Everyone in the pool: UCSC’s new Lionel Cantú Queer Resource Center director builds on a 50-year program

New Lionel Cantú Queer Resource Center director delfin bautista speaks at a rally in Washington, D.C., in 2020.
New Lionel Cantú Queer Resource Center director delfin bautista speaks at a rally in Washington, D.C., in 2020.
(Via delfin bautista)

delfin bautista joined UC Santa Cruz this spring as director of the center that supports and advocates for the university’s LGBTQIA+ community. They have big plans for outreach, inclusivity, challenging wider Santa Cruz — and integrating queer studies into the UCSC curriculum. 

UC Santa Cruz’s Lionel Cantú Queer Resource Center has a new director: delfín bautista — who most recently served as director at Ohio University’s LGBT Center and hopes to continue the legacy of providing a safe space for queer students at UCSC. They prefer a lowercase spelling of their name and use they/them pronouns.

Q&A with delfin bautista of UCSC's Lionel Cantú Queer Resource Center

In addition, bautista wants to push for the inclusion of queer history in UCSC’s curriculum, and to expand the center’s outreach to the greater Santa Cruz community.

Before they embarked on work in academia and ministry, bautista earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Florida International University and then a pair of master’s degrees: the first in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and the second in divinity from Yale University.

“I may not be preaching in the traditional sense of preaching from a pulpit, but I am preaching inclusivity and have to be present to LGBTQ folk,” they said. “And so similar to my MSW, it’s a nontraditional use of my [master’s in divinity], and I’m very much all for that.”

The Cantú Center was founded at UCSC in 1971 as the Gay Student Union. Since then, it has gone through several iterations, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance; the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Network Resource Center; and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center.

After the death of assistant professor of sociology Lionel Cantú Jr. in 2002, the center took his name in 2004. Cantú, an openly gay professor, researched the impact of sexuality and migration and acted as a strong advocate for the center and its students.

Over the years, the center has organized events including Queer Prom, Lavender Graduation and the annual Stonewall Speaker Series. It was also pivotal in working with the university’s other resource centers to establish gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

While there are now up to 55 gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, bautista said there are still not enough. There’s still work to be done to create welcoming and safe spaces for queer folk and trans folk on campus, according to bautista, and the center is continuing to advocate for change.

In an effort to continue pushing for that change, the center partnered with the athletic and recreation departments to host a pool party after queer and trans students spoke up about not feeling welcome at campus recreation facilities.

“Is the pool party going to solve all of the issues that need to be addressed? No, but it’s a start. And [the party] works to demonstrate both our commitment to fostering those spaces, but also to reflect the commitment from campus athletics and recreation departments to affirming and celebrating queer and trans students,” they said. “That’s just one of many hopeful things that we are working on, and some of it predates me. I’m just sort of picking up the reins and continuing it but then also exploring what relationships haven’t been fully established that we can establish and create moving forward.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: The pandemic challenged the mental health of students and worsened the already difficult mental health challenges facing LGBTQ students. What are you hearing about how UCSC students are doing?

delfín bautista: Just based on anecdotal experiences that people have shared, I think folks are stressed out. There’s a lot happening politically. Everything from challenges to Roe vs. Wade to all of the anti-LGBT legislation that is being introduced, even if these things don’t pass — and the hope is that they don’t. We’re working towards that. The fact, though, that someone thought it and put it on a piece of paper is a little scary and a reflection of the work that still needs to happen.

Florida has passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Ohio’s trying to pass similar legislation. There’s legislation across the country that would criminalize doctors who provide treatment to trans youth. And I’m mindful that the political landscape in Santa Cruz and in California is slightly different, but it does ripple. One, because we have students from other states who are coming out to California, but also how are we supporting folks across the country and not just becoming isolationist. Like OK, we’re in our little queer rainbow bubble here and we’re safe, that’s all that matters. And so making sure that we burst the bubble to be in solidarity with others.

