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04/11/2012 07:00:00

Student Group Promotes Awareness of LGBTQ Issues

Month-long Celebration Coincides with 40th Anniversary of Founding

April Fool's Day, Passover, Easter, Tax Day, Earth Day … and Gaypril? Among the many events that take place in April, one of the lesser known is the month-long "Gaypril" celebration, dedicated to advancing awareness of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) issues at Caltech and other universities around the country.

Sponsored and organized by the Caltech Center for Diversity (CCD) in collaboration with various Student Affairs offices and PRISM, Caltech's social group for LGBTQ students and allies, Gaypril kicked off on Monday with a resource table outside Chandler Café. PRISM copresident Justin Liu, CCD assistant director Portia Harris, and PRISM ally Jordan Theriot answered questions, handed out brochures on LGBTQ resources, and gave away cups of rainbow sherbet to take the edge off the midday sun.

"The main purpose of PRISM is to increase visibility and raise awareness of LGBTQ issues at Caltech, provide support for the coming-out process, and to ultimately create a welcoming environment via our events and programs," says Raul Navarro, a graduate student in chemistry and chemical engineering, who serves as copresident alongside Liu.

Gaypril highlights include film screenings, talks, and discussions led by gay scholars; a student-alumni networking mixer; a fundraising event; and a training on the "Safe Zone" program, which aims to identify and educate faculty and staff members who are visibly supportive of LGBTQ students.

This Gaypril also celebrates a milestone in LGBTQ history at Caltech: the 40th anniversary of the founding of the first gay student group on campus. During the 1971–72 academic year, grad student Don Kelsey teamed up with Dr. Ian Hunter, a staff psychologist who served as the group's faculty advisor, and formed the Caltech Gay Discussion Group. The group became official the following year after receiving funding from the Associated Students of Caltech.

Wanting to combat the isolation and loneliness that he and other gay students felt at the time, Kelsey was inspired by the groups springing up at other schools around the U.S. to make a positive impact at Caltech. "I figured if other schools could do it, we could too," says Kelsey, who describes as "remarkable" the Gaypril events and support services now available at Caltech, compared to four decades ago. "When I put up posters for the first meetings of the Discussion Group, all of them were taken down within a day. But I kept posting them (in the wee hours at night), and eventually they stayed up."

Much of the work done by the group and its successors over the past 40 years has been to make Caltech a welcoming place for LGBTQ students. The past three years has seen the establishment of the lending library and lounge, the foundation of the CCD, the initiation of an official LGBTQ-specific reception during Prefrosh Weekend, the organization of a "Coming Out Group" moderated by the Counseling Center, and the inclusion of transgender health coverage in Caltech student health insurance.

Since arriving at Caltech in 2008, Liu has noticed a "positive trend" in regard to the climate on campus. "I get the impression that attitudes at Caltech are shifting for the better. Every year, I see more students, faculty, and staff dropping by Gaypril events for an ally pin or to sign up for the Safe Zone program. It's really encouraging to see so many people step forward to be accepting and supportive," he says.

"I don't think it should be difficult for a student who is seeking that community, that support, to find it," says Navarro. "Now that we're a more active group and have a number of active members, I hope our visibility continues to grow stronger and that we're helping create a more welcoming environment on campus."

Written by Andrew Allan