Centre LGBTQA Support Network builds welcoming environment for State College's LGBTQ community – The Daily Collegian Online

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Pennsylvania Rep. for the 181st district Malcolm Kenyatta, Centre LGBTQA Support Network member Pia Smal, CLSN board member and co-chair Susan Marshall, and Kenyatta’s husband Matthew Miller posed during State College’s Pride Ride.
Centre LGBTQA Support Network members and friends posed for a picture in front of a Pride sign during State College’s Pride Ride. From left to right: Sue Port, a CLSN board member, Katie Nurmi, a CLSN board member, Tamar London, a CLSN board member and co-chair, Susan Marshall, a CLSN board member and co-chair, Pia Smal, a CLSN board member, Natalie Vercillo, a community engagement specialist with the State College borough, Kevin Kassab, community engagement manager with the State College borough, and Jared Kehler, a friend of the CLSN board.
Pennsylvania Rep. for the 181st district Malcolm Kenyatta, Centre LGBTQA Support Network member Pia Smal, CLSN board member and co-chair Susan Marshall, and Kenyatta’s husband Matthew Miller posed during State College’s Pride Ride.
One year after plans for State College’s first Pride month parade were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the borough saw its first official celebrations with the Pride Ride caravan and afterparty earlier this month.
In collaboration with the State College borough, the Centre LGBTQA Support Network helped organize the event. Now, the organization is looking to the future in hopes of creating more programming opportunities for LGBTQ people and allies in the area.
CLSN’s chair and co-founder Susan Marshall said the founding members first united in 2011 to support a lesbian couple that sued the State College Area School District due to its lack of health insurance benefits for gay and lesbian partners.
Centre LGBTQA Support Network members and friends posed for a picture in front of a Pride sign during State College’s Pride Ride. From left to right: Sue Port, a CLSN board member, Katie Nurmi, a CLSN board member, Tamar London, a CLSN board member and co-chair, Susan Marshall, a CLSN board member and co-chair, Pia Smal, a CLSN board member, Natalie Vercillo, a community engagement specialist with the State College borough, Kevin Kassab, community engagement manager with the State College borough, and Jared Kehler, a friend of the CLSN board.
After the couple won the lawsuit and were granted equal benefits, Marshall said this core group of people came back together to discuss the idea of reviving an inactive chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
This shifted into a larger conversation to create an entirely new organization centered around the needs of LGBTQ people in the area.
Pia Smal, another founding member, said before the group established CLSN in 2014, there was an absence of organizations in State College that focused specifically on bringing LGBTQ people together and creating a safe environment for younger queer and trans people.
“There was a gap in the community,” Smal said. “A lot of our focus is often surrounding the next generation… We really wanted to create an environment where they could explore their sexuality and gender identity and know they were supported by their community.”
Two of the main goals of CLSN are to help educate people and spread visibility to the State College community, Smal said. In the past seven years, she said CLSN has been able to create a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ people through successful programming efforts.
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“We always want to be a visible presence in the community and hope people realize that we’re here, and we’re not any different from you or your family,” Smal said.
CLSN has hosted an array of events and activities to bring people together and provide educational opportunities for those wanting to get more involved, Smal said.
A key programming effort of CLSN comes in its various support groups — dedicated to LGBTQ people, friends and family members, and middle and high school students. These groups serve as a safe environment for members to have personal discussions and get to know each other, Smal said.
Before the pandemic, the support groups were held in person but have since moved to an online format.
Susan Port, a CLSN board member, said it was necessary to keep the support groups going, despite the difficulties the pandemic brought.
“One of the most critical things we provide are our support groups, and because of Zoom, we were still able to do that,” Port said. “It was really important for us that people still had a community — [the pandemic] was so isolating for people.”
Other events CLSN regularly held before the pandemic included open mics at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe, quarterly drag bingos in partnership with State College Queens, an annual Gayla fundraiser held at The Lodge at Tussey Mountain and movie showings at The State Theatre.
Beyond creating safe and inclusive events and activities, Marshall said CLSN is also focused on educating members of the greater State College community on LGBTQ equity.
Offering educational training for organizations across the borough is one way CLSN is able to open doors and welcome new partnerships, Marshall said. Beyond training, CLSN has ties all around the State College area.
“We have a lot of community engagement,” Marshall said. “We know a lot of people, and our board members know a lot of people… We want to collaborate.”
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Smal said a majority of the funding CLSN receives comes from community donations and grants, and during the pandemic, it began donating a total of $1,000 every month to two nonprofits that were either aligned with or were supporting the support network.
In addition to these donations, Marshall said CLSN developed a yearly scholarship for SCASD around the time the organization was founded — $1,000 for a high school student who does either some work or advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
While the scholarship is limited to State College Area High School, Marshall said she hopes they are able to expand it to neighboring schools one day.
Smal and Marshall both said while their focus is dedicated to LGBTQ people in the Centre County region, it is important for allies of the community to continue showing up and showing support.
“Everyone is welcome in our space — we love allies,” Smal said. “I think allies are really important. I want people to know they can walk into drag bingo and not have any experience with the queer community, and they will be welcome.”
Going forward, CLSN’s board members will focus on trying to obtain a permanent space they can call home for the organization and its members, Smal said. They are focused on bringing in new people to the board and setting up roots to keep CLSN growing as well.
“Having a place that’s ours that kids can come to, that adults and students could come to — that’s our dream,” Smal said. “We’re actively working [toward] it, but COVID really derailed that.”
Marshall said she would love to see more people come in and volunteer with future endeavors and give the reins over to a new generation of LGBTQ youth. She said she hopes to one day have a director to take over operations and someone to take over volunteering efforts.
Continuing to reach out to both younger and older generations of LGBTQ people in State College to make sure they are receiving the help and resources needed will also be an important part of the process in a post-pandemic world, Port said.
Following the success of the Pride Ride, Smal said she has already seen people reach out and donate to the organization, and she said she would love for CLSN to continue making connections with those wanting to help spread its mission.
“Show up, come to an event, reach out to us,” Smal said. “If someone is really interested in getting involved, like volunteering some time, that would be a great place to start — reaching out to us.”
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Colton Lucas is a lifestyle features reporter for The Daily Collegian. They are a senior majoring in digital and print journalism with minors in digital media trends and analytics and sexuality and gender studies.
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