How the University of Louisville became the most gay-friendly public university in the South

When she decided to come out of the closet at the age of 16, Ana Ruiz wasn’t worried about getting kicked out or disowned. Back in their native Havana, all of her mother’s hairdressers had been gay, and she’d had no problem with any of them. Plus, Ruiz knew her mother to be a sane, rational woman who’d been college educated twice over — first in Cuba, then again in the United States. She figured surely her mother would approach the subject with grace and intelligence.

This doesn’t mean Ruiz wasn’t the most nervous she’d ever been in her life. Lurking in the back of her mind was a saying she’d grown up hearing. Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres. In English, that translates to, “Tell me who you hang out with and I’ll tell you who you are.” Maybe being someone’s gay hairdresser isn’t at all comparable with being someone’s flesh and blood. Would her mother consider her unworthy company now?

With all the shaky confidence of a teenager, Ruiz sat her mother down and revealed that she likes girls. She didn’t call herself a lesbian because the word scared her. She used “gay” instead.

Her mother responded by telling her she’d already known.

Most advice columns addressing how a person should respond when somebody comes out recommend not responding with a “Duh!” or “I know” because it can be interpreted as insulting and downplays the emotional importance of somebody sharing an intimate detail of their lives with another person. Even years later, retelling the part of the story with her mother’s reaction still draws from Ruiz one of those laughs that’s half amusement, half embarrassment. Even so, the feeling of relief was overwhelming.

Dads — especially ones from cultures like Cuba’s that typically embrace machismo — can be tougher audiences when it comes to issues of sexuality, so Ruiz let her mother handle that. All Ruiz knows about that is her parents discussed it, and afterward, her mother doled out a decision like a justice on the Supreme Court. The ruling: “She said, they’re not OK with it, but they love me, and they’re going to support me.”

Ruiz considers herself fortunate. As far as coming out goes, this is a pretty solid start.

Brian Buford came out of his closet while in graduate school at the University of Louisville. This was in the late 1980s, years before he’d become the inaugural director of his alma mater’s LGBT Center and host cleverly titled events like “You Don’t Have To Be Out To Come Out.” Ana Ruiz hadn’t been conceived yet. It was the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — the literal military protocol, as well as the unofficial approach taken culturally. Buford sought comfort at the on-campus counseling center, where he was disregarded and told he should try harder to be straight, because being gay was wrong.

These were the days before you could take a photo of yourself holding a piece of paper with a handwritten summary of your injustice and go viral in order to promote change. Upset but undeterred by the encounter, he quietly responded by finding his own inner peace — and calling Lisa Gunterman.

Gunterman at the time worked for the Fairness Campaign. Buford asked her if she’d participate in on-campus “speak-outs,” which he wanted to hold but didn’t want to do alone. The idea behind the outreach is simple: Contextualize LGBT issues for people who don’t know (or don’t realize they know) somebody within the community by putting real-life stories and faces to them. Gunterman happily obliged.

During one of these speak-outs, the entire class held newspapers up in front of their faces as an act of protest. One student went so far as to walk out. Gunterman wasn’t shocked — dealing with hate mail and unabashed vitriol came with the job of advocating for the not-yet-passed Fairness Ordinance — just saddened at the blatant disrespect.

“We still did our full presentation,” she recalls. “My first reaction was to think of the people who have to stay around this. I get to leave, but think of the people who might be in the closet and are just going along with this.”

When Buford graduated, he went into human resources at the university. It was through this role, he says, that he realized his passion for advocacy. He started working with likeminded peers to push for U of L to provide health benefits to same-sex partners.

To avoid conflict with the Kentucky Constitution and its amendment banning same-sex marriages, the university trustees voted to expand benefits to all domestic partners — defined as unmarried couples (heterosexual or same-sex) living as family. Staunch conservatives still hemmed and hawed about the decision, but it ultimately went into effect in 2007. U of L had become the first Kentucky school to offer health benefits to same-sex partners.

