A History Of Pride: Six Questions With Ken Ditlevson – Director Of Kent State’s LGBTQ+ Center
Kent State's history of support for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Plus (LGBTQ+) community is well documented.
Earlier this year, Kent State's LGBTQ+ Center celebrated its 10-year anniversary while PRIDE!Kent (founded as the Kent Gay Liberation Front (KGLF) in 1971) observed five decades at Kent State, making it the longest continuously operating LGBTQ student organization in the country.
Ken Ditlevson has been the director of Kent State’s LGBTQ+ Center since 2014. For Pride Month, Kent State Today asked him a few questions about this landmark year.
Q: What do you think having such a long-lived LGBTQ+ student organization on campus says about our university?
KD: I think it really speaks to the fabric of what Kent State represents. I think for so many students, people are attracted to Kent State's history of advocacy and social justice work. For me, it means that we have a history of this. It's not something that's brand new – a new concept that we're trying to be more inclusive. It's been a practice and a piece of our community at Kent for over 50 years. Just students wanting to see change and feeling like they have a voice. So, I think that says a lot about Kent State.
I'm a two-time graduate of Kent State. And that's why I chose to come here as a student, because of that history and Kent being known for the work of student activism. It's neat to be part of that equation – to be part of making change.
I think in Ohio, there's a lot of work to still be done. There's a lot of work to be done across our country and around the world, but in Ohio, I feel like there's the ability to make a change. And we can have our students active and being part of that equation – not just like being ancillary around it. What can you do to influence change here in your own home state or where you're going to school? Those are the things that kind of come to mind for me.
Q: In 2020, Kent State was named to Campus Pride’s 2020 Best of the Best LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges and Universities. As one of 40 institutions recognized over six U.S. regions, Kent State is the only school in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and in Northeast Ohio to receive this honor. What are the things that you feel make Kent State LGBTQ-friendly?
KD: I think that it's just our practice. It’s not just the LGBTQ+ Center; there are many really great things that are being done across the entire campus community. We've got residence halls that are gender-inclusive, we've got policies that are supportive of our trans folk, supporting going by a chosen name or with pronouns. We've also got an LGBTQ minor. We've got scholarships. We've got an emergency fund.
There are many components across Kent State that support marginalized communities like the LGBTQ community. What makes us stand out is that it's not just one office that's trying to make an influence or make a difference in supporting LGBTQ+ students, I feel like it's a real community effort and there are so many people that are rallying and wanting to be involved that really come to the table, which makes our work so much easier. It’s not just me and Lo (Lo Denmon, assistant director of the LGBTQ+ Center) and our team of 10 student interns. There are lots of other entities across campus, including, of course, our amazing students! We've got six LGBTQ student groups and that's because the students have created those and wanted to see those there. And there are lots of community partners and community (members) rallying around and working towards equality, which I think is why we stand out in that (Campus Pride Index) scoring system.
Q: What support services does PRIDE!Kent and the LGBTQ+ Center offer to the campus community?
KD: PRIDE!Kent is separate from the LGBTQ+ Center. They operate independently just like the other five LGBTQ student groups. What they do is offer a social connection for students, a place to meet people like themselves. For a lot of students, they don't need a center. They don't need counseling; they just need to find some friends and people like themselves. And so PRIDE!Kent serves a really important role in that capacity. Typically, in their meetings, they have an educational component and they have been really active in providing education to the students, but then also advocating for change where they see needs.
So, what does the LGBTQ+ Center do? We also do programming and education, and the main difference is that we're a constant element that's not going to change every semester. With fraternities and other student organizations you know, you can be doing some really great stuff and then your president and vice-president graduates, and now you're starting from scratch or there's a void.
With the center, we have paid staff who are committed to making sure that our students who identify in the community are safeguarded and we're ensuring their success at Kent State. My job and Lo's job is to make sure that once LGBTQ+ students come here that they feel supported, connected to resources, and that we get them to the finish line. We're all driven by making sure that we get our students to reach graduation, which is such a big milestone.
So, we're kind of a constant element that's not going to change every semester. In addition to doing programming elements, we do film Fridays every month. We do a walking group and have roundtable discussions where we present on different topics. Our interns will present, and we get a dialogue going. We also provide training across campus. We do Safe Space training and Trans 101 training to make sure that the faculty and staff are equipped with best practices and know-how to be inclusive.
What else did we do? We operate an emergency fund. I'm the screener to make sure that if there's an LGBTQ student in a financial crisis, that we get them connected to financial resources and we help oversee scholarships that are LGBTQ-specific.
