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LGBTQ+ Living History: Toward Equality

September 7, 2019
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In a six-part series, we highlight a few of the moments, movements, and people that made their mark on Cal’s LGBTQ+ history. We move through the decades, beginning in an era of secrecy and continuing through today.

The move toward gender equality

When Billy Curtis arrived at Cal in 1999 as the first full-time LGBTQ programs and services director, he stepped onto a campus where the LGBTQ+ community was “organized and coordinated among students, faculty, and staff,” he says. He found a Gay and Lesbian Chancellor’s Advisory Committee firmly established and a UC system-wide LGBT Intersex Association in place.

“Activism was alive and well,” he says. “Did we have climate that really got it? Yes. Could it have been better? Yes. But I wasn’t starting from scratch.”

In building a supportive transgender community, however, he was starting from scratch.

At the helm of what’s now the Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq), Curtis helped implement a number of trans-inclusive health benefits. He launched an initiative for gender-inclusive bathrooms—more than 40 campus buildings have them now—and assembled a task force to tackle the issue of athletic facilities.

UC Berkeley’s universal locker room. | Photo by Krissy Elliot, California Magazine

Mike Weinberger, then-director of Berkeley Rec Sports, had curtains installed in the men’s locker rooms and designated specific bathrooms in the Recreational Sports Facility (RSF) where students could change. Now, the RSF has a 4,500 square-foot universal locker room. Now, the RSF has a 4,500 square-foot universal locker room that accommodates each and every student.

More kudos go to Curtis for launching the annual Lavender Graduation—a graduation celebration for UC Berkeley’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, intersex, and queer graduating seniors, graduate students, and allies—which just celebrated its 19th year. “We never wanted it to be some pomp and circumstance,” he says. “This is about our cultural identity. This is about being fabulous. No caps and gowns.”

In recognition of his service to the Bay Area LGBTQ community, the San Francisco Pride Parade—in which a Cal contingent has marched since its inception—named Curtis a community grand marshal in 2018. These days, the Cal Alumni Association and GenEq combine forces to bring groups to San Francisco and Oakland for Pride, a tradition continued this year.

Cal LGBTQ+ community members and alumni, including Billy Curtis (second from right) | Image by Kelley L Cox | Cal Alumni Association

What’s next? Curtis is focusing on creating a more inclusive campus climate, where instructors and staff know how to address their diverse student body. He’s taking steps to implement California’s Gender Recognition Act, which makes it easier for people living in or born in California to obtain identity documents that reflect their genders. Under the act, you can get a gender marker on your birth certificate that says “male,” “female,” or “nonbinary.”

While progress has been made in equality for and representation of the LGBTQ+ community, we should not forget the history of suffering, violence, and blantant discrimination that LGBTQ+ individuals have endured through the years and the fight for equitable support, services, and rights that continue to this day. Even at Cal, with its history of activism, equity is still a work in progress.

Organizations like GenEq—born out of the Gay Student Union, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—and the Division of Equity and Inclusion work to positively impact support and infrastructure. For many, particularly trans and nonbinary individuals, this support is only beginning.

Cal wasn’t the first in many of its benchmarks toward a more inclusive community. But it does have a colorful, progressive history that has influenced those individuals that work today to build a more inclusive campus.

by Heather R. Johnson