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Published on October 25, 2023

A Space Where Everyone Is Safe

A look at the Pride Center during LGBT History Month

Pride allies
Alumni Courtney Callaway '16, Carrie Robinson '08 and Lauren Peretto '15 attend an ally event in 2016.

First it was a tiny room by the freight elevator on the bottom floor of the Student Center — almost a closet, ironically.

Eastern's Pride Room, as it was then called, started in that small space in 2010 and grew to become the Pride Center in 2016, a hub of activity, education and support for LGBTQ+-identifying students and their allies. As it has grown, attitudes on campus have evolved, policies to protect students have been adopted, and gender-neutral accommodations are now an expectation, not a novelty.

In observation of LGBT History Month this October, Eastern community members reflected on the campus climate for LGBTQ+ students and the role of the Pride Center.

"I've seen a difference in the acceptance of LGBTQ folks over the years and of gender identity," said Kimberly Dugan, professor of sociology, whose research and teaching encompasses the LGBTQ+ movement.

In the current generation of students, "no one raises an eyebrow" about asking people for their preferred pronouns, for example. "They get it — they have friends — they know people," she said.

Dugan was on the committee that helped to start the Pride Room in 2010. Students had lobbied for it before then, and they worked to get more space and staffing once it opened. On March 2, 2015, the Student Government Association passed a resolution declaring that LGBTQ+ students "deserve a larger space for educational events and social gatherings." The resolution noted that the Pride Room received only $4,500 in funding that fiscal year, compared with $22,500 each for the nearby Women's and Intercultural Centers, and it was staffed with only one part-time worker.

Center opening
Pride Center ribbon cutting, November 2016: (left to right) Professor David Pellegrini, Unity Wing Director Starsheemar Byrum, former university assistant Carolyn Taggart, former Pride Alliance President Colleen Hart '18, former graduate intern Marcus Morales, President Elsa Núñez, former SGA President Harrison Brooks '18, and former Vice Presidents Ken Bedini and Walter Diaz.

On Nov. 11, 2016, the Pride Center opened in an expanded space and was dedicated to "providing a welcoming, affirming place for people to explore and increase their understanding of aspects related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in an open and nonjudgmental environment." Graduate interns were hired to assist the part-time professional staff. In 2017, Nicole Potestivo was hired as its part-time staffer, and in December 2021 she became the first full-time Pride Center coordinator.


The impetus for growth has always come from the students. The Pride Alliance, a student club, "really directed the activity" at the original Pride Room, recalled Michelle Delaney, vice president of student affairs, who was formerly director of the Student Center. Faculty served as advisors, and her office responded to logistical needs. But the students were the "grassroots," she said.

Students "were very strategic in their approach — they knew what they wanted," said Starsheemar Byrum '07, director of the Women's Center. The Women's Center, the Intercultural Center and the Pride Center are all part of the Arthur L. Johnson Unity Wing on the first floor of the Student Center. All three are now funded equally, Delaney said.

Potestivo and Byrum
Nicole Potestivo and Starsheemar Byrum '07

Raven Trinci '26, an anthropology major and current president and treasurer of the Pride Alliance club, said the Pride Center is a safe place for people to explore their identity. In addition to having a supportive community, students can use the center's wardrobe to experiment with clothing that meets their identity.

"It's a nice family to turn to," said Trinci. The Pride Center ribbon-cutting in 2016 came just after the presidential election, recalled Carolyn Taggart, then the center's part-time staffer, who remembered some fear on campus that undocumented students would be sent home and that the campus climate would change. But that wasn't the case, and the Pride Center thrived.

"Students at Eastern were always a bit of a catalyst for good, progressive change," said Taggart, who now directs the GLBTA Pride Center at Bridgewater State University.

It's really intimate, what we're talking about ... gender identity, sexuality. That's what this space is for.

Nicole Potestivo

Isaiah Roby '13, now living in Topeka, KS, was president of the Pride Alliance for three years as a student at Eastern. He was the first student to graduate with a women's and gender studies major, and he wrote a senior research paper on the feasibility of creating a Pride Center.

