Rainbow Cafe: Serving the LGBTQ youth of southern Illinois
March 9, 2021
Rainbow Cafe was founded by some of the local, LGBTQ friendly churches in Carbondale about 20 years ago.
It started primarily as a small drop-in and support group for LGBTQ youth and allies. For the first 17 years, it focused on programming for young people.
It was in 2017 that Benton Goff, who is now the manager, decided to take the lead in expanding programming and services to include transgender youth.
Goff has been associated with Rainbow Cafe since he was 15 years old and was responsible for the success of many of its initiatives like Transitions and Elevate Groups.
Transitions is a group that creates a welcoming and supportive environment for transgender, gender non-conforming and questioning youth while Elevate group focuses on older LGBTQ youth and allies between the ages of 18 and 25.
Tara Bell- Janowick , the Community Relations Director with the Rainbow Cafe has been associated with it for the last six years and has helped organize and facilitate the Southern Illinois Pride Festival.
The Pride Festival was started in 2018 featuring bands, community tables, bands and speakers and evening benefit shows.
The festival has grown quickly, even during the pandemic. The previous festival, which was held last June, featured a drag show and a drive-by pride event where the participants decorated their cars and drove through the city.
“The purpose of a Pride event is to raise awareness about the LGBTQ community and to establish a presence and create a safe space for all LGBTQ individuals,” Bell said. “So for an area such as Southern Illinois, where many of our regions are rural and our participants are coming from small towns, this is a pretty big deal for us. So we have been excited to be able to host that festival these past few years.”
Bell also facilitates Unconditional which is primarily a group for parents of LGBTQ youth and adults that support LGBTQ family units. Unconditional offers, “education, resources, and a chance for increased understanding of LGBTQ issues, identities and support” to its members.
“We have done meetings that focus on […] foster care, the need for foster parents for LGBTQ youth [and] helping LGBTQ families to become foster parents,” Bell said. “We have also had programming that focuses on things such as how to support our LGBTQ teenage children and transgender community.”
They focus on adult issues like situations where one parent is accepting but the other is not.
Bell, who identifies as bisexual, said personal experience drives her dedication and service towards Rainbow Cafe.
“When I was teaching at Rend Lake College, I got very involved with GSA [Gender and Sexuality Alliance or Gay, Straight Alliance] there and started working with a few young folks particularly helping them to move through things such as the conversion therapy stories […] around the same time, my own son was starting to explore their sexual identity and came out to me first as gender fluid and then as trans,” she said.
This motivated her to provide a helping hand to these students whose needs are often neglected by society.
‘‘I am a transgender [man]. I became really interested in activism […] after I came out to my parents and I got an unsupportive response. The reason I feel so drawn to Rainbow Cafe and queer activism is because I want to revive the same community that I myself needed at that time,” Goff said.
The Rainbow Cafe is also a space for “chosen families” to blossom and conducts events like annual summer camps and weekly events.
‘’Chosen family is essential for a lot of trans youth and queer youth. It is a reality that our […]biological families will not be affirming of our identities and that is really disheartening,” Goff said. “[In such cases], friends become our family that we need.”
The Cafe administrators have also worked in collaboration with legislators in order to devise new ways to safeguard LGBTQ rights. For example, one of the progressive initiatives that the Rainbow Cafe is working on in conjunction with Planned Parenthood and Equality Illinois, which is a Human Rights Activist Group in Illinois, is the REACH Act.
The REACH Act was developed to ensure age-appropriate, comprehensive and inclusive personal health and safety education to be taught in public schools in grade K-12. One of its aims is to develop an educational curriculum that is inclusive of LGBTQ individuals.
Administrators are working to get the Inclusive Curriculum Law in the schools across the United States. This Act, which was passed in 2020, aims at granting recognition and acknowledgment to LGBTQ individuals in history which are included in the curriculum.
“It would be important to include more trans theory, and trans feminism in our higher education courses,” Bell said.
Bell said other problems in the southern Illinois region are workplace discrimination against trans people and unequal access to housing.
“When I am in my classes outside of my classes of gender theory, a lot of my peers at SIU don’t understand trans people,” Goff said. “One of the things that I want to see in southern Illinois is that people are more affirming […] of trans people. The legislators at the moment are not super queer-affirming or oriented towards queer rights.”
Still, there are signs of slow progress. Goff applauded the legislation that was passed in 2019 wherein single-occupancy public bathrooms were labeled as gender-neutral in southern Illinois.
Yet, there is still a gap in public infrastructure and education. For example, the long and costly process of changing the legal name of transgender individuals and lack of LGBTQ characters in children’s story books point to the deliberate neglect towards the LGBTQ section of our society.
This points to the need to raise awareness at all levels about LGBTQ individuals and the need to address controversial debates about LGBTQ rights in the media.
At the end of the day, Bell said, “We are human beings. Transgender individuals exist and these are not theories that can be debated based on someone’s perspective. These rights apply to actual human individual people.”
Staff reporter Diksha Mittal can be reached at email@example.com.