By Becca Roithmayr
Despite JMU’s efforts to be diverse and inclusive, the campus is occupied by predominantly white heterosexual students. If you are someone who doesn’t fit into the majority of the population, it can feel isolating and intimidating to openly express one’s identity. Despite this, there are communities of people within Harrisonburg that are established to make a minority feel comfortable coexisting within an alternative majority. One of the organizations on campus that aims to do exactly that is the LGBTQ & Ally Education Program. Located in the Student Success Center (SSC) on the first floor, this center “works toward promoting James Madison University's commitment to diversity through education, support, advocacy and the fostering of equity for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.”
As a student coping with anxiety on a day to day basis, even entering one of these centers seemed overwhelmingly intimidating. The intimidation ironically came from a fear of being judged by a group of people who are outwardly expressing acceptance. Upon reflection, I understood my nervousness was rooted in the fear of being misunderstood. It’s one thing to be critiqued by someone who doesn’t relate to my sexual orientation, but when one is met with a group of people who feel similarly, there is more at stake.
After reminding myself that being outside my comfort zone is usually where the most rewarding experiences exist, I made my way toward SSC. If I’m being completely transparent, the commitment I made to writing this article is what really got me through the door, but regardless, I made it. And wow am I grateful I did.
Walking into what I assumed to be the Program, I noticed bookshelves stacked to the brim, comfy seats and one student working on her laptop. After asking her about the organization, she told me this naturally relaxing space is utilized by Madison Equality. Ellie Shippey, a junior SMAD major, noted that Madison Equality functions like most clubs on campus and has meetings in SSC every Tuesday at 8:00 PM. Meetings are open to all students regardless of their sexual orientation and hopes to create a space of tolerance and acceptance. The Program itself is located next door in room 1310.
Surviving the long commute of 15 steps, I entered the Wellness Center and was welcomed by a charismatic secretary who connected me with the the Interim Coordinator, Rain Chris Garant. Garant responded enthusiastically and discussed some of his favorite parts of the program and the activities he looks forward to hosting on campus. According to Garant, the program has volunteers who “help create and run events, and peer educators, who facilitate outreach across campus . . . new volunteers and peer educators get to do really meaningful work.”
Focusing on outreach and inclusion, the program offers informational sessions in the classroom setting, known as LGBTQ+ 101. Beyond this, there are events on a nearly weekly basis including Puppy Pride. Regardless of sexual orientation, students can enjoy the company of some furry pals and learn more about ways to foster inclusivity on campus. Events such as this one are an integral part in breaking down barriers and understanding the dangers of promoting an exclusively heteronormative environment. Liz Engelbrecht, a freshman Math and Physics major, works with organizations on campus to promote inclusivity and hopes to see an increase in allies for those in JMU’s LGBTQ+ community. Engelbrecht said “Teachers claim to be allies and then use non-inclusive language or make offensive comments towards my community similar to the student population, so that could also use some work.”
Overall, providing genuine empathy for someone dealing with an unfamiliar obstacle is a nearly impossible task. It involves the ability to acknowledge one’s own biases and go about everyday routines with a self-reflexive mindset. In order to gain understanding of a demographic that differs from one’s own, it is critical to immerse oneself in the company of alternative cultural identities. Next time you’re wandering SSC while waiting for the Bistro line to die down, I encourage you to check out the spaces provided by the LGBTQ & Ally Education Program. Or maybe you’re looking for a community that helps you understand your and/or other’s sexual identity. Either way, it’s tucked away in a cozy corner on the first floor.