Robb Dooling started his freshman year at RIT hiding a secret.
“I was afraid I would lose all of my friends if I came out as gay,” says Dooling, now a fourth-year computer science student. “Thankfully, when I did come out, my friends accepted me.”
But they did more than accept him. They also introduced the Omaha, Neb., native to the support of RIT’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In fact, today Dooling is president of Spectrum, an RIT/NTID organization for deaf and hard-of-hearing LGBT students.
“Deaf LGBT students often have an upbringing that is isolated from people who share the same identities as you do,” says Dooling. “At a recent conference, I spoke about the parallels between Harry Potter, deaf students and LGBT students feeling more at home in the school community than anywhere else.”
Spectrum is one of four groups serving this community, all supported by RIT’s GLBT Center, which works to provide education and advocacy. The GLBT Center serves as a resource to the student organizations—OUTspoken, RIT Gay Alliance, Spectrum and Tangent—and seeks to unify and represent LGBT students. Last month, the center hosted the Northeast LGBT Conference, an event that brought more than 500 students and professionals to RIT to celebrate, educate and empower LGBT and ally leaders to become agents of change.
“We all come from different walks of life and the conference brought people together to share and learn from those diverse experiences,” says Felicia Baa-Adomako, a second-year graphic design major from Philadelphia.
Henry Hinesley, GLBT Center coordinator and an adjunct RIT professor, says it is difficult to determine just how many on campus identify themselves as among the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community.
“But it’s safe to say it’s close to the national average of one in every 10 people,” he says.
The center, located in the Student Alumni Union lower level, reflects the diversity of the community it serves, offering a library of books, magazines and movies about LGBT topics. The group also hosts Lavender Tour, an orientation program for incoming LGBT students, and Rainbow Graduation, a celebration for seniors.
“Each student organization has its own functions, too,” says Dooling. “Between events like drag shows, guest speakers, free HIV testing, Rainbow Week and Ally Week, we are always supporting the community and having a good time doing it.”
Educating the larger RIT community is also central to the center’s mission.
“Crossing the threshold won’t make you gay,” jokes Hinesley. “Many of our best friends and supporters are straight allies.”
An ally is anyone who is not gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and advocates for and supports members of the community.
“I didn’t even know anything about the RIT LGBT community until I was invited to a Gay Alliance meeting as an ally,” says Baa-Adomako. “I was ignorant to a lot of the issues and terminology, but in the last two years, I’ve learned so much.”
Through sharing experiences and ideas, the center works to educate the RIT community about what it means to be an ally, offering SafeZone training that teaches inclusive vocabulary and signs essential to LGBT issues.
Allies serve as advocates, fulfilling another mission of the center. The students it serves often have unique issues.
“When I arrived at RIT and was going through my gender transition, I found that I could not change my name with the Registrar’s office until I had legally changed my name,” says Tristan Wright, a third-year interpreting student from Rochester. “When you have to personally contact your professor each quarter to explain who you are and what name you use, this can be a real problem.”
As president of OUTspoken, the LGBT voice of Student Government, Wright is pushing for more gender-neutral housing and bathrooms on campus, for policy changes regarding name changes and to promote the transgender group Tangent.
Frank Selvaggi, a 1981 graduate who helped sponsor the conference here, says he’s happy to see greater recognition and acceptance of LGBT students.
“When I was a student, such support was nonexistent,” says Selvaggi, who lives in New York City. “It’s amazing to see how free and open people can be on campus today.”