Robert A. Schoenberg, 76, of Philadelphia, a longtime activist for LGBTQ rights and the founding director of Penn’s prestigious LGBT Center, died Monday, Aug. 2, of cancer at KeystoneCare Home Health and Hospice in Wyndmoor.
Dr. Schoenberg was so instrumental in guiding Penn’s LGBT Center for 35 years, from its pioneering inception to its current sprawling outreach, that the building in which it operates was named the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House to mark his retirement in October 2017.
He explained his approach to Penn’s LGBTQ student outreach in May 2017 to Penn Today.
“We all work with everyone,” he said. “People don’t have only one identity. It’s a very outdated idea to think that you’re either white or you’re gay or you’re Black or you’re lesbian. It’s multiple identities, and so we say that everybody is welcome at all of the centers.”
During his tenure, more than 200 similar outreach centers opened on college campuses across the country, said his successor, Erin Cross. By 2002, Dr. Schoenberg had raised $2.5 million so Penn’s LGBT Center, once merely an office, could move to a larger space in the historic Carriage House, where students could meet, study, and socialize.
“His scholarly work laid the foundation for campus centers across the country,” Sue Rankin said in a statement. Rankin, with Dr. Schoenberg, founded the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals. “His contributions are immeasurable,” she said.
Among other things, Dr. Schoenberg helped create the first HIV/AIDS information brochure for college students in the 1980s, and he was one of three editors for Our Place on Campus: LGBT Services and Programs in Higher Education, published by Greenwood Press in 2002.
Dr. Schoenberg was born to Mack and Rose Levick Schoenberg in Erie, Pa., on Aug. 14, 1944, and graduated from Academy High School. He earned a bachelor’s of arts from the University of Rochester, a master’s degree in social work from Penn in 1968, and worked early in his career in Philadelphia at the Elwyn Institute and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
He returned to Penn in 1976 and, while working toward his doctorate of social work, was named in 1982 as the university’s first director — and only the second in the country at any college — for lesbian and gay issues.
“To be the first of anything takes enormous bravery and resilient pride,” Penn president Amy Gutmann said in a statement. “He lived for our students and was devoted to helping them find their voices and to live authentically.”
Dr. Schoenberg mentored hundreds of LGBTQ students, successfully lobbied for employee domestic partnership benefits at Penn, and served on a number of advisory boards, commissions, and councils.
He taught classes at Penn, Bryn Mawr College, and Rutgers University and was awarded the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Association of Social Workers, Pennsylvania Chapter.
He liked to eat at Philly restaurants, and challenge friends and family to games of Scrabble. His emails and texts were written with precision, and he could not resist pointing out grammatical mistakes.
His porch in the Poconos may have been his favorite getaway. A movie buff, he called his retirement celebration in 2017 his version of the Academy Awards.
“He was so very proud of the diverse and inclusive Penn that he helped to create,” Gutmann said.
“We will never know exactly how many people his work touched,” Cross told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “But we do know he will live on in each of their hearts.”
Dr. Schoenberg is survived by his brother, Leonard Schoenberg; sister Susan Forman; and other relatives. A memorial service is to be later.
Donations in his name can be made to Penn’s LGBT Center, 3907 Spruce St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19104; Action Wellness; the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives located at the William Way LGBT Community Center; Lambda Legal; the LGBT Elder Initiative; and the Donald Millinger/Gary Clinton LGBTQ Endowed Fund at the University of Rochester.