Katie Watson (she/her)
If you’re like me, college started by joining as many clubs, organizations, and groups as possible until you found one or two or three that you decided to stick with. Festifall, Winterfest, and those thousands of email lists you can’t remember signing up for are handy ways to connect with communities on campus that you belong to. For me, joining the Spectrum Center email list helped me find the CenterSpaces: groups dedicated to specific, underrepresented identities within the LGBTQ+ community that meet regularly and provide support for identities that can sometimes feel invisible. While some are more active than others, one group has been consistently providing a welcoming community and celebration of identities: the Aromantic and Asexual CenterSpace.
The Aro/Ace CenterSpace has historically boasted a collection of annual Ace Week events, monthly discussions and social activities, and a discord where members can share book club thoughts, memes, or anything that comes to mind. The group works to make these identities more visible and establish a space for people with these identities or questioning to gather in a safe space and feel seen. This year, Spectrum Center threw a wrench in that plan.
In a switch-up from Spectrum Center programming coordinators, the CenterSpaces have been defunded and placed on a “strategic pause” while the Spectrum Center reevaluates their strategy this year. Thankfully, the Aro/Ace Group rallied quickly; their new name now titles their emails to all those previously on their email list, but much else remains the same. Ace Week events continued as usual, and their social events sound better than ever this year with an “Ace the Cake” evening, Bob Ross painting, and more. I sat down with the three co-hosts of the Aro/Ace group to talk about what this change has been like, and what it means for the LGBTQ+ community on campus going forward.
The initial signs that this year would not be like others was when a representative from the Spectrum Center warned the co-hosts of the CenterSpace to not plan activities for the summer, says co-host Angel White, a UM senior in philosophy. If not for their plans to continue operating over the summer, co-hosts worry that they may not have been informed of the changes until the beginning of fall. Instead, Spectrum Center representatives confirmed this summer that the CenterSpaces would be defunded – meaning hosts would no longer be paid for their organizing work, events would not have guaranteed funding, and the CenterSpace name could no longer be used for the group’s work.
All three of these changes threw a wrench in the group’s normal operations: without host funding, it’s hard to justify spending the same time going into the group’s work amidst the hosts’ busy schedules. Without a designated fund for the group, the Aro/Ace Group relies on conditional funding from the Spectrum Center or on funds designated for Ace Week, Aro Week, or Asexuality Day. As co-host Christa Ventresca, a Genetics and Genomics PhD student, pointed out, revoking the CenterSpace name means that all former flyers, affiliations, and promotional materials cannot be used anymore. Luckily, the group maintains its email list and Discord channel to spread word about group events.
Amidst the Spectrum Center’s defunding, the co-hosts have also expressed frustration with the communication between themselves and the Spectrum Center’s employees. For example, a third co-host – who wishes to remain anonymous – told me that in order to allow a staff member (as compared to a student) at UM to become a co-host, they went through a rigorous process to ensure that they would be accepted on the leadership and prioritize student members. After a summer of Spectrum Center representatives questioning whether a staff member should be allowed on leadership after all the co-hosts’ due diligence, that staff member decided to step down in order to maintain the Aro/Ace Group’s good standing with the Spectrum Center. Questions about whether non-students (be it staff, alumni, or any other UM member) should be permitted to participate in the group have upset this co-host, who values the diverse perspectives and multifaceted experiences of the group’s members. As someone who has attended some of these events, I can attest to how heartening it was to hear the perspectives of queer people who are past their “coming out” story and well into living life as a queer person – something rarely shared in the media. It has since been confirmed by Spectrum Center employees that non-students are still welcome to participate this year, although next year has not been confirmed.
In summary, co-host Christa explains that this new state of operations consists of conditional event funding, a promise to “evaluate and restructure the program” (this quote and more information is available on Spectrum Center’s CenterSpace website), uncertainty over membership permissions, and heightened oversight from the Spectrum Center. It has likely resulted from the recent changeovers in the Spectrum Center, poor communication among Spectrum Center employees and with the group’s leadership, and the lack of consistency from other CenterSpaces. Regardless, it begs the questions for why the Spectrum Center felt the need to “strategically pause” and limit the CenterSpaces while they reevaluate their engagement with the queer community on campus instead of maintaining their operation during this process.
Despite the uncertainty felt among the Aro/Ace Group’s co-hosts, they say that they are continuing business mostly as usual, and are hopeful that the strategic pause will end after this year. Due to their historical affiliation with the Spectrum Center, they find that the easiest course of action has been to maintain their relationship with the center. After all, despite these recent changes, the Spectrum Center has continued to provide requested funding for Ace Week events, craft nights, and similar scheduled events. Meetings continue to be held in the Spectrum Center, where queer people can feel safe, welcome, and remain confidential. The co-hosts continue to meet regularly with the Spectrum Center regarding the group’s operation and planning, present and future.
With all these changes this year, the co-hosts stressed to me a few important takeaways. One is that the Spectrum Center needs to listen to and respond to student feedback in a more meaningful way. Co-host Angel specifically suggested that the Spectrum Center reach out to the student body and specific communities represented in the CenterSpaces in order to figure out what spaces, events, and outreach are wanted and/or needed on campus. Regarding aro-ace visibility on campus, ze added that “we still exist and we don’t plan to stop existing anytime soon.” Regardless of how the CenterSpaces pan out; the Aro/Ace Group and community will always be here for those seeking it.
When asked for some final thoughts, the co-hosts shared some optimistic perspectives. Angel added that she would like to see an acknowledgement of how the Spectrum Center has treated the leadership during this period, and a promise to work more effectively with the co-hosts to improve the situation while listening to student feedback. Christa added that the previous model worked well because of the hosts’ freedom and flexibility to operate in terms of organization and planning; they’d like to see more support and trust from the Spectrum Center. Finally, the third co-host emphasized their optimism about working with the Spectrum Center going forward and hoped for a resolution to this uncertain state of operations.
With new prospective members reaching out or looking for a place to explore this identity, Christa added that with the CenterSpace page taken down – now simply stating the program’s uncertain position – it can be hard for people to find communities like this one. They want to stress that the Aro/Ace Group is still holding regular events, adding new members to the email list, and is active on the Discord. Those interested in joining should contact the group’s email or the Spectrum Center, both listed below, to learn more. Christa jokingly added that “We might be hard to find, but we are the invisible orientation and you can still find us.” The space is welcome to all - students, staff, and alumni - who identify on the aromantic and/or asexual spectrum or are questioning. Don’t let anything prevent you from reaching out and learning about this very welcoming, fun group - it might just be a club you decide to stick with this year.
Join the Aro/Ace Group’s mailing list, or reach out with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact the Spectrum Center with questions, feedback, or to get in touch with a group: email@example.com