Out in Connecticut: Fleurette King
Fleurette King is the director of the Rainbow Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The mission of the Rainbow Center is to serve the diversity of the UConn Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Allied community and to provide resources and services to the wider community of students, faculty, staff, and local residents.
King obtained a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Ethnic Studies from Bowling Green State University, and a M.A. in Sociology from DePaul University. After graduation, she worked for Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, DePaul University in Chicago and Princeton University in the areas of student housing and diversity education.
Immediately before becoming the director of the UConn Rainbow Center, she served as the Assistant Director of the LGBT office at the University of Michigan. King is also involved in a number of regional and national networks devoted to diversity, especially as it relates to GLBT issues.
As director of the Rainbow Center, King manages the center's operation and staff to fulfill the center's mission. Her commitment to social justice education and valuing diversity efforts (inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression) is the hallmark of her 14-year career in higher education.
Well, I’m Fleurette King. I’m from the Midwest ---- born in Toledo Ohio ---- and I grew up in a very conservative Christian household and absolutely loved every moment of it. I won statewide Bible Bowls, when I was a teenager, for our church. It was (a) pretty incredible experience.
I had a sexual revolution when I was thirty years old. I had been a virgin all the way up to that time. I maintained that happily for thirty years and loved it ---- always was respected for that ---- I was very open about that. But then, if I can describe my coming out process, it is as if a feather (was) floating down from the ceiling. It was not traumatic. It was just a realization and at the time I was dating a guy who was very wonderful and kind. He was my first and it was a wonderful experience. I actually love the phone call of telling my friends, “Oh, I had my first sexual experience,” and how they all wanted to come over, because most of their’s was a traumatic experience, so they wanted to come over and, I don’t know, create this emergency repair kit. [Laughter] It was like, “It was beautiful.”
When I started to shape my sexual orientation, initially feeling (I was) a bisexual, but now really more a lesbian, I borrowed from how my racial identity developed and also how I developed as a Christian. And as a Christian, the learning was you should walk the earth without having to tell someone, because they should know in how you treat people. And then the second was from the Black identity, how much I had to struggle in understanding what it meant to be Black in America, and how painful it was to understand dealing with that kind of oppression, and what kind of strategies and tools, and how to find allies and people to connect with in community. So both of those identities strongly helped me develop a very healthy understanding of the sexual orientation and I'm very grateful for that.
I will say my most painful and most homophobic experiences have come from my parents. (They) initially did not handle it very, very well, but over time have evolved and, before my dad passed away, I felt like we had reached a space that had rebuilt the love that we had previous to me coming out.
My mother has been a lot more engaging around the issue ---- much more willing to talk. And she is one of the most honest people on the earth, so we have been able to have some very candid conversations around it, which I find refreshing. And she has struggled with how does she hold onto what her faith has told her this whole time and also, during the era in which the grew up was extremely homophobic, and so how does she reconcile all of that and still love her daughter.
Again, ironically it is my Christianity that helped me (to) be gracious with her and patient in a way that I probably would not be if she was not my mother.
Marriage is not the hill that I would like to die on as far as these issues, but I do think it's important. On a federal level we need to acknowledge same sex marriages. I think we need to have nondiscrimination laws that cover gender identity and expression. It effects so many different people. Not just transgender folks, but so many people who do not necessarily fit in the binary understanding of gender. I think we also need to get rid of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
I feel like if those things happen on a national level, on a federal level, it will help move things forward. Because there are already communities doing it, there are some states who are doing it, and I think if we really do have family values, and we really do value community and connections, and we really want to live out our understanding of democracy, it only makes sense to make that happen. And I think people like my mother, or other folks who may not have encountered LGBT folks, are encountering them. Or are able to better acknowledge or feel more educated around it and can be more useful than destructive. And even my mother now, when she hears about other people struggling or dealing with their loved ones, she will say something much more positive and constructive now that she would have ten years ago.
So I feel that more and more people are out ---- more and more diversity of our community is coming out and we’re getting beyond stereotypes ---- that we're in all shapes, sizes, occupations, so because those things are happening, we are putting a face on the community in a way that I think they had not before.
There's a lot of nice surprises of the school out in Storrs. Even myself, when I interviewed, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, where are we going?” [Laughter] And I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who found this valuable to make sure that the LGBTQ community is affirmed. You know, eleven years ago UCONN was deemed as one of the most homophobic schools in the country by the Princeton Review, and then that got ran (sic) as the story in The New York Times. Only then were things really moved forward.
The Rainbow Center didn't get established like the other Cultural Centers right away. The Women's Center and the African American Center, I think, have been here the longest, and then the Puerto Rican/Latin American Center, and then there’s the Asian American Cultural Center, and they're just a little older, they’re older than us, and then Rainbow Center is the youngest Center. We've been hear now eleven years, eleven or twelve years. What attracted me to this position was that I had to work with the other Cultural Centers. It wasn’t going to be based on if I had a good rapport or relationship with them, it was built in. This was the infrastructure (when) I came in and I loved it.
There are families who are coming here, even before their student enrolls, who want to know their gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender-queer child is going be OK here, so it’s refreshing to hear that. I know that some of my other colleagues, who have to deal with helicopter parents all the time, are like, “My gosh!,” you know. But it is refreshing for me to see families coming in and want to know that their child is going to be safe and going to have a great experience here and be affirmed in who they are.
The other thing is, there are students who are coming in and they’re like, “I am gay and I'm also Catholic,” and they’re not willing to relinquish one or the other. So to kind of see that evolution is very interesting. And I’m seeing it with Muslims. I’m seeing it with Buddists. There are certainly students who feel that they struggle and some who just . . . . they do feel like they have to let go of one or the other, and sometimes you see that, unfortunately, with race and ethnicity too.
But we're seeing more and more where the students are like, “These are . . . . all of these things make up who I am, and I think they're all critical and important to me, and I think there's a way for them to coexist.” And trying to reconcile that or to make those different social identities work, but also dealing with multiple forms of oppression, so they can move through the different Cultural Centers without feeling like they have to give up something or check something that the door when they walk in.
Our job is to make sure a couple things happen: the student comes here to UCONN and has an excellent, outstanding educational experience and they leave here with the tools they need to survive in their field. And then I think the second thing is, because this is such a critical development period in their lives, is that they have those opportunities to be able to develop and shape themselves in a very healthy and positive, constructive way.
We are now seen as one of the top one hundred LGBT-friendly institutions in the country. We also have scored a 4.5 stars out of 5 for the campus climate index, which is a tool that looks at the climate of higher education institutions in relation to LGBTQ. And they look at policy, they look at education, they look at social opportunities, they look at academics, they look at safety. So we’re doing pretty good. I mean, we still have work to do, but we’re doing pretty good.