We know levels of stress and mental health issues for LGBT youth, including college students, are much higher, the risk of suicide is much higher. That narrative of feeling isolated is a continuing narrative that I’m hearing and that’s what they appreciate about the Cantú. It helps challenge and overcome those feelings of isolation — that they’re not alone. We’re also able to meet the basic needs of students, whether it be through our food pantry, our clothing closet, our sexual menstrual health library.

Lastly, I’m hearing from the interactions that the conversation has focused on “coming out.” And now the conversation is, but what does it mean to be “out”? What happens after you come out? What does it mean to be out on campus? What does it mean to be out in the workplace? How do we navigate pronouns? How do we navigate dynamics of the word “queer”? And so it’s not just supporting folks and coming out, but what does it mean to support them the day after, or the minute after they come out? How are we having conversations, providing support in being out and whatever that looks like for the individual?

In California schools, teachers do and must say the word “gay” as well as lesbian and transgender in lessons about...

Lookout: What are you most excited about in taking on this role at the center?

bautista: What excites me about the opportunity are multiple things. One is to become part of a center that has been established that has a history and tradition on campus. As well as find ways to expand it and explore new possibilities, but the fact that the center is established and has been established for a number of years is exciting and so not having to start from scratch.

One of the things that I learned from my previous institution was that there is a disconnect between students on campus and the community that holds the university. I’m mindful that it’s a different dynamic between UCSC and the Santa Cruz community. It’s a different reality, but I think there is a degree of separation. And so wanting to connect students to the community that holds the university. Not wanting trans and queer students to feel that the only safe place in Santa Cruz is on campus, that there are spaces throughout the community that affirm and celebrate them and hold them. I want to be able to tap into those resources and share those resources. That’s what I’m hoping to do in terms of the community, support the community in whatever ways we can, whether it’s through a workshop or through co-sponsoring an event. How can we ensure that LGBT students, LGBT faculty and staff, and trans folk overall feel safe on campus, as well as off campus? And what are those spaces? And how can we identify them and support them?

The other piece is looking at academics and looking at how not only LGBTQ history can be integrated into the curriculum, but also just queer scholarship and queer pedagogy into the curriculum. There are different ways of doing that. In terms of scholarship, authors’ resources, publications that can be infused, but also shifting or expanding the lens a little bit.

For example, if an English class is covering “The Color Purple,” are they covering that Alice Walker is a bisexual woman? And is that incorporated into any of the discussions in class about social justice movements? Are we talking about the impact that Black Lives Matter has had in terms of organizing or talking about Act Up (a grassroots group working to end the AIDS epidemic) in the ‘80s and ‘90s? And their impact on social justice movements today? Are we looking at the intersections of queer and trans identities with different movements and contributions of our community through throughout history?

Lookout: What role has the Cantú Center played at UCSC since its founding in 1971, when the Gay Student Union was founded?

bautista: I see the role of the center both historically, and currently, as yes, providing a safe space. And providing moments of celebration on campus for queer and trans people. But I think the other part of our work is in some ways — and this is controversial and perhaps provocative — but it’s creating discomfort and challenging folks to think about things in new and different ways and intentionally create spaces that are a little uncomfortable. We often talk about safe space, brave space. That doesn’t mean that those spaces are always hunky-dory. Sometimes it’s creating questions, challenging folks, inviting folks to consider things that stretch them. And that stretch isn’t always a comfortable experience, but it’s part of the process. And so for a long time, not just the Cantú, but many centers across the country, were really only focusing on the needs of gay and lesbian folk. What about bisexual and pansexual folk? What about the trans community and the multiple identities that fall within the trans umbrella? What about the realities of people of color? Our movement has been dominated by white narratives. What about the narratives for those of us who aren’t white? And with all of those questions with all of those realities being brought up, folks are made a little uncomfortable.

I see our role as creating comfort and spaces of comfort but also causing discomfort and balancing both those dynamics, in support and affirmation of not just LGBTQ folks, but ultimately all students and making sure that we’re not siloing folks into just one aspect of who they are. That we’re honoring that a student may be queer-identified, but they’re also a person of color, a person of faith living with a disability, and maybe from another country or is first-generation American and is flat-footed — how are we recognizing that, supporting that and celebrating that?

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