Students spread message of hugs, not hate, on Green Street

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Wesley Fane The Daily Illini Steven Velasquez, junior in AHS, stands at the location where he was attacked last year on Green Street in Champaign, on Thursday, April 16, 2009. Velasquez believes that the attack, which happened as he was coming home from a bar in 2008, was because of his sexual orientation.

By Mary Beth Versaci

Students’ moms may be in for a surprise on Moms Day Weekend. For those who venture to Green Street on Friday, they will be given flowers, candy, cookies, balloons and hugs, but not necessarily from their own children.

The goodies are all part of “Hug-In Day,” an event organized to increase acceptance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) individuals in the community. However, this scene will stand in stark contrast to what occurred on Green Street last Moms Day Weekend.

On April 11, 2008, Steven Velasquez, junior in AHS, was walking home when another student began to harass him. Amid calls of “You don’t deserve to live,” Velasquez said he felt a hand jerk him back, causing him to hit his head on the ground and become unconscious.

Velasquez said he later woke up in the hospital but initially decided not to make a big deal out of what had happened to him.

“It was Moms Day Weekend, so I decided to suppress it, hide it, get rid of it, (not) worry about it until later,” he said. “But it took its toll on me.”

Velasquez said he eventually chose to pursue his case with Champaign police, and the student who attacked him was later charged with misdemeanor battery.

Marjorie Perry, senior in LAS, organized the first Hug-In Day on April 25, 2008, two weeks after Velasquez was attacked. The event coincided with the annual “Day of Silence,” in which members of the LGBT community and their supporters are silent in order to “express the way LGBT people are silenced regularly,” Perry said.

After hearing about the attack, she said she knew there needed to be some kind of response.

“I wanted to have something positive and peaceful just because the attack was so negative and hateful,” Perry said. “It’s the ‘kill them with kindness’ tactic.”

Perry said the event is a way for the campus community to take a stand against what happened to Velasquez.

“Hate crimes are not acceptable,” she said. “They shouldn’t happen, shouldn’t happen here.”

Curt McKay, director of the LGBT Center at the time of the attack, said he tried to help Velasquez in any way he needed.

“I wanted to be supportive of Steven, of what he wanted us to do to help,” he said.

McKay added that Velasquez’s strength through the whole ordeal amazed him.

“I really am so impressed both by Steven’s strength with dealing with all the issues he was facing, and Marjorie, with her response, strong positive response, to help her friend,” he said.

Perry said it was important for her to show that something positive could come from what had happened to Velasquez.

“People can have a positive response to it. They don’t have to be a victim,” she said.

Velasquez offered some advice for others who have experienced discrimination.

“Take advantage of the people around you,” he said. “Don’t hide it, don’t feel ashamed, don’t change who you are. It’s going to take time, but overall you’re the better person. The person who did that is just ignorance.”