October 1, 2010

Emory Profile

Danielle Steele: LGBT pathfinder

Danielle Steele (left) and Michael Faccini

Danielle Steele can sympathize with students deliberately trying to ignore her at freshman orientation.

As the new program coordinator for Emory’s Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Life, Steele understands that incoming students with parents in tow may be reluctant to approach her office’s blazing rainbow booth during the student activities fair. But that heightened visibility could lead them to drop by the LGBT resource room in the DUC, participate in a program and even grow more comfortable in their own skin.

“Once you come out, you’ve figured out who you are, and then you’re coming out constantly,” Steele says.

As a closeted undergraduate at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville — and the first member of her family to attend college — Steele felt compelled to compartmentalize her sexuality. When she did come out as a lesbian at the age of 21, her loved ones generally were supportive and not at all surprised, she recalls.

For a time, Steele considered majoring in chemistry for its promise of clear-cut answers. Ultimately, however, she preferred shades of gray in human psychology, and went on to receive her Master of Education, concentrating in student development in higher education, at the University of Maine in Orono.

“My favorite part of my job at Emory is interacting with students and helping them realize their strengths and discover their own paths,” she says. “It’s pretty incredible to be at a place where your identity is embraced, at an institution committed to diversity.”

Creating safe spaces
Hired by Emory in June, Steele works with Michael Shutt, assistant dean for Campus Life and director of the Office of LGBT Life, to offer educational programming, training, resources and a support network for students, faculty and staff on issues of sexual and gender identities.

The LGBT office sponsors the Safe Space program, a training session held once a month that raises awareness of issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning communities to create positive change.

Since 2007, the program has trained 400 people, who contribute to an affirming campus culture by displaying Safe Space stickers in their classrooms, work spaces and residence halls.

Steele also coordinates meetings twice a semester for student leaders of all the undergraduate and graduate LGBT groups on campus to exchange best practices.

She helps organize as many as 10 programs a semester, including several events planned for LGBT History Awareness Month in October.

Among them are a screening of a documentary about the queer movement in modern China, and a drag show where top administrators don fishnets and cummerbunds to raise money for student leadership opportunities.  

That other Danielle Steel
New to campus, Steele admits she often gets puzzled looks over a name she shares with the best-selling romance novelist whose work she read once.

“It was very good for that particular genre,” she pronounces diplomatically.

Steele’s parents gave her the famous moniker not entirely by accident. While searching for a name, they caught a glimpse of a banner proclaiming “Danielle is coming” for a publicity event. They took it as a sign – literally. As a result, complete strangers now approach their daughter to dish about the sordid romantic escapades of the five-time divorcee author.  

The younger Steele takes it all in stride. A repeat visitor to amusement parks, she admits that she doesn’t relish risks but enjoys thrills.   

“A ride on a rollercoaster can cure just about anything,” she says. “Even if it only lasts two minutes.”

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Related Information

  • Check out the following events planned for October’s LGBT History Month at Emory:

  • NOH8 Campaign and Coming Out Stories: Oct. 8-22; Dobbs University Center Gallery

    Atlanta Pride: Oct. 9-10; Piedmont Park (Emory will be represented in the parade and at an information booth.)

    Atlanta Queer Literary Festival at Emory: Oct. 15, 2-5 p.m.; Emory Bookstore

    Screening of “Queer China, 'Comrade' China”: Oct. 20, 7 p.m.; Harland Cinema

    Emory Drag Extravaganza: Oct. 29, 10 p.m.; Glenn Memorial Auditorium