Tuesday, October 19

After 11+ years of LGBTQ+ leadership, advocacy & vision, Liz Roccoforte passes the torch at Case Western Reserve University

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For well over a decade, Liz Roccoforte has served as the founding director of the LGBT Center at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU).

In that span of time, she not only opened the space in 2010 as the sole professional staff member, but spent years ushering in numerous changes that have helped transform the very culture of CWRU into one of openness and inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff.

Roccoforte stepped down from her role and departed CWRU on September 3 and the university will not only be celebrating the Center’s ten-year anniversary of its founding, but also the legacy of vision, leadership, and advocacy that Roccoforte has left behind.

“The LGBT Center’s vision is to foster an empowering, loving, and equitable environment for our multifaceted community to thrive within CWRU,” said Harry Hawkins, who will be stepping in as interim director of the Center. “Liz’s passion and love for the LGBTQ+ community emanate from everything we do. She was the living embodiment of our vision.”

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Roccaforte about her long tenure at Case and her passion for helping the LGBT Center grow into the incredible presence it is today.

How are you feeling, and what are your general impressions after having worked at the LGBT Center for the past 11 years?
I definitely have mixed feelings. For many years, I was the only professional staff member for the Center. For four years of that time I was there by myself, [so I]just built it from scratch. On the one hand [it was]an incredible opportunity, and on the other hand a lot of responsibility.

A news clipping from the LGBT Center’s opening in 2010.

I have a lot of stake in that Center. I poured everything I had into it for many years. I’ve just been passionate about that work with the students and the faculty for a decade. I feel really proud of the work we were able to do on campus and the way campus has changed. I’m excited to see what they do next. I feel like I really helped build a solid foundation, and now it’s time for them to continue to flourish.

What are some of your accomplishments there that you’re most proud of? We’d love to highlight some of your achievements!
One of [the Center’s pillars]is student support,  literally including in the space itself: creating an open, welcoming, warm space for students who walk in that door. And I really believe that we did that. It isn’t always easy to create an environment or culture in which people just want to always be there, and I feel like the students just like being in the space often.

The other part of it is education, [which]is outward facing through the rest of the university. We created a Safe Zone program that I started when I got there, and it’s evolved through the years. Over 1,500 people have gone through that Safe Zone program, [which is]an ally program on campus. That also has helped change the culture. You can have a great LGBT Center, but if there aren’t allies and people who are out themselves and willing to be present and supporting, you can only do so much. And I walk around on campus and see Safe Zone stickers on doors and on their laptops, [this]creates this visual culture of inclusivity.

The LGBT Center marching at Cleveland Pride in 2013.

The third part of it was really my absolute passion, which was advocacy and institutional policy and practice changes. I did a tremendous amount of research around best practices for LGBTQIA+ students on campus to support them, retain them, and help them thrive. So we created a gender inclusive housing option for our incoming first-year students.

The other one I’m really proud of [is that]when I got there, there was no transition-related healthcare included in insurance policies for students or employees. So we did a really deep dive to add benefits to student and employee policies. Now, there are transition-related benefits that cover hormones and a variety of transition-related surgeries.

What were your original goals when you started here, and overall how have you seen things change during your years as director?
My goals were to move Case to be one of the most inclusive universities in the country for LGBTQIA+ students. When I say inclusivity, I don’t just mean acceptance; I mean where students can thrive, succeed, become their fullest self, and bring all of themselves to all of their endeavors: academically, socially, etc. And I wanted us to become that university. We didn’t start from zero, but it makes a big difference to have a dedicated staff person [whose]entire job is this.

My ideas were received and heard and welcomed for the most part. I think it’s a different campus now. I hope it is. We have this thing called Rainbow Reception, which is the first-year party. We had so many students this year coming to it. I heard a student saying to another student something to the effect of, “This is amazing! There was nothing like this in my high school [where]it was actually hostile.” I could just see their relief and joy from where [their identity]was celebrated.

Lavender Graduation ceremony in 2014.

If I’ve accomplished anything, it’s that students walk on campus and come to these things and they feel that way, where they feel really welcomed and really included and really valued on campus. I don’t think it was [always]like that. Most of the time it wasn’t openly hostile, but it’s a different thing to be affirming from the get-go. Students are coming from places where they couldn’t be out at home, and this was their first experience with the LGBTQIA+ community. We wanted to make it really warm and make them feel included. [We] want people to feel that they can bring their whole self and be able to explore if they don’t know who they are, [so they can]just be able to think about it, have a conversation about it, and feel supported by peers and by us.

Finally, what still needs to be done?
We are constantly taking the temperature and tracking the pulse of what kinds of LGBTQIA+ students are coming to the Center, [since]our LGBTQIA+ community is extremely diverse racially, geographically, and internationally. We continue to try to find ways to further affirm and create spaces for QTPOC on our campus, knowing that there are histories of racism within the LGBTQIA+ community, knowing that people who hold multiple identities don’t feel like they can bring all of their identities to either place. That is work that we have been doing, and I know they will continue to push forward on that. And we need a bigger space… [since]anywhere between 15-20% of our undergrads identify as LGBTQIA+. 🔥

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About Author

Cassidy Naypauer is a future Speech-Language Pathologist who has always been passionate about writing, languages, and travel. She double-majored in speech pathology and Spanish at Miami University, and is currently pursuing her Master’s in speech pathology at Baldwin Wallace University.

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