Rachel Mekdeci grew up loving English classes. Her mom was an English teacher, and she said that in another life, she would have majored in journalism. English classes were always her strong suit, and they made her feel comfortable.
That was until she took English 102 her freshman year at UT and one of the classes was spent discussing minority rights. Mekdeci, a non-white woman who identifies as a member of the queer community, said she felt dismissed by her fellow students, so she stood up for herself.
Mekdeci doesn’t remember who her professor was at the time, but she remembers exactly what happened after class when the teacher stopped her, addressing what had happened.
“She said it quietly like she was scared, she said, ‘thank you.’” Mekdeci said. “And that touched me a little bit, but at the same time it kind of terrified me. She was terrified to thank me for reminding people of the human condition not being limited to one's whiteness and their straightness.”
“She was so scared to just say two words to me.”
Mekdeci said she went from being the 9-year-old who read Shakespeare to the English student excluded from group projects. With those softly spoken words, the professor became the only person she felt a connection with.
On a college campus that has been ranked the no. 1 most unfriendly toward LGBTQ students and that faces the pressure of a legislature that has defunded the Pride Center, members of the LGBTQ community find themselves searching for resources and belonging through the help of UT faculty.
Looking for LGBTQ resources solely through the internet might not yield many results. Ciara Gazaway, coordinator for bias education in the Office of the Dean of Students, says this is not necessarily indicative of an actual lack of resources, though.
Forging connections with people in the Pride Center or the Dean of Students Office, Gazaway said, is helpful to finding care. But even if connections are not specifically with people in those offices, she said relationships with any faculty on campus can be integral to getting support.
While Mekdeci, a junior vocal music major, felt dismissed that day in her English class, she said she has not had that same experience in most of her classes. She spends most of her time in the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, where she said faculty and friends welcome her with open arms and serve as a resource to her. She specifically referenced one professor who offered support by giving out his personal phone number.
Mekdeci recognizes that that sort of support can potentially put a professor in a dangerous situation. But to her, that’s just one way of faculty can show support for the LGBTQ community.
Aleksandr McGovern, a junior political science major and chair of SGA’s environment and sustainability committee, said his experiences of being supported by faculty as a member of the LGBTQ community have not been this explicit.
“They never go out of their way to say, ‘hey like if you are a person who identifies as someone in the LGBTQ community and you need anything, like I’m here for you,’” McGovern said. “I've never had a professor do that.”
While McGovern said that outright statement is lacking in the classroom, he has found that going out of his way to talk to “outgoing” professors leads to him finding support.
Finding allies in faculty members requires actively seeking that relationship, according to Ryan Beatty, a junior narrative and comparative border studies major in the College Scholars Program and a leader of the student organization Students for Migrant Justice.
Beatty said that being in the College Scholars Program comes with the perk of having a faculty mentor who knows the more personal details of a student’s life. While they are grateful for that, Beatty said this method of support can present a challenge for many.
“Not everyone feels comfortable like going to office hours and reaching out individually to professors, like that does take a little bit of agency,” Beatty said.
Tennessee’s decisions to investigate Sex Week and defund the Pride Center point to a legislative pressure on both administration and faculty to be careful of what they say and do, even when students feel so unsupported that UT earned its current spot on the Princeton Review’s list.
While some professors might not explicitly state it, Beatty says LGBTQ support is clear in other ways, like in the “Safe Space” magnets in their faculty mentor’s office.
Gazaway explained that small steps like those magnets are signs of people trying to create change, even if they’re not overthrowing the entire system.
“Because of the way that we know change to come about and all that kind of stuff, that's why you maybe don't see the risks, but that doesn't mean the work isn't happening,” Gazaway said.
And that change might mean going to a professor to ask about transgender healthcare resources because you see on Canvas that they’re Safe Zone certified. An underwhelming Google search does not mean all hope is lost, according to Gazaway.
“If you can’t go in the front door, find a window,” Gazaway said.