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USU Gay-Lesbian center regroups as longtime director departs

August 2nd, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By D. Whitney Smith

LOGAN—Maure Smith-Benanti, revered by many as a friend, adviser, advocate and to some a literal lifesaver, has left her post as LGBTQA program coordinator for USU’s Access and Diversity Center for a similar position at the University of Oregon.

For many, Smith-Benanti is the main reason that gays and lesbians have found a safe place at USU. One of the founders of the university’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally services program (LGBTQA), Smith-Benanti has been a ferocious protector and tireless friend.

In the wake of Smith-Benanti’s departure, a group met in ASUSU student senate chambers last week to discuss what characteristics her successor should possess. Access and Diversity Center director Michelle Bogdan called the meeting.

“I know that it was very difficult for a lot of us for Maure to leave. We were all really tight with her,” Bogdan said. “That’s why it’s so important to me. We have very big shoes to fill.”

Several former and current council members of LIFE—USU’s gay-straight alliance—were there, along with representatives from other sections of the Access and Diversity Center.

Eric Olsen, associate vice president for student services, said a job description will need to be written and approved before recruitment can begin. Bogdan asked others at the meeting to offer suggestions and describe what they would like to see in a new LGBTQA program coordinator.

“They need to be really sensitive to the cultural climate here,” said former LIFE vice president Isaac Furniss. “If you bring in a hard-hitter from San Francisco, they might not show the same level of respect to the majority population of Cache Valley, and understanding [of] what it means to come from an LDS background and to identify as part of the ‘Queer’ community.”

Furniss said candidates need to understand the many unique demographic and cultural layers not only on campus but in surrounding communities as well.

Two Communities, One Place

As the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah is the frequent focus of controversy about gay and lesbian issues, including same-sex marriage.

For example, last year LDS church leader Boyd Packer made a number of statements at the church’s fall General Conference that were seen as anti-gay. Just two weeks later, USU alumnus Reed Cowan came to Utah for several screenings of his 2010 Sundance documentary, “8: The Mormon Proposition,” which looked at the church’s involvement in California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. This summer, Cowan’s movie, which documented the LDS church’s funding of the anti-gay California law, won the award for best documentary of 2010 from the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a major national gay rights group.

Cowan is just one of several locally affiliated LGBT individuals who has spoken out for gay rights.

“There are no community agencies in Cache Valley that support the LGBT community,” Smith-Benanti said in an interview with Hard News Café. “There are some friendly and welcoming churches, but there is actually not a community center devoted entirely to LGBT people or issues.”

Most support for the LGBT community in Cache Valley comes from USU, she said. A gay-straight alliance has existed on campus in one way or another since the late 1980s. The Gay and Lesbian Student Resource Center (GLSRC) was formed at USU in 2001, staffed by student volunteers. In 2010, the Access and Diversity Center was created as a way to integrate LGBT, multicultural, veteran and non-traditional students with student services.

“While I was [at USU], I saw the faculty code change [in 2007] to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected categories like race, class, religion, etc.,” Smith-Benanti said. “The faculty voted to hold themselves to a higher standard.”

Recent USU graduate Rachel Jaggi, who worked as Smith-Benanti’s intern, said local high schools are beginning to see student groups forming gay-straight alliances, which she said is a good sign that younger generations in the Cache Valley are becoming more aware and accepting of the people around them.

Jaggi grew up in Logan. She said she identified with herself as gay before enrolling at USU and was terrified that she would find no support as a gay college student in Utah. But then she connected with Smith-Benanti and the LGBT network on campus.

Acceptance, Not Just Tolerance

Recently released 2010 U.S. Census data show that the number of gay-couple households reported in Utah has gone up about 73 percent since 2000, from 3,360 to 5,814. In Cache County, 2.8 to 4.2 same-sex couples were reported for every 1,000 households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.

“Just like anybody else, they deserve respect, they deserve to have their voice heard,” said USU alumna Bonnie Jean Knighton. “They deserve to have the exact same things that heterosexuals have. That goes along many levels—you know, political rights, religious faith. They deserve to have those things. Why treat them differently?”

Jaggi, who graduated in May, agreed, but said that the local culture and attitudes of the dominant religion make it difficult for many good people to understand others who are not like them. “I think that it’s easy for people to be afraid, because they choose not to get to know LGBT people,” Jaggi said. “In a lot of cases it’s something that they’re scared of, so they don’t make the effort to get to know someone, which allows them to continue to be afraid and homophobic.”

Knighton, Jaggi’s girlfriend, said among the wide range of misconceptions regarding gay people is that they are not religious. Knighton and Jaggi were both raised LDS and agreed that it can be devastating to feel pushed away by their faith.

Furniss agreed. In college and similar social-academic settings, Furniss said individuals who self-identify as LGBT might find it easier to “come out and be themselves” after realizing they are on their own in a new place. It’s when their “religious family finds out that they’re gay” that things tend to go haywire. This is why, he said, it is imperative that support be available.

“There’s a problem where a lot of LGBT members, when they come out, a lot of them especially around here were religious,” Knighton said, “and that religious institute basically rejects them so they find themselves on their own. So they kind of do this ‘queer bouncing,’ where they go off the deep end and do everything they never thought they would and normally wouldn’t.”

Knighton said Smith-Benanti created a safe haven where students who needed help or found themselves in a crisis situation could turn to.

Maure’s Legacy

“I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say I have probably saved 50 students from killing themselves,” Smith-Benanti said in a phone interview from her new home in Oregon. “It absolutely broke my heart when they had not filled my position already, so that I could train the next person who came in. It broke my heart to leave the students alone.”

Student services will begin looking for a replacement as soon as possible, Olsen said, but realistically the position may not be filled until the middle of fall semester.

Until the position is filled, Bogdan said she is the primary contact for anyone who has any needs regarding LGBT support. She said she has complete confidence that LIFE council members and staff of the Access and Diversity Center will do their best to help out during the interim.

“When I was a graduate student, I was also the graduate senate president for ASUSU,” Smith-Benanti said. “I co-authored legislation through student government requesting that there be a new position created on campus for LGBT students.”

At the time this legislation was approved, she was finishing a master’s degree in literature and writing, and had no intention of actually being the person to take the newly created job.

Smith-Benanti said she was prompted to create the position because not only is she a member of the LGBT community, but she often heard LGBT students say they did not feel safe on campus.

“Most importantly, what I found that Maure did with the position was that she empowered the students to have a voice,” said USU student Christopher Thomas. “She basically taught and mentored people; I view that position as a mentorship.”

LIFE public relations liaison Kennedy Tripp said Smith facilitated networking between students and university resources, which not only provided opportunity for students to build strong relationships but also allowed them to maximize their potential.

Bogdan said she sees the position as one that straddles the line between being a student services specialist and being a person who can diplomatically create a climate of acceptance on campus.

“The position is ‘program coordinator,’” Bogdan said, “that’s the number one thing is we want to make sure that the students are supported and the programs we have going are successful.”

TP

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  1. 2 Responses to “USU Gay-Lesbian center regroups as longtime director departs”

  2. By Dan Smith on Aug 2, 2011

    By sitting in on the meeting last Wednesday I was able to see that Maure affected a lot of people in a great way. It is clear that she will be missed by many. I enjoyed meeting and talking to all of the people that contributed to this story. If any good comes from this news, I hope it will raise awareness that everyone needs love, and everyone deserves support and acceptance. As a member of the LDS church, I fall back on one of the very first things I remember learning – Love one another.

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