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A Welcoming & Inclusive Environment

On Thursday nights at 6:30, in the University Union’s Sandburg Lounge you’ll find full tables, laughter, students hugging, and Unity Executive Board members welcoming General Assembly members to our weekly meetings.

It is a warm environment. Students have told me that Unity, WIU’s student organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, non-heteronormative, and non-gender binary and their allies at Western Illinois University, and WIU’s LGBTQA+ Resource Center played huge roles in determining Western as their academic home. And yet, just last week, I was reminded painfully, that this student organization will become the surrogate family of some students whose biological families have disowned them upon coming out.

Imagine if you will, navigating life without your family. Imagine the pain of being cut out, emotionally and financially, based on a vital part of your identity. While we have made great strides, we have a long way to go.

I am so proud to be part of an educational institution that is committed to embracing diversity and providing resources that support and empower gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, non-heteronormative, and non-gender binary students.

The week of April 20th is OUT Week for the LGBTQA+ community on the campus of Western Illinois University. From Safe Space training for faculty and staff, to movie viewing and discussion, and a photo campaign to say “No to H8” LGBTQA Resource Center Graduate Assistant Zachary Neil has scheduled events that engage the campus community, entertain and educate participants, and also welcome them into the LGBTQA Resource Center.

Credit Rich Egger
Barbara Harroun

I can think of no better advocate for students, no more enthusiastic and invested mentor for undergraduates, and no one more adept at building community than Zack Neil. He is also the Graduate Advisor of Unity, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must note that I faculty advise Unity with my amazing colleagues Dr. Norma Suvak and Anne Dixon.

I have benefitted from Zack’s enthusiasm, his deep empathy and compassion, and his stellar organizational skills. And yet beyond these wonderful characteristics, he, and the students of Unity, have changed me for the better as an educator, a mother, and a person. They have taught me about true acceptance, welcoming me with all of my flaws, and they have widened my mind and my heart.         

Established in 2011, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Asexual/Ally (LGBTQA) Resource Center serves “as a connection for LGBTQA individuals to resources, support, education, programming, and advocacy. The LGBTQA Resource Center offers a welcoming and inclusive environment for all people of all sexualities and gender identities/expressions to support the holistic development of students.”(LGBTQA Resource Center brochure). It enacts this mission through new student orientation, programming for the entire campus community, Awareness Week, Transgender Awareness Week, Lavender Graduation, Safe Space Training, and Study Nights. Zack has also established the Featured Interactive Student Helper (F.I.S.H) program to engage students in the LGBTQA community through program planning, researching their interests, and even running their own programs.

I have watched with respect and admiration as Zack has created a space, programming, and events that welcome and educate vibrantly.

The LGBTQA Resource Center is so necessary because as a state university we serve students coming from both urban and rural areas. I have met students who had never knowingly met another LGBTQA person before coming to school. I have met students who through Unity and the Resource Center have gained the courage, the communication skills, and the confidence to come out to friends, family, and peers. It’s where I turn when I need information to assist students and to educate myself.

As an ally, I cannot speak to or fully understand my students’ LGBTQA experiences, issues, or concerns. I readily admit this, but it is a great joy to tell students, as I hand them a brochure or pull up the LGBTQA Resource Center web page, “You should walk over to the union and meet Zack Neil. And have you heard of Unity?”

It is so important to serve our LGBTQA students fully. But as a campus community it is not enough to simply be aware of this incredible resource--we must also do our job and make students, faculty, and staff aware of the resources available to us and we have to actively engage with them.

This week, if you are on campus, visit the LGBTQA Resource Center on the first floor of the University Union or attend one of the events planned to raise awareness, educate, and celebrate our amazing LGBTQA community. Attend a weekly Unity meeting to visibly show your support. Attend our professional drag show on Friday, April 24th or our Equality Ball and Lavender Graduation on May 4th. You would be welcomed with open arms, because seriously, that’s the way Unity and the LGBTQA Resource Center operates.

As I age, I understand that I want, deeply, to bring my whole self to the entirety of my rich life. I want to be seen, to be understood, respected, and accepted. I want the same for all of my students, and yet I sometimes fear for my LGBTQA+ students because I know that at 8:15 p.m. on Thursday nights, they exit the warm embrace of Unity and re-enter the real world, which is not only often unkind, but can be a truly dangerous place for them.

Unity, The LGBTQA + Resource Center, and the hard work of the University Committee on Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression continue to demonstrate WIU’s commitment to diversity and to its entire student body.

I have watched as students have come to understand their own worth and value, their deep intelligence, and their ability to enact change in part because of these university organizations and services. And these students renew my hope because I know that they are going out into the wider world, and they are going to change it for the better.

Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of Composition and Creative Writing at Western Illinois University. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.