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USC’s LGBT Resource Center director, Reverend Kelby Harrison, wasn’t always involved in the LGBT community.
“I grew up in Wichita, Kan. … Kansas is fairly conservative, and I didn’t come out as gay until I was a teenager,” Harrison said.
However, that changed when Harrison attended Northwestern University for her doctorate degree.
“I left for college [at the University of Missouri-Kansas City] and then went to Northwestern for my Ph.D. program, and that’s where I really got involved with the LGBT community,” Harrison said. “I was openly gay by the time college was over, but it wasn’t until I got to Chicago that I connected with the campus communities and off-campus communities and got involved in activism.”
Harrison founded Northwestern’s first-ever LGBT graduate student organization, the Queer Pride Graduate Student Association, and through that group, also founded the Queertopia conference, where graduate students from across the nation came to share their academic research on LGBT-related issues.
The LGBT community even found its way into Harrison’s education. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a degree in philosophy and ethics, but her doctorate from Northwestern was in ethics, gender and sexuality.
Harrison went on to publish her dissertation for the degree as a book Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing which explores the morals behind passing, or presenting oneself as one thing while one’s identity is something else. The book specifically explores queer individuals who pass as heterosexual.
However, LGBT issues weren’t all that Harrison became passionate about in graduate school. It was there that she also rediscovered a love for faith and spirituality.
“I loved religion as a child … but I broke from religion at about 16, when I started figuring out how misogynistic and homophobic religion could be,” Harrison said. “But in graduate school, I came back to Liberal Christianity … that led me to getting a job as a postdoctoral fellow at the Union Theological Seminary, which is kind of known for being the premier social justice seminary in the country, very much dedicated to black liberation theology [and] LGBT inclusion.”
It was while teaching at the seminary that Harrison became ordained as a reverend, at a similarly LGBT-inclusive church, the Metropolitan Community Church.
After leaving the seminary, Harrison came to Los Angeles. While she initially came to Southern California as a hospital chaplain for the UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, she soon found that USC was her true calling.
“I wasn’t in Los Angeles very long before I figured out that USC was the school of choice around here. It very much reminds me of Northwestern, [so] I started looking for employment at USC,” Harrison said. “I kept my eye on the University … and [when] this position came to open, and it was absolutely ideal. It was the combination of both my academic studies, my activism and the institution I wanted to work at. I got lucky.”
Harrison has worked to improve the quality of life for LGBT students and increase their presence on campus. She successfully advocated for the addition of the Lavender Lounge, a safe space for LGBT students to unwind and interact, which more than doubled the LGBT Resource Center’s space on campus. Just two years ago, USC’s LGBT center was found to be the smallest among top academic institutions.
“She was really passionate about getting that student lounge … the moment we had that space officially and no one could take it back, she was so excited,” said Erica Kirk, former lead graduate assistant at the LGBT Resource Center. ”It was finally a place for students to hang out where we weren’t all on top of each other,”
Aside from the Lavender Lounge, Harrison has dedicated her days to making USC more inclusive. She worked with the Title IX office at USC to get an all-gender restroom next to the LGBT Resource Center, created peer support systems for members of the LGBT community and was even recognized nationally for making USC welcoming for international LGBT students.
However, Harrison’s true passion for being the center’s director lies in working with individual students, according to Michael Gorse, the LGBT Resource Center supervisor. He’s been working with Harrison for more than three years, both as a graduate assistant at the center while studying at USC, and as center supervisor now.
“She really enjoys working with students one-on-one … she’s able to develop personal connections with the students she’s working with at the center,” Gorse said. “She’s very good at and willing to listen to people non-judgmentally and connect with them.”
Kirk said that Harrison fosters such strong relationships with students on campus because she goes above and beyond to show them she cares.
“She is infinitely empathetic,” Kirk said. “She still emails me about my job search, and checks in on me. It could have very easily been like, ‘Okay, you don’t work for me anymore, we’re done,’ but she takes the time to check in, and see where I’m at and I’m sure she does that will with all of her staff, and all of the students she comes in contact with, because she cares, a lot.”
Despite all the successes she’s had as the resource center director, Harrison has even bigger goals in mind for the LGBT center.
“In upcoming years, we’re going to … really begin to focus on queer and trans students of color, focusing more on inclusivity efforts for students of color, and working more closely with the other cultural centers on campus,” Harrison said.
Another effort that the center is working on is providing resources for the mental health of LGBT students.
“Last week, we both went to San Jose [to become] instructors so we can train our student staff and colleagues on how to help someone who presents mental health issues or a mental health crisis … Kelby’s been doing a lot of work on expanding our understanding [of mental health], as well as services that are offered for students who are experiencing mental health issues,” Gorse said.
Beyond working at the LGBT Resource Center, Harrison is still able to utilize her background in faith and religion. She works at the Office of Religious Life as the Dean of Spirituality and Sexuality, allowing her to help students work through the intersectionality of their faith and sexual orientation or gender identity, which she knows from firsthand experience can be a difficult path to navigate alone.
“[After] being in the world of religion for a number of years, it’s nice to still have that connection to the world of religion through USC,” Harrison said.
Through her life’s work in spirituality, ethics and queer advocacy, Harrison finds fulfillment in seeing real progress for the LGBT community.
“It’s really satisfying to see institutions get better around LGBT issues … I have watched USC grow; I watched Northwestern grow,” Harrison said. “Right now, there are rainbow flags all along [Trousdale Parkway], which is lovely. We didn’t even have to put pressure on the school to do it. It’s so great to see that positive institutional reaction. I think it’s a modern sign of ethical improvement, when institutions get better.”