Early in the evening of Wednesday, March 21, two young people walked into the iconic White Rabbit store on Central Ave. They browsed the shelves of rainbow stickers and racks of pride flags, the jewelry displays and party favors, and as they approached the counter with their selections, one said quietly to the other, “you might as well ask…”
They were shy but determined. They were students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), and they had helped to start a petition in favor of establishing an official LGBTQ community center on campus. As they explained, their youthful self-consciousness fading in the face of deeply felt enthusiasm for their cause, they began to speak with more confidence. They wondered if there was any way White Rabbit could somehow publicly endorse their proposal. One reported excitedly that the petition stood only eight signatures away from an even thousand. Their companion, who hadn’t realized they were quite that close, was overjoyed.
After the two students went on their way, a quick look at their Change.org page (“UNCC Needs an LGBTQ Center”) revealed a count still rising steadily. It hit that coveted 1,000 mark within minutes.
So why the need for, as the petition describes it, an LGBTQIA Resource Center? It’s simple. Community, education…and fear. UNCC Spectrum, the multicultural student organization behind the project, in its official university profile goes beyond discussing advocacy for the LGBTQ population to declare “It will be a safe place for all people.”
In their public appeal they cite statistics which suggest that there could be thousands of UNCC students who identify as LGBTQ and as many as one in five of those may feel that their safety is at risk while on campus. Spectrum further draws attention to the murders of Charlotte area residents Sherrell Faulkner and Derricka Banner, both transgender women of color — a demographic whose members have repeatedly been shown to be victims of violent crime at an alarming and wholly disproportionate rate — and highlight the 2015 death of UNCC student Blake Brockington.
The 18-year-old transgender activist, who made history as East Mecklenburg High School homecoming king and went on to lead community initiatives working to defeat transphobia, racism, violence and police brutality, committed suicide on March 23 of that year. The tragic end of his inspiring life sparked a national and international outcry.
That microcosm-like dynamic, in which the brutality and alienation suffered by LGBTQ people in the wider world are mirrored in experiences on campus, has convinced Spectrum and its supporters that what’s urgently needed is not only a student center, but a resource for the community at large. They can only hope that ambition has not been dealt an entirely devastating blow by the recent departure of their faculty advisor. Teacher and assistant director of sexuality and sexual health Joshua Burford was “the only staffed liaison between LGBT students and upper-level administration,” and the petition’s organizers lament that in his absence they have been left with “no one to advocate on behalf of queer and transgender students and staff.”
Indeed, it has been suggested by some in the Charlotte queer community that, while the sincerity of Burford’s desire to pursue a groundbreaking queer archiving project in his native Alabama is beyond question, it was reaching a tipping point in his frustration over administrative heel-dragging that gave him the final motivation he needed in order to leave.
The UNCC LGBTQIA Resource Center initiative may have lost its most highly placed champion, but its student leaders can perhaps take heart from the diversity of backers that remain, and whose support they’ve won through their own efforts. “I’m signing,” writes one supporter, “because I am an NC high school student who is considering attending UNCC, and I would like to attend a school that is safe for people like me.” Another signatory is an alumna; another is a current adjunct professor. And the petition isn’t limited to those with a specific connection to the university. It can be signed by members of the public as well, and many are already on board.
Speaking to qnotes staffer Jeff Taylor back in January, in a discussion focused on his then-imminent southward migration, Burford revealed that “[UNC Charlotte] administrators told him the [resource center] project was ‘dead in the water.’” As of March 30, should those two kids who stepped out onto the Central Ave. sidewalk the previous week thrilled about 992 signatures check out their petition site, they will find they were up to 1,456. Whether that’s what Chancellor Philip L. Dubois, Provost Joan Lorden, Vice-Chancellor Kevin Bailey, Dean Christine Reed Davis and their colleagues consider “dead in the water” remains to be seen.