Daily Egyptian

‘I am a person’: SIU student carries flag to advocate for LGBTQ rights

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Michael Thornton, a freshman from Naperville studying digital media arts and animation, carries an LGBTQ flag while crossing the pedestrian bridge Monday, March 20, 2017, en route to an astronomy class in Carbondale. Since President Donald Trump's inauguration, Thornton described receiving both positive and negative responses.

Michael Thornton, a freshman from Naperville studying digital media arts and animation, carries an LGBTQ flag while crossing the pedestrian bridge Monday, March 20, 2017, en route to an astronomy class in Carbondale. Since President Donald Trump's inauguration, Thornton described receiving both positive and negative responses. "I was in the library one day and this complete stranger came up to me and he's like, 'Hey I've seen you around with the pride flag. I really love what you're doing and it's really made a difference for me,' and he gave me a cookie. Moments like that happen often enough for me to feel like I'm making a difference for other people." (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Michael Thornton, a freshman from Naperville studying digital media arts and animation, carries an LGBTQ flag while crossing the pedestrian bridge Monday, March 20, 2017, en route to an astronomy class in Carbondale. Since President Donald Trump's inauguration, Thornton described receiving both positive and negative responses. "I was in the library one day and this complete stranger came up to me and he's like, 'Hey I've seen you around with the pride flag. I really love what you're doing and it's really made a difference for me,' and he gave me a cookie. Moments like that happen often enough for me to feel like I'm making a difference for other people." (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

By Olivia Spiers

A rainbow flag and bright-blue hair are Michael Thornton’s trademarks as “the flag kid” at SIU.

The Naperville native is often seen bringing the colorful banner into classes, around the Student Center and into Morris Library. At first, Thornton began carrying the 8-foot-tall LGBTQ pride flag everywhere “purely for the thrill of it,” but said the need for awareness on campus began to sink in after President Donald Trump took office.

“On Inauguration Day, we all knew things were about to change dramatically,” Thornton said.

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Recent policy proposals from the new presidential administration prompted alarm among some LGBTQ leaders about workplace protections installed under President Barack Obama and federal expansions of religious freedom by new executive order.

The White House has promised to keep Obama’s orders intact and to continue to protect LGBTQ rights. However, the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the legislative track record of Vice President Mike Pence has not reassured those skeptical of the new administration.

During senior year at Metea Valley High School, Thornton identified as agender, but the label “never felt right.” After starting college, the freshman in digital media came out as non-binary, or not identifying with any gender, and changed pronoun preference to the singular “their.”

“I don’t see a need to hide it,” Thornton said. “My queerness is part of who I am.”

Throughout the process of coming out, and the decision to carry the flag, Thornton said dirty looks and derogatory names became common.

“I remember waiting in the lunch line and someone asking me, ‘What are you?’” Thornton said. “I just held my breath and said, ‘I am a person.’”

Thornton said people have screamed “faggot” or “tranny” from dormitory or car windows when they see the LGBTQ pride flag waving.

“People screaming slurs at me shook me up a bit,” Thornton said. “At first, every little sound would make me anxious, like someone was coming for me.”

Thornton has “grown thicker skin” after carrying the flag for six months.  

“There’s always going to be those people who are against you, and you just have to do your best to rise above it,” Thornton said.

Michael Thornton, a freshman from Naperville studying digital media arts and animation, carries an LGBTQ flag by the Student Services Building en route to astronomy class Monday, March 20, 2017, in Carbondale. Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Thornton has been carrying the eight-foot-tall flag everywhere. “After Trump became president, I knew the LGBTQ community would have to fight even harder for our rights and I knew I would have to be more vocal if I wanted to be active in my community,” Thornton said. “So carrying the flag was just about bringing visibility and awareness in a way I never really could before [in the suburbs of Naperville].” (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Travis Tucker, the university’s LGBTQ resource coordinator, said increased LGBTQ awareness is needed now more than ever, especially regarding transgender restrooms.

Tucker said many students wait for hours at a time so they won’t have to use a restroom on campus. He said the need for transgender restrooms “is not an attack, but just a matter of using the bathroom.”

He also said that many of the negative attention the LGBTQ community receives is caused by a lack of awareness.

“I’ve been called names, and it hurts,” Tucker said. “But I never let it define me.”

Tucker came out in his senior year of college at the University of Akron. He said he hopes growing awareness will help students to come out earlier in life than he did.

“We are hoping to open the door, and say it’s OK to come out,” Tucker said. “And it’s OK to be you.”

Cecilia Miranda, USG senator for Saluki Rainbow Network, said by carrying the flag, Thornton is “opening the door for a campus-wide conversation.”

Miranda said she believes it’s important to listen to the opposing side and be educated on diverse issues. She said the more people educate themselves, the more awareness will grow.

“The LGBTQ culture is often overshadowed,” Miranda said. “It’s important now more than ever to pay attention to us.”

Morgan Timms
Michael Thornton, a freshman from Naperville studying digital media arts and animation, carries an eight-foot-tall LGBTQ flag by Faner Hall on Monday, March 20, 2017, en route back to Mae Smith Hall after classes. “I’m carrying it for everyone in my community and everyone who supports my community,” Thornton said. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Saluki Rainbow Network President Chavez Ellis said Thornton is helping students feel comfortable with breaking the status quo, which is needed for LGBTQ members looking to come out.

“You don’t come out just once,” Ellis said. “It’s every day of your life, in bits and pieces.”

Ellis said while raising awareness will be a long process, they believe Thornton and other LGBTQ members on campus are up to the task.

For Thornton, the non-binary lifestyle fractured some personal relationships, leaving them with only two other queer friends in high school. Thornton’s mother would constantly question their choice to use gender-neutral pronouns and the decision to wear makeup.

“It broke my heart because she didn’t understand me,” Thornton said. “That’s why I started carrying the flag.”

Thornton said many of society’s issues aren’t discussed openly, so it’s the duty of LGBTQ community members to put themselves out there despite harsh blowback from “uneducated people on campus.”

Even though negative comments are given for carrying the flag, Thornton said there’s more support than ever for the non-binary lifestyle.

“There’s a lot of genuine people here,” Thornton said. “It’s really touching to know I can impact someone.”

Thornton said many don’t know how to educate themselves on LGBTQ issues, which leads to close-mindedness. They said actively listening to conversations is half the battle for the LGBTQ community.

“There’s issues in the community I don’t even understand, but the best I can do is sit down and listen and do my research,” Thornton said. “And that’s just what I ask of everyone else.”

Staff writer Olivia Spiers can be reached at [email protected], 618-536-3325 or on Twitter @_spierso.

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