April 4, 2023
Four members of the VCU community honored at 17th annual Burnside Watstein Awards
In a climate of uncertainty for the LGBTQIA community, this year’s recipients spoke of the importance of community and perseverance.
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The Burnside Watstein LGBTQIA Awards are given annually to recognize individuals who enrich the sense of community at Virginia Commonwealth University and make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQIA faculty, staff and students.
The award was named for Chris Burnside and Sarah Watstein, former co-chairs of Equality VCU and outspoken voices for diversity and inclusivity. Burnside spoke at the March 31 ceremony about the progress that has been made over the past decades. When he grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, the only word for being gay was “homosexual” and that was never said out loud, he said. When he looked up the definition of homosexuality at 15 years-old, it said “See perversion, psychosis.”
“Not a good introduction for a 15-year-old trying to figure out who he was or what he was,” Burnside said.
Over the next several decades, Burnside would witness major LGBTQIA rights milestones from the removal of homosexuality as a listed mental illness to the legalization of gay marriage. He said these major milestones were made by the work of everyday people, like the evening’s award nominees.
Beck Oh, a graduate student from the School of Social Work, was given the student award. Oh is the interim program manager for LGBTQIA+ Initiatives for the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA). They have helped host and support programming such as Queer Coffee Hour and the Rainbow Support Group, among many others.
“What drives me in this work is the desire to be seen and to be understood,” they said.
Oh said an event such as a queer Halloween party with drag queens isn’t just a party. It’s a place where members of the LGBTQIA community can escape the news and be themselves. To be able to see the queerness can be full of joy, they said.
Melissa-Irene Jackson was presented with the community member/alumni award. She is an alumna of the School of Social Work who managed the transgender care program at the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood and was recently promoted to manager of social work. She has continued to donate her time and expertise to VCU, sitting on panels and speaking for organizations such as PrideRX, a pharmacy student organization that provides a space for LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies at the VCU School of Pharmacy.
Jackson noted many people she speaks to are worried about the current climate for the LGBTQIA community. Jackson said the only reason she is thriving personally and professionally is because the people who came before her did not take no for an answer, and demanded respect, dignity and humanity.
“It is our turn to do that now,” she said. “We’ve been through worse, we’re going to get through this together. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that we will get through it together.”
Julian Kevon Glover, Ph.D., was presented with the faculty award. She is an assistant professor in the department of Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies and an assistant professor of dance and choreography, an Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation core member, and an LGBTQIA iCubed visiting scholar.
Glover said she has been going through a period of grief lately with the death of the grandmother who raised her, and the ending of one of her long relationships. She did not expect to receive this award when she was feeling so low, she said. Glover said she thinks it speaks to the impact our day-to-day work has, even when we don’t realize it.
She noted that the ceremony was taking place on International Transgender Day of Visibility.
“My visibility has been both a superpower and a weakness but at the end of the day, what I find most important and the most important thing to do is to be true to oneself,” she said.
Van Vox received the staff award. Vox is the program specialist for Marsha & Marian's Neighbors at the School of Social Work. Marsha & Marian’s is a shared housing program that provides homes, education, research and resources for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. It specifically helps people who identify as LGBTQ+ and/or are pregnant/parenting.
“Van has a whole heart full of love, sometimes I think it’s so full it must be painful. A beautiful wonderful rainbow heart,” said Alex Wagaman, an associate professor with the School of Social Work.
Vox only had a short bit of advice for the audience when she accepted the award.
“I had a hard day and I showed up, and that’s how I think we change the world,” she said.
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