Nicole Vagra/The Heights
Two years after Boston College’s undergraduate student government submitted a proposal asking administrators to implement a resource center for LGBTQ+ students on campus, the college is instead moving ahead with an unpopular plan to house LGBTQ+ resources in its existing intercultural center. That center, the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center—AHANA stands for people of African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American descent—was initially created to support students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
The 2021 proposal called on the university to create a student-run, physical space in which LGBTQ+ students could meet casually or hold events. It posited that the center could initially be staffed by undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, with the potential to hire full- or part-time employees in the future. All they needed was basic office furniture—desks and chairs—and a physical room to get started.
According to students, administrators rejected the proposal on the grounds that it conflicts with BC’s Jesuit values.
But Jack Dunn, a BC spokesperson, offered a simpler explanation in an email to Inside Higher Ed: “The Division of Student Affairs firmly believes in an integrated, intercultural center model that provides holistic resources and support for all historically marginalized students, consistent with the prevailing trends in higher education.”
A separate email, signed by both Dunn and Shawna Cooper Whitehead, vice president for student affairs, said that the intercultural center aims to take an “intersectional” approach to student identities and resources.
“Today’s students are intersectional,” they wrote. “They often self-identify beyond race or sexual orientation. Our goal is to provide services that address this interconnectedness, bring our students together, and provide a welcoming and supportive environment for all, particularly those who are historically marginalized.”
LGBTQ+ students aren’t happy with the planned merger. Not only do they fear it will take resources away from the students of color the center was originally intended to serve, but they also worry it overlooks one of the key reasons they wanted an LGBTQ+ center in the first place: to provide a safe space specifically for LGBTQ+ students.
“Part of having a stand-alone center includes that affinity space—with the conservative, heteronormative culture at Boston College, we think that having a safe space for queer students and allies is something really important that will benefit a lot of people,” said Wells Arkins, who graduated from BC this spring. Arkins was the chair of the GLBTQ+ Leadership Council, or GLC, a part of the undergraduate student government’s executive branch.
Another Boston College student, who asked to remain anonymous, said it would have been beneficial to have an LGBTQ+ space to turn to when they were exploring their gender identity. Instead, they mostly consulted books and YouTube videos.
“When I was first coming out, it was really challenging to navigate: How do I talk to my professors about my pronouns? Where do I go for X, Y, Z gender-affirming care?” they said. The lack of an LGBTQ+ center “prevented me from being able to connect with other people who could have helped me with that journey.”
Plus, students believe opening an independent center would make an impactful statement about the institution’s support of LGBTQ+ students — something they feel is necessary considering most of the college’s LGBTQ+ groups and events are student-created or student-led.
“Boston College is a university that is fully welcoming and supportive of all of its students,” Dunn wrote. “We are enriched by the presence of our LGBTQ+ students who thrive at BC, and often assume leadership positions within student organizations.”
Centers at Catholic Colleges
LGBTQ+ resource centers have emerged as a best practice on college campuses in recent years, according to the Campus Pride Index, which measures institutional support of LGBTQ+ students; the index awards points for an “institutionally funded space specifically for LGBT, gender and sexuality education and/or support services.”
But such designated spaces are not especially common among Jesuit colleges. Of the 27 U.S. institutions that are a part of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, only six offer dedicated LGBTQ+ centers, according to an analysis by Inside Higher Ed. Most of the others offer LGBTQ+ student services through another office or center, as Boston College is proposing to do.
Probably the best-known LGBTQ+ center at a Jesuit college is the LGBTQ Resource Center at Georgetown University, according to Shane Windmeyer, founder of Campus Pride, the nonprofit advocacy organization behind the Campus Pride Index and other initiatives. When the center opened in 2008, some alumni complained of the institution abandoning its Catholic morals. But the university didn’t waver.
“Because of their leadership, others are asking the question ‘Why don’t we do that and why can’t we do that?’” said Windmeyer, who was on the task force that helped create the center at Georgetown. “They’re looking at Georgetown … and looking at other supportive campuses and saying, ‘If they can do that, why can’t we?’”
The fight to expand LGBTQ+ resources at Boston College dates back at least as far as the Georgetown center, according to James Mazareas, who got his undergraduate degree from BC in 2003 and, more recently, returned to study for a graduate degree part-time.
Mazareas said Boston College’s LGBTQ+ students have been fighting for the same things for 20 years, and he doesn’t see adding LGBTQ+ resources to the AHANA center as the right answer.
“This is a solution no one had been asking for or advocating for. They’re not creating any new resources for LGBTQ students,” he said, noting that LGBTQ+ students and students of color will now need to share the same resources. “They’re just cramming them together.”
Boston College’s LGBTQ+ students say they are used to sharing resources with other populations. For years, their greatest advocate and the sole full-time staff member serving the LGBTQ+ community has been Caroline Davis, associate dean of student outreach and support, who students say also holds many other responsibilities unrelated to LGBTQ+ services.
Davis responded to a request for an interview with Inside Higher Ed with a statement about placing LGBTQ+ services in the AHANA center.
“Over the summer, LGBTQ+ Support and Programming will move into the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center (BAIC), which will have a particular focus on students of color and LGBTQ+ students,” she wrote in part. “I am very excited about this transition and feel it will provide broader and more intersectional support, resources and programming for LGBTQ+ students … This transition to a more holistic model of supporting students will come with an overall increase in resources, including the hiring of an Associate Director who has LGBTQ+ student support as a central focus of the role.”
The associate director position was posted on Boston College’s job portal on May 18. The listing cites several key duties, including developing programming for the center, supporting students’ “holistic development,” advising clubs and working with LGBTQ+ students.
It is unclear if the new staff member will replace Davis in working with LGBTQ+ students or if Davis’s role will remain unchanged. When asked, Dunn said, “Caroline Davis will work to support the associate director.”