Gay-Straight Alliance Thrives in Unlikely Place
"Tolerance," is Jackie Reale's least favorite word.
The Florida Gulf Coast University senior is on a mission to change the way people think of the word, she says, is often confused with acceptance.
"When I see it on cars, I think, 'That's not co-exist,'" Reale said. "It's the worst word in the world. People shouldn't be tolerated, they should be accepted."
Reale and senior Robbie Lloyd are the co-presidents of the FGCU Gay-Straight Alliance, one of the largest registered student originations on the campus. The GSA conducts meetings for up to 150 LGBT and allied students throughout the school semesters.
Together, Reale and Lloyd are on a mission to educate people to move beyond tolerance to learn acceptance.
Acceptance is something FGCU does well. The university offers safe zone training, domestic partner benefits for employees, unisex bathrooms, and the booming GSA.
FGCU is nestled in Fort Myers, Fla., which was recently made famous for it's men's basketball team's history-making run in the NCAA. While sports continue to be a hot topic at the school, equality remains a priority for the campus of nearly 15,000 students.
The Safe Zone program is an educational session, provided for free to students and faculty to promote LGBT acceptance at FGCU. Over the course of a day, an educational workshop is provided and ends with faculty members being able to provide classrooms and offices deemed a "safe zone" to students who may be struggling with gender identity or other issues.
The university also has a domestic partner health insurance stipend for employees who are part of same-sex couples.
Despite the university's strides in acceptance, the Fort Myers-Naples area has been slower in the way of same-sex equality.
In a poll conducted in Dec. 2012 by the Naples Daily News, 924 of 1584 people voted that gay marriage should not be legal in the state of Florida.
"I feel like generations play a role in this," said Tiana Cruz, an allied member of the FGCU GSA. "I think the younger generation is very open and accepting to (LGBT students)."
The members of FGCU's GSA can feel the tension when they leave campus with their same-sex partners.
"(I've held my partner's hand off-campus) but I've been really nervous the whole time," Lloyd said. "I felt like I should have been in the moment and enjoying who I was with but instead I was looking around to see if anyone was staring and wondering if I should let go. I definitely feel more comfortable on campus."
While the city outside FGCU may have its challenges, the students know they have a safe haven within the university that they can use to educate their classmates.
"My first year I was living with my boyfriend (in the dorms) with two straight guys," Sophomore Anthony Dawkins said. "The first night (of GSA) they both came to the meeting because they wanted to learn more. Both of them are still really good friends of mine."
The university has recognized the GSA multiple times for its outstanding service to the school. The group has won the FGCU "Register Student Organization of the Year" award twice and won Best Multicultural Event at FGCU for its Pride Week celebration last year.
Reale and Lloyd maintain the biggest goal of the GSA is education and acceptance. As they continue to gain members and hold, they are turning the tide from tolerance to acceptance and love.
"Having (the GSA) here is really beneficial for students," Lloyd said. "I've realized what an impact we can make and being the co-president is really awesome because I get to see the things our team and I do make peoples lives better."