First-year college life can present difficulties to any freshman on campus, but last year the leaders of Yale’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative saw an especially vexing problem: Queer frosh who were coming out for the first time did not know where to turn.
“I just remember that there was nothing available to me when I came here freshman year,” said one gay senior, who asked to remain anonymous.
Ari Davalos ’07 set out to solve that problem. With the help of her friends and with the support of Dean of Undergraduate Affairs Betty Trachtenberg, Davalos this fall established Queer Peers, a student-run peer-counseling group offered as an extension of the LGBT Co-op. The Queer Peers include eight Yale undergraduates who are trained to give guidance and support to any students questioning their sexual identity.
With the program still in its nascent stages, Queer Peers members said they regularly speak with two to three students a night who are either in search of advice while coming out or are already out and searching for understanding listeners.
“In the past, if you were queer you could have gone to your freshman counselor, your friends or maybe the Co-op, if you knew about it,” Davalos said. “It kind of sent a message that your orientation wasn’t going to be entirely embraced.”
Along with Justin Ross ’07, Davalos, currently the coordinator of the Queer Resource Center and the training coordinator for Queer Peers, began meeting with Trachtenberg last year, when the dean expressed interest in creating a new student-run peer-counseling group. Trachtenberg said she thinks the organization offers an important service to students, especially because the former queer counseling hotline, Pathways, dissolved three years ago.
“I’ve worked with the gay students under one name or another for quite a long time,” Trachtenberg said. “I think Ari and Justin were looking around … for something to follow up on the Pathways organization.”
As the next step, Davalos and Ross began to attend monthly meetings of Safety Net, a coalition of small peer-counseling groups organized by University Health Services.
“We went partly to get information and input on creating our own organization, and partly to distribute information on the LGBT community to other existing organizations,” Ross said.
Queer Peers, which offers counseling four days a week at the QRC, is now an official member of Safety Net.
Becoming a Queer Peer is possible only by way of an application, and Peers who have been selected are then required to complete more than three weeks of training through Undergraduate Health Services. This semester’s Queer Peers were trained over the summer to handle such topics as homophobia, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, abuse, hate crimes and coming out.
Queer Peers member Maria Stevens ’06 emphasized that though some students do come to the QRC seeking help with a particular problem, many are simply interested in making contact with other LGBT individuals who have had similar experiences in their personal sexual development.
“Queer Peers is great because if you’re looking for someone to talk to, they actually know what it’s like to be queer,” she said.
Students do not need to make appointments with Queer Peers, but they usually know what days the different Peers are available during office hours and tend to come to the QRC on those days.
The LGBT Co-op is an umbrella organization funded by the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee and by student fund raisers, such as the Co-op Dance and various events during Pride Week in April. It sponsors such diverse queer-support initiatives as GaYalies, the Queer/Straight Alliance, Not-Straight Frosh and Prism.
The Co-op used to work in collaboration with Pathways, which no longer exists. In the resulting vacuum, the Co-op strove to introduce an initiative that could be housed completely within the Queer Resource Center.
After installing new couches, Davalos and other Co-op leaders are currently trying to import more amenities to the QRC office. An expanded magazine library and a bigger DVD collection are among the minor changes on the docket.
Large-scale plans are also in the works, such as the addition of a new telephone help line tailored specifically to meet the needs of LGBT students at Yale.
“I was on a talk line in high school,” Davalos said. “It definitely helps, working with people on a personal level.”
University Health Services already sponsors Walden, a student peer-counseling hotline that is part of its Safety Net coalition, but Stevens stressed the need for a more specific program.
“The people at Walden might not necessarily know what it’s like to be queer at Yale,” she said.
Ross, the present coordinator of the LGBT Co-op, said that although he thinks the Co-op is becoming more and more successful with each passing year, its prosperity may depend on winning increased University support.
“Part of the larger goal of the Co-op is to become more incorporated into the administration,” he said.
Other universities, such as Stanford and Princeton, already have administrators who act as coordinators for LGBT life on campus. Stanford’s LGBT Community Resources Center sponsors an initiative called LGBT PALS, or LGBT Personal Access Links. Under that initiative, a searchable online database allows queer students to find and communicate with Stanford faculty and administration members who are available for counseling. Ross said a similar effort at Yale could help bolster LGBT participation.
“Incoming students are encouraged by administrative support,” he said. “And freshman involvement is always important in the continuity of the program.”
Stevens noted that Queer Peers presently contains several engaged freshmen who act as counselors.
“We have quite a dedicated freshman contingent,” she said. “They’re good listeners. They may lack some experience, but they’ve got great enthusiasm.”
Ultimately, Ross and Davalos are focused on expanding the reach of the LGBT Co-op and informing the broader Yale community of the queer community’s interests. This year’s Freshman Counselor Handbook includes sections penned by Davalos intended to make freshman counselors more sensitive to queer or questioning individuals. One section advises counselors on how to approach a student who is coming out, and another is titled “How to be an ally: Straight but not Narrow.”
Although Davalos will give up her position at Queer Peers next semester to go abroad, she said she hopes Queer Peers will heighten student involvement in the LGBT community.
“A lot of people don’t want to participate — they just want to be left alone,” she said. “It can be better.”