Main content
LGBT Life Director Danielle Bruce-Steele helps students see themselves reflected at Emory
Group photo of Emory students at Pride

Last year, Emory Healthcare and the university partnered to participate in Atlanta Pride. Shown are (l to r) Chris Cardenas, Soju Hokari, Paul Cruz Jr., Adrian Cato, Tre’ Davis III, Danielle Bruce-Steele and Jackie Veliz.

Though born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Danielle Bruce-Steele had her sights set on a career in the Northeast or on the West Coast, areas traditionally more friendly to the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2010, Bruce-Steele, director of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life in Campus Life, saw the Emory posting for program coordinator on the website of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals as she was finishing her master of education at The University of Maine-Orono. While there, she was also a coordinator at the Rainbow Resource Center, their office for LGBTQ inclusivity.

“Emory is a special place,” she says. “It is an honor to do this work in an environment that affirms my values and uplifts this community.”

For Enku Gelaye, senior vice president and dean of campus life, Bruce-Steele is an integral part of what makes Emory special.

“Danielle generously shares her considerable gifts and expertise with our campus community,” Gelaye notes. “The trainings, large-scale initiatives and programs she has built have expanded our framework for inclusion as a university and helped Campus Life continue to provide the very best support for our students. Perhaps her most important gift to others is being profoundly thoughtful and caring. She always considers the impact that our decisions will have on others and has supported countless students in finding their purpose and community.“

Making a respected program even better

When Bruce-Steele joined, accepting responsibility for the supervision of student staff and management of the Safe Space program, Emory had shown early leadership in support of its LGBTQ+ community. Implementing Safe Space, a national program, at Emory was significant because it is one important feature of a supportive campus as measured by Campus Pride.

Following the hiring of the office’s first full-time director, Saralyn Chesnut, in 1993, Emory’s Equal Opportunity Policy was expanded to include protections for sexual orientation. Not long after, the university offered benefits to domestic partners of students and employees.

When Michael Shutt assumed leadership of the office in 2008, considerable advances were made to support transgender students, faculty and staff.

Arriving with outstanding credentials, Bruce-Steele nonetheless acknowledges that her predecessors left big shoes to fill. She didn’t meet Chesnut until the office’s 20th anniversary in 2003, but she worked directly with Shutt and says, “Michael poured his heart and soul into making this office what it is.”

“Early on,” notes Bruce-Steele, “Michael told me: ‘If I am not preparing you for your next job, I am not doing my job.’ He made the space for me to grow and take on the role in the way I thought it should be done to further support our students.” 

Under the leadership of LGBT Life director Danielle Bruce-Steele, community for the queer and questioning has increased along with policy changes such as pronoun choice in OPUS and gender-inclusive housing.

Crafting a record of accomplishment

Charting her own path, while always looking to benefit students, has involved helping the GALA (Gay and Lesbian Alumni) Legacy Fund reach endowment, which will increase student-leadership funds as well as enhance the office’s digital, print and social campaigns to make LGBTQ+ students who do not feel comfortable identifying themselves aware of resources.

Bruce-Steele has revised and revamped the Safe Space curriculum along with other trainings for student leaders, grown the Queer Community Groups program from three to 10+ groups, increased programming during Trans Day of Remembrance and International Trans Day of Visibility, and expanded advising of the LGBTQ+ Graduate Student Coalition.

In the middle of the pandemic, working with the Woodruff Scholars, Bruce-Steele established the Gender Affirming Items Initiative, which supplies Emory students facing financial barriers with gender-affirming clothing such as binders and tucking underwear, at no cost. “This is a good cause for young alumni to get involved in,” she volunteers. “With a donation of, say, $50, they can purchase several items that have a profound impact in supporting current students.”

Bruce-Steele also identified students of color and graduate students as needing additional support. “It has taken work, resources and time to do so,” she says. “It doesn’t just happen.”

For instance, most of the student workers the LGBT Life office employs are students of color. Through Bruce-Steele’s initiative, family meals take place each month for QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous People of Color) students and the office library has expanded its holdings centered on QTBIPOC experiences. Collaborations with the Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement have led to programming during Black History Month, Latinx Heritage Month and APIDA Heritage Month as well as weekly Queer & Asian, BlackOUT and Queer Trans Latinx community groups.  

With regard to graduate students, there are monthly graduate student mixers, a Queer Grads Discussion Group and an LGBTQ Graduate Student Coalition. Bruce-Steele is in the process of setting up an advisory council that would bring graduate and professional students from all sectors of the university together to discuss and support queer issues.

She defines her role as cultivating “a broader perspective on Emory and how people see themselves reflected in it.” 

The best part of her job

Students are Bruce-Steele’s principal joy.

She advises the LGBTQ Graduate Student Coalition and serves as the staff adviser and co-chair of the Mariposa Scholars program, which connects undocumented students to dedicated peers and faculty. Bruce-Steele is also the staff adviser for RAICES (Resilience, Advocacy, Inclusivity, Community, Empowerment, Solidarity), led by undocumented students to support undocumented students at Emory and beyond.