The act would be the first of many firsts. That same year, Provost Shirley Willihnganz asked Buford to help draft the job description for the director of a new on-campus LGBT Center — a position he would wind up accepting. (Buford insists taking the job wasn’t on his mind while he was writing the position and that he had an epiphany about it only afterward.)

When Buford began in his new role on the first of December in 2007, U of L became the first school in the state to have a staffed LGBT Center. For that first year, he only worked part-time, splitting his time with HR duties, but it still counted. In an ironic twist lost on nobody, the only office space the university could find him was a converted utility closet in Davidson Hall.

In 2008, U of L added “gender identity” to its non-discrimination policy.

In 2009, U of L became the first school in the United States to endow a chair in LGBT studies. The university is the only one in the state that offers a minor in LGBT studies.

In 2010, gender-neutral restrooms were added to the Belknap campus and the Health Sciences Center. These are considered a major benefit for trans individuals.

In 2011, Gunderson was hired on as the Center’s assistant director. Later, a part-time student position would be upgraded to a full-time one, staffed by Louisville graduate A.J. Jones.

In 2012, the university opened the Bayard Rustin Community, one dedicated floor of a dorm, designed as an inclusive living-learning environment for LGBTQ students and their allies. The floor is named after a prominent gay civil rights leader. The floor sold out for its first semester, prompting Center staff to cautiously start daydreaming about opportunities for expansion.

Earlier this year, an LGBT study abroad program titled “Queer Politics in Greece” was launched. For it, students traveled with Buford and Anne Caldwell, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies, across Greece, talking to local scholars and activists. The program will be held again next year.

Considering all that — which is done in addition to the direct assistance, training, support groups, outreach and social activities they do on a regular basis — it perhaps isn’t surprising U of L received a perfect five-star rating on the national LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index released by Campus Pride, a nonprofit specializing in providing resources for and promoting inclusive learning environments.

While Campus Pride’s index isn’t comprehensive — universities volunteer to do a self-assessment and afterward can opt to keep their rankings confidential — it is still a good indicator of which institutions and regions are leading the way in LGBT issues. U of L was the only public university in the South to receive the perfect rating.

The University of Kentucky is not included in the Campus Climate Index, but two other public universities in the state are. Morehead State University in Morehead and Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond both received 3.5 out of five stars. Meanwhile, Centre College, a private institution in Danville, did slightly better with four out of five.

Located in a converted barn right in the heart of U of L’s campus, The Intersection is one-half resource center and one-half social space. All over are flyers and posters for every type of social justice event happening on and off campus. There are chairs and tables where you can find gay and straight students goofing off or studying. There’s the requisite fishbowl of condoms to promote safe sex. Nobody needs a reason to be there, but Ruiz wasn’t comfortable walking in without an excuse.

She decided to join the Center’s ambassadors program. The leadership program teaches principles of nonviolence and trains volunteers to be the first point of contact at The Intersection, which often involves hearing about personal hardships and responding appropriately.

She quickly learned she had a lot to learn. “I didn’t know trans people. I didn’t know they existed. I’d never met one. I had no idea what they’re going through. I’d go home and tell my mom, ‘I met somebody who was trans. These are the pronouns they use and what they mean.’”

As a chemistry student, these types of subjects don’t come up in classes. If her schedule would allow it, Ruiz would like to take a gender studies course to learn more of the theory behind the issues she sees firsthand. Even if she never does, she recognizes she’s learned a lot about gender identity, sexuality, race and their interplay with one another.

She recognizes now her fear of the word “lesbian” had everything to do with the stereotypes in her head. “I thought I had to dress more masculine, but I’m not masculine performing. I’m just me. I’ve learned that if I want to wear a dress and heels, that’s OK.”

Ruiz, now a junior, has also reconciled in her identity all of the parts that once felt mutually exclusive — being Latina, being LGBT, being an immigrant.

When she first joined the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), she worried her peers might be prejudiced against her for being a lesbian. They weren’t. Now, LASO sometimes holds meetings in The Intersection, and she’s spoken as an LGBT ambassador at high school events targeting Latinos. She even got her mom to attend some of the events.

“It’s helped me build bridges,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t fully be me before. I can here.”

