LGBTQ+ communities gather online as on-campus spaces remain limited

LGBT+Resource+Center%2C+located+on+the+third+floor+of+the+Illini+Union%2C+provides+a+safe+environment+for+all+sexualities+and+gender+identities.+With+limited+physical+spaces+for+those+in+the+LGBTQ%2B+community%2C+many+have+migrated+to+online+space.+

Sydney Laput

LGBT Resource Center, located on the third floor of the Illini Union, provides a safe environment for all sexualities and gender identities. With limited physical spaces for those in the LGBTQ+ community, many have migrated to online space.

By JP Legarte, Investigative News & Longform Editor

Nestled on the third floor of the Illini Union is the LGBT Resource Center, one of the few physical spaces dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities on campus. However, many LGBTQ+ communities have shifted to gathering in online spaces because the number of physical spaces for them on campus continues to be limited.

“I’m not sure if there are any LGBTQ+ fraternities on campus,” Soundjata Sharod, sophomore in LAS said. “I don’t think there is any. There really isn’t a dedicated gay bar on campus either.”

Last semester, Sharod created and organized a Discord server for LGBTQ+ communities on campus when he noticed that there weren’t any servers for them within the central Illinois hub. He expressed his desire for the server to be an informal, social space.

“I feel like a lot of LGBTQ+ queer youth on this campus are, like, isolated and, like, lonely,” said Sharod. “We’ve all been in those spaces where, like, we really can’t talk about our genders, or we really can’t talk about relationship interests … so I think I just really wanted to create a space where people can fully show up as themselves.”

Genna Ellingson, senior in ACES, recently created and organized a new group within the server titled Dungeons & Dragons and Tabletop Role-Playing Games for Marginalized Genders at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ellingson said she wants the group to eventually meet in person and be a safe space for those interested in joining and learning more about tabletop games and different gender identities. Ellingson also spoke to the benefits that online spaces such as Discord provide for LGBTQ+ communities.

“I think part of the big draw to Discord and other online communities is … the anonymity behind it,” Ellingson said. “You can put out whatever parts of your identity you want to or don’t want to and then join spaces specific to those parts of your identity.”

Damian Vergara Bracamontes, professor in GWS, said online spaces are necessary for individuals who work multiple jobs, commuter students and people who haven’t shared their sexuality or who can’t be seen in certain spaces. He referenced YouTube as another online space where LGBTQ+ individuals have shared their voices and perspectives.

“YouTube … has been such an important space especially for trans communities of color,” Bracamontes said. “I think that really gave people an opportunity to learn about the range of what it could be to be transgender or gender nonconforming. People shared their testimonies and their experiences. It became a resource-sharing site, and it created a kind of community of friends (where) people have followed each other.”

While these communities continue to gather online, the lack of dedicated physical spaces to gather remains a barrier. Sharod said this can be attributed to a lack of funding.

“The LGBT Resource Center is grossly underfunded compared to other organizations on campus, which is crazy because … there is a statistic out (that says) one in six people identify as LGBTQ+,” Sharod said. “That is a large percentage of our campus.”

Sharod said within the LGBTQ+ community, there are hardly any resources that help promote wellness. He said “The Next 150” highlights the University’s goals for the next five years, and there is no mention of wellness.

“There is next to nothing about student wellness,” Sharod said. “There’s, like, one line.”

Sharod said the University’s lack of focus on improving the quality of education for their LGBTQ+ students is a big reason why the LGBT Resource Center is underfunded. He said because of this, the responsibility lies on individuals.

“To go back to the Discord initiative… if (the University) is not going to do it, it’s up to me to create a space for people to feel welcomed and for people to have life-sustaining relationships,” Sharod said.

Sharod said Leslie Morrow, the director of the LGBT Resource Center, wants to hire a dedicated mental health adviser for LGBTQ+ individuals. Sharod added that the center also needs funding for more resources such as medicine, gender affirmation and mental health initiatives.

Bracamontes said that compared to LGBTQ+ spaces at different universities, Illinois does not have as many dedicated LGBTQ+ spaces.

“It seems like people are trying to connect in these spaces, but there doesn’t seem (to be) a physical hub where people can go other than the LGBT center or the GWS hub,” Bracamontes said. “I think it’s hard because I think this campus has the … department, and then they have the student clubs, so it’s a very different form of community building than maybe other universities I’ve been at.”

Bracamontes said other universities have cross-cultural centers and centers containing multiple gathering spaces that promote community building among LGBTQ+ communities.

While many said there is still more progress to be made regarding the number and quality of physical spaces for these communities, a few of these spaces such as the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies are planning future initiatives that provide more opportunities for community building and gathering.

According to Bracamontes, some of these future initiatives include the department’s development as a hub for transgender studies scholarship and transgender reading groups.

As Dungeons & Dragons and Tabletop Role-Playing Games for Marginalized Genders plan for more in-person meetings, Ellingson voiced her plans to have the organization be officially certified as an RSO in the future. Sharod also considered RSO certification as a possibility for the general online organization since certification would open opportunities to reserve spaces, making access to certain physical spaces more streamlined.

Ellingson offered advice to those who are searching for LGBTQ+ spaces to explore and join or are interested in helping create spaces for these communities.

“These spaces exist. You might need to look a little harder for them, but to the people who are looking for these spaces … connect with the people that are out there. Do your research,” Ellingson said. “If you look for them, you will probably find them, and if you don’t, and if you feel confident with it, then start one yourself.”

 

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