A pool can be an intimidating place for the LGBTQ community—especially for transgender community members. Exposed bodies, possible judgement from others, and using/passing through gender-specific locker rooms are real barriers to participation for these individuals. Portland State Campus Rec aims to reduce such barriers and our aquatics program has been transformed over the past several years into a more welcoming and inclusive space for our queer and trans members.

We highlighted our work in May 2017 with Sound Waves: PRIDE, a pool party that brought over 350 people together to celebrate Pride at Portland State. The event was hosted by Poison Waters—Portland’s most popular drag queen and entertainer—and was complete with a talented student DJ, laser light show, fog machines, free food, floaties, and log rolling.

The creation of Sound Waves: PRIDE was not as simple as conducting a needs assessment, brainstorming on a white board, and planning event logistics. It was a long and winding road filled with hidden obstacles—fortunately, there were some big wins along the way.

Several factors ultimately led to the event’s conception and success, including intentional programming, campus partners, staff trainings, student involvement, and policy changes. Charged by our department’s commitment to inclusion and innovation, we steered toward positive cultural changes and the creation of this unique new event.

Join us in exploring how Sound Waves: PRIDE took shape over the past few years. We know how much we gain when others share ideas with us, so we hope that your programming and members can benefit from a similar approach, regardless of the targeted population.

Campus partners

Developing mutually-beneficial relationships with various resource centers, partners, peers, and stakeholders on campus was essential. In Fall 2014, the aquatics team put a more concerted effort toward strengthening our relationship with the Queer Resource Center (QRC) and Women’s Resource Center (WRC).

Collaborations like these provide the foundation and validation for many of our policy, program, event, and operational changes. Exploring ways to best serve our partners’ audiences and complement their programming was a crucial first step in our journey.

Student activism

Some of our best changes are a direct result of student activism and involvement. Queer and trans students have influenced our decision making in a variety of ways, including helping to create pronoun and pride flag stickers for staff name tags, championing the creation of our Splash Mob event, and highlighting gaps and conflicts with various PSU Campus Rec policies and practices.

Portland State University alum and current Queer Resource Center Office Manager Melanie Altara is a frequent aquatics user who was instrumental in the creation of Splash Mob. Melanie used the spa for “feminist hot tubs,” an informal gathering of women and nonconforming folks. For the QRC’s Wellness Week, Melanie proposed, organized, and promoted Splash Mob as a way to encourage people who don’t typically use the Rec Center to familiarize themselves with the facility and play in the pool together.

Attending conferences, connecting with colleagues across the country, and collaborating with peers on campus are all fantastic ways to provide unique and relevant programming. Students, though, can often be our greatest ally.

Policy changes

Facility policies, rules, and procedures can act as barriers to participation. It is important to identify if any barriers exist within your department and then see if there’s room for change. Ask yourself:

  • Why was the policy, rule, or procedure originally created?
  • Can it be modified to better meet the current wants and needs of members?
  • How are our peer institutions and colleagues navigating barriers to access?

At Portland State, we identified three policies that deterred queer and trans people from participating in aquatics programming: swim attire, photo and video, and locker room usage. In 2015 we rewrote these policies to broaden the range of accepted swim attire, restrict photography and videography in the natatorium, and allow our guests to self-identify which locker room best fit their gender and needs.

The following is our current restroom and locker room usage policy:

Campus Rec follows the Portland State University non-discrimination policy, which includes gender identity as a protected class. Patrons of the Student Rec Center are welcome to use the locker room and restroom space where they feel most comfortable, and that corresponds with their gender identity. An individual’s gender identity is not always consistent with what some people expect to see in traditional physical presentation or appearance. This can include clothing, hairstyles, make-up and/or body parts. All students and patrons retain the rights of privacy as well as physical and emotional safety. Campus Rec encourages anyone who is not comfortable using the locker room under these conditions to use one of our Universal Changing Rooms located near the pool.

Staff training

Positive staff interaction is paramount to a positive guest experience. One negative experience can significantly impact retention. Prioritizing a few minutes of customer service training into staff meetings will go a long way to improving customer experience. This is especially true when trying to increase usage by a specific demographic.

During our lifeguard in-service trainings, we spend time on person-first language, pronoun usage, not assuming someone’s gender, microaggressions, LGBTQ educational workshops, calling-in vs. calling-out, and how to be an ally to the queer community. We have found that regular customer service training pays off with great rewards.

Splash Mob

This specialized event and partnership with the QRC started in Fall 2014 to encourage PSU’s queer, trans, and ally communities to swim at the rec center. With the guidance of Melanie and the entire QRC team, the event centers on creating a “brave space” through safety in numbers in order to create a body-positive and gender-affirming experience. The event is offered three times a year and features floaties, water basketball, log rolling, music, and pride flags.

Event participation has grown from 17 to nearly 60 participants and is now a core program for Campus Rec. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of transgender people participating in our other programming opportunities.

Sound Waves

 We have been hosting dive-in movies since our facility opened in January 2010. These events usually bring in 250-350 people, most of whom are on-campus freshmen and sophomores. While these events are a great success, we wanted a new and different way to engage large numbers of members in the pool.

In May 2015, our first Sound Waves event brought in over 600 participants. Sound Waves is a large, flashy, loud pool party that features a student DJ, free food and drinks, log rolling, water basketball, floaties, laser lights, fog machines, and decorations. After the first Sound Waves, we began theming each event—Sound Waves: 80s Night, for example. Sound Waves quickly became our most popular event and we now hold it twice a year.

Sound Waves: PRIDE

It wasn’t long before we combined Splash Mob and Sound Waves into one fabulous event called Sound Waves: PRIDE. Three key differences make this event stand apart from other Sound Waves events:

  1. Our partnership with the QRC, WRC, and Student Health & Counseling.
  2. The event was held in May as a part of a series of Pride at PSU events.
  3. The addition of a host and entertainer—in this case Poison Waters. Well received by our campus partners and attendees, we are excited to host the event again in May 2018.

Constructive feedback

Seeking out and being receptive to constructive and critical feedback is an important part of improving any initiative. When critical feedback is given, relax, listen, be grateful, consult with other stakeholders, and make changes when appropriate. For example, several students expressed concern that Sound Waves: PRIDE was held in lieu of the spring term Splash Mob. The events are similar, but these students preferred the smaller, more intimate Splash Mob that is attended primarily by queer and trans students.

We also received feedback that several of our trans-women students are not comfortable around drag performers because they fear they might be perceived as a “person in drag” rather than as a transgender person. To better meet the needs of all students, we will be holding both events during spring of next year.

The success of Sound Waves: PRIDE is the vibrant result of several years of work toward better accommodating our LGBTQ community. It’s work we plan to continue as we move our mission and vision forward while holding true to our values—we’re already busy planning fall’s Sound Waves: Luau, a collaboration with the Pacific Islanders Club.

The steps I’ve described were central to our evolution into a more inclusive aquatics program and serve as a model for how we can continue to expand our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. I hope they can help guide your department’s efforts to support and foster LGBTQ community members.

Learn more

To learn more about Portland State University Campus Recreation, contact Portland State University’s Campus Rec Aquatics Coordinator Craig Gosnell.

Photos courtesy of Portland State University Campus Recreation

  • If you are interested in highlighting an initiative from your campus or a NIRSA member’s achievements on your campus, pitch us your ideas.

Craig Gosnell is currently the Aquatics Coordinator for Portland State University's Campus Recreation; he can be reached at cgosnell@pdx.edu.