One of Tyler Viljaste’s ideas when running for Student Government Board last year was creating a physical LGBTQIA+ center on campus. So, he formed an LGBTQIA+ task force in August to make this goal — and others — a reality.
“To be able to be a part of uplifting the voices of my peers and using the student input as a conduit to maybe actually make some change is really inspiring,” Viljaste, SGB’s vice president and chief of cabinet, said. “The group of people that I’ve been working with, especially since the beginning, have been so supportive and so amazing and so helpful.”
The LGBTQIA+ task force, which includes more than 70 students, faculty and staff, is working on a proposal that includes research on the benefits of an LGBTQIA+ center as well as recommendations for counseling services and the restructuring of LGBTQIA+ related student organizations. Once released later this semester, the public will be able to provide feedback on the proposal.
Viljaste, a junior politics and philosophy and finance dual major, said the task force is focused on presenting a compelling case to both Pitt’s administration and the Pitt community about the needs of Pitt’s LGBTQIA+ community and how better to support its members.
“The current state of affairs needs to change,” Viljaste said. “We need to dedicate more resources to make sure that Pitt’s really addressing the needs of the LGBTQIA+ population, which has gone under the radar over the past couple of years.”
As Viljaste participated in task force activities, he found that a lot of interests from faculty, staff and students overlapped.
“[We wanted to get] rid of some of the burdens that are placed on faculty and staff because there are no dedicated staff persons for LGBTQIA+ affairs,” Viljaste said. “Having to volunteer their time on top of their tenure track or on top of their research responsibilities, serving as unpaid labor for leading student organizations or serving as advisers can be really burdensome.”
Viljaste said the proposal has more support because it includes members of the entire Pitt LGBTQIA+ population, including staff and faculty rather than just students.
“We created a lightning survey to ask faculty and staff what’s particularly relevant, and we’re looking to do something very similar for student groups and students for the spring semester,” Viljaste said. “We’re going to send the proposal draft before we release it publicly to key student leaders, and after revisions, release it for public comments.”
Viljaste added faculty and staff on the task force to make sure their concerns were represented in the proposal. One staff member who has been playing a large role on the task force is Mike Campbell, an assistant in the Center for Creativity.
As the chair for Pitt Queer Professionals — a campus group that promotes the professional development of LGBTQIA+ staff and faculty through social and educational events — Campbell said he’s recognized the need for paid support positions as well as a physical space for a long time. He said he was asked if he or his colleagues wanted to be represented in the task force, and many ended up joining.
“I took charge of the committee for writing those staff positions, and I made sure that on their radar was including paid staff — not just having a student-run center,” Campbell said. “This way, students aren’t continuing to have to do relatively free labor for their own causes.”
Campbell emphasized that though his group was specifically contacted, he is dedicated to making sure that a larger, more diverse network of people at Pitt can weigh in as well.
“Once we have this finished, we want to make sure that this is more than just LGBTQ and has some intersectional lens to it,” Campbell said. “Queer people do not just exist as monolith. Over all races, ethnicities, religions, we want to make sure we have weight from other communities.”
Some of this input for the proposal comes from student organizations on campus. Max Reiver, a student involved with Rainbow Alliance, Hillel affinity group LGBT-Jew-IA, T is For and Maspeak, has also recognized the needs of Pitt’s LGBTQIA+ community members as a member of the task force.
“Even as the campus climate has shifted, our objective to establish a physical space that can be used by the growing number of Pitt’s LGBTQIA+ student and graduate student organizations has remained an endeavor that we intend to accomplish,” Reiver, a fifth-year Japanese and English literature double major, said.
Reiver said he’s enjoyed working with such a diverse group on the task force. He was a member of the committees for student groups, outreach and marketing, website recommendations and proposal writing.
“Throughout all of the task force’s phases of action, the most impressive and consistent aspect has been the collaboration among students, faculty and staff, as well as our mutual passion to make Pitt an even better place for our LGBTQIA+ community members to thrive,” Reiver said.
Carrie Benson, the sexual violence prevention and education coordinator for the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, joined the task force in the fall after she learned about it from her position as chair of the University’s Transgender Working Group.
As a staff member, Benson said she had a lot of institutional knowledge regarding current University resources and services, which includes areas with room for growth and improvement. The importance of this work, Benson said, comes from the “concerning” levels of sexual violence that trans and nonbinary students at Pitt face based on statistics from a 217-page report released from the Association of American Universities last year.
“28.7% of trans and non-binary students at Pitt reported experiencing sexual violence,” Benson said. “[These statistics] demonstrate a real need for college campuses to be continually working to create more inclusive spaces for trans and nonbinary students.”
Viljaste said he’s excited to continue meeting people who are passionate about this work.
“We’re always excited to have more people join us on our mission,” Viljaste said. “We have a lot of allies too who aren’t necessarily a part of the LGBTQIA+ community but are just there to help advocate and help empower our mission and our goals, which is always super exciting.”
Getting to work with other students was an opportunity that the staff, including Campbell, looked forward to. He said the fact that this is all volunteer-based shows the dedication of each of these students.
“I forget how motivated and how wonderful students can be — just coming up with new ideas and really pushing for things,” Campbell said. “I really love the environment, and I think everyone that is doing this work is very passionate about it.”