higher ed

Why It Took Georgetown University 220 Years to Form a LGBT Student Center

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It feels sort of funny to be here, closing out the twenty-first century’s first decade, congratulating a major university for opening a LGBT student center. Because, really? You don’t have one already? But no, Georgetown University didn’t.

University elders will point to Georgetown’s Jesuit foundation as to why the school simply couldn’t offer support to queer students — because it would violate the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings. So why not?

Oh, because two anti-gay attacks in 2007 generated so much media attention, Georgetown had little option but to adequately respond.

The center was the university’s response to two reported anti-gay attacks on students near campus in fall 2007. In one of the two cases, a sophomore was charged with assaulting a fellow student. Prosecutors later dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence, but the event generated publicity and student protests.

Within weeks, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia organized work groups to study how hate crimes are reported, what additional resources gay students needed and how the entire campus was educated on including and understanding gay students.

It’s a terrible thing to require — violent attacks on students — to throw some momentum behind a Georgetown-funded LGBT center. But we’ll take it. Particularly because previous efforts came up short:

Gay students at Georgetown first organized in the 1970s, just after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. The students repeatedly petitioned the university for recognition and resources. They were denied over and over.

In the 1980s two groups representing gay undergraduates and law students sued Georgetown under the D.C. Human Rights Act, which says it is illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. In 1987, an appeals court decided that although the university is not required to endorse the group, it cannot deny students access to resources and benefits enjoyed by other campus clubs. Today that group is called GUPride.

In 2002, students again petitioned the administration, this time for a resource center. They were turned down, but as a compromise, in 2004, the university dedicated a part-time employee to advise gay student on what resources were available on campus.

But even a LGBT student center probably won’t prevent things like this.