Alumnus advocates gay rights in email to President Frenk

Ryan Aquilina

During President Julio Frenk’s first official week at the University of Miami, he sent an email to students and alumni asking them to voice their concerns, hopes and aspirations. 2012 alumnus Ryan Aquilina decided that this was the perfect chance for him to voice his concerns regarding the school’s status, or lack thereof, as an LGBT-friendly institution.

On Wednesday, Aug. 18, Aquilina sent an email to President Frenk voicing his concerns about the school’s policies toward LGBT students and asking the new president to make LGBT relations a priority in his first year on campus. He also shared the letter online, and 48 hours later, Aquilina said the letter had received over 1,000 views and that numerous students and alumni had reached out to him in support of the letter.

The letter, which can be found in its entirety online on Medium, highlighted four main points that Aquilina believes show how far the school has fallen behind.

“Right now, the University of Miami is not an LGBTQ-friendly institution. I could mince words, but it’s the truth. And when you love something like I love UM, sometimes you have to be willing to be honest,” Aquilina writes in the letter, before listing his four main indictments of the school’s lack of progress. “Last year, in a University-conducted survey, three in 10 LGBTQ students at UM indicated that they do not feel safe while on campus. UM still lacks any comprehensive policy toward transgender students, meaning that despite non-discrimination policies, it is often in fact university policy to discriminate against them. UM is one of only five top 50 universities without a resource center or any dedicated professional resources for LGBTQ students, and one of only 15 without a gender-neutral housing option. And when scored by the non-profit organization Campus Pride last year, UM came up dead last among the top 50 schools scored.”

The task force found, in the same survey that found 30 percent of LGBT students indicating they do not feel safe, that “35 percent of students have experienced negative or insulting comments because they identified themselves as LGBT,” according to an article from The Miami Hurricane last January on the task force’s findings.

In the same story, Executive Director of Housing and Residential Life James Smart said that while there is no gender-neutral option, his department has always been willing to accommodate students with special needs.

One of Aquilina’s main grievances with the university’s handling of LGBT issues is the lack of real action. Speaking over the phone, he said he grows increasingly frustrated each time the school claims to be “working on it” through a committee or task force.

“We can’t accept ‘we’re working on it’ anymore. The fundamental problem with that is, I don’t know what more there is to work on,” he said. “We’ve known for years that there is a problem, we’ve watched ourselves fall further and further behind, but if Dr. Frenk decided today, tomorrow or next week, he could decide to change policies that make it so we don’t discriminate against trans students anymore, and free up funding for professional staff and a resource center.”

While Aquilina acknowledged he was over-simplifying the process, he believes President Frenk has the power to set the process for change in motion. Aquilina also stressed both in the letter and in speaking with The Miami Hurricane that the issue was not one of the students, faculty and staff at the school, and that they “are some of the most accepting and supportive you will find.”

On Monday, Aug. 26, President Frenk replied to Aquilina’s letter, and Aquilina passed that reply on to The Miami Hurricane. After thanking Aquilina for his letter and stating his excitement to be a Hurricane, he addressed Aquilina’s concerns.

“I will be reviewing the progress of the very thoughtful and comprehensive report written in 2014 by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning Task Force who provided 14 recommendations to the administration. In addition, I plan to meet with the task force and our UPride student organization during my first year in office. Best, Julio.”

Aquilina expressed disappointment towards the letter. He said the school’s problem is an institutional matter that needs immediate addressing.

“The task force can no longer be something the university hides behind. Concrete action must be taken, and more definitive answers must be given,” he said.

Jeremy Penn, the president of UPride, the school’s LGBT and straight ally student organization, agreed with much of what Aquilina’s letter stated.

“We need broad structural changes to ensure that LGBTQ students can thrive here at the U. We need, urgently, to do better for our transgender and gender-nonconforming students, especially with regards to gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral housing. Our past successes should encourage us to continue pushing for these changes, especially as we enter a new era under the leadership of President Frenk,” he said. After being shown Frenk’s response, Penn added, “I look forward to President Frenk’s Town Hall and his meetings with our organization. I believe they are good first steps towards larger discussions and actions needed at the university.”

President Frenk’s town hall meeting is set for Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. in the BankUnited Center. Tickets are already available on a first-come, first-served basis for students with a valid cane card. Students, faculty, alumni and community members can get tickets online.