In their first year, residents of the LGBTQ-Ally Living-Learning community were charged with exploring the establishment of an LGBT student center on campus, and ended up finding a place to call home.

Last spring, the group’s first meeting introduced them to the concept of queer space. Farhang Rouhani, an associate professor of geography at the University of Mary Washington, gave a presentation on the study of sexuality and space. It was a chance to establish possibilities for the campus’ first LGBTQ residential community, and raise questions about what it would mean for the participants.

“At first I found it ironic that there had to be a designation, as opposed to assuming that every space was a ‘safe’ space,” says Lydia Wang, ’14, a resident of the community. “But the community is a safe harbor for students, faculty, and staff. The physical space allows for like-minded individuals to live together and educate themselves on gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation.”

It was also at this initial meeting that the members realized the wide spectrum of backgrounds and expectations they brought to the community. The group’s diversity opened a number of avenues for exploration and, with the direction of Glyn Hughes, director of Common Ground and faculty advisor for the community, they settled on an initial focus of self-education and reflection.

“Some people had been out for a very long time, had been activists, and others were just coming out, but knew that they wanted the safety of that space to explore that,” Hughes says. “There are certain risks and social hazards with being known as somebody who’s a gender or sexual minority. Having a place where people don’t have to worry about visibility and invisibility is key for people to explore and be their authentic selves.”

They began the year with a series of guest speakers who addressed everything from LGBTQ history on campus and in the city of Richmond, to international and global issues. The second semester took an external focus. Many of the residents attended the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conference, one of the largest LGBTQ conferences in the U.S., where they learned about advocacy and activist initiatives throughout the country, and found methods to advance LGBTQ equality at home.

The development of an LGBTQ student center may not have been an ultimate focus of the community, but a center of LGBTQ life developed organically around the shared living and learning space. The University is proceeding with plans for a dedicated LGBTQ student center, and the Living-Learning community will continue as one in a suite of resources for students.

“It’s a space where students don’t have to answer questions, don’t have to say who they were, what they were, or how they identify,” says Andy Gurka, director of Living-Learning and Roadmap programs. “It’s just assumed that if you live in this space, you are an ally or a member of the community. This is another avenue to show a vibrant student community of LGBT students on campus.”

Both the residential community and the planned resource center are contributing factors to the University’s upgrade to a four-star rating from the Campus Climate Index, a nonprofit organization promoting LGBT-friendly learning environments at colleges and universities.

“This University has made a commitment to full inclusion,” says Common Ground’s Hughes. “That requires that we build an infrastructure that makes it possible for LGBTQ people to be full participants in what we have to offer, and where we as an entire campus community have to confront and wrestle with those social challenges.”

But most importantly, the students found room to explore their own identities, and find common ground with one another.

“I have learned so much from our differences,” Wang says. “Without knowing it, I have been forced to examine my own identity multiple times, become more aware of my privilege, discuss environmental issues with my peers, and join in the journeys of self-discovery with the people I live and interact with on a daily basis.”