For many queer-identifying students and faculty on campus, the Cantú Queer Center serves as a safe-haven for them and their supporting allies.

Students are constantly seen walking in and out, making tea or pasta in the kitchen or simply conversing with their peers, snug on the center’s couches. One would imagine the calm, homey Cantú would be simple to run. Contrary to its tranquil atmosphere, there is a lot of work going into keeping this place up and running.

Deborah Abbott, the center’s principal director, keeps herself busy with a handful of tasks including planning and organizing events, mentoring and counseling individuals with troubles and who are questioning, running workshops, training student employees and scheduling meetings of all sorts, among other things.

“It’s not uncommon for students to come in here literally trembling, saying, ‘I think I’m gay but I don’t know, can I talk to somebody?’” Abbott said. “I get to witness students go through that terror, to being a leader of a student club, and then ultimately graduating in our rainbow ceremony.”

Photo by Mikayla McGill
Photo by Mikayla McGill

Abbott became a part of UCSC faculty in fall 1997, when LGBTQQIA students were fighting to keep the resource center from closing. They argued the space was invaluable to their needs and needed proper staffing.

When the school’s committee secured a small budget, Abbott was hired as the founding director of the Cantú, quickly making lemonade out of lemons — using the small budget to offer more comprehensive services to the community.

Before being hired, the Porter College — or College Five as it was known then — alumna attained her master’s degree in psychotherapy, acquiring the necessary skill set to appropriately talk to students experiencing problems in their lives.

“The UC recognized having someone who had therapy skills was valuable for queer students who wouldn’t necessarily go to counseling and psych services as their first step,” Abbott said. “I was thrilled when I got hired.”

Abbott’s nurturing and comforting aid and support for her students is partly due to her ability to truly connect with many of them on a more personal level, self-identifying as a lesbian who was once in a heterosexual marriage.

Her story, along with other women’s similar experiences, was published in an anthology she co-wrote called “From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life.”

“When I came out, there was nothing for the many women who were socialized to think they’re straight,” Abbott said. “There were no books. There was nothing.”

The anthology quickly became a nationwide outlet for these closeted women and provided her with yet another skill in helping out UCSC’s varied queer community — varied not only in terms of sexuality and gender, but even in age as well.

Abbott said in a matter of just one day, she can deal with a 15-year-old prospective student struggling to come out of the closest, and then “literally, maybe that evening” meet with a 60-year-old grandmother at odds with her very first female love. Through such experiences, Abbott became a specialist in her counseling practice.

Abbott’s involvement in a handful of local non-profit organizations honed her ability to successfully manage programs under tight budget constraints. This is crucial for keeping the Cantú active, which continues to be Abbott’s primary challenge as budget cuts keep the center from providing sufficient aid.

Abbott’s latest project, “Free To Pee At UCSC,” worked diligently to change the signage of all single-stall restrooms on campus from single-gendered to gender-neutral, in the hope of facilitating a safer, more comfortable restroom environment for the trans community. Although ultimately successful, the project’s funding completely relied on donations.

“Even with the challenges that exist, I really feel blessed and privileged,” Abbott said. “I know our center makes a really big difference in [queer students’] lives — even with our small budget and the fact that we’re very understaffed.”

Despite financial struggles, Abbott remains cheerful in her cozily cluttered office — a definite sign of her commitment to the Cantú and the students she considers family.

“We jokingly say — those of us who work in the field — that we’re either ‘gay for pay’ or ‘career queers,’ Abbott said. “I just feel like there’s not many of us that get the privilege of getting paid to do this work. And I feel really honored.”