We stand with Lakeshore High School in support of transgender and nonbinary students!

Today, March 12, 2021, the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan was made aware of a school staff member posting hateful comments about transgender students, and a student’s right to safely use facilities in the school. The OutCenter stands with school leaders, administrators, staff, and educators to ensure the safety and well-being of all students, including LGBTQ+ students and especially transgender, nonbinary, and intersectional identities.

We work with schools because EVERY student across our area deserves a safe school to go to and access to safe and appropriate facilities that match their identity. Also, because LGBTQ+ youth:

  1. Are more at risk for bullying, family rejection, and ostracization by their faith and geographic communities. 
  2. Sixty-one percent are more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to feel unsafe or uncomfortable as a result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 
  3. Eleven to thirty percent of LGBTQ+ students, due to a lack of safety, did not go to school at least one day during the 30 days before a recent CDC YRBS survey. 
  4. And the numbers skyrocket for transgender and nonbinary youth, especially BIPOC. We’re talking self-harm, risk of suicide, substance abuse, et al, as they seek safety and acceptance for who they are with their schools.

The OutCenter has worked with schools across Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren Counties, developing affirming, safe, and even brave schools for LGBTQ+ students. In fact, in 2020, the hardest year for the organization in its history, the LGBTQ+ Safe Schools Collaborative, funded in part by the United Way of Southwest Michigan, impacted:

  • 20 schools, Berrien RESA, Van Buren ISD, and the Berrien County Family Courts Division
  • 52 stakeholders who participated in our LGBTQ+ Safe Schools Workshop
  • 282 family members & school staff who were provided guidance and support regarding their LGBTQ+ child and/or student
  • 350 students through participation in their LGBTQ+ school clubs
  • 11,454 youth of all identities in elementary through college age through this work

The OutCenter provides access to additional support through these important programs on HIPAA-compliant platforms. 

What can you do?

  • Contact Lakeshore Public Schools and thank them for their leadership!
  • Contact your school and/or school district (whether or not you are a parent) to set up a meeting with leadership to review their policies about LGBTQ+ inclusion, especially inclusion of transgender and nonbinary students. Feel free to reach out to the OutCenter for guidance.
  • Attend School Board meetings to provide an informed and allied voice for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ students. Feel free to reach out to the OutCenter for topics.
  • Vote in every election for those who will support inclusive, save and brave schools including LGBTQ+ students, especially transgender, nonbinary and intersectional identities. 

OutCenter Statement on Threatening Hate Email

As an organization, we felt it necessary to shine light on something that typically hides in the dark as a “cost of doing business” as an LGBTQ+ community center.

On the heels of the insurrection in our nation’s Capitol (an insurrection enabled and encouraged by white supremacist groups and language), a threatening statement was posted to our website over the weekend, targeting our LGBTQ+ center and greater community.

After reading the content and investigating, we have found out much more about this person and what we have found confirms our worst fears.

So what did we do? We got to work. 

Please know that these steps are also available to you and every citizen receiving threats and/or being bullied.

Our first action, as ever, was to contact our attorney, Beth McCree for her advice.

We then contacted the FBI, as online threats are a federal crime. Our team provided them with all the information needed to investigate via their reporting tool set up to receive tips following the attempted coup at the US Capitol. That tool, for reference, can be found at http://fbi.gov/uscapitol/

We contacted the Office of the Attorney General in Michigan and then, at their direction, the Michigan State Police.

We contacted Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety and were issued a report number.

We contacted the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department.

We contacted the police department where the aggressor lives, notifying the Chief of the threat residing in their area.

Then we reached out to all our peer LGBTQ+ organizations in the State of Michigan, only to find out that we weren’t the only LGBTQ+ Center to have received similar very threatening and ominous messages by this person. We are now sharing information among our organizations to be sure we build an evidentiary file, as well as connect with our broader Michigan family to grow our knowledge and bolster our courage in this new era.

