Finding Community as an LGBTQ+ Student

As a member of National NSSLHA’s IDEA work group, I’ve spent the past year learning about different cultures and student perspectives, as well as the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion within CSD and our future professions. The end of my term in IDEA coincides with Pride Month, and as I reflect on this experience, my thoughts turn to a piece of my own culture: being a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

ASHA’s LGBTQ+ Caucus

For the IDEA work group, we were each asked to connect with one of ASHA’s Multicultural Constituency Groups—seven allied/related professional organizations independent from ASHA that focus on an identified population and address the client/patient/professional/student perspective of that population. I reached out to L’GASP, the LGBTQ+ caucus, and was invited to attend their upcoming virtual meeting.

It was a gathering place for LGBTQ+ CSD professionals to find community and collectively advocate for themselves. I was moved to be among them, listening to their warm reunions and enthusiastically invited to participate. Right away, I felt at home among people I knew shared similar experiences to mine and joined the celebration of everyone’s accomplishments from the previous year.

I didn’t know I was missing that sense of community until I experienced it.

Remembering Our History

While LGBTQ+ people have always existed, they haven’t always been visible. Not too long ago, a hard line was drawn in the sand between personal and professional lives, with fears of getting fired or ostracized, stifling the ability to express oneself. Blurring these lines through a professional organization for LGBTQ+ people was a bold idea.

At the L’GASP meeting, I met people who paved the way—fighting for respect and acceptance—for LGBTQ+ professionals and students in CSD. To learn about the origins of L’GASP, I spoke with Joe Melcher, a retired professor of 44 years, as well as one of the founding members of the organization. He gave me permission to share his experience and story in this blog post.

L’GASP met informally for the first time in 1982, originating out of a community of professionals patronizing the same LGBTQ+ friendly establishments during the annual ASHA Conventions. In the decade that followed, the group became a vehicle for advocacy and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and was recognized by ASHA as an allied related professional organization in 1992.

Joe described to me the early years of the organization, “We had put up flyers announcing our meeting and where it would be held, and people were tearing them down.” In spite of the challenging start, he reflected on the successes they had. “We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said as he walked me through documents from the 90s, elaborating on his penciled-in notes and annotations about their advocacy efforts and victories.

Courage Through Community

I’ve always been able to be open and proud about my sexuality—something I’m very grateful for, as that wasn’t always an option. Remaining in the closet isn’t an easy thing to do.

“It takes a mental, physical, and psychological toll, to stay living a lie—not being able to be who you are, or share your experiences and feelings with others,” Joe told me, speaking about his own experience as a gay man. “Not being able to put a picture of your husband on your desk . . . the simple things you have to cover up.”

Joe’s coming-out experience was a public one. It was the 1994 ASHA Convention in New Orleans, where he taught at Xavier University of Louisiana. A video was made to gather perspectives of professionals in the local area. Joe was invited to participate. In it, he opened up about the discrimination he had faced as a gay man.

“The videotape played at the opening session . . . that was a big turning point for me in my life.” Joe credits some of his bravery to the sense of community provided by L’GASP. The organization allowed him to “witness others’ courage,” in both coming out and advocating for themselves. “That was the turning of the times. We had to do these kinds of things. We had to be more vocal. We had to be more visible. People were still being discriminated against.”

Then and Now

In the 27 years since Joe came out at the ASHA Convention, there’s been a cultural shift, especially in the experiences of current students. Joe called the mid ‘90s “the turning of the times,” . . . something I see the results of reflected in my own experience. I’m lucky in that my college years have been free of discrimination, and I’ve never felt the need to hide who I am.

Despite all this, I was missing that sense of community that I got a taste of at L’GASP, and I realized the importance of finding an LGBTQ+ community of peers is one thing that hasn’t changed since L’GASP began almost 40 years ago.

Looking Forward

While significant progress has been made, many LGBTQ+ students still face discrimination, rejection, and other obstacles. I wondered, how can we provide an uplifting community of peers and mentors to supplement what students may not have access to at their universities?

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in this thought. Members of L’GASP were already discussing the possibility of a student group, and I was eager to join the conversation. Since January, I’ve been collaborating with professors, professionals, and other students on a project to make this vision a reality—a new national group called the LGBTQ+ CSD Student Association.

Cailee Stein, a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, will be the group’s first president. She discovered L’GASP at the 2019 ASHA Convention. “I was just excited that there were other people out there in the professions that were part of the LGBTQ+ community,” she told me. “It was so welcoming, and I was so excited to finally find a group like myself.”

Since joining L’GASP, her sense of community has been a powerful force in her life. “A community serves as a means for empowering and uplifting people like you. It’s this inclusive entity where you can be your authentic self,” she told me. “This is a very white, feminine profession. If you don’t fit into that norm of ‘straight white female,’ you’re going to stick out. Especially for our students in the LGBTQ+ community, it can be very isolating.”

On the importance of a group for students specifically, Cailee cited the competitiveness of graduate admissions and beginning a career. “These experiences are already stressful enough without having the added worries of ‘am I going to get discriminated against because of my identity’.”

The group will combine community with advocacy and support. “The goals of our group are to build that sense of community among our student members, and bring people together,” Cailee added. “Having people around that share similar previous experiences or beliefs, it just makes it that much easier.”

Join Us

The LGBTQ+ CSDSA will combine community and support with advocacy, and a mission to:

  1. Cultivate community for LGBTQ+ CSD students
  2. Advocate for and advance the interests of LGBTQ+ CSD students
  3. Establish support services for LGBTQ+ CSD students

It will formally launch this Fall, accompanying the academic year with events and a supportive and affirming community that allows everyone, regardless of obstacles faced in their day-to-day life, to have a place where they feel at home.

If you’re interested in joining, students can sign up for updates and notifications when the group launches. The LGBTQ+CSDSA can also be found on Instagram: @LGBTQCSDSA.

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