Social Justice Education
During conversations with students about various forms of oppression, Chase Catalano doesn't need them to agree with him. In fact, it's great they disagree, he says. Whether in his role as teacher or social justice advocate, Catalano, director of SU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center, wants students to interrupt their thoughts, examine their beliefs and experiences—and engage others in conversations. "I want them to make an argument and feel connected to thoughts that are complicated," he says. "College students have an amazing capacity for social change and activism, but it needs to be thoughtful social change and activism."
Students saw powerful examples of activism during October's Coming Out Month events planned by Catalano and the LGBT center staff. Among the events was a keynote lecture by Amy Sonnie '98, a writer and activist who discussed her book, Revolutionary Voices, which contains essays from LGBT youth and was named one of the top 10 most challenged books of 2010 by the American Library Association. In November, for the Transgender Day of Remembrance event, the LGBT staff brought in Ryka Aoki, an inspirational trans woman activist and writer. "There is a place and a reason to remember those who have been victimized, but we can also celebrate the enduring spirit of trans identities," Catalano says.
As someone who identifies as a transgender man, Catalano represents a role model to some students and provides a different perspective to others. "They can say they've met someone who is trans, who is queer, who identifies as a man and a feminist, and who is white and talks about anti-racist work," Catalano says. "They can understand my experience and know there is a center where queer people have jobs, and it's a job that's integral to the University."
Catalano, who is originally from Long Island, earned a bachelor's degree from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Catalano worked in fraternity and sorority affairs and earned a master's degree in higher education administration. He spent two years at the University of Vermont as a residence hall director before returning to UMass to pursue a doctorate in social justice education. His dissertation, which he plans to finish next spring, focuses on how trans males—people who once identified as females and now identify as males—perceive and embody masculinity and how they negotiate campus life. "They have amazing stories that need to be shared. And obviously some of my understanding comes from my own experience," says Catalano, who also taught Social Diversity in Education at UMass. "While I wasn't trans as an undergraduate, I saw the ways colleges struggle to understand and support trans students."
When he arrived at SU in August 2010, Catalano was impressed with the 10-year-old LGBT center's programming agenda, support services, and connection with LGBT studies—all established through the leadership of his predecessor, Adrea Jaehnig. "It was like walking onto a well-run ship and someone had charted a strong course," he says. His partner, Stephanie Hovsepian G'04, who is a judicial counselor in the Office of Judicial Affairs, also was familiar with the campus as a School of Education graduate.
The fundamental work at the LGBT center remains constant—advocacy, education, and supporting students as they come out to peers and family members. But Catalano is also planning new initiatives, including reaching out to alumni through center events and social groups, and expanding the center's reach on trans issues by restarting a transgender task force.
Catalano says the resource center continues to make the campus a safer place for students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are LGBT or questioning. "For me, the work is about being aware, not being complacent, and finding out how we can do more," he says. —Kathleen Haley
Photo by John Dowling