Always remember this: we are not alone and never will be, especially when we band together to make good on our nation’s promise – one denied to too many since our nation’s founding. Instead of flight or fight: stand and fight for our integrity; a need not unique to the LGBT+ community.

We are thankful to law enforcement for their assistance in documenting this threat. However, something that is important to note: this is not illegal until this person were to follow through on the threat, or continue to threaten our organization and community.

Lastly, and most importantly: fear is a sobering emotion. It is a necessary emotion and it is how many of you are feeling. However, what you do with that emotion can make the difference between you engaging in destructive behaviour or helping to set in motion lasting and equitable changes.

We are leaning into this moment. Please join us:

  1. Stay vigilant.
  2. If you see, hear, or read something, say something – immediately.
  3. Reach out to friends and family immediately for support and guidance.
  4. If you feel there is a threat informed by the attempted coup in our nation’s Capitol, reach out to law enforcement in the order outlined above.
  5. Keep copies and screenshots of any and all evidence and reports.
  6. Share with others as we have done here in ways that educate and provide a framework of support for taking positive and powerful actions.
  7. If you are in need of emotional support or need to connect with community, feel free to attend some of the OutCenter programs.
  8. Look up and connect with Spectrum Health Lakeland’s Community Grand Rounds events on Facebook.
  9. Engage with United Way of Southwest Michigan’s 21 Day Equity Challenge
  10. Get involved with Lake Michigan College’s MLK Celebration week.

Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.

James Baldwin
administration arches architecture building

OutCenter Releases Statement Regarding the Coup Attempt on January 6, 2021

January 7, 2020, Benton Harbor, MI – The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan is appalled by the recent events in the nation’s capital. We are committed to calling the violent mob what it was: a coup led by insurrectionists that had been encouraged by the President of the United States to reject a formal and legitimate practice of certifying the electoral college votes. Our hearts go out to Washington DC’s residents who are now under emergency order until after the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Vice-President-elect Kamala D. Harris; our hearts also reach out to the families of the four people who died in the coup attempt yesterday. 

Our friends at Funders for LGBTQ Issues couldn’t have said it any better: “We are shocked but not surprised. We’ve heard the escalation in rhetoric over the past four years of the Trump Administration, rhetoric with roots in the ugliest parts of our national history. Black, indigenous, people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and those of us at the intersections have been the targets of these white nationalists and insurrectionists, and for too long the threat against us has not been taken seriously. We are angered by the hypocrisy of law enforcement and the obvious disproportionate criminalization of BIPOC, queer, and trans people. The stark difference in law enforcement response to largely peaceful protests for racial justice compared to the complacency and collusion of law enforcement we witnessed yesterday is appalling.” Read their full press release here.

We echo our Governor’s call to “put the election behind us,” but more importantly, we call on everyone to remember how many people voted for “leaders” who are not devoted to equity, equality of justice. We also ask everyone to continuously recognize that white supremacy is alive, thriving, and extremely dangerous in our country. The United Way of Southwest Michigan’s 21 Day Equity Challenge is a great way to become much more aware of racism within our family and work cultures. Continue your journey with Lake Michigan College’s MLK Celebration week and our Social Justice Reader’s program. It is imperative that we struggle against White Supremacist violence, unfounded conspiracies, and blatant disregard for the lives and the well-being of others in schools, places of business, and towns across this country.

We must keep the work of antiracism in front of us and see very clearly how differently BLM protestors were treated in 2020 compared to how yesterday’s domestic terrorists were treated by law enforcement in our highest halls of justice and diplomacy. 

We call on Michiganders to keep the truth of the election results in front of us and denounce conspiracy theories in family gatherings, online conversations, and wherever they are mentioned. 

What the OutCenter Means to Me by Linnea Martinez

I was tugging nervously on my sparkly silver dress, standing at the building’s entrance. Loud music reverberated through the brick walls. Through a foggy window, I could make out the shapes of people dancing. Before I could let the nerves get the best of me, the door opened and a coordinator ushered me in. 