We have a lounge space in our office area. There are couches and games and books and things like that. We have a physical space where students can come and chill in between classes. And then we also do a lot of advocacy too, in addition to providing support to students who might be struggling, who are in crisis or are just struggling with typical college things. Advocacy can be another component. When I first started, we weren't a five out of five at Kent State on that Campus Pride Index. And then we had students who said, “you know, we, we should have a preferred name policy at Kent.” Then we advocated that Kent State make that change. We help students, and we lift students' voices when they're seeing gaps at the university.
Right now, pronouns have not been a field in the academic records. For people who go by different pronouns or who use they/them pronouns instead of gender pronouns ... some of our students have not felt supported. They utilized our office as a mechanism to advocate for that change. We're very close to getting that instituted into our culture here at Kent. In the past, we advocated for the preferred name, and we were able to get that. We also advocated that we get free condoms in the student center for our students, and we got that. Every month, we have a team that looks at what advocacy needs are needed across the university. We're working with HR right now and trying to make changes with the application site or the performance reviews to make sure that we're being inclusive all across the board. Those are some of the big ones.
Q: What would you say to someone on campus who might feel like they need help but is reluctant to ask for it?
KD: I would say that they're not alone and to reach out in whatever capacity that they're comfortable. We'll probably always be doing some virtual component now. So, for folks that don't feel comfortable coming into the office, there's always that option. We're able to do telephone consultations and help with meeting people wherever they're comfortable.
We meet with students sometimes at Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks for folks that are leerier about coming into this space; they might be afraid that someone might see them. I would just say to reach out in whatever capacity that you feel comfortable. Our website also has a lot of great resources, so you can access some of that help anonymously. In coming to the center, we ask people to sign in, but you can always sign in anonymously.
We don't need to know the name; we're going to serve anyone that's in front of us. So, I would say, don't be afraid. You're not alone. And you've got lots of people across campus. If you're not comfortable coming into the LGBTQ+ Center, reach out, and one of those other capacities, or look for one of these Safe Space Ally pledges that you'll see all over campus. People have gone through the training who want to be an ally. For people that don't feel comfortable coming down here, because they think it's “rainbow heaven,” like it's really visible, they might be more comfortable talking to their advisor. If they see a Safe Space Ally Training logo, whether they're talking to a professor that might have that up, in safer, more neutral places. There are lots of allies across our campus. And I would say utilize us, if you're able to, but there are lots of other allies that can help you across campus as well.
Q: Looking ahead, what do you see in the future for the LGBTQ+ Center at Kent State?
KD: Every year, our numbers go up as far as the number of people that we serve. We're trying to be strategic in our focus. We went through a strategic planning session a year or two ago. We're trying not to do more than we can really accomplish, and we want to really do what we do well. Our strategic plan has three focus areas. We're going to continue to focus on being inclusive because even in the LGBTQ community, there have been marginalized communities like the trans communities and communities of color that have not been served well. So, we're going to put a lot of effort into making sure that we're serving the marginalized communities within the LGBTQ community.
Secondly, we're also going to continue to advocate for change to make sure that Kent State really is the most inclusive place for people. The third one is wellness. We're really looking broadly at what that means because we know that there is academic wellness, financial wellness and mental health/physical health wellness. We’re making sure that we're looking broadly at our students and their wellness so that we can prevent suicide attempts, prevent drug and alcohol abuse and things that really get in the way of people succeeding. Wellness is really important. We've got a walking group, we're looking at adding some mental health support and partnering with PNC to do financial wellness seminars.
Looking forward specifically to advocacy efforts, we're working on trying to get hormone replacement therapy through the health center on campus. People in our trans community have had to travel to Akron to get that resource. So, we're working with the DeWeese Health Center.
We've got a long laundry list of things that we're always advocating for in trying to make Kent State as inclusive as possible, and it is students who bring those issues to the table.
Q: And what does the immediate future look like for the LGBTQ community at Kent State?
KD: There are lots of ways to get involved in the coming months. Although June is Pride Month, October is LGBTQ History Month, and we have been gearing up. You know, summer is a slower time on campus, and we have been doing some things to celebrate Pride, like offering Safe Space Training and some other things. But in October when our students are back in full force, there will be a slew of activities and programmatic pieces. We want to mention that we will be doing a lot of celebration as we have our students return to campus after summer and as we enter October and LGBTQ History Month.
Also, Akron does its Pride Festival in August (August 28). So, we always have a shuttle that helps students get to Akron Pride. Classes start on Thursday (August 26) and then that weekend is Akron Pride. When our students get here, they're all excited, and now we can get them to Akron by this shuttle so that they can celebrate Pride. For a lot of students, that's their very first Pride event. Plus, there are lots of other ways to get involved in the upcoming months.