University of Texas El Paso Students Won’t Back Down in Fight against Anti-LGBT University President

Secretary of the U.S. Army Force, Heather Wilson, has been confirmed as the next President of the University of Texas at El Paso despite continued backlashfrom students, faculty, and Texas officials due to her record of opposing LGBTQ+ equality.

Student activists, Michael Gutierrez and Kaelin Walker, have been the integral voices for the fight against the appointment of Dr. Wilson and ensuring equality for LGBTQ+ students at UTEP.

“The fight isn’t over. This isn’t a done deal,” Kaelin tells GLAAD. “I find it sad that people are looking at it as if it is a done deal. It’s not. We’re not done.”

Michael and Kaelin will continue their optimism after the appointment of Dr. Wilson. Wilson’s appointment does not mean that they lost, it means that the fight for equality and acceptance continues.

GLAAD spoke to Michael and Kaelin last week to talk about the union amongst students, the future of UTEP, and the continuous battle with faculty and staff.

How do you feel about the nomination of Dr. Heather Wilson?

Michael: Oh I’m very I’m very concerned. We just met with her — I met with her personally twice. I had time to ask her questions and she dodged every single one of them. Meeting her twice — it was not what I hoped for. It was very disappointing and to say the least. I’m not looking forward to whatever is going to happen.

Kaelin: As for myself, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, as an immigrant, and as a person of color — I am extremely concerned. I only got to see her once and I didn’t get to ask any questions because we ran out of time. I actually thought that she was going to be better at sweet talking us and saying the stuff we wanted to hear but she actually wasn’t, which kind of to my dismay but also to my to my pleasure.

What do you plan to do moving forward to keep the pressure on Dr. Wilson?

Michael: I heard the news live this morning it didn’t come as a surprise to me — I personally do not accept Wilson as president, but the reality is she’s president. Moving forward I am going to get involved more within UTEP. I will also be getting those who oppose Wilson to run for positions within UTEP. (Student Government Association, Alumni Association, etc.) For those who are in fear Wilson will be held accountable we the student body will look out for one another. The fight is not over, and our voice is stronger than ever.

Kaelin: I am currently running for Vice President of External Affairs for the UTEP’s SGA. If I win the position, I will make sure to stand for Diane Natalicio’s mission of access and excellency when I represent UTEP on a regional level. I also want to develop a communication between myself and Wilson and work on turning her into an involved ally to LGBTQ+ people and the Hispanic community of UTEP. If she cannot rise to the challenge, then she doesn’t belong here and I will keep protesting her.

What steps are student activists at UTEP taking and how are you all collaborating on campus? 

Michael: We are all coordinating with each other — we are making our voice heard. We’ve been flooding everybody’s phones, we have been flooding everybody’s e-mails. We recently created We the Students Coalition, which is a group of student students and student organizations within campus. And we are doing things that activists do: We are protesting, we are doing phone banks, we are just trying to make our voices heard. And the community has been with us. The community has backed us 100 percent the way through. The only ones that haven’t been behind our back, I feel, is our university. And I think that’s because they just want us to be silenced… They just want us to accept Dr. Heather Wilson and we’re not going to.

Kaelin: What we’re doing is our best to convince them. And that’s that’s all we can do. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of making our voice heard.

During a press conference at UTEP, Dr. Wilson said her “general approach with respect to LGBTQ issues is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.” How do you feel about that statement?

Kaelin: She has demonstrated that she does not respect LGBTQ+ people. How can you vote against the basic civil rights of these people and then say that you plan on treating them in the future with dignity and respect? You know that’s like I don’t want you to have all the rights that I do. She doesn’t respect LGBTQ+ people — even her anti-LGBTQ+ actions took place as recently as last year in 2018. During her time as Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, where she enforced the trans military ban, that’s not treating people with dignity and respect. I don’t see her changing anytime soon without a big push.

UTEP students protesting in March, 2019. Image credit: Isaac Uribe.

What can this mean for the future of UTEP and the future of LGBTQ+ students?

Michael: I like thinking the best set of things, but this time I’m not too sure when it comes to the future of LGBTQ+ people in UTEP. I don’t know. To be completely honest, the second time I met with her, I asked her a question — I asked her — will you work with me to ensure transgender non-binary individuals receive the dignity and safety they deserve and expecting an in-depth response. Dr. Wilson just simply replied “yes” and just moved on quickly. So I think I deserved more than a “yes.” I think my community deserves more than a “yes.” It just shows me that I don’t know the future for my community but I’m going to try my hardest to make sure that we are protected and nothing happens to us.

Kaelin: As for the future of UTEP, the current standing president right now, Diana Natalicio, has encouraged us by saying, she gave a speech the other day and I was I was lucky enough to be there. She said it’s up to the students, it’s up to the faculty, it’s up to the community to fight for our mission to make sure that we never compromise our community and our beliefs no matter who’s presiding over us and I wholeheartedly, I’m going to take that and run like hell with it. As for the future of LGBTQ+ students I hope, at UTEP, just from what I what I’m feeling right now from amongst the community is that we are not going to stop being heard and we’re not going to hide into the woodwork now that she’s here and if she gets appointed, we’re not hiding. We’re not being silenced or being made invisible.

These replies have been edited and shortened for clarity.

Harold Daniel is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at Florida International University studying broadcast journalism. He currently serves as an intern for Good Morning America on ABC.