There were a total of seven of us teens there. The Prom took place in a room that was no bigger than a small apartment. A live band took up half the dance floor, playing oldies and rock-and-roll versions of pop songs. It didn’t look like a typical High School Prom, and that’s because it wasn’t. 

This Prom was a Pride Prom. Nobody here cared who was dancing with who. Nobody here batted an eye if a girl wore a suit, or if one of my guy friends wore a dress. This small, rectangular room was one of the only safe havens in Southwest Michigans for teens like me to be themselves. 

I’d grown up in a community that wasn’t accepting of those that were different. I remember sitting in on sermons about the sins of same-sex marriage. I remember the way some of my more religious friends would talk about those that liked the same gender. And I remember taking part in those conversations myself, masking my own personality by claiming same-sex relationships were a sin as well. 

At some point in life, my view began to shift. I became a pioneer, advocating for same-sex marriage every moment I’d get. I’d begin by saying “I’m not gay, but…” as I launched into debate after debate arguing the right for two people of the same sex to marry in the United States. Most of my friends at that time knew me as just an outspoken ally. In reality, I identified as bisexual. 

I’d found the OutCenter after a google search for LGBTQIA+ teen groups in my area. I needed a sense of community, I remember thinking. I needed someone to look up to. I needed someone to show me that people like us exist outside the realm of social media, and that there are adults who identify as LGBTQIA+ living normal lives. 

My best friend, who was in the closet with me, and I felt so alone in a community where we weren’t accepted. Most of all, we desperately wanted to meet other teens like us. 

I almost didn’t go to that first meeting. I sat in the car with my best friend, staring at the large windows of the Phoenix Cafe where we were meeting for what felt like forever. In the end, curiosity overpowered my nerves. 

I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that I was in a safe space. That my friend and I didn’t have to hide who we were around the six other teens who attended that day. It helped that the coordinators made conversation easy. I felt safe, welcome, and like I could speak my mind without my identity being challenged at every moment. 

Joining the OutCenter helped me realize that talking about LGTQ+ relationships is normal. Mentioning the word “gay” doesn’t have to be met with an argument or debate. I could say I had a crush on a girl and no one would bat their eye or question my intentions. 

I spent the next fews years of high school attending as many meetings as I could. Sometimes I brought along other friends who were interested. At the time, the OutCenter was the only place I knew of that had an accessible Teen Pride program in the area. I didn’t realize how important that space was until years later, when I traveled to different parts of the country and saw how few safe spaces existed in more rural areas. 

Three years after leaving the OutCenter to head to college, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Teen Pride program. This time it was for their Pride Prom, which had become an annual event. I was shocked when the event organizers told me that they were expecting “up to 50 people” to attend. 

A small gathering of seven people that started in a tiny apartment in Benton Harbor had become a big event in the community, all in a matter of six years. And in these six years the OutCenter has helped vet candidates for office, helped establish a nondiscrimination ordinance, and is now working with 16 schools, helping them to understand and support LGBTQ+ youth across the area.

And in six years the OutCenter has helped vet candidates for office, helped establish a nondiscrimination ordinance, and is now working with 16 schools, helping them to understand and support LGBTQ+ youth across the area. That says a lot about the power of the OutCenter. 

Please consider donating to the OutCenter at https://outcenterprod.wpengine.com/future/

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2020

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan stands with the trans community and hope that by remembering those lost, that we can adequately honor and cherish those who were lost this year and continuously work to empower those who remain to live their most authentic lives. 

Transgender Day of Remembrance has been held on November 20th since 1999, and this year, we have the honor of being a part of a virtual vigil on that day. From International Transgender Day of Remembrance’s website:

“Day of Remembrance publicly mourns and honors the lives of our brothers and sisters who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect for our people in the face of national indifference and hatred. Day of Remembrance reminds non-transgender people that we are their sons, daughters, parents, friends and lovers. Day of Remembrance gives our allies a chance to step forward with us and stand in vigil, memorializing those of us who’ve died by anti-transgender violence.”

