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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Leila Kohler Helped Keep the LGBT Center an Open Hangout


Religious Studies BA, 1999

Stifling a giddy burst of laughter, Leila Kohler remembers the interview that altered the course of her life. As a student, in 1998, Kohler joined a qualitative research study about diversity and interviewed Steven, who was the coordinator of what was then the LGBT Center. 
“Steve was amazing,” she says. “He was one of those phenomenal student leaders, just somebody who absolutely needs to manage a place, and my role in meeting him was to just record his story, and hear what he had to say about life from there, especially for the LGBT community.” 
Steven’s resolve and energetic effort to bring awareness to LGBT issues impressed Kohler. With some political maneuvering, and after raising $45,000, Steven brought the Ryan White AIDS Quilt to the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1998, its first appearance in Boston. 
Several months after her conversations with Steve, as the fall semester approached, Kohler still saw posters looking for a new LGBT Center coordinator. 
“I had seen them before, and it fueled me with a certain call to action, because nobody was applying.” 
Being LGBT coordinator was a contentious position, and nobody was ready to step into Steve’s shoes. The center had been a target for some hateful graffiti, and the occasional verbal epithet. It was an intense time of protest for the gay community, just two years after President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Compelled to act, Kohler felt insecure about stepping in on her own. 
“For one thing, I was engaged to a man at the time, and didn’t necessarily identify with any of those letters in LGBT.” 
She had talked about the opening with Lauren Craig Redmond, in her Feminist Theology class with Kathleen Sands, and the two decided to lead the center together. 
“I had another friend through the religious studies department named Haywood Harvey, and I reached out to him too and the beauty of that is that, you have this 20-something, caucasian, straight girl, and a lesbian, and a gay man, folks who were also older than me. They were both of the generation that went through part of the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall and all that. They’re both African American, and have a very definite picture of LGBT history and the universe of advocating for things.” 
While they were arranging the space and figuring out how to manage it, Kohler asked Harvey what he would like to see in the center. He said that a person should be able to come to the center and ask for breakfast if they needed it, and just have a place to hang out and meet like-minded people. 
“It was about couches and welcoming-ness, and there were a few people that were there pretty much daily. It was a hangout space. It was a place for people to congregate and be with each other, and feel safe, and propelled to moments of creativity with each other, to moments of advocacy and support with one another. That was the goal, and that’s exactly what it became.” 
“Between the three of us, we developed a hyper-attenuated focus on how to advocate for LGBT, which at UMass Boston it wasn’t just about youth. People who ended up being in the Center were of all ages, because that’s UMass Boston. We had vets in there. We had people who were straight allies in there. We had the span of it. We had multiple conversations about race and ethnicity, and how that plays out in gay communities.” 
Experiences in this diverse group fueled Kohler’s passion for social justice. Now she develops communities with hard working families in low-income situations, working for Habitat for Humanity in Baltimore. In this work, she uses those skills of advocacy and keep-to-it-ness that she gained from her involvement in the LGBT center. 
“I do not live in those communities, just as I didn’t live in the LBGT community, but it’s about getting in there and hearing it, and moving things according to how people speaking for themselves really want to have them done, not my vision, but their vision or the vision.” 
After graduation, Kohler went to Harvard Divinity School, a long-time ambition, propelled by UMass Boston. 
“I got in [to UMass Boston] with the intent of being a Sociology major, but I ran into Professor Richard Horsley. His program was just so amazing that I decided to just start concentrating on religious studies immediately. That was always my intent, but their program was just so full, and extensive.” 
She loved the Religious Studies Department, headed by Richard Horsley and Kathleen Sands.
“Having the opportunity to have somebody like Horsley as a mentor was intense. He was so devoted to the mission of UMass Boston, serving students who were sometimes from disenfranchised places, or backgrounds, or who are certainly stressed in some way or another. He was so devoted to public education in that way, and he provided so much of his own personal time. The man was an energy powerhouse.“ 
Kohler remembers UMass Boston as an unusual environment, an amalgamation of people who would never come together in any other context. 
“I think that what I learned above and beyond it all, and this actually really relates directly to my interview buddy, Steven, who caused me to go in and to run the [LGBT] center, is the kind of ambition and willingness to not just seek change in the world, but to absolutely actively effect it in any dogged, grassroots, more sophisticated, networking, or other profound kind of way.”
“There’s an unstoppableness to, ‘I will.’ That’s a mantra that can come out of it: ‘I will do what I believe to be right, and do what I can to cause it to be.’ I’ve been a student in private institutions, more than one, and the kind of can-do-it attitude, the ability to pick it up and keep going on, no matter how many setbacks there might be, is pretty particular. You don’t always get to be at a place where people are so actively aware of the kind of opportunity that they have and the way that they can try to transform it.”

About the Contributor
Caleb Nelson served as the following positions for The Mass Media the following years: Editor-in-Chief: Fall 2010; 2010-2011; Fall 2011 News Editor: Spring 2009; 2009-2010