By Elizabeth Zakaim
Rows of tea lights glowing from colorful cups lined the concrete steps in the courtyard of the Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building. Other cups were nestled in the hands of students, the flickering flame illuminating their pensive and somber expressions.
Yet there was a hint of hope present on the crisp autumn evening in the courtyard Thursday, Oct. 22, at 6 p.m., where students gathered to honor the memories of those they have lost in the LGBTQ+ community. This was just one event sponsored by PRISM during Queer Awareness Month.
PRISM, the first queer-straight alliance at the College, according to the club’s website homepage, hosted a “Vigil for Those We Have Lost,” to honor those have lost their lives to the struggle of finding their gender identity and being accepted for it.
Kim Luna, a sophomore open options humanities and social sciences major, and Paige Owen, a sophomore deaf education and women’s and gender studies double major, coordinated the event, which was open to the College community. The two serve as co-education and advocacy chairs for PRISM.
“We want to try to bring everyone together,” Luna said. “It is important that people in the community become aware of the struggle those in the LGBTQ+ community face when it comes to gender identity.”
The College has made an impact on the LGBTQ+ community on campus, spreading awareness and educating students about the various gender identities, according to Luna.
“I feel like TCNJ has a great WGS department that really helps spread awareness to the fact that there are many different sexual orientations and gender identities, but I have seen some of the students complain about just how complex it all is,” Luna said about the impact the College has made on the LGBTQ+ community. She also gave some insight as to why it may be difficult for some to accept other gender identities.
In addition, Luna discussed as to why it may be difficult for some to accept other gender identities.
“I feel that for a long time this country has been obsessed with binaries, so for people to accept that there’s anything different is like debunking things they’ve learned since early childhood,” Luna said.
Luna started the event with statistics that illuminated the struggle of LGBTQ+ in society today.
“Queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers,” Luna said. “The number of transgender people murdered in the U.S. this year reached a historic high of 15 on August 15.”
Students sat in a moment of silence. One student bent his head and closed his eyes, others held their cups closer to themselves — all were respectful of the lives they were honoring.
“I just wish people would realize that there are people struggling to have others see their sexual orientation or gender identity as legitimate and just normal,” Luna said. “I feel like when you don’t go through that pain, it’s easy to forget it’s important. However, TCNJ as a whole is definitely one of the more accepting spaces of the LGBTQ+ community I’ve been in by far.”
Barry Lathrop, a sophomore English major, said that this event “was pretty eye opening with regards to the difficulties queer people face.” Lathrop related an incident in the news found on Buzzfeed.com, News4World.com and Refinery29.com, about a 19-year-old Indian transgender man, Shivy (born as Shivani Bhatt), whose parents sent him to India, where he was born, to learn how to act like a “proper girl.” Lathrop said that a lot of them (LGBTQ+) deal with parents who aren’t supportive at all. Regarding the case, Lathrop said that “Shivy was granted the right to leave through a lawsuit, but that was only one of the many cases that happen relatively often.”
The vigil drew a small, but close-knit crowd that was passionate about supporting the LGBTQ+ cause and its impact on the community. After the ceremony ended, people shared their feelings on the impact queer awareness may have on the community.
“I think it made an impact on the people who were there, talking and sharing their feelings,” freshman open options humanities and social sciences major Theresa Vitovitch said.
Lathrop expressed the importance of a perspective on the issue from those who are queer.
“A major point is to listen to queer people on queer issues because straight people only know what they’ve been told, actual queer people can draw from their experiences,” Lathrop said.
Many people have been struggling with gender identity, and others have been struggling to accept more diverse definitions of gender and those who identify as LGBTQ+.
PRISM’s priority is to send a hopeful message to those who are LGBTQ+ and struggling with gender identity. PRISM also wants to reach the College community as a whole.
“It’s OK to take any amount of time that it takes to know yourself because the moment you learn to love yourself is the moment your whole life changes and you understand what happiness really is,” Luna said. “Don’t give up until you love yourself wholeheartedly. Then you’ll never want to sell yourself short.”