Every year, President James R. Ramsey visits high schools across the state in an effort to recruit the best students. In traversing small high schools from Pikeville to Paducah, he is reminded time and again how alluring the promise of diversity is for many teenagers. For many, Louisville is that shiny, happy big city full of promise and excitement. “The very best students are thoughtful and perceptive enough to realize their hometowns are homogeneous in terms of culture, race and religion,” says Ramsey. “They know (by coming here) they’ll live in a diverse community.”

The way he sees it, embracing diversity is good policy. It’s about preparing students for the global economy and cultural environments students will face in the world once they leave the confines of campus. That’s why his administration and the board of trustees have identified dozens of objectives focused on things like diversifying faculty, achieving solid graduation rates across racial demographics, and being a safe space for those chronically devalued by society as a whole.

“We are looked at to be that leader,” says Ramsey, adding that other public schools followed Louisville’s lead and now offer health insurance to domestic partners. “It’s part of our DNA.”

Of his role in facilitating the rapid growth of the LGBT Center, Ramsey is humble. Support for the cause existed before he took office in 2003, and the efforts have indeed required a cross-departmental range of resources and buy-in to succeed. Yet, the value of a top-down approach goes a long way.

Buford remembers the heat Ramsey and others took for their support of expanding health benefits. It took courage, says Buford. “If you ask, he says that it was just the right thing to do. I say, not everyone does the right thing. He did.”

Last year, when the COO of Chick-fil-A made public comments opposing same-sex marriage and it was revealed the company’s charitable foundation donated millions to anti-LGBT groups, Ramsey and Provost Willihnganz publicly vowed no longer to eat at the chicken chain, which has a location in the student dining commons. They stopped short of wanting to remove the restaurant, citing their equal value of the freedom of speech, even when they disagree with what is being said.

“The provost and the president are actively vocal,” says Gunterman. “Just as an employee, that makes me feel amazing.”

On the Center website is a list of other faculty and staff who have pledged to be allies to the LGBT community. The sprawling list includes individuals from almost every department you could think of — from admissions to the writing center, from the Ali Center to IT. The list is a beacon not only for students but also for faculty recruits. Outsiders often have a preformed opinion of what Kentucky or Louisville is like. Open-mindedness and tolerance aren’t usually the first words that pop into these people’s minds. Seeing a list like that reassures them they will be in good company if they accept a job.

Adds Ramsey, “We can’t be all things to all people, but we’ll be a leader in this. We value all people.”

This spring, U of L will likely earn another bullet point on their “we were first” checklist. The Center is working with the admissions department to hold an admissions event specifically targeting LGBT youth across the state. For the struggling closeted gay high school student, it goes beyond saying “it gets better,” instead offering a solution. It gets better, here.

The timeline of achievements only tells so much of the story. Less quantifiable but no less important is the countless number of students who’ve received financial and emotional assistance from the Center. Spend any extended period of time with Buford and Gunterman, and you will hear dozens of stories about them — students who didn’t know a single gay person until they moved to campus, trans students who live openly for the nine months of the year they’re on campus but have to hide their identities whenever they go back home, students who no longer have a home to go back to.

Every year before Thanksgiving break, the Center hosts Alternate Thanksgiving. For some, it’s the only holiday meal they’ll have. For others, it’s one last hurrah before spending a week of hell pretending to be someone they’re not. Before the long winter and summer breaks, training sessions on “how to be queer when you’re not here” are held. Students work on creating “action plans” they can use when things get tough in an unwelcoming environment.

LGBT youth are at a higher risk for all the things you want them to avoid — alcoholism, homelessness, dropping out of school, depression, suicide and reckless behavior. The percentage of gays and lesbians (of all ages) who smoke is 2.5 times higher than that of heterosexuals. Twenty to 25 percent of LGBT people may be heavy alcohol drinkers, compared to only 3 to 10 percent of heterosexuals. Some experts estimate as many as 50 to 80 percent of self-identified transgender youth have seriously considered or attempted suicide. Staff and volunteers at the Center are trained in suicide prevention and are masters of picking up on problems early on. They aren’t counselors, but they can have the same effect. They also have the correct numbers on speed dial.

