As you walk into the office of the University Park Undergraduate Association, you’ll notice the typical signage of any student organization. The door is labeled with its logo and a flyer to the left of the entrance encourages people to get involved.
But, you’ll also notice a small flag hanging prominently by the entrance.
The flag has been used for decades by some in the LGBTQ community to represent a unified sense of pride and camaraderie.
While it’s easy to overlook, the presence of the rainbow flag is also representative of a community that has historically been underrepresented in governmental bodies.
After UPUA announced the newly elected representatives of the 16th Assembly, it experienced its own wave of LGBTQ student representatives.
Currently, the only positions dedicated specifically to LGBTQ affairs in the General Assembly come from student-run organization Penn State Student Lion Pride Roundtable for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, which holds two seats as an “inherent identity group.”
From the vice president to several of its at-large representatives, several UPUA members reflected on what it means to be a member of the LGBTQ community while serving as student leaders.
UPUA Vice President Najee Rodriguez has worked in student government since high school.
Rodriguez (sophomore-international politics and history) said being a queer person of color at Penn State shows him why it’s important to have fair representation in UPUA.
“It’s been challenging,” Rodriguez said. “Hate is very much evident and alive at Penn State. It’s an unfortunate and ugly truth that no one really acknowledges… There are bigoted people and students at Penn State.”
While progress is being made to change this, Rodriguez said University Park as a whole has yet to reach equitable conditions for marginalized communities, and part of the solution is LGBTQ representation in UPUA.
After being introduced to UPUA during a club meeting, Carter Gangl said they knew they wanted to get involved and make a difference at Penn State through the organization.
“The reason I did this was for the students,” Gangl (sophomore-psychology) said. “I’m doing this because I really want to help underrepresented groups — or any student — if they have an issue.”
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Earlier this year, Gangl was elected to UPUA’s 15th Assembly as an at-large representative by members of UPUA. Now, they will serve in the position again after receiving over 1,000 votes from the undergraduate student body.
During the spring semester, Gangl worked with various members of UPUA on LGBTQ-centered policies and resolutions, including a successful bill to help financially support transgender students.
Gangl said they want to continue to see people in UPUA who are representative of the greater student body — not just of majority communities.
“Not having our voices heard is really something any marginalized group struggles with — for me, specifically being LGBTQ,” Gangl said.
Going forward, Gangl said one of their focuses will be expanding resources for LGBTQ students, as well as students of other marginalized communities.
With LGBTQ students now filling several seats, one UPUA member said he believes now is the time to continue pushing for more representation to inspire future generations of students to join UPUA.
Sam Ajah —who identifies as bisexual — is currently serving as an at-large representative. He said he believes having LGBTQ representation in UPUA will allow other students to see somebody who they can identify with and subsequently make the space more welcoming.
“I think it’s a matter of making the environment more comfortable for them, where they can feel free to be themself,” Ajah (sophomore-political science) said. “If they see folks like myself or Najee or Carter Gangl — being out here and doing what we’re doing — I think that will definitely create an even more fostering environment for queer and trans students.”
Ajah said he wants to continue creating this environment by reaching out to various LGBTQ-focused student organizations to understand what resources they need and by maintaining good connections between members of those groups.
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Not every member of UPUA’s 16th Assembly had an initial vision of serving on the student government, though.
For Annmarie Rounds-Sorensen, she never planned to join UPUA. She said she was originally put off by the formality of the organization, and it wasn’t until a member of a different group she was in convinced her to get involved that she decided to join.
In her sophomore year, Rounds-Sorensen (junior-labor and human resources and political science) ran as a representative and was eventually elected.
Since then, Rounds-Sorensen said she realized how impactful a student government and fair representation in said government could be and the power it could have to redress inequity at University Park.
When she was starting to question her own sexuality, Rounds-Sorensen said she looked to LGBTQ student leaders at Penn State as a source of comfort and familiarity.
“I see these people in these leadership roles who are inspiring to me… And they’re queer,” Rounds-Sorensen said. “I feel like the environment at Penn State has allowed me to be myself and be inspired by other people like me.”
Rounds-Sorensen said when she realized she was bisexual, she started to talk openly about it during UPUA meetings, but she never felt it was something admirable or courageous — it was normal for heterosexual people to do it, so why wouldn’t it be for her?
Previous LGBTQ student leaders paved the way for a welcoming and inclusive environment in UPUA and are part of the reason she felt comfortable openly talking about being bisexual, she said.
Despite the strides LGBTQ students and marginalized communities have made in UPUA, Rodriguez said there will likely always be challenges ahead of them — but what truly matters is how members of UPUA tackle those challenges.
“UPUA isn’t turning back,” Rodriguez said. “There’s just going to be an increase in representation. That’s what student government should reflect: diversity, and of course, equity.”