In 1992, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, more than 11 million people worldwide were infected with HIV, wreaking havoc on the gay community and beyond. The anti-gay defacement of an installation of international AIDS education posters at USM was all it took for Sarah Holmes, then a young undergraduate student, to catapult her towards activism. She became involved with the USM’s Alliance student group, was an active leader in student government, founded the USM Safe Zone Project, and participated in Dialogues in Diversity.
Flash forward to 2017 -- USM has a Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity, Safe Zone training, gender neutral housing floors, and the community has become more aware and accepting. You might think Holmes has accomplished everything she set out to, and that many of the issues she fought for in the 1990s were resolved, however, her work and that of USM, continues.
With an undergraduate degree in history/art history, a master’s in adult education, and now pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy at USM, Holmes is now the university’s Assistant Dean of Students and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, and has won several awards for her work.
Having spent much of her adult working life at USM, Holmes is passionate about the university and all it can do for its diverse student body and surrounding community.
“For a long time, USM has been at the forefront of trying to provide a safe environment for the LGBTQ+ community -- our first student organization, the Gay People's Alliance, was founded in 1975. That work continues on as we want our campuses to be a place where all students can be true to themselves and where their identities can be celebrated,” Holmes said.
Within the office of Diversity and Inclusion, the University of Southern Maine's Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity, which originated in 2000, seeks to ensure a university environment that is positive, safe and supportive for individuals of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
One of the Center's initiatives, USM’s Safe Zone training program, recently marked its 20th anniversary in 2016. Founded by Holmes in her senior year at USM, the Safe Zone educates members of the USM community and introduces them to the issues that LGBTQ+ people face and how both they and heterosexual individuals can be successful, safe and supportive allies. In just the past year alone, 364 individuals participated in 33 training sessions, and an estimated several thousand people have become educated allies since the Safe Zone’s founding.
“It’s important to USM that our students know they have access to culturally competent resources on campus,” Holmes said.
Social work master’s degree alumna Jessica Labbe (who was recently featured in a video as one of USM’s graduating students this past spring) led trainings for the Safe Zone as part of her work as a graduate assistant for the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity. She said the Safe Zone trainings are all different depending on who attends, “We try to meet people where they are. It’s an awesome thing to be able to talk among a varied group of people with understanding, compassion and respect.”
USM was the first school in the state to have a center focusing on the LBGTQ+ community and gender neutral housing available. The university’s “Rainbow Floor” (located in two residence halls on the Gorham Campus) provides a living/learning community for LGBTQ+ students and their allies.
For the past 17 years, USM has hosted one of the largest drag shows in Northern New England. This past spring, the USM Royal Majesty Drag Competition and Show, which attracts some 700 attendees each year, was hosted by comedian and drag star TV personality Shangela, who has appeared on shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Glee. Funds raised from this event go towards the Center and its various activities.
The Center also hosts the Lavender Graduation, where they celebrate the accomplishments of LGBTQ+ and allied students who are part of the year's graduating class. Each graduate is called forward and presented with a rainbow tassel that they may choose to wear at USM Commencement. And at 2017’s Commencement ceremony, an honorary degree was conferred upon Mary L. Bonauto, the Civil Rights Project Director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the historic 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, which established the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide.
This past June, USM once again participated in Portland’s annual Pride parade, with a group of LBGTQ+ and allied students, faculty, staff and administrators (including President Glenn Cummings) marching in support of diversity and inclusion.
Holmes notes, even while acknowledging all that USM has accomplished to create a more accepting and diverse environment, there is yet work to be done. USM is currently in the process of re-signing existing single occupancy bathrooms on both campuses to be designated “all-gender.” They are also working with the Registrar’s office to make it easier for students to designate their preferred name in the system’s database. And she notes, the work of the Center is by no means complete.
“As society changes and develops, the university needs to be at the forefront of making our environment supportive of our ever more diverse community,” she said.
The recipient of several community awards, Holmes was honored with the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA) Make a Difference Award in April 2016. The award acknowledged her work with Gia Drew of Equality Maine in creating and providing training across the state to make sexual assault centers more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community and help end sexual violence in Maine. The award also acknowledged her efforts with the Safe Zone training she founded and implemented at USM. She also was invited to be a part of their LGBTQ Advisory Board.
Holmes was honored to receive the award, saying that it helps to raise the visibility and legitimizes the importance of the work. “USM should be proud of engaging with our community - being viewed positively and as a partner they can rely on.”
The University of Southern Maine follows a policy of nondiscrimination:
The University of Southern Maine does not discriminate on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, including transgender status and gender expression, national origin, citizenship status, age, disability, genetic information or veterans’ status in employment, education, and all other programs and activities. The following person has been designated to handle inquiries regarding nondiscrimination policies: Director of Equity & Compliance, 209 Deering Avenue, Portland Campus, voice (207) 228-8304, TTY 771 (Maine Relay System).
USM also provides resources which can be accessed at the following links: