Penn's LGBT leader retires as his center evolves to stay relevant

A gay student was sucker-punched for acting flamboyantly. Two were spat on for trying to dance together at a fraternity party. Others found dead animals in their mail.

It was the 1980s at the University of Pennsylvania, which had just hired Bob Schoenberg to address the needs of gay and lesbian students on a hostile campus.

Three decades later, things have changed dramatically.

Penn ranks among the nation’s most LGBT-friendly schools. Many teenagers come out before arriving as freshmen. And the sprawling LGBT Center that Schoenberg created — which will be named in his honor when he retires this month after 35 years  — suddenly seems less relevant to students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

“They get to campus, they know that they’re at a place that will not discriminate, where they’ll be comfortable, and then we don’t see them,” Schoenberg said. “They don’t feel the need to come to the LGBT Center.”

He considers that good news — kind of.

“There’s a small part of me,” he said, “that wishes they might give back a little more.”

One of the first people in the nation hired to help gay and lesbian students on a college campus, Schoenberg departs from the center — among the largest of its kind — as its role at the university evolves.

Parts of the traditional mission remain: The center is a safe space for LGBT students and those questioning their sexual identity. The needs of transgender students, who sometimes are overshadowed by gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, are also still great.

But Schoenberg and his successor, Erin Cross, are working to advertise the center to all identities, not just LGBT. They encourage student groups to hold meetings there. And they offer free printing.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI
Erin Crosss with Bob Schoenberg at Penn’s LGBT Center.

“While you’re here, you’re meeting other students and you’re seeing the posters and the artwork on the wall,” Schoenberg said. “You’re being in an LGBT-positive environment. And I believe you’re learning something from that.”

The art pieces include a closet whose insides are covered in shattered glass, signifying coming out of the closet. A student designed it in 2012. A painting of two men kissing also hangs on the wall in the center’s second-floor library.

Camera icon Michael Boren
The shattered-glass closet in the second-floor library at Penn’s LGBT Center.

You’ll also probably notice the three-legged dog, Mac, who belongs to Cross. (Mac lost his right front leg in a car accident before Cross adopted him).

Camera icon Michael Boren
Erin Cross’ dog, Mac.

Schoenberg didn’t start out with such a large space. When he was hired in 1982 — he was working at the time on his doctoral dissertation at what is now Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice — he had a cramped spot in the corner of the student activities office.

Three years before, the university had added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policies. But student acceptance of gay and lesbian people — bisexual and transgender weren’t widely talked about then — lagged. Few students on campus were out, and those who were found themselves targets.

Susan Miller, who led the group Lesbians and Gays at Penn, remembers fraternity members sitting on their roofs and hollering “dyke” at her. Friends she lived with received dead animals in the mail.

“It was bad,” said Miller, who graduated in 1983 and is now a Rutgers-Camden professor. “It was really a very difficult time.”

Schoenberg soon became the face of Penn’s LGBT community. He was the go-to person when someone encountered discrimination or just needed to talk. He also tried to get financial assistance for students whose parents refused to pay their tuition after they came out.

His position eventually changed from part-time to full-time, and he successfully pushed the university to provide more staff.

“I’ve always been supported by the central administration,” said Schoenberg, who declined to provide his age. “Unlike many other college campuses that really had to battle to get support.”

Schoenberg advocated for employee domestic-partner benefits, which Penn began offering in 1994. He also helped raise $2 million to move the LGBT Center to its current home, the Carriage House near 39th and Spruce Streets.

He acknowledges he has a reputation for being hypercritical, even arrogant, at times. But that, he said, is not the core of who he is.

“I’m essentially a softy. I cry a lot,” Schoenberg said, as tears formed in his eyes. “Even with no provocation except talking about crying.”

Cross, sitting next to him, jumped in: “You lead with your heart with everything, and I’m not sure everybody knows that.”

“Well,” he said, “I think that’s probably true.”

 

A ceremony to celebrate Schoenberg’s career will be held Oct. 14 at the LGBT Center.