When he graduated, the Pride Center did not yet exist; there was only a Pride Room. When he visited campus five or six years ago, "the difference was amazing," he said. He recalled that during his student years, when he transitioned, one professor would not accept his chosen name because it was not the name that appeared on the class roster, so he was marked absent for the entire semester that he attended the class.

Now, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system has a policy that individuals may be identified by a preferred first name and that institutions facilitate students' requests for a formal, legal change of name if they choose. Another policy says that individuals may be identified by their actual gender identity and self-identified pronouns.


During his student years, Roby advocated for gender-inclusive housing, which was first offered in fall 2014. This fall semester, seven students in first-year residence halls and 91 students in upper-level halls are living in gender-inclusive housing.

"It is our intent to work more closely with Nicole (Potestivo) to ensure first-year students have resources and connections to help them successfully acclimate to living on campus," said Angela Bazin, director of housing and residential life. "Being a part of this housing theme is meant to help students realize what this community means to them, as they are all at different levels of their identity process."

Roby and Taylor
Isaiah Roby '13 and Stephen Taylor '14

Stephen Taylor '14, now a residence hall director at the University of Connecticut, was hired as the first part-time coordinator at the Pride Room the summer after he graduated. "When I think about all my different student affairs roles, it was the most impactful role I've ever had," he said.

Students would go to him with their stories about coming out and communicating with their families.

Some were terrified, and he saw his role as counteracting fear and trauma and helping them work through those feelings.

"I was often the first person to hear these stories," he said.

"I felt as though once I began the process of opening up and sharing more about myself … that the environment became more accepting," he said. As coordinator of the Pride Room, Taylor wanted to make sure that everyone who visited was welcome and that it was a place for community.

The support from faculty and staff in advocating for the room and getting resources was significant, he said. "While I was the person who had their office in the space, I definitely did not do the work of running it alone. It was a team effort, and I am grateful."

Potestivo, the current Pride Center coordinator, agrees that "there have been a lot of faculty who've been vocal about us having this space." She sees the center as a safe place for students and a home for resources and support. It is needed, she said, because there is "so much diversity" on campus, including transgender and asexual students, and queer people of color.

"It's really intimate, what we're talking about — gender identity, sexuality," she said. "That's what this space is for."

"We're heavy programmers on campus," she noted. The Pride Center schedules social and educational events and attracts students who come to study or hang out. Faculty ask Potestivo for advice on best practices, and she does in-house "safe zone" trainings on appropriate language and inclusive practices. She provides workshops for parents and families and reaches out to incoming students during orientation tours. "We're becoming not just a stop at the bottom of the stairs (of the Student Center)," she said.

Allyship is also encouraged for all who support gender inclusivity and rights.

"Eastern has a lot of allies," said Celeste Petrowsky, a sophomore theatre major who advocates for LGBTQ+ students. "I feel like they (allies) really support by being present in helping queer students find resources or find help if they need it. I always see friends of friends in the Pride Center who don't necessarily identify with the LGBTQ community but are there to support it and use the space."

The Pride Center is open to the whole community — staff as well as students, said Brooks Scavone, director of the Office of AccessAbility Services. Scavone, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, attends a lot of Pride Center events, and the events make them feel "rejuvenated."

Scavone and Madera
Brooks Scavone and Sara Madera

"Eastern really demonstrated to me that I needed to come out as myself," said Scavone. "When I step on this campus, I feel celebrated and I feel safe."

Scavone has seen a growing awareness on campus of the need to make people of all backgrounds comfortable. "I've seen allyship increase on campus."

When I step on this campus, I feel celebrated and I feel safe.

Brooks Scavone

A spring 2022 campus climate survey of students, faculty and staff showed "not very much tension or hostility when it comes to people of different backgrounds," said LaMar Coleman, vice president for equity and diversity. Nearly 70% of students responding said Eastern's programs addressed the needs of "students whose sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression may differ from mine," but a negative theme was found in reports of faculty not respecting students' pronouns. A key finding was that Eastern might consider better communication around discrimination, harassment and sexual assault, and training and education about gender and gender expression.

