Dr. Jesse R. Peel Center announces scholarship

Keith Thomson, treasurer, PLFLAG Greenville; Jeannette Debs, president, PFLAG Greenville; Albert Ervin, president, PFLAG Rocky Mount; and Mark Rasdorf, director, Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center, celebrate a new scholarship at ECU.

A group of professors and community members say it is time that the city of Greenville had a shelter and community center in place for LGBTQ people.

The call for change comes as an ECU student center serving the LGBTQ community announced it has partnered with a local advocacy organization to provide a yearly scholarship.

Dr. Sambuddha Banerjee, an East Carolina University teaching assistant and professor of chemistry is associated with ECU’s chapter of Out in STEM. Banerjee said that Greenville’s continued growth means founding an LGBT center and a trans youth shelter would serve the community.

“It already is one of the bigger cities in North Carolina,” Banerjee said. “It is also growing and becoming organized. More and more people will continue to move here, and as a result, more LGBT folks will move here.

“If we do not have a center, a space for our LGBT people to come together, we will not have a space to educate the community on the local culture and our community.”

“I think we need two things — an LGBT center and a youth shelter for trans folks, which is a need for folks everywhere,” Banerjee said. “They have very unique challenges and homelessness is rampant.”

A report by the Human Rights Campaign said some studies show as many as 40 percent of youths living on the streets or facing housing insecurity identify as LGBTQ.

Beyonca Mewborn, a journalist and board member for Out in STEM Professionals, has lived in Pitt County her entire life. Mewborn said that she does not want young LGBTQ people to feel they are without support in the area the way she did.

“I have not really seen much support,” Mewborn said. “Being African American and living here in the South, it is not like there is huge support for LGBTQ-plus people of color, or people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.

“What I can say is, as a community, you tend to find your tribe,” Mewborn said, “people who know and understand who you are. No matter where you are, you tend to find your people. In the early 2000s I found a little enclave of African-American LGBTQ people here in Greenville on Tobacco Row.”

That community likely contributed to keeping more than a few young people from homelessness, Mewborn said. The city should do the same for all young people facing a tumultuous experience, she said.

“Growing up in the Bible Belt, I spoke to a lot of students who grew up in religious homes and there was a lot of backlash from their coming out,” Mewborn said. “Not having that support makes a difference, (as does) having access to shelter, food, basic necessities for a good quality of life like healthcare or education. If you are out on the street, you are not thinking about going to school. You are thinking about survival.

“I think about some of the girls I came up with who were put out of their homes and on the street,” she said. “They had to resort to any means necessary to survive, whether that was crime, solicitation, doing sex work — the danger that is out there. You would think that the government would have some type of oversight to protect all youth.”

Banerjee and Mewborn noted that New Bern and Onslow County have LGBT centers. Banerjee said that using an existing space as part community center and part homeless shelter could provide intersectional education and the reassurance that it is okay to be yourself. At a young age, it could stymie the identity issues Banerjee, who grew up in Calcutta, India, sees as prominent in the area.

“If you have someone coming in (for shelter) at 16, 17, 18 years old, they can see that LGBT center is there and they are safe in public,” Banerjee said. “I go on Grindr and I see blank profiles, people who are afraid to be seen.

“You live in the United States where gay marriage is legalized. I am not saying the fear is wrong, I want to know what is the fear, coming from someone who was outside, a country where homosexuality was decriminalized in 2018. My whole time in India I lived as a criminal under our penal code.”

“When I see that fear, it tells me that a cultural shift did not happen and society did not invest in that conversation,” Banerjee said. “We have the law, but no one feels safe.”

ECU center

The push comes as ECU’s Jesse R. Peel Center continues to grow. On Thursday, ECU announced that the LGBTQ center has established a PFLAG of Eastern North Carolina Scholarship. The $1,000 need-based aid will be awarded annually to an ECU student.

The scholarship is a partnership with PFLAG, a nearly 400-chapter organization that functions across to the country, with members sharing support working toward equity for LGBTQ people.

“It is a privilege to partner with our colleagues at the local PFLAG chapters to help facilitate this scholarship,” said Mark Rasdorf, director of the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center. “These funds targeting students from eastern North Carolina can help ease the financial burden.”

Mewborn said the Peel Center is a good example of how a community center could function in the city. More than that, she said, it could save lives.

“College ... is a bubble,” Mewborn said. “It is safe here in Greenville and ECU on campus where the culture supports LGBTQ relations. When you go outside of that community it is a lot different.”

The scholarship plans to replenish yearly via donations.

Funding is also an issue for a trans youth shelter, Mewborn and Banerjee said. Such an entity does not fit criteria for ARPA funds, but could qualify for support from the State Department’s Global Equality Fund or similar federal and state bodies.

A representative for the City of Greenville said that he had not heard any discussion of a trans youth shelter or community center, but that the only thing that would likely limit the possibility is zoning.

Contact Pat Gruner at pgruner@reflector.com and (252)-329-9566.