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Hire opens new chapter for LBGT community

Abigail Francis
Abigail Francis

Suppose they posted a support group meeting for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered students and nobody came.

Abigail Francis, MIT's first program coordinator for LBGT services, resources and outreach, had that experience when she was a college sophomore, and it's one she hopes no one seeking support in the Institute community will ever encounter.

"I still remember drawing up the courage to attend that meeting. When no one showed up, I was devastated. How much easier it would have been to face the world with the resources already offered at MIT," she said.

Francis' role at MIT is a pioneering one in the academic community -- there are only 193 LBGT coordinators nationwide -- and her goal is to expand the Institute's current resources to "create an environment where LBGT students and faculty can have a more positive living and learning environment," she said.

Step one in her twofold strategy is to establish a microcosm of the safe and welcoming environment she envisions for the wider community. With its buttery yellow walls, funny rainbow-striped disco-mirror ball, kitchen full of snacks, comfortable upholstered couches and chairs in matching barn-red fabric, the Rainbow Lounge in Walker Memorial (W50-005) projects just that atmosphere.

Connected to the lounge are two private offices (one for Francis, one for a graduate assistant) and a smaller library/screening room. The area has phone and Internet access so students can work there easily.

Francis, who received the M.A. in social work and urban leadership from Simmons College, says the lounge is part of her intervention strategy. "I offer one-on-one support for students in need and maintain the lounge space for students to meet, find resources or just stop by for a break," she said.

The second aspect of Francis' strategy is prevention, a process that includes facilitating tolerance and diversity training programs, empowering student leadership and supporting LBGT groups.

"I help build bridges with other student organizations and departments at MIT, such as the Black Student Union, the Latino Cultural Center, the Office of Minority Education, Student Support Services and Women's Studies. I also help monitor the campus climate, as reflected in reported incidents of anti-LBGT graffiti," she said.

The recent Institute mailing -- including a letter from Chancellor Philip Clay and a "You are welcome here!" postcard -- offers anyone on campus an easy way to have a positive effect on the climate here, Francis said.

In addition to posting the "Welcome" cards, "Be a good ally! Take a moment to visit our website, come see the Rainbow Lounge, or, better yet, join us for one of our events. It is so important to have a faculty and staff presence at LBGT events on campus, because LBGT students are already at a loss for positive adult role models and supportive allies as mentors," Francis said. They are also at higher risk for depression and drug use, so the involvement and support of others can make a real difference in their lives, she said.

Upcoming LBGT events include:

Women's Week "True Diversity" Workshop: Exploring Race, Gender, Sexuality and Programming on Sunday, Nov. 6, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Room 10-105. Workshop (with brunch) is free and open to all students. RSVP to:

The 24-Hour Multicultural Movie Marathon, Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. in Lobdell.

Queer and Faithful: LBGT@MIT is partnering with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry to present a dinner and panel discussion. The event is free and open to all MIT affiliates.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 26, 2005 (download PDF).

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