Sara Madera, Title IX coordinator in the Office of Equity and Diversity, said the survey results showed that LGBTQ+ students faced more stalking and gender-based violence than other students. She is working with the Pride Center and residence halls to educate students about their rights to report. Sometimes, students do not come forward with a formal complaint, preferring to tell a friend or not wanting to escalate a situation, she said.

"The Rock," painted in support of Eastern's LGBTQ+ community

Reporting can trigger a full investigation, but it can also result in an educational conversation, Madera said, or a no-contact order or an academic accommodation. She collaborates with Potestivo to set up mediation conversations if students are willing. She works with the IT department to make sure students' preferred names are on faculty rosters, and she educates faculty on preferred pronouns. "A lot of faculty are learning as well," she said.

"I don't only investigate — I teach students how to have healthy, respectful relationships," she said.


While the growing use of the Pride Center is celebrated, many still see more to be done. "We've done a lot for the students of the (LGBTQ+) community but we need to go further," said student Petrowsky.

She has advocated for a transgender day of visibility and has facilitated an affinity group called Eastern Trans Community Connection.

Vice President Coleman said he thinks the Pride Center will probably expand and have more resources devoted to it. "It's becoming more and more important," he said. So much has come about with issues facing transgender students, gender accommodations and the whole concept of preferred pronouns, he said.

"In this day and age, parents and students come to college expecting resources," he said.

Students are more vocal than ever and comfortable in talking about their needs on a range of issues, including mental health and disability issues, said Maureen McDonnell, English professor and director of the Women's and Gender Studies program.

"They're deliberate about building on things that previous cohorts have done," she said of the students.

Sociology Professor Cara Bergstrom-Lynch, whose research and teaching focuses on gender and sexuality, said she sees less resistance on campus now to gender inclusivity. Years ago, in her senior seminar class, a student said he couldn't read a book she had assigned about coming out. He eventually did read it and wrote an essay, but he wouldn't discuss it. Lately, "I haven't run across students who are openly anti-gay," she said.

Eastern students and staff come together to share a meal at the Pride Month Brunch in June 2023.

While LGBTQ+ students and allies generally feel supported on campus and by the laws of Connecticut, the climate and restrictions of other states leaves them worried. The national scene is "scary," said Taylor, referring to a recent Supreme Court ruling and certain state laws that infringe on LGBTQ+ rights.

"It can be kind of jarring to leave the Eastern bubble," admitted Scavone. "I have to be more careful when I travel places." But here, "we have such a socially conscious student body."

"We don't want our students to lose hope," said Byrum. Eastern creates a path for students — a connection and a plan that will help them with any national pushback, she said. "We meet them where they are and equip them with the tools they need."

She saw a change in student attitudes after the COVID pandemic eased. Students from all backgrounds are more likely to bring their issues to the table now, she said. They are showing empathy for each other and asking, "How did that make you feel?" when issues arise.

Imagine being in a space where everyone is safe.

Isaiah Roby '13

Pride Center Coordinator Potestivo would like to expand support for the center and build relationships with affinity groups. College-age students are exploring and want information about sexual health and wellness, and they want to be safe and know they have choices, she said.

She'd also like to be proactive and engaged with what's happening outside of the campus. She led nine supporters this past June to the West Hartford Pride festival, for example.

Alumnus Roby, who now works as the office manager in the Shawnee County Public Defender's office in Kansas, a state that is restricting LGBTQ+ rights, said his co-workers, nevertheless, are supportive. He lives in Topeka, three blocks away from Equality House, which raises awareness and provides outreach for queer people. While he faced obstacles in transitioning during college, he also remembers the support as he lobbied for a Pride Center at Eastern.

"Imagine being in a space where everyone is safe," he said.

Written by Lucinda Weiss