“I see the skills — sensitivity, discretion, care and tact — an adviser needs to draw from as being similar in the case of queer and undocumented students,” Bruce-Steele observes.

Students speak the language of the present, thereby enlightening the rest of us regarding queer issues. “Their knowledge is crucial. And I make a point of trying to understand not just the most vocal voices but all the others who might not be as confident,” Bruce-Steele says.

“My meetings with students fill my cup,” she adds. “It is the antidote to a bulging inbox because the encounters are impactful.”

Jessica Oliveira was a sophomore in Emory College in 2010 when Bruce-Steele joined the LGBT Life office. She calls the office her “second home” during her time here.

Now working at tech startups in Boston, Oliveira received the LGBT Life office’s Alum of the Year award in 2021. She credits Bruce-Steele’s support, saying: “When you’re talking with Danielle, you can tell that she really cares about you — everything you want in someone working with students at such a crucial time in their lives. Furthermore, as a student in the business school who didn’t see out-and-proud queer professionals, seeing Danielle in gender-neutral-to-masculine attire helped me imagine a way to express myself in a professional setting.”

Oliveira was part of the student leadership team that planned Pride. They met with Bruce-Steele weekly, and she in turn connected them with alumni, staff, faculty and community members. In Oliveira's words, “Danielle helped to shape me as a student leader, modeled excellent meeting and stakeholder management, and helped me develop a sense of diplomacy — skills that have been of great benefit in my professional life.”

Many other students would echo Oliveira, precisely because Bruce-Steele puts deliberate emphasis on making the groups peer-facilitated so that queer students can become leaders in their communities and across campus.

Policy progress

Honored with Emory’s Award of Distinction and the Emory Campus Life John L. Ford Ethical Leadership Award, Bruce-Steele has a thoughtful hand in university policy decisions related to the LGBTQ+ community.

“Sometimes, I am raising the concerns,” she indicates. “Sometimes, folks are identifying problems but not sure how to pursue a solution and seek me out. I can help them with best practices, with what I think and with what our students think.”

Recent advances include the Student Designated Name and Pronoun Policy, expanded gender-inclusive housing and housing selection process, all-gender bathrooms on the Emory campus map and easier access to gender-affirming hormones as part of students’ primary care at Student Health Services.

Making it possible for students to use preferred names, rather than being bound by their legal names, saw Bruce-Steele working with university partners, one of whom was university registrar JoAnn McKenzie. In 2016, the LGBT Life office recognized her with the Outstanding Transgender Advocate Award.

According to McKenzie, “Under Danielle’s leadership, we’ve seen significant improvement in providing our students with greater options to self-report data that is important to them. We adopted the preferred-name policy in 2017, allowing students to select a preferred name in OPUS [Emory's student portal].

“Most recently, we adopted student characteristics within OPUS, which allows students to provide a designated name and pronoun, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and first-generation information,” McKenzie adds.

Amid a host of contributions that led to this action, Bruce-Steele identified the drop-down menu that students encounter when choosing pronouns, and she is serving on a committee deciding how that data is used and by whom.

Will work for coffee

As an energetic, admittedly coffee-fueled leader, Bruce-Steele is looking forward to the opening of the identity spaces in Cox Hall this fall. Right now, her office is in the Student Center, while LGBT Life is located in the Alumni Memorial University Center. Once the move occurs, her office will be co-located with the Center for Women, Centro Latinx, Emory Black Student Union and the Asian Student Center.

“With all groups together, we can be more intentional about our intersectional work,” she says. “It will be a bigger space, which will give us the ability to do more at once. Our hours will expand. And for students who are closeted or questioning, this new space will have an additional entrance that is more discreet.”

Another item bearing a red circle on her calendar is the next Atlanta Pride parade on Oct. 15. Last year, for the first time, Emory Healthcare and the university came together to celebrate. Emory will be a silver sponsor this year, and Bruce-Steele’s goal is to expand participation in comparison to 2022.

T-shirts, a sponsored breakfast beforehand, remarks from the president: it all added up to a great experience for community members at last year’s Atlanta Pride Parade.

Asked about the state of allyship at Emory, she notes the promising numbers of people willing to do training and reflects, “People genuinely want to do the right thing at Emory. And there are some folks who would welcome doing training every year.”

However, given the less-affirming climate for the queer community in many parts of the country, Bruce-Steele addressed how Emory can be most helpful to its students.

“I can’t change what is out there,” she says. She sees it as incumbent upon her and other Emory leaders to foster student resilience. “Let’s build you up so you feel so accepted and supported. In that way, when you are in less-advantageous spaces, you survive,” she says.

“All the stars aligned when I came to Emory,” she concludes. 

“It wrapped me up in this embrace. Sometimes I try to look back and say what were all the factors that led to my developing an affinity for a place I did not attend as a student? I would like to think that folks coming on now can have this same experience at Emory. How can I foster that?”

Recent News