By Tana Michaels
Greg S. Storms knows the importance of having a safe place to go to be accepted. Storms was hired in August of 2006 to be the program manager for the University of Michigan-Flint’s Ellen Bommarito LGBT Center – the same center that helped him while coming out.
“It was critical for me to have that support,” he said, “and without it, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
The Ellen Bommarito LGBT Center opened in 1994 under the name, “The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Center” and later was renamed to add “transgender” to its title. In early 2006, it was renamed again to include Bommarito’s name to honor her as the center’s first advocate.
One of the important roles of the center is to act as a safe space for LGBT people and their friends. “It was necessary for me, personally, to have a place to go,” Storms recalled of his experiences there. “I was very shy.
“When I was coming out, if I didn’t have that support system, I don’t know where I’d be today,” he continued. “My coming out experience would’ve been more painful. I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with any of it without them.”
Storms, an academically-gifted child with an active social life, was reluctant to come out, wary of disappointing his family and community. “I don’t feel that now, but then it was a different story,” he said of his prior fears. “I wanted to make people proud of me and felt that (coming out) would be an impediment to that.”
Storms identifies as a bisexual and a “bisexuality activist,” a fact that he hasn’t always been comfortable with. “I just figured I had to be gay or straight,” he explained.
While beginning to come out, Storms had a girlfriend he’d been seeing on and off for six years. “I knew how I felt about my girlfriend, and (being) bi wasn’t an option to think about then,” he said. “Something was different about me. It didn’t fit somehow.”
“I was denying half of myself and was doing myself a disservice. It was something that I immediately accepted,” he said of his bisexuality. “It wasn’t until later that I realized the ramifications of who I was.”
Storms soon found that there were many more stereotypes to deal with as a bisexual man, from the homophobia of society to the bi-phobia of the LGBT community. “They perceive bisexuals as trying to maintain their heterosexual privilege, which isn’t true,” he said. “Gay men don’t trust that I wouldn’t cheat on them.”
“There’s a stereotype that bisexuals are over-sexualized,” he clarified. “If you can sleep with both, you’ll sleep with all.”
Despite the stigma, “bisexual” is a label that Storms embraces. “Labels are important for me,” he explained. “It gives me a sense of power and strength, because it’s something I can work with and gives me a cause to fight for. … It gives me focus.”
Moreover, he believes that labels also are a source of connection. “You have to have a sense of belonging. That’s important for minorities: A chance to connect and be with others.”
All of Storms’ struggles have helped him in his position at the center. “My life is tailored for this job,” he said. “I have a much better understanding of what people go through because I have experienced a lot of it. Being bi, in particular, has assisted me even more in this position, because I can understand all the issues of the LGBT, straight and trans community because of my experiences.”
For Storms, the center had a lot to offer. “It gave me a community and a sense of belonging, as well as insight into what it means to be bi or gay. I got a more keen understanding of what all that entailed. It gave me a clearer vision on my life. It sounds overstated, but honestly, it’s the truth.”
Now, as program director, Storms wants to expand the center and make it more accessible for students. “I’d like to increase communications and our presence in the wider community; not view it as separate,” he said. “We have to work together.”
He’d also like the center to have a full-time director and at least one full-time staff member to help with programming. Currently, Storms is paid as a part-time employee, although he often works overtime. “I am dedicated to seeing this office thrive in the university and within the Flint area in general, so I usually work near full time,” he said. “I feel strongly that regardless of the pay, this is a worthwhile cause, and I am willing to put forth the extra work necessary to see it succeed.”
Finally, Storms is looking forward to explicit transgender protections. Toward this end, he’s working on having at least one gender-neutral restroom per building, as a start.
These changes will become even more necessary when student housing opens this August. “Right now,” Storms explained, “we’re a commuter college and we cater to the more non-traditional student, but (with) student housing, (the) focus is on the traditional student. We have to tailor our programming to serve a 24/7 student.”
Visitors to the center can take advantage of an extensive library that includes a DVD collection, referrals for social and personal needs, and opportunities to schedule in-class dialogues and panel discussions.
Of course, Storms can’t do all this alone. A core volunteer base of 10 to 20 students is at the center on a regular basis, helping him in his endeavors. “We serve individual students who are looking for resources to use in their research and students of all backgrounds needing sexual-health education and products,” Storms explained. “We serve all people who are just coming out of the closet and need advice – and their family members.”
Including family members and others who are not LGBT is crucial, Storms maintains. According to the 2006 Task Force Report on the Campus Climate of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students, Faculty and Staff, there was a wide gap between LGBT and non-LGBT respondents’ perceptions of LGBT-related issues on campus. “This demonstrates,” he said, “the need for non-LGBT students, faculty and staff to receive more and better information concerning these issues.”
Being part of a larger group has helped Storms, too: UM-Flint is part of the national Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, a professional-development and resource organization for college/university LGBT offices. The Ellen Bommarito Center benefits by getting great programming ideas from other universities, having input on helping people come out, and being kept up-to-date on LGBT issues. “They’ve been great,” Storms said. “I can’t tell you how much they help.”
Storms said he believes that acceptance comes from changing people’s understandings – a challenge he and everyone else at the Ellen Bommarito Center face daily. “Right now,” he said, “what we understand about the world as we know it is built around things having to be A or B, gay or straight, white or colored, male or female. Those things are not reflective of reality.”