President Ramsey sometimes tells a story about happenstance on the golf course, when the father of a student stopped him at the 15th hole to thank him for saving his son’s life. The man and his wife had rejected their son for being gay, driving the kid to contemplate suicide. The Center intervened with those plans. Had it not been there to offer support when all seemed lost, the kid might not have been around to see his parents reconcile their feelings and embrace their son for who he is. “Those are the kinds of stories you hear,” says Ramsey. “That’s the human level.”

Gunterman and Buford have similar stories. The Center has connected starving students with open-minded churches with food banks, purchased a mattress for a girl sleeping on an empty floor, and given a financial boost to a student who thought he’d have to drop out because he couldn’t afford all of his tuition after his family kicked him out. For the typical college-aged student, qualifying for federal student aid almost always requires their parents’ financial information. If they refuse to be involved, it can be crippling. Sometimes, Gunterman and Buford meet students outside of their offices or The Intersection because the student isn’t comfortable enough to get through the door.

“It’s heartbreaking work,” says Gunterman, “but I can’t wait to get here every morning.”

All this work requires money, and while U of L is supportive, its funding is limited. So, each year, right before Thanksgiving, the LGBT Center hosts Feast for Equality. This year, the $100-a-plate dinner and cocktail hour was held at the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage. Hundreds attended. President Ramsey was given an award for his support. The official total wasn’t available as of this writing, but the figure so far stands at $104,000 — a significant boost from last year’s $86,000.

Among the sponsors are corporations with deep pockets who take their philanthropic associations seriously — Brown-Forman, Humana, PNC, Yum! Brands.

“I never thought it could get this big,” says Gunterman. “It allows us to say yes to people and help with emergency assistance, training, scholarships, buy reading materials. It enhances everything.”

One group that’s noticed is LGBT alumni. This year, an LGBT alumni group has been launched, bringing together individuals whose experiences were less like Ruiz’s and more like Buford’s. “We keep hearing, ‘We wish this had been here for us,’” says Buford. “It comes full circle. Now there’s a way to stay connected.”

Chris Knaster, a sophomore in the mechanical engineering program, likes to hear the stories from the generations before him. They serve as a reminder of the progress the LGBT community has made, and they inspire him to keep the progress going.

Knaster lives in the Bayard Rustin community and participates in speak-outs, which remain an integral part of the Center’s programming even after all the department’s growth. Groups speak in classes in all sorts of departments — counseling, business, communications, political science, education, etc. They typically aren’t met with a classroom of protesters anymore, though occasionally someone will raise the question of the Bible and its apparent conflict with homosexuality.

“We’re in a new generation where it doesn’t matter as much, but it’s still strong in some places,” says Knaster, whose neighbor at Rustin is trans and closeted when not in the bubble Louisville provides. “It’s unfathomable, the hate. There’s still so much to be done.”

More than once, strangers from the classes Knaster has done a speak-out have stopped him on campus and thanked him for sharing his story. His is largely positive — his supportive father is a longtime U of L employee whose name proudly appears on the list of faculty and staff allies. Knaster figures if they remembered anything, it means something registered.

Ruiz isn’t quite sure when it happened, but she largely credits the Center for helping it happen. At some point, talk about how this was a phase she would grow out of went away, taking with it the sly references to future boyfriends she’d trained herself to ignore. Her mother, a high school teacher, reached out to the LGBT club and told them to visit the Center. When her mother helped schedule a separate tour of U of L for a Latino high school student organization, she made it a point to take them to the Center.

Somewhere along the way, “Not OK with it” had become an ally.

That was never more apparent than when the two sat on a panel together at a local reception for Latino youth who’d been accepted to U of L and their parents. Ruiz heard her mother tell a room full of people that the university was a great place to come for students who were bisexual, trans, lesbian, gay, whatever. She name-dropped the Center, and told them not to let sexual preference get in the way of their relationships.

“She’s a real advocate,” says Ruiz. “As I was learning, she was learning.”