penn State system has also been a focus of the center’s work, with Patchcoski and other center staff working directly with colleagues at Commonwealth Campuses and World Campus.

“We’ve also been working a lot with non-binary and trans folks on their chosen name and housing experiences, and what Penn State will look like for them,” Patchcoski said. “What is living as a trans person at Penn State Mont Alto like, for instance? Our campuses are great communities for people navigating these identities, and we do a lot of work on that front.”

Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (CSGD) program coordinator Eric Duran poses in drag in front of Old Main

Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (CSGD) program coordinator Eric Duran poses in drag in front of Old Main, as part of one the many virtual events that the CSGD offered for students over the summer to continue their mission of outreach, engagement and support for LGBTQ+ members of the Penn State community.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Eric Duran

Kinsley said that CSGD staff is hard at work preparing for the coming fall semester, and plans to utilize a combination of both in-person and virtual event programming. The center will also follow public health and safety guidelines, such as reduced numbers of students allowed in the center at one time, in order to best create a safe and supportive environment.

Patchcoski said that he has found it heartening that, despite the challenges and distance imposed by the pandemic, the center’s students have been stepping up as leaders. He said that the pandemic has challenged him, his colleagues and volunteers to think more holistically and creatively about how they can continue to support and empower students, regardless of circumstances.

“It will look a little different this semester -- but we are one institution geographically distributed, and engagement across the commonwealth has been extremely high in the time of COVID,” Patchcoski said. “That’s the beauty of this kind of work and working remotely – we’ve been able to connect with students across the commonwealth and extend that support wherever it’s needed.”

Last Updated September 03, 2020