Commentary

Looking to provide ‘support my generation didn’t have’ Penn State alum gifts $1M to LGBTQIA student center | Frank Pizzoli

February 23, 2021 6:30 am

(Old Main at Penn State University. Image via Flickr Commons)

“I’m hoping this center provides the support that many of my generation needed but didn’t have,” says Penn State alumnus Jeffrey A. Conrad, who recently made a $1 million gift to support facility renovations and enhanced programming for the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at the state-related school’s University Park campus.

Frank Pizzoli (Capital-Star file)

As the largest gift in the center’s history, Conrad’s commitment will provide an expanded home for the campus’s LGBTQ+ and ally communities while enhancing its future programming.

In recognition of his support, the renovated space will be named The Jeffrey A. Conrad Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The Juniata County native is a 1983 graduate of the College of Agricultural Sciences. He is current president and founder of Boston-based Agis Capital, which invests in agricultural properties and related operating companies

While he was an agricultural science student, Conrad told Capital-Star he was “fearful of sharing with people around me.” Students in his dormitory “would try to lure student’s they thought were gay so they could beat them up.”

He also knew the history of a campus organization formed in 1971, Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS). When they sat together in the dining hall “students would throw food at them.”

Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS) was formed in 1971 as a resource for homosexual students. In March of 1971, the club was officially recognized by Penn State; however, two months later, the University suspended the club’s charter and confiscated the HOPS public bulletin board.

From May through June, a legal battle ensued between members of HOPS and Penn State administration.

In September 1971 Penn State suspended the HOPS’s student organization charter; in February of 1972 four student members of the group filed suit against the University.

Jeffrey A. Conrad (Submitted Photo)

After the case had exhausted its legal recourse, HOPS was formally recognized by the University as an official school-sanctioned organization in 1973. Ten years later, HOPS disbanded because of a lack of membership. Source: Penn State University Library Archive

In contrast to Conrad’s experiences four decades ago, students told Capital-Star the center provides a safe place to be themselves.

Laryn Anise Jackson, of Folcroft, Pa., is part of the center’s Student Marketing Staff.

“The center has played a critical role in my own self development and working there has allowed me to learn more about my own LGBTQ+ community. Being on staff has been one of the highlights of my college career.”

On Feb. 10, Jackson co-moderated a Black & Queer Panel with other LGBTQ+ advocates and educators. “It was my first time planning an event and it was a lot of fun. Center staff gave me their blessings to put it together and supported me through the process.”

Mark Mayes, of Brackney, Pa., says the center “allows me to have a safe space where I know I can be myself and not fear any retaliation for my sexuality.”

His best center experience was setting up a Day of the Dead altar for the annual Mexican holiday celebrated Nov. 1.

“Families visit their passed loved ones at cemeteries, leave marigolds, offerings, food, jewelry, and other things that they think would please their passed loved ones.”

Especially significant to Mayes is that November is also Transgender Awareness Month. “We combined Day of the Dead with also remembering transgender people who have passed.”

The Human Rights Campaign reports: Sadly, 2021 has already seen at least six transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. HRC notes these stories often go unreported — or misreported. In previous years, the majority of these people were Black and Latinx transgender women.

In 2020, HRC tracked 44 violent fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people, marking last year as the most violent year on record since HRC began tracking these crimes in 2013.

A Media Matters analysis of broadcast and cable TV news in 2020 found that networks discussed anti-trans violence for only 54 minutes across 23 segments.

Reports from MSNBC accounted for more than half of this coverage; every other network covered the topic for less than six minutes each. The analysis looked at corporate broadcast news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as cable news coverage on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

Student Jasmine V. Jackson, of Gainesville, Fla., told Capital-Star that “having the center allows me to feel comfortable being exactly who I am and feeling good in how I present myself to the world. It also allows me to feel a sense of family and community centered around my gender identity and sexual orientation.”

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Student Life administrators agree with students’ assessments.

The center’s interim director, Sonya Rae Wilmoth, says students “find comfort in having a place on campus that allows them to bring all pieces of their identities into the space and have the freedom to be who they are without judgement. I think they value the friendships and community they find here.”

Assistant V.P. for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Brian Patchcoski, who led the center’s renovation and relocation to a more visible location funded by Conrad’s donation, told Capital-Star that “as our communities continue to advocate for justice and equity, the call for intersectional and intentional cross-community connections are clear – and this opportunity has created those pathways for future growth and community engagement.”

Jasmine Jackson’s experience reflects campus administrators’ take on the center’s effectiveness.

Jackson told Capital-Star she values “the virtual programming and being able to hear speakers talk about their experiences and share some wisdom! I still carry a lot of their words of encouragement and advice with me.”

Opinion contributor Frank Pizzoli is the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected]

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