A colorful display of celebration filled the space of the Butternut Event Center on Saturday night. The first-ever Rainbow Gala presented by Prism took place as a beautiful gathering of allies and community members who entered through the wall of decorative streamers dressed to the tens. As the debut of what will be an annual event that commemorates the hard work of queer and trans students, allies, and staff on campus, it showed to be a great success. Aubrey Brolsma (‘23), the treasurer of Prism, described the event, saying, “The event was a celebration of queer voices and allies on Hope’s Campus. It was our send-off to the year and it was a place where we could celebrate the students and faculty who deserve recognition for their work towards LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality on campus.” And celebrate the students and faculty they did.
As this was the first year of the event, some might be wondering what was the motivation behind carving out a space to hold an event like this. There were a couple of reasons that Brolsma outlined. This was the first year that Prism was included as a part of the Multicultural Student Organizations (MSO). Some of the MSOs are known for having large end-of-the-year celebrations so Brolsma mentioned that “we decided to go for it and secure funding!”
Another one of the motivations was based on the date that this event was held. On Friday, April 22, it was the national “Day of Silence” where people all over can take a vow of silence for a day to represent the silenced voices of queer and trans people all over the world. It is in honor of the voices that have been taken away due to bullying and harassment because of homophobia and transphobia. Saturday, the day after the event, is called “Breaking the Silence.” Brolsma explains that this date was intentional because “Breaking the Silence” is a celebration of the queer voices that can now be loud because of the work that has been done in the generations before.”
Speaking of generations before, that brings us to the third inspiration behind the gala, which was all of the history that led up to this moment. The queer and trans history on Hope College’s campus has not always been warm or welcoming. With Hope being a religiously affiliated campus there are many places on campus that haven’t been a safe space for queer and trans students to exist as themselves. One of the award winners, current Off-Campus Study Advisor and previously the first Prism advisor Dr. Kristen Gray, told a story during her speech. Brolsma recounts “Dr. Kristen Gray told a story of a student who was told by chaplains that she had to be ‘straight in a week’ or they would send her to conversion therapy. Through that came GLOBE an unofficial official queer student support group. The 95 stories furthered the work but had to be underground and its founders faced consequences for their advocacy.” For many years all of the advocacy work has had to be underground, but the Rainbow Gala and Prism being able to gather in an official space for the first time is a huge step that will keep propelling cultural change. Ultimately, Brolsma says, “The Rainbow Gala exists to show how far we have come and to honor the work students have done at Hope in the last five, ten, twenty, forty years.”
The gala was not just a place for the LGBTQ+ community to gather, though, and allies were also encouraged to gather in community and in solidarity for this celebration. Lizzy Bassett (‘23) said that she attended the event to have fun in an affirming space and one of her reactions was “I was so excited to see people be relentlessly themselves and have fun together.” Bassett also walked away surprised with a few takeaways. She said, “I was shocked with how little I knew about the LGBTQ+ experience at Hope. As an ally, you can try really hard to listen to others and hear their story but you’ll never know their experience. The extent of the hardship, resilience, bravery in each of them was amazing to me. I am so proud to know these individuals and see how strong they are.”
As this becomes an annual celebratory event, the hope is that it will have a lasting impact on the community. Brolsma states, “My hope for this event is that it will show the greater campus community that we are here, we are proud, and we are not going away. Hope still has a long way to go. The president has yet to publicly state his support for LGBTQ+ students, Campus Ministries is still a non-affirming place, we don’t have gender-inclusive housing for trans/nonbinary students, and unfortunately, the list goes on. Events like this increase our visibility and show higher-ups how many of us there are.” From an ally’s perspective, Bassett says, “This is the first Rainbow Gala organized by Prism. I hope to see it be the first of many. Starting something new is really challenging but watching it grow makes it all feel transformative to our Hope College community. I hope each person who organized it can take the impact of this successful event to heart. They are truly laying the groundwork for all future Hope students within the community.”