Striving for greater equality

In addition to advocating for a resource center on campus, Sycamores affiliated with the student group Spectrum offer education on gender and sexuality issues and provide a safe space for their peers.

A group of Sycamores is working to make life on the Indiana State University campus better for future students.

Some members of Spectrum, the university’s student-led organization working to unify gender and sexual minorities and their allies, are petitioning to create a resource center on campus.

“We really don’t have full-time or even part-time faculty or staff here to support students of sexuality and gender variances. It’s been a grassroots effort on our part to see what we can accomplish,” said graduate student Nicholas Weldon. “It’s important enough that even if it we don’t see it in our time here, it comes together for future students who might need that (resource).”

The effort isn’t officially sponsored by Spectrum, which was created three years ago from the Advocates for Equality student organization out of the desire to have action as well as advocacy on campus. The group has grown exponentially — and with it, much reliance for addressing the needs of gender and sexuality minorities.

“A student group shouldn’t be the only resource on campus that departments send students who are struggling with identity issues. It shouldn’t be the student group that comes first,” said Weldon, who is majoring in student affairs and higher education. “There isn’t a lot of awareness on campus about the resources available.”

Weldon has attended a university that did have more resources for its gender and sexuality minorities.

“On the (Indiana State) website, there was this huge banner that said, ‘We’re for diversity.’ A lot of students don’t necessarily feel that,” he said. “There’s plenty of research that shows having a resource center helps with retention, helps with campus climate — or at least a person’s perception of a university’s climate.”

The goal is to collect 5,000 signatures. To sign the petition or volunteer with the effort, email or send a private message to the group on Facebook (search “Indiana State Spectrum”).

When someone signs the petition, it’s in support of recognizing diverse identities on campus, Weldon said.

“The petition isn’t for just LGBT. The petition is written so it recognizes diversity is important, and it talks about any identity, ethnic and minority status,” he said.

Weldon said the petition’s organizers would love to partner with other student organizations in the grassroots effort.

“It’s not something that just LGBT-plus students need, but for all students who don’t feel supported on campus, those who feel they don’t have the advantages other students have, that they can come together and get that support,” he said.

On April 17, Spectrum spearheaded the observance of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s National Day of Silence — a time when gender and sexual minorities and their allies show solidarity by being silent all day.

A Spring Drag Review on April 22 gave amateur performers the chance to compete without the pressure of a pageant. This event is an addition to the group’s calendar, as they also sponsor a Drag Pageant each fall.

In addition to the social aspect of these events and the proposed resource center, the gatherings hopefully provide an educational opportunity for students both within and outside of the LGBT community. In fact, two ongoing goals for the group are education and providing a safe space for students.

“There are some people out there who think they don’t know anyone who’s gay, and that’s where their judgment comes from,” said Alexa Mayer, president-elect of Spectrum. “We’re normal people who have normal jobs and do normal things; we just are attracted to different people than you are. Or we don’t identify with a gender the same as you.”

Out of respect for the meeting participants, who may or may not be “out,” what is said during the meetings — held at 7 p.m. Tuesdays in HMSU 421 — stays in meetings.

“People know once they walk in the room, they’re welcome and no one is going to judge them and that it’s all confidential,” Mayer said. People are welcome to come late or leave early, she added.

Mayer, a sophomore from Chicago majoring in special education, says she’s always been passionate about LGBT issues and was president of her high school’s gay-straight alliance. Instead of LGBT, she prefers SAGA for Sexuality and Gender Alliance.

“We definitely focus on education a lot, because we feel it’s important for the both the people in and out of the community to know who they are and how to deal with people who aren’t like them or people who are like them,” she said.

For instance, more than two pronouns exist to describe a person, including some based on cultural and ethnic origins. There are so many pronouns, in fact, Mayer doesn’t know all of them.

Even a person struggling with their sexuality or gender identity needs educational resources — where to go for health information if you’re a transgender person, for instance.

“We had a student who didn’t know how to do any of that, and after attending meetings a couple of times, ended up finding information about who they were or better how they identified,” she said. “They were like, ‘I never really figured out how I felt or I didn’t know who I was, but after coming to Spectrum, I now know this is who I am. My body and mind are starting to connect.’ We were like, ‘Yes!’”

This is the second attempt for the resource center petition, and its sponsors are learning from their earlier efforts.

Part of their renewed enthusiasm is from attending the Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC) in February. A group of 19 students — sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, Office of the President and Student Government Association — were among the gathering’s more than 3,000 attendees.