Over the past year, there were 47 confirmed violent trans deaths in the United States, with a 41% increase of violence against trans people (from 2018). And these numbers do not include underreporting in Michigan and across the country. This increase in violence parallels the increase of hate crimes across the county. According to the FBI, 2019 had the highest number of hate crimes in the past 16 years, including an increase of racial hate crimes. We know that BIPOC trans femmes are the most targeted by hate, to suffer trauma, and we believe to suffer additional impacts due to COVID19. 

Globally, there were 386 trans deaths worldwide: this includes death by violence, by self-harm, those who died in ways yet to be determined and sadly, this year, from COVID-19. All of these people, their deaths and murders, deserve to be remembered, as we know that trans individuals are more likely to come to harm than their cis counterparts.

In today’s climate, there has never been a more appropriate time to stand with and remember with the trans community and those lost. We aim to pay homage to those who were lost this year and continuously work to empower those who remain to live their most authentic lives with our joint vigil service (see below). 

Join us for this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance Service as we honor and remember our Transgender community members who lost their lives to violence in the past year. Due to safety concerns regarding Covid-19, this year’s service will be live streamed on Facebook at 7:00pm on Friday November 20th. 

This event is a collaboration of Mosaic Health & Healing Arts, The LGBTQ Center, TREES, The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Grace United Church of Christ, and members of the local LGBTQ+ community. 

Join us for the streamed vigil service here:  https://fb.me/e/fCqPuxLDN

Regarding the Confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett

With more than 60 million pre-election votes already cast and over 225,000 Americans dead (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), we are dismayed at the rushed confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett instead of a national focus and leadership on a pandemic relief package for the millions of Americans who are suffering. Because we just hit a record-high average national number of daily cases and election day is one week away, a Supreme Court confirmation is not only inappropriate, but puts at risk decades of progress for LGBTQ+ civil rights, reproductive freedom and affordable healthcare.

Justice Barrett’s history shows she is not a friend of the LGBTQ+ community:

  • Barrett defended the Supreme Court’s dissenters on the landmark marriage equality case of Obergefell v. Hodges, questioning the role of the court in deciding the case.
  • Claimed Title IX protections do not extend to transgender Americans, claiming it’s a “strain on the text” to reach that interpretation.
  • Repeatedly misgendered transgender people, referring to a transgender women as “physiological males,” while casting doubt on transgender rights.
  • Refused to rehear a racial segregation case, raising concerns about her approach to Civil Rights issues.
  • Consistently demonstrated opposition to reproductive rights: calling Roe an “erroneous decision” and a “dramatic shift.”

Barrett’s testimony coupled with her judicial record confirmed that she could be a decisive vote to take away access to critical health care, reproductive freedom, LGBTQ+ equality, and many more of our hard-fought rights. It’s more important than ever to elect legislators who will fight for the LGBTQ+ community. While the OutCenter stands with all LGBTQ+ resource centers who opposed this nomination via a formal letter to our Senators, we also recognize that we must focus on state-level policies and legislators who are going to actively work to protect us in every system that we are a part of.

If anyone had any reservations about voting next week, know that your vote will help not only protect the LGBT community, but will help determine the future of the county. While the newest Justice may sit on the court for the next 40+ years, the LGBT+ community and solidarity is forever. Now, and every election, we must show our solidarity and our power through voting for pro-equality candidates up and down the ballot.

2020 Candidates Questionnaire & Responses

As many Michiganders’ mail-in ballots are starting to arrive and election day is fast approaching, we wanted to share some of your local candidates’ stances on LGBTQ+ policy issues. We asked candidates on the federal, state, and local levels to answer questions pertaining to key issues of importance to LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. Candidates were given six weeks to respond to the questionnaire and were contacted by phone and email multiple times by our team of dedicated volunteers.

