Last summer, Jacob Wilson began raising money for graduating seniors at his former high school in Missouri. The scholarship was made for students who have shown they will advance the lives of LGBT people and other groups that have faced discrimination.
Wilson started the scholarship after officials in his home county — Dent County, Missouri — decided to lower flags below half-staff once a month for the next year to mourn marriage equality. Now Wilson has raised $12,100 and is expanding the scholarship’s reach to rural students in the whole state as he partners with Pride St. Louis to provide $20,000 worth in scholarships in 2016.
As part of the partnership with Pride St. Louis, an LGBT advocacy organization, Wilson visited 17 rural schools in two days and shared information about the scholarship with guidance counselors, as well as homemade cookies for an initiative he calls, “Cookies for Courage.” The Missouri Courage Scholarship will reach out to more schools when the scholarship application begins in February.
This is important for Wilson, who is now getting his Ph.D. in higher education at the University of Arizona, because he knows what is like to be gay teenager in a rural community. He said he is also concerned about rural LGBT youth because few LGBT organizations are doing everything they can to foster acceptance in rural communities. He said he has received dozens of messages from LGBT people saying they wish they had an affirming scholarship when they attended school.
“I received dozens of positive messages and that they wouldn’t have felt as alone. And some of them even said they wouldn’t have attempted suicide or maybe they wouldn’t have contemplated it,” Wilson said. “So while this is a scholarship, it really is so much more than that … It’s the start of changing hearts and minds in areas that have really been, frankly, neglected by a lot of LGBT groups.”
A 2012 Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network survey of rural LGBT students showed that rural students were more likely than suburban or urban students to hear most kinds of biased language, such as negative comments about gender expression and homophobic remarks. Nine in ten LGBT students in rural areas said they had been verbally harassed on the basis of sexual orientation, nearly half of those students had been pushed or shoved and 22 percent said they had been physically assaulted.
LGBT youth also face a lot of challenges in coming out to family and often experience a lack of support and sometimes even abuse, with 26 percent of LGBT teens are kicked out of the house.
The two biggest factors in deciding who receives the scholarships is how students have shown courage in the face of adversity and how they will work to improve the lives of LGBT people and other disadvantaged groups in their community.
“We know that courage makes different shapes and forms, and for some students it may look like it did for Lila Perry in Hillsboro, Missouri, and advocating for herself just to use the bathroom that matches her gender identity,” Wilson said. “And for other students, it might be waking up every day and going to school even with fear of being bullied and just persisting in the face of that adversity, so we are very mindful that LGBT people and allies’ experiences in the state of Missouri are not monolithic.”
Although the application will require students share information such as their grade point average, or GPA, ACT scores and other academic information, Wilson said these metrics won’t be weighed heavily.
“That will be something we consider, but at the end of the day, it’s really going to be about the personal narratives the students share,” Wilson said. “When I visited with the counselors, there were several students we discussed who have not come to school regularly out of fear, and so sometimes that can have a negative impact on a student’s GPA. but that doesn’t mean they’re not qualified or able to do well.”
Unfortunately, Wilson has had mixed experiences at the schools he visited. Although some faculty members said they were happy to promote the scholarship, others said they wouldn’t be allowed by administrators to post any flyer with the acronym “LGBT” on it or seemed unaware of the problems LGBT students faced.
Wilson said the guidance counselors have to navigate what are often the tricky politics of their school system to make students aware of the scholarship. These challenges make the scholarship even more important, however, Wilson said, as it exposes “a larger need to support these guidance counselors on the front lines of creating safe, affirming learning environments for LGBT students and their allies.”
Even the seemingly smallest acts of support can make a difference to LGBT student’s well-being. For example, the existence of a Gay Straight Alliance at a middle school or high school can make a world of difference in quelling anxiety and fear in LGBT students by creating a supportive environment. LGBT students who attend schools with GSAs are less likely than students who don’t attend schools with GSAs to report feeling unsafe due to their sexual orientation or gender expression, research shows.