UVic’s Gender Empowerment Centre fostering inclusion and community on campus

Campus News

The centre talks policy changes and upcoming initiatives

Photo provided by Cristina Venturin.
Photo provided by Cristina Venturin.

Tucked away in the Student Union Building (SUB) is a cozy space where UVic students and community members relax in a safe, inclusive environment. The Gender Empowerment Centre (GEM), located in room B107, has everything from a fridge and microwave to blankets and heating pads. 

Although the centre itself is beautiful, GEM provides more than just a physical space to spend time in. Cristina Venturin, the outreach and communications coordinator for GEM, says that GEM aims to be a voice of intersectional feminism on campus and to amplify the voices of those who experience systematic marginalization because of their gender identity. 

“What that means to me is standing up for people who would typically face things like sexism or transphobia, or homophobia,” said Venturin in an interview with the Martlet. To her, intersectional feminism means including the perspectives and voices of those in the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community, and of those in the LGBTQIA2+ community, as well as being aware of the overlapping social factors that impact individuals.

Venturin also notes the importance of the distinction between feminism and intersectional feminism in light of recent trans antagonism on campus. “We’re here for our trans community. We see the things that are going on, and we want to listen to what they have to say,” she said. “We are trans-inclusive, and that is non-negotiable.”

GEM was created in 1981 and was originally called the Women’s Centre. Its name has been changed a couple times over the years in an attempt to foster more gender inclusivity. Previously, the centre was only for self-identified women, non-binary people, and gender non-conforming people. Venturin, however, said that this gender policy is evolving to be more inclusive.  

“As the conversation of gender diversity grows, we need to accept that gender is a continuum,” said Venturin. “There’s so many different ways that somebody might come to their gender understanding, and I don’t want to tell somebody who isn’t quite at that point that they’re not allowed to come use our resources.” 

Venturin said that GEM is open to anyone with an open mind and a willingness to embrace the core values of the centre: gender diversity, sex positivity, anti-oppression, and intersectional feminism.

For those who fit that description, GEM offers an array of free services, resources, and volunteer opportunities. 

One service GEM provides is access to a variety of menstrual hygiene products and safe sex supplies, including pads, tampons, and condoms. Anyone who requires these supplies can access them at the centre. Menstrual cups, emergency contraception, and pregnancy tests are also available by speaking directly with Venturin at the centre or by emailing GEM.

Gender diversity workshops are another way in which GEM supports and educates students and community members on gender and sexuality. These workshops break down concepts of gender and gender ideology in a way that is easy for people to understand. 

According to Venturin, learning about these concepts makes it easier to empathize and respect the different ways people want to be addressed. “It’s part of harm reduction and creating a better and safer environment.”

In addition to updating their gender policy, GEM also has two new projects in the works. 

The first is a peer support system that aims to help students who have questions about gender and sexuality or who are dealing with things like gender dysphoria. While there is no definite timeline for this initiative, Venturin hopes to establish these peer support hours by the end of the term.

“Another thing we’re doing, which is a little bit of a bigger event for UVSS, is a convention-style sexual health day called a sexpo,” said Venturin.

GEM plans to hold the event in the SUB, with some aspects available on Zoom. The convention will include a variety of workshops, vendor booths, and entertainment.

While sex positivity and consent are the focus of the propsed event, Venturin’s overarching goal for the sexpo is to create a sense of community after the isolation felt by many during the pandemic.

“I’ve seen a lot of people feel very isolated and feel very alone the last few years. So something that I really wanted to do is … create a community that seeks to uphold our values, and come together and work together to create … a better environment within GEM, a better environment in the UVic community.” 

For those looking to do more than just access GEM’s resources, the centre also has a wide range of volunteer positions. 

“We have four different volunteer factions. We have Gender Diversity Directors, we have Library Managers, Communications Directors, and then also Community Partnership Advisors,” said Venturin.

The positions are also designed with the stress of student life in mind. Volunteers are encouraged to focus on making time for themselves even as they contribute to the community. 

“If something’s becoming too overwhelming, I always tell people that they can come and talk to me about that,” said Venturin. 

GEM’s next workshop will be held on Feb. 8 from 4 – 5:30 p.m.

An earlier version of this article stated in error that the GEM centre was located in the SUB basement. We sincerely regret this error.