The 2020 candidate questionnaire reads as follows:

  1. Knowing that the recent Title VII decision from the Supreme Court only covers workplace discrimination, would you support an amendment to the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act that would add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as protections from discrimination for the Michigan LGBTQ+ community?
  2. Michigan’s hate crime law currently covers violence and threats based on race, color, religion, and gender. Would you support the enactment of a hate crime law that would also address hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people to the same extent as the current Ethnic Intimidation Code within Michigan’s Penal Code?
  3. Would you support a religious freedom law or any similar efforts that provide opportunities for people, businesses, non-profits, et al., to deny services, sales, and/or goods to LGBTQ+ people? 
  1. While Michiganders wait for the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a number of Michigan municipalities have passed their own ordinances to protect their LGBTQ+ citzens from discrimination.
    1. Will you recognize and support non-discrimination ordinances already established in our area, in the towns of St. Joseph and Buchanan?
    2. Would you continue to support the expansion of ordinances that would make discrimination in public accomidations against LGBTQ+ people unlawful in municipalities in Berrien, Cass, and/or Van Buren counties (the OutCenter’s service area)?
  2. Understanding that reparative/conversion therapy have been discredited by every mainstream medical and mental health organizations for decades and proven to target and cause serious harm to LGBTQ+ youth, would you support banning reparative and/or conversion therapy in the State of Michigan? In municipalities in Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren counties?
  3. Do you support the Michigan’s State Board of Education and Michigan Department of Education’s approved recommendations and guidance for schools in Michigan, with the goal to establish safe and supportive learning environments for LGBTQ+ and questioning students, in schools in Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren counties? And, if so, would you support these recommendations becoming mandatory?
  4. Would you fight any attempt to ”water down” a bill giving the LGBTQ+ community rights by those who add riders (e.g. religious rights) that realistically negate LGBTQ+ rights?
  5. Given the recent federal administration’s lack of support of transgender affirming healthcare, will you support legislation to protect trans individuals’ healthcare?
  6. Understanding the recent federal court decision in Buck v Gordon and the importance of safe foster and adoptive homes in our state, would you support legislation that prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals attempting to adopt children through services that are funded (partially or fully) by the state of Michigan?

To view the candidates’ full responses, download and view the PDF below.

We want to extend a wholehearted thank you to all of the candidates who responded to this important questionnaire. Your transparency and participation mean a lot to your constituents.

Michiganders, now that you are informed on your candidates stances on key LGBTQ+ policy issues, go out and vote! Whether you vote from home or make an appearance at the polls, your vote is your voice.

To support the OutCenter in political, educational, and advocacy work, please consider donating here.

Teen Pride Program Helps Build LGBTQ+ Leaders

The OutCenter’s Teen Pride program is rebooting this year with a new focus in response to  COVID-19 and community feedback. 

The OutCenter’s Teen Pride program is rebooting this year with a new focus in response to  COVID-19 and community feedback. 

The OutCenter plays a pivotal role in helping students in the tri-county area to feel connected to  a community that accepts them for who they are and helps them to be their best selves today and  into their future. Rather than bringing students to the OutCenter, the Teen Pride program will  bring the OutCenter to them. When Teen Pride was established in 2014, it was the only LGBTQ+  student club for Middle and High School students in the area. Since then, the OutCenter has  assisted 16 different schools in developing clubs of their own.  

Studies have shown that GSAs have positive impacts on a school’s culture and quality of life for  LGBTQ+ students. Other research finds that: 

• All students in schools with GSAs feel safer in their schools.  

• LGBTQ+ students involved in GSAs are more likely to attend college. 

• LGBTQ+ students involved in GSAs are less likely to suffer from substance abuse and loneliness.  

