Downers Grove South High School graduate Ashley O’Connor longs for the day when she will gain a sense of acceptance and clear all the hurdles she’s faced over identifying with the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Personally, when I was younger I would have loved to have that sort of communication whether it be from family, friends or especially teachers just to have them say, ‘you’re not alone. This is ok that you’re feeling this. We know that it can be difficult. But we are here to support you and possibly give different resources, as well’ is really important,” O’Connor said.
“I feel Youth Outlook is definitely a help and an absolutely phenomenal place that I’ve seen a lot of people flock to because they can get that support there. But I feel there’s always room for improvement,” she added.
The Downers Grove Public Library partnered with Equality Downers Grove to host a panel discussion Monday on LGBTQIA+ community acceptance and inclusion. Attended by dozens, the program was part of a monthlong initiative to celebrate Pride events in the village.
Downers Grove has taken some steps to demonstrate its inclusivity and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community over time.
Last year the village became home to a Youth Outlook drop-in center, 1032 Maple Ave. It is a space where LGBTQIA+ youth can meet weekly for programming, support and community education.
Youth Outlook Program Leader Andi Voinovich said the Downers Grove center served 34 youth last week and at some point, the space has seen as many as 56 drop in.
O’Connor acknowledged that Youth Outlook does a solid job but it still leaves some things to be desired.
“Getting better sex education in schools definitely needs to happen,” she said. “Having access to different resources… so you can learn more about what somebody’s going through and having that available to you.”
The Youth Outlook drop-in center in Downers Grove currently serves youth ages 14 to 20.
But panelists acknowledged that some kids in elementary schools already have a need for support that may be going unmet.
“Folks are coming out younger and younger,” Voinovich said.
Voinovich said the center is in the process of starting a group for younger kids at the Downers Grove drop-in center location.
Downers Grove Commissioner Leslie Sadowski-Fugitt, who spoke at the panel as an individual, not on behalf of the village, commented on the attitude of intolerance shown in anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric that she’s seen on social media.
“It’s important to be tolerant of other people’s basic humanity, so that includes their religion, their ethnicity, their race, their gender identity, their sexuality,” Sadowski-Fugitt said. “These are just things that are part of the fabric of who you are. Tolerance does not extend to bigoted or hateful statements…. I also want to be clear that it is ok to stand up against bigoted and hateful statements. That’s not being intolerant. That is caring for the basic humanity and the fabric of our community and all the individuals that live here.”
Downers Grove North High School Associate Principal Erin Ludwick applauded District 99 for putting tools from bystander training to use, especially in situations where everyone in the room is white and cis-gendered and when there aren’t any people, who identify as LGBTQIA+, to defend themselves.
“We really need to take a united front to get to microaggressions,” Ludwick said.
Downers Grove South High School Associate Principal Karen Taylor shared that sentiment, saying it’s important to identify and interrupt microaggressions when they happen.
Voinovich gave kudos to the library for its efforts to ensure that resources on LGBTQIA+ issues are accessible to the community.
“Don’t sleep on the library resources,” Voinovich said. “This library is doing incredible work.
“The stuff that’s already happening here in regards to resources on allyship, pronouns, all of this stuff and what’s to come is really good news. So, again, here is an organization that has access to so much information and is making it accessible to all of us.”