LGBTQ+ communities are gathering online as spaces on campus remain limited
Tucked away on the third floor of the Illini Union, the LGBT Resource Center is one of the few physical spaces dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities on campus. However, many LGBTQ+ communities have shifted to gathering in online spaces as the number of physical spaces for them on campus continues to be limited.
“I don’t know if there are any LGBTQ+ fraternities on campus,” said Sunjata Sharod, a sophomore at LAS. “I don’t think there is. There is also no dedicated gay bar on campus.
Last semester, Sharod started and curated a Discord server for LGBTQ+ communities on campus when he noticed there were no servers for them in the central Illinois hub. He expressed his wish for the server to be an informal social space.
“I feel like a lot of young gay LGBTQ+ people on this campus are, like, isolated and, like, lonely,” Sharod said. “We’ve all been in these spaces where, like, we really can’t talk about our genders, or we really can’t talk about relationship interests… so I think I really wanted to create a space where people can fully show as themselves.
Genna Ellingson, senior at ACES, recently created and organized a new group within the server called Dungeons & Dragons and Tabletop Role-Playing Games for Marginalized Genders at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Ellingson said she wants the group to meet in person eventually and be a safe space for those who want to join and learn more about tabletop games and different gender identities. Ellingson also spoke about the benefits that online spaces such as Discord provide to LGBTQ+ communities.
“I think part of the big appeal for Discord and other online communities is…the anonymity behind it,” Ellingson said. “You can turn off all the parts of your identity that you want or don’t want, and then join spaces specific to those parts of your identity.”
Damian Vergara Bracamontes, a professor at GWS, said online spaces are needed for people who work multiple jobs, students who commute, and people who haven’t shared their sexuality or can’t be seen in certain spaces. He referred to YouTube as another online space where LGBTQ+ people shared their voices and views.
“YouTube … has been such an important space, especially for trans communities of color,” Bracamontes said. “I think it really gave people an opportunity to learn about the range of what it could be like to be transgender or gender nonconforming. People shared their testimonies and experiences. It became a resource sharing site, and it created a sort of community of friends (where) people followed each other.
As 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 vastly underfunded compared to other organizations on campus, which is crazy because…there is a statistic (that says) that one in six people identify as LGBTQ+ “, said Sharod. “That’s a large percentage of our campus.”
Sharod said that to expand the LGBT resource center, director Leslie Morrow wants to hire a mental health counselor dedicated to LGBTQ+ people.
“There’s almost nothing on student well-being…nothing on sexual well-being, almost nothing on mental well-being,” Sharod said. “There is, like, a line. I think that omission is exactly why the LGBT Resource Center isn’t being funded the way it should be…I think, going back to this Discord initiative…if (the University) won’t not do it, it’s fine with me to create a space for people to feel welcomed, for people to have lasting relationships.
Sharod said the center 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 is lacking.
“It looks like people are trying to connect in these spaces, but there doesn’t seem to be (there) a physical hub where people can go other than the LGBT center or the GWS hub,” Bracamontes said. “I think it’s difficult 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 where I was.”
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 room for improvement in terms of the number and quality of physical spaces for these communities, a few of these spaces, such as the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, plan for future initiatives that provide more opportunities for community building and gathering. .
According to Bracamontes, some of those future initiatives include developing the department as a hub for transgender scholarship and transgender reading groups.
As Dungeons & Dragons and Tabletop Role-Playing Games for Marginalized Genders plan more in-person meetings, Ellingson has expressed plans to have the organization officially certified as an RSO in the future. Sharod also saw RSO certification as a possibility for the general online organization, as certification would open up space booking opportunities, making access to certain physical spaces more streamlined.
Ellingson offered some advice for those looking for LGBTQ+ spaces to explore and join or want to help create spaces for those communities.
“These spaces exist. You might have to search a bit more for them, but for the people who are looking for those spaces…connect with the people who are there. Do your research,” Ellingson said. “If you look for them, you’ll probably find them, and if you don’t, and if you feel comfortable with it, then start one yourself.”