Caroline Frank, Staff Writer and Photographer

The University of Missouri–St. Louis hosted the Rainbow Welcome, an event for members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies to gather together, on Wednesday, Aug. 29 in the Student Fireside Lounge in the Millennium Student Center. Faculty, staff and students of all sexual orientations and genders attended the event.

The event consisted of an interactive game, conversation, food and beverages.

PRIZM, which is UMSL’s Queer-Transgender-Straight Alliance, was represented at the event by its president, Claire McCroary, senior, anthropology and archaeology. Advocating for the LGBTQ+ community is something very close to her.

“As a member of the queer community, this is my life,” McCroary said. “It’s not something you can really hide without hiding part of yourself.”

She grew up in a supportive environment, but there was also some doubt. She questioned whether or not she would be accepted.

Growing up in the Catholic school system, she said being able to come to UMSL, where members of the community are open, is fantastic. While people are open, she said it is still important for allies, or non-members of the LGBTQ+ community, to support them.

“We are the minority community,” McCroary said. “We need people who are in the majority … who have privilege … to support us and fight for change and show us we’re not the only people who care.”

Along with McCroary, Drew Shaffer, freshman, undecided, also said why LGBTQ+ issues are important to discuss. Shaffer uses they/them pronouns.

“People always make assumptions without knowing anything,” they said. “They tend to put labels on things without educating themselves.”

Shaffer explained why events like this are important.

“It just goes back to … broadening their horizons and expanding their knowledge more on topics,” Shaffer said.

Harry Hawkins, LGBTQ+ coordinator with Division of Student Affairs, also described why events like this are important.

“When we look at the mission of the university of ‘we transform lives’ and you go to an event like this … this is a way for LGBTQ+ students to find their community,” Hawkins said. “I think this is such an important event for our UMSL community because our campus is very diverse.”

Hawkins said last year, a few students shared their stories of how their families kicked them out when they came out. However, those students felt as if they had an UMSL family to support them.

“Even the little things like this that we do– it makes a big impact on these students,” Hawkins said.

He said part of his job is to facilitate events like the Rainbow Welcome, serve as the advisor for PRIZM, bring the Transgender Spectrum Conference together and look at the campus pride index, a national ranking of how well colleges serve LGBTQ+ students. UMSL is currently ranked as a 3.5 out of five.

“We look at [the campus pride index] as a board and see how we can make improvements for our campus … how we can continue to improve on that,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said another part of his job is supporting the students and being there for them.

“I just really serve as their advocate,” Hawkins said.

He said LGBTQ+ issues are important to him personally because when he was in college, there weren’t a lot of programs that supported members of the community, including himself.

“When I was a freshman, I was still in the closet at the time,” Hawkins said.

At that time, he joined a student organization on campus and remembers one person in the group.

“He was just the spark. He was life at all of our meetings. He would always have us laughing, but he was very courageous because he was out and didn’t care,” Hawkins said. “I used to think to myself, ‘I want to be that person one day. I want to be comfortable with myself and out like that.’”

Hawkins said over spring break of that year, he received a text message saying this person had been a victim of a hate crime and had been beaten to death in Memphis.

“That moment really changed my life. I said, ‘I can’t just sit back and be passive about it while people are dying for being who they are,’” Hawkins said. “I immediately got more involved on my campus.”

Hawkins said he served his community by being a student senator, becoming president of the organization, working as a field director for the Human Rights Campaign and lobbying.

“I just think it’s my way of paying it forward and being that support system for them. And it won’t hopefully be as tragic as my story, but I always think back to his death as being a guiding light for me … I just think back to that incident and how we have to be out there, visible and advocating for those who may not have their own voice.”