The SAGE Project brings support to LGBTQ youth in Jacksonville

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LGBTQ youth have a place away from Central Illinois’ larger cities thanks to The SAGE Project in Jacksonville.

The Project started thanks to two self-described “mama bears” who wanted a safe place for their kids. Nicole Watson started thinking about it when her child came out just over a year and a half ago. They said they wanted a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at their school. It bothered her for months there wasn’t one available.

Kat Parker, who’s been married to her wife for six years, had been complaining about a lack of activities for youth in general but particularly for LGBTQ youth.

“So, I thought instead of complaining, why don’t I do something,” she said.

They started doing what they could. They sat down with people to find out what they were looking for and creating a safe place. The SAGE Project is still small, but it is growing. They have regular events and groups for LGBTQ in Jacksonville, just 30 miles west of Springfield, and are working partnering with the Phoenix Center in the state capital. And, maybe, having a Pride festival in town next year.

The increase of anti-LGBTQ harassment in Central and Southern Illinois hasn’t gone unnoticed. There have been organized efforts to remove LGBTQ books from school libraries, harassment of youth not only by peers but also teachers to the point where a statewide coalition formed to address the issue last year.

Parker said that local LGBTQ youth aren’t getting the support they need. While there is a GSA at Jacksonville Middle School, students are called to meetings over the intercom and singled out, making them potential targets. So, the Project does activities off-campus. The principal is working to gather information on how to improve things, but it is slow going.

“People forget who you’re in love with isn’t anybody else’s business,” Parker said. “We know it’s super tough right now and this is one of the things we can do to make it better.”

They are also working on getting information for LGBTQ youth and the services to support them.

Right now, The SAGE Project is completely self-funded.

“We are taking money,” Watson said. “Everything is coming out of me and Kat’s pocket.” A fundraiser can get them out into the community more and add more activities and the GSA group.

“Every little bit helps,” Watson said.

There has been support from the Jacksonville community. Watson has been working to make connections within the community and build partnerships for a Safe Space campaign. With a $10 decal in the window, businesses can show that they’re LGBTQ friendly and welcoming.

Parker said they want the schools to follow their own anti-bullying polices and have some training for LGBTQ sensitivity. “Some teachers are on boards, some feel ignorant on the topic and that causes feelings of pause and others want to ignore it all together,” she said. There’s been instances such as one student telling another to kill themselves because they were gay and teachers just turning away.

Parker and Watson are very aware of the pressure teachers are under these days, but when kids are being encouraged to kill themselves, ignoring can’t be an option.

“Nicole and I don’t know what the exact answer is, but we want it to be a discussion,” Parker said.

The biggest goal has been to let the youth choose the direction.

“We told the kids, we’re just the conductors. You let us know what education you need or what we need to be discussion,” Parker said. Sometimes it’s just making cupcakes, other times it’s learning basic protection skills. Sometimes it’s just discussion where the adults simply listen and learn.

“It’s just a space where they can be themselves without repercussions from people who don’t understand,” Parker said.

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