Rainbows in the Dark: The LGBT Community of Southern Illinois

“Where are all the gays?”

“Am I alone?”

“How far north do I have to go to wear a rainbow?”

In Benton-native Curtis Galloway’s The Vital Voice article “50 Thoughts Every Gay Male Has in Southern Illinois”, a valid point of criticism is raised against Southern Illinois: Where are all the gays? Perhaps it isn’t a question of where, but rather, of how; how is one expected to live happily in an area that ostracizes them, with the tantalizing voices of others like them calling from the big city, assuring that they will be loved and accepted at last? In actuality, does Southern Illinois house a vast realm of LGBT citizens, who, out of fear of social conservatism, refuse to let themselves be known?

Growing up in Christopher, Illinois, I had little exposure to minorities; most of my childhood friends were white, fit into the gender binary, faced no disabilities, and were straight. Those that fell outside of that category were instantly shunned by the community out of both fear of the unfamiliar and the upholding of outdated “tradition”. I knew that my sexuality differed from the accepted norm at a young age, and wrestler/model Mickie James was the catalyst. Strong, beautiful, and always ready to beat someone over the head with a steel chair, she was my hero from a young age. However, as I began to grow up, my admiration turned to attraction, causing me great confusion– I was supposed to like boys, not girls!  It wasn’t until I was playing house after school with a group of big kids on the playground that I actually learned what the word “gay” meant.

“Can I play with you guys?” I asked, to which they responded:

“Sure, but only if your character is gay.”

“Um… What?”

“It means you like other girls, stupid.”

Isn’t it intriguing that a group of smoking, cussing fourth graders held the key to discovering my own identity? Many readers may not be able to recall when they learned what it meant to be gay. After all, up until recent years, it was far too taboo a subject for the dinner table.  In many socially liberal areas, children don’t give it two thoughts; they’ve been taught from a young age what LGBT means, and that it’s a completely normal way to be. However, for children in areas lacking in LGBT resources, there can be a lot of confusion in terms of identity.

Upon interviewing four members of the LGBT youth in Benton, IL, I was shocked to discover that all four of them had suffered from bullying and intolerance, particularly in a school setting:

“I have been targeted on multiple occasions for my sexuality when it has been made known. I’ve never experienced a very positive reflection from other people,” reported an anonymous lesbian youth.

“People are still to this day spreading hate on people in our community. I’ve been bullied before for being an out homosexual. I still hear hateful comments about it often,” reported Dallas Wysong, an openly gay sophomore and member of the BCHS colorguard team, “ You can’t let people get to you. Someone is always gonna dislike something you’re doing.”

When asked about the strength of the Southern Illinois LGBT community, Violet Pierce, a nonbinary pansexual BCHS senior stated: “We have a strong LGBT community, but I also believe that most people would disagree due to how many people aren’t out. Growing up in such a small southern town makes it scary for a lot of people to be open about who they are.”

“I feel as if we all rely on each other for support and encouragement!” Said Dallas Wysong,  “No matter how bad it gets. We always have support everywhere we go. Regardless of the hate that is spreading over the LGBT community.”

When I asked the participants if they felt accepted in Benton, the anonymous lesbian reported: “I do not feel accepted here whatsoever. There are many people in Southern Illinois who would like to think they are accepting and informed though they are the exact opposite. Southern Illinois is nowhere near where the rest of the US and other parts of the world are with their progression and support for the LGBT community. Many here can’t face the fact that sexuality does not define you as a person.”

Perhaps it’s not that the LGBT community of Benton is small, but rather, that it is made to feel small. Due to a fundamental lack of LGBT-friendly spaces (especially those aimed at youths), it can be increasingly difficult for LGBT residents of Benton to feel comfortable in their community. Many members of the local LGBT community migrate to city locations, seeking tolerance. However, is this really the right way to go about things? After all, if we leave, we’re simply avoiding the problem; if Southern Illinois really does have a problem with gays, shouldn’t we strive to cultivate peace and tolerance in our hometowns rather than fleeing and allowing the problem to fester?

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