A number of students and staff have reached out to the OutCenter seeking support in setting up,  sustaining and transitioning their clubs from year to year. In response, program coordinator Alex  Cross (they/them) has developed a series of summits to assist student leaders in starting their own  Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) organizations. 

Through extensive research, Alex has strategized meaningful solutions to common problems  students face when organizing GSAs. Some of these roadblocks include uncertainty in starting  a GSA, developing a yearly calendar of events, recruiting and retaining members, and fear of  administrative blowback. 

Led by Alex, these summits will cover these topics and will take place at three key check-in points  throughout the year: 

• September/October summits will provide students with the tools they need to confidently and  effectively start either their virtual or in person GSAs. 

• January summits will offer a mid-year check-in and guidance on transitioning leadership for the  coming year. 

• May/June summits will celebrate their successes during the school year and review their work  and impacts, using insights and findings to plan for next year. 

For more information, please contact The OutCenter at teenpride@outcenter.org. 

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan’s mission is to provide support and advocacy for LGBTQ+  people and their families in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties of Southwest Michigan. 

On the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

On behalf of the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan’s Board, staff and many volunteers, we send our many sympathies and condolences to the family of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It would seem she gave it all to survive as long as she could on behalf of so many people.

Our hearts ache with her passing as she was an amazing woman, judge, human, and ally to LGBTQ+ people and our families. We listened and read so intently of her support to and dissent of decisions regarding our right to marry and for protection against employment discrimination.

We also feel she understood the increased negative outcomes on marginalized people and their families and took these things into mighty consideration as she spoke about women’s rights, unconscious bias, and voters’ rights.

Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places, where there is greater racial polarization in voting, have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 2013 regarding the Voting Rights Act

Her thoughtful consideration of those who were to be impacted most by pending decisions is a testament to her compassion and her opinions. Her precise, complex, and compassionate use of language – a testament to her commitment to justice and to changing hearts and minds. We can only surmise the impacts of her influence among her peers.

While we all must take the time to grieve the passing of this most amazing woman (despite the haste in which things are moving, leaving us precious little time to grieve), we must remember that we, too, have the power to be compassionate, educate others and enact change at the voting booth on behalf of those most vulnerable in our country. 

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan urges everyone to carry on her work to ensure that our democracy not only lives to see another day, but continues to evolve.

May her memory be the basis of our revolution; our need for immediate and lasting changes – changes that prioritize the most vulnerable, embrace equity, and chart out a path to a return to civility. So today we will grieve and then we will rise again, and carry on her legacy and commitment to the true meaning of “liberty and justice for all.”

Well, I would say that we are not experiencing the best of times; but there’s hope in seeing how the public is reacting to it. There is a reason to hope that we will see a better day.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 2017 regarding the Trump Administration

OutCenter Statement Against Homophobia

In light of the recent reporting by Between The Lines, a trusted LGBTQ+ magazine, the OutCenter presents the following statement:

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan has long been actively working to create a Southwest Michigan that is free from homophobia, including homophobic violence, words, and actions. We expect those elected to higher office to carry the torch in regards to the work that we have started across the tri-county area (Van Buren, Cass, and Berrien counties). Part of carrying this torch is expressing dignity and respect to all, including those that you disagree or are actively in competition with.

The use of attacks against minorities for political gain only permits those represented to dislike those minorities and in time, leads to an increase of violence against said minority. We estimate that there are about 11,000 LGBTQ+ citizens in Southwest Michigan, and they deserve to feel safe and welcomed in our area. It is not only on the OutCenter to create this safe environment, but also on those elected to represent the area on all levels. We expect more out of those who are both role models and those in a position to make inclusion and acceptance into codified law.

We have seen the massive growth of protections for LGBTQ individuals in the United States by the Supreme Court, legislature, and in Michigan. We expect that those representing us would continue on the path towards equality and acceptance.

We know that there is a great deal more work to be done and we implore all elected officials, local, state, and federal, to join us.