Smile Politely

Support LGBTQ+ kids in small towns

At the beginning of June, Tolono Public Library posted a photo of a special display they’d created in honor of Pride Month. They specifically chose book covers to reflect the colors of the rainbow, but the titles — some for kids and teens, some for adults — were all tied to LGBTQ+ themes. This is what libraries do, even in smaller, more conservative communities: They educate, they welcome, and they highlight representation. 

Apparently this upset some local pastors who sent an email encouraging others to show up to an upcoming Board of Trustees meeting to express their disdain for the display. This made the rounds on social media, including through Uniting Pride’s Facebook page, with encouragement to email the board with support, or to show up at the meeting. In the end, the supporters well outnumbered the detractors, at least according to UP: “I would say the goal of the closed minded folks kinda completely backfired and exploded in their faces — in a beautiful array of rainbow fireworks filled with Pride and love.”

This incident highlights the importance of representation and support for LGBTQ+ people in smaller, more conservative communities. A 2019 study from the Movement Advancement Project found that up to 20 percent of the LGBTQ+ population lives in rural communities. According to The Trevor Project, half of LGBTQ+ youth living in small towns or rural areas say that their communities are somewhat or very unaccepting. We saw an example of this last fall, when students at Mahomet-Seymour High School physically and verbally harassed LGBTQ+ students. The response from the district was tepid, at best. 

However, just like we’ve seen with the Tolono Library, there are examples of good things happening in smaller communities near C-U. We are fortunate to have a robust LGBTQ+ support organization in Uniting Pride, and as the only organization of its kind in East Central Illinois, they show up for communities beyond C-U. There are also smaller organizations that are doing the work in many of these towns — often with little community buy-in — to make sure LGBTQ+ community members, particularly students, are seen and supported. We should be paying attention to their work, and offering support where we can.

Kyle O’Daniel, an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School, is an advisor for the school’s first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). In collaboration with Dr. Erin Mikulec, a professor at Illinois State University, O’Daniel created a literary collection featuring the work of LGBTQ+ students, after noticing his LGBTQ+ students were not submitting work to the school’s literary magazine, despite their creative abilities. The book, Writing Out of the Closet: LGBTQ Voices from High School features poetry, stories, and artwork from twenty students across the U.S and Canada and is available for purchase from Dio Press. Mahomet Seymour Equity Alliance is a group that shares events and calls to action through their Facebook page. They’ve collected formal wear for Queer Prom and encouraged attendance at the Mahomet School Board when Uniting Pride spoke in support of LGBTQ+ students. According to group administrator Mindy Spencer, “My dream is that, as we grow with outreach and education we will be able to transition to offering more, such as mentoring connections. I do hope that those in the community will start to see us as a safe group of allies and advocates to reach out to.”

In 2019, there was a Pride parade in Paxton. It was the first ever, organized by Paxton native Tyger McClure, someone who experienced a lack of support growing up gay in a small town. Though COVID likely impacted a repeat event, hopefully it won’t be the last.

In a similar vein, a 5K Color Run is happening this weekend in Tuscola. It’s the 2nd annual event, and is a fundraiser for the Tuscola GSA Booster Club. The booster club was started in 2020 by Michello Dellorso, the mom of a high school student in Tuscola. Her daughter had become involved with the school’s GSA, and she decided that the group should have its own booster club, just as athletic teams and other organizations did, to support and fund their activities. After raising more that $1000 with last year’s run, they are coming back with a full day’s worth of events in partnership with the Tuscola Odd Fellows market, including a drag show, with several area drag performers appearing. They will also be assisting students who are planning to perform. You can read more about the club’s work in Tuscola in our interview with Dellorso.

We are living in a time when states all over the U.S. are grossly eroding the rights of LGBTQ+ kids and teens, particularly those who are trans, and that stands to get worse. While we live in a state that is generally legislatively supportive of preserving LGBTQ+ rights, messages of intolerance are still heard by youth — especially when local political and religious leaders and other bigots try to silence them and their existence with stunts such as the one in Tolono. We will do our part to increase the visibility of the work that is happening locally, and we implore you to continue to offer your support through showing up for meetings, calling and emailing, participating in events, and providing monetary support. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

Top photo from Tolono Library Facebook page.

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