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LGBT Community Center Project

by Kendra Henry

Members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Alliance of Webster University volunteered for the LGBT Community Center of St. Louis for Webster Works Worldwide Day. The students hit the streets of the Central West End asking people to share their coming-out stories as part of a community art project for National Coming Out Day on October 11.

The idea for the National Coming Out Day art project was a collaboration between Nicholas Dunne, president of the LGBTQ Alliance, and Muriel “Blue” Jones, executive director of the LGBT Community Center. Dunne contacted Jones about a month before WWW Day and asked if the LGBTQ Alliance could assist the center with any service projects. Jones came up with the idea to have the students interview local community members about their coming-out stories and then create art projects reflecting the sentiments of the stories. The art projects were displayed at the Missouri History Museum as part of a National Coming-Out Day program put on by That Uppity Theatre Company.

Twenty students participated in the WWW project with the LGBTQ Alliance. Dunne said, “I actually had to add four more spaces because so many people wanted to do it.” He chose to lead the project because he thought it would be a great opportunity to further his leadership skills and demonstrate that he is passionate about LGBT issues.

When asked about her reason for participating, one freshman student (who asked not to be named and is herein referred to as Mary), said, “I think I might want to work as a counselor with LGBTQ people some day. So I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to learn a little about their coming out stories.” As a straight ally, she also hoped to find ways to help her gay sister prepare for the anticipated fallout from coming out to their conservative family.

For the project, Mary interviewed Bill Burkhardt, an employee of Left Bank Books on Euclid Avenue. Burkhardt, 59, did not come out until he was in his mid-20s. He said that there is definitely a difference in the acceptance of gay people now than when he was college-aged. When asked about the difficulties of coming out, Burkhardt said, “When people come out to themselves, they often can’t come out to their closest family.” He said that rejection from family members often cuts the deepest and that people tend to avoid the family confrontation as long as possible. 

When Mary finished with her questions, Burkhardt shared one final thought. He said people should realize that being gay is not a choice and asked, “Why would anyone want to be a pariah?” He laughed and said to her, “When did you decide you were straight?” Those words stuck with Mary, and she used them in her art project upon returning to the center.

Several students focused their projects on the words of the people they interviewed. From drawings to poems to direct quotations, each project uniquely reflected the individual stories of the community members.

Jones was impressed by the depth of the students’ work and said that the response at the National Coming-Out Day program was overwhelmingly positive. She said the project was more than successful. Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, was “extensively happy” with the final art projects. 

When asked if she would have changed anything about WWW Day, Jones said she would have lined up more people for the students to interview. Some of her confirmed community participants backed out at the last minute due to time constraints. She also wished she had a way to get “more feedback from the students as to what would’ve been helpful to them.” 

Her only criticism about working with the students was that she would have ideally liked two or more months’ notice for the project. Because the center has limited staff and is mostly run by volunteers, there are limited hands on deck to coordinate everything for a project of WWW Day’s magnitude.

The center officially opened in August, 2008, and attendance has averaged approximately 75 to 100 people per month, excluding repeat visitors. Jones said the idea for the center had been seriously discussed for three years before its opening. 

Overall, the WWW Day project at the LGBT Community Center was deemed a success by both the LGBTQ Alliance volunteers and the staff at the center. “I think this went perfectly well,” said Dunne, “I was very, very satisfied with the results.” Mary added, “I think we did a pretty good job completing our task that day.” 

When asked about her thoughts on the concept of Webster Works Worldwide Day, Jones said, “I think the name is really good because it puts the recipients in the mindset of ‘this is not just our community.’ Webster has an intention of worldwide community service, which gives it a totally different feel.” She said the university was well represented by the students and that she hoped to collaborate with the LGBTQ Alliance again in the future.

According to a press release from Webster University, WWW Day began in 1995 and has been a university-wide tradition ever since. Webster students, staff, faculty, and alumni from around the world give back to their local communities by helping non-profit organizations complete tasks that “are often neglected due to lack of time and resources.” 

Globally, more than 2,300 volunteers participated this year setting a record for the service project. Locally, about 1,300 volunteers worked on 120 projects. In addition to the project at the LGBT Community Center, Webster volunteers read to young students at area schools, worked at Laumeier Sculpture Park, spent time with senior citizens and much more. 

Jennifer Willis, coordinator of WWW Day, summed up the purpose of Webster’s global service project when she said, “Volunteers and service recipients alike have shared an increased understanding of how important community service is, and how even one day can make a big difference to someone in need.”