by Jessica Carreras
Colette Beighley serves as assistant director of the LGBT Resource Center at Grand Valley State University. The Spring Lake resident and mother of a gay son started out as a PFLAG mom and from there, worked for the Triangle Foundation and now, for GVSU.
1) What sparked your interest in LGBT rights?
When my then 16-year old son Ari came out four years ago, I read Rob Eichberg’s book “Coming Out: An Act of Love” and wept through it. I read of the rejection individuals often face when they tell the truth about themselves to those they love. I vowed that would never happen in my family. I decided to live openly so others could be exposed to a family that was loving and proud. I explicitly told my children not to accept anyone’s shame. Then, after a friend of mine who is a gay man said to me, “It is really the moms of the world who have made things better for us,” I was mobilized.
Being a vocal advocate for the LGBT community has been a double-edged sword. There have been some severe consequences. We have lost many relationships and had others seriously impaired. We have experienced a devastating loss of income as a result of being so vocal in a small community. Additionally, I have received my share of hate mail. That said, I want to be very clear that the losses pale in comparison to the gains. I live boldly and honestly. I feel that I am completely true to myself and that I am using my heterosexual privilege to leverage change. The new relationships we’ve formed within the LGBT and allied communities are precious to me. And, most of all, I know I am making a difference for other families.
2) What does your advocacy of equal rights mean to you as a mother?
I have to say that it is pretty surreal to have had one of my four kids come out to me and realize that he no longer enjoyed the same rights and protections as his siblings. How is that even possible? And more than that, why would someone be the recipient of violence because of who they are? My thoughts spun and tried to make sense of this. I could not.
For me, having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area, I experienced culture shock when I moved to west Michigan. When we moved here we thought, “This is a great place to raise a family.” I guess that is true – unless one of your kids is gay; then not so much. I remember thinking after Ari came out, “This must be why I am here.”
There are so many individuals and families who suffer in silence, and I knew that I could create a larger space for them if I could kick down some of the walls of silence and shame.
3) How are LGBT issues doing overall in west Michigan?
Historically, west Michigan has been a tough crowd … but things are changing. I’m so proud to be at Grand Valley State University, which received the Catalyst Award last year for their work on behalf of LGBT issues. GVSU received that award for five reasons: the anti-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity and expression; the LGBT Resource Center; the Allies & Advocates program, which trained faculty and staff to be advocates for their LGBT students; the Inclusion and Equity Division of the university; and the household member benefits – long awaited by GVSU faculty and staff!
These are massive policy changes that reflect the university’s commitment to being “a place where all voices are heard.” These policies are also a bold statement to the west Michigan community that attitudes have changed and that inclusivity is the norm today and for the future.
4) What do you think is the most important part of the work you do at GVSU?
It is a wonderful challenge to attempt to understand the developmental journey of a college student and how the LGBT Resource Center can best meet his or her needs. Our work focuses on everything from being visible and available to support students who are just coming out to developing future leaders for both the equality and justice movement and the world.
5) You also maintain a blog. What is the purpose of it?
My blog was developed to share the journey of our family as we navigated coming out in the often tumultuous waters of west Michigan. I have shared not only our own experience but the story of Jeremy – who came to live with us after being kicked out of his home for being gay – and the devastating loss of transgender youth Ian, a dear friend of our family. I also use this blog to discuss current issues and events important to the community. Since it is read not only by the community but also by individuals who oppose equality for LGBT individuals, I have a unique audience and opportunity. This blog is my small attempt to change the world.
Check out her blog, Mostly Sunny with a Chance of Gay at http://www.chanceofgay.org.