Part 1: The GSRC
To get to the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC), Northwestern’s affinity space for LGBTQ+ undergraduates, you have to first go to the Norris University Center and head all the way up to the third floor. From there, it takes a map to pinpoint the location of the center before you have to walk past administration and student organization offices. When you arrive, you see two small study rooms connected by a corridor, with an office in the back. Most of the standing room is taken up by various couches, chairs, bookshelves and tables. Computers, printers, speakers and microwaves – standard in most student organization spaces – are nowhere to be seen. If it weren’t for all of the rainbow artwork present in one of the rooms, it would be easy to mistake the GSRC for an unused set of offices.
Jo Scaletty, a Communication junior who worked for Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA), has tried to get the University to move the GSRC. They worry the space presents an unsafe lack of privacy due to its large windows lining the front walls and its proximity to unrelated offices and student groups.
“Anyone could walk past the GSRC on the way to the SOURCE and see anyone who was sitting in there,” Scaletty said. “And if someone was closeted and doing their work, it could potentially out them to people who [could] be dangerous to them.”
In September 2003, The Daily Northwestern published an editorial titled “The LGBT center won’t meet needs.” Despite student reservations, the LGBT Center, now the GSRC, opened in January 2004 in what was until then an office and its closet space.
“I think it’s awfully symbolic to be in what was a former closet,” said Matthew Abtahi, an assistant director of MSA.
As of today, the addition of a second room in 2014 has been the only substantial change to the GSRC’s physical space. About a quarter of Northwestern’s 8,000 undergraduate students identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, meaning that the GSRC is meant to accommodate approximately 2,000 students. According to Norris’s Assistant Director of Facilities Dan Foley, the GSRC currently has enough space for just 10.
“A lot of people will be trying to come in, and they’ll see you’re in [the GSRC] and just walk away” because of the lack of space, said Cammy Simpson, a Weinberg junior who began coming to the GSRC during this past Fall Quarter.
But at the same time, Simpson and many other students who spend time in the GSRC recognize that the center has had a positive impact on their college experience despite its flaws. It’s served as a place for them to study, hang out and develop a better understanding of their identities.
“[A friend and I] wrote a piece on afrofuturism, and we focused a lot on Black lesbianism and womanism in the piece,” Simpson recalled.“I definitely felt like the space [of the GSRC] enhanced my ability to think about it.”
When you enter the space, you can see that the people that inhabit the GSRC truly do care about it. A rainbow of student-made origami and sculptures line the wall and tables, LGBTQ+-centric posters and paintings have been hung on the walls, and one of the GSRC offices is home to a library of LGBTQ+ reading and viewing materials.
Part 2: A Work in Progress
In February 2021, Scaletty, then an Associated Student Government (ASG) senator for the Rainbow Alliance, wrote a bill calling for Northwestern to move the GSRC into a larger space. That bill succeeded and has launched discussion between administrators and students to create a feasible plan to expand the GSRC’s potential.
An additional stipulation Scaletty included in the bill concerned future-proofing the size of a new GSRC. “We don’t want in five years to have a similar situation, where another Rainbow Alliance senator is having to write [another bill],” Scaletty said. “We want this to be something that we can have for the long term.”
There have been numerous suggestions for what exactly to do with the GSRC. Scaletty wants to move it into a house on Sheridan Road, near the MSA offices. They believe that this would maximize the space’s privacy for students, visibility and size. That said, houses on campus are in high demand and short in supply, so stakeholders and supporters have discussed potential alternatives. For example, Scaletty has discussed moving the GSRC into the Donald P. Jacobs Center, which according to Abtahi currently has little function except for as a COVID-19 testing center. Other university organizations have expressed interest in moving into the Jacobs Center, but the GSRC would only need a fraction of the available space to satisfy Scaletty’s ASG resolution.
Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, Vice President for Student Affairs, is the primary administrator in charge of the GSRC expansion project. Of the current progress, she said, “We are working to identify a mid-range solution by mid-Winter Quarter.” Other administrators have also been brought in to help figure out a plan for the GSRC, such as Assistant Vice President for Inclusion Dr. Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson and Director of MSA Daviree Velázquez Phillip. Though nothing concrete has been identified, both sides are committed to the project and have been meeting throughout the Fall Quarter.
“I am very glad that [the administrators] I’ve met with at this point have at least been upfront about what that process is going to look like, even if we don’t have any actual movement in that direction yet,” Scaletty said.
This is not the first time that the University has attempted to improve an affinity space in recent years. In September, the Black House reopened after undergoing numerous renovations including a new mural, improved accessibility and new furniture.
Imani Harris, a Medill senior, has been coming to the GSRC since her freshman year and regularly spends time in the Black House. “At the Black House, I used to sit all day doing work because there’s a kitchen, you can warm your food. You don’t really have to leave the space,” Harris said.
The Black House’s renovation was another project that had long been desired by students who considered the old space outdated. Efforts to renovate the Black House began in 2015 after students protested against the potential inclusion of new administrative offices in the building.
As it stands, it will be many years before a new GSRC opens. Funding remains a primary concern. Money could come from the MSA’s operational budget, due to the GSRC’s close ties to the office. But Abtahi is skeptical: “I don’t know if it is wise for us to be cutting anything from the ways in which we serve students’ wellness and care.” He believes the University needs to raise awareness about the importance of the GSRC to the student body and convince alumni donors to support the initiative.
At the heart of the movement to expand the GSRC, students hope to one day have a space large enough for all LGBTQ+ undergraduates to have a place to call home during their time at Northwestern. “Having physical space is important not only as an indicator of how the University treats and believes in marginalized students having the space,” Scaletty said. “It’s also just important to have visible space that is available for students to go and be free and be themselves.”
Thumbnail image by Ryan Morton.
Editor’s note: Scaletty was not on NBN staff when this story was written or published. As of March 2022, they have since joined staff as the Opinion Editor.