“It was great to see everybody go and start to take in all this information and come back to campus with a fire under their butt,” said Allen Zielinski, who is Spectrum’s outgoing president and an art education major.

Conference topics range from popular culture to how to implement more programs on college campuses, he said.

“It’s an amazing experience — not just for people already on the (executive) board. It’s a great way to get members in the group, who are coming to meetings, but they’re not super engaged,” said Zielinski, a junior from South Bend. “There’s so many learning and leadership opportunities. They cover everything at that conference.”

One of the best parts of the conference is finding someone who you can relate to, Zielinski said.

“To be in an environment for a whole weekend — Friday to Sunday — that is truly, 100 percent accepting, as far as gender and sexuality … it’s awesome,” said Mayer, who also attended the conference last year.

Even at Indiana State, there are places where you have to be more cautious when you’re with your significant other, she said.

“There’s certain people in certain areas that you learn to be very safe,” she said. “At MBLGTACC, you don’t have to worry about that. You see people holding hands, sitting on people’s laps, being human, doing things that straight people can do and have no repercussions. It’s really freeing.”

Mayer’s biggest conference takeaway came last year when she attended a session about how to bring acceptance and tolerance to your university.

“That’s something I want to work on. I feel acceptance and tolerance at this university has gotten better, but I still don’t think it’s great. In 2015, you still hearing people say, ‘That’s so gay.’ It’s unacceptable,” she said.

For several of the students, including MJ Jonen and Dillion Killion, it was their first time attending the conference.

“Going to the conference definitely inspired me to want to make a difference in our community,” Jonen said. “A group of us actually have a committee together to try to get MBLGTACC to ISU in 2017. I also came back with a plan for my career in that I now wish to work with schools to be more LGBTQIA+-inclusive.”

Killion, who is Spectrum’s treasurer, has attended other conferences, but none as large or inspiring as this one.

“I really liked all the statistics that Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, mentioned. As an analyst, that really struck home,” said Killion, a junior operations and supply chain management major from Sullivan. “The session on raising the waterline was very inspirational, not just for the queer community but for anyone living. It helped me realize the amount of thoughtlessness (everywhere), including myself, the way we judge and interact with others.”

Spectrum is often approached by departments or university staff to share their expertise. About a year ago, they presented a Transgender 101 session to Residential Life.

“That was really a fantastic feeling, having them want us to present to their staff, as well as a great opportunity to speak to people on these issues,” Zielinski said.

Sometimes, however, it’s frustrating to be the “go-to gay group” on campus, as important topics such as Michael Sam, who is the first openly gay professional football player, marriage equality and the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act, often become a sound bite rather than a genuine discussion, Zielinski said.

“Not to sound jaded, but this tends to be something that’s big in the news and people contact the group and ask, ‘What’s going on? What do you think?’” Zielinski said. “We’ve seen it in our community for a while; nothing’s really changed on our end. We’ve been going through the same issues in this state and around the country. It’s taken this legislation to be enacted, and oh now, we talk about it.”

Zielinski, however, is encouraged by the amount of discussion he’s heard on campus regarding RFRA.

“The only positive of this (issue) becoming a big news story is the amount of conversation I’ve been hearing on campus about it. Even just professors and students engaging in conversation — that’s great,” he said. “These are important issues. This is something we’ve been battling and trying to raise awareness about for a while.”

As much as Spectrum has grown in the past three years, there’s still a lot of work to do, and Zielinski welcomes suggestions on how to be more effective.

“We are constantly trying to build our organization,” he said. “We’ve grown a lot in the past three years, but rarely does it feel like we’ve grown enough to really serve this need on campus.”

Mayer echoed his sentiments. ““We have the potential to be so much more and to be bigger on this campus,” she said.

One Comment

  1. Bravo!
    So proud of the effort being continued at ISU. When I attended (1971-1975) there was a thriving LGBT presence in the surrounding Terre Haute community; however not so much on campus. There were five buddies of mine that all lived in Jones Hall that were gay. Lucky for us, the rest of the dorm really liked us and protected us from anyone that might want to bring us harm. As a theatre arts major, I was always dismayed that ISU’s theatre department had only one gay guy (me!) in the whole department! In later years that changed. Just know that this fellow alum is proud of the stand you are taking and the effort you are launching. Will there be a fund raising activity to get this effort off the ground? Let me know. – Jack

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