Creating space and awareness for the island’s queer community

Thu, 12/03/2020 - 5:00pm
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In an effort to create an atmosphere of inclusivity and to provide awareness of the island’s LGBTQIA+ community, resident Austin Morin has founded an organization, “Queer Block Island,” to do just that.

The Block Island Times spoke with Morin to learn more on how Queer Block Island came together, and what he hopes to accomplish.

The interview, edited for clarity and length, was conducted by Rosemary Connelli.

Q: Can you describe to me how the Queer Block Island platform came together?

Austin Morin: I started the organization this year after moving back to North America from Osaka, Japan. I found myself needing to regroup after such a big move, and found myself gravitating to Block Island. I had worked on the island at Aldo’s and at the Surf Hotel, and I wanted to reconnect with some of my old friends. I came up for a week to visit this summer with the idea that if there was a stable job with housing, I would stay.

I ended up getting a cute little room in a house on the west side, and was offered a job at Persephone’s Kitchen. After a few weeks working on the island, I started to feel a bit isolated, and found myself asking everyone I met if there were any gay people I could connect with. Then, I had an idea to form a meet-up group where we could connect some of the local queer people and chat about how to improve life for the LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and aromantic) community on the island.

When I brought this idea up to my coworkers at Persephone’s, I felt nothing but support and decided to follow through and start taking some action. I formed the Instagram page soon after and began contacting businesses, the Block Island Medical Center, the Island Free Library and the Block Island School to try and get up to date on what resources were available for queer people presently.

Q: I noticed some island residents have been interviewed by your platform. The interviews reveal personal stories of members and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community. What has been your process in interviewing allies and residents, and did they reach out to your platform to share their stories?

AM: Very soon after forming the Instagram page, I had several people coming forward eager to help and share their stories. I began working fairly regularly with a local wedding photographer, Eli Holmes (they/them) and Kathrin Lewis (she/her) who is an employee at Planned Parenthood in Asheville, N.C. I would find the people to interview, and forward the interviewee some questions that I was interested in finding out in regards to life on the island and other queer issues generally. Then I would connect Eli to the person, and Eli would arrange a short portrait shoot. Kathrin’s career in the medical world has been a great resource, as well. 

Q: Have any programs, events or services taken place recently for the LGBTQIA+ community on the island? Do you have any LGBTQIA+ programs or events planned for the future depending on the Covid-19 environment?

AM: We have had one bonfire (at the Old Town Inn), with Covid-19 protections in place, but it was very small. I don’t think I will do many events in-person until next year. I am still trying to get a sense of how many people are here on the island, and what they are interested in doing. Currently, we haven’t organized any fundraising or donations, and we are looking to fund the pride parade (and maybe some other community programs). Any thoughts or ideas for events are much appreciated. 

Q: How can residents show their support and stand in solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community?

AM: As one of the most oppressed minorities on the planet, there is never enough the straight community can do to help. Education is vital — keep watching and reading queer literature and cinema. Read about our history, and the integral role we played within the civil rights movement. Think about the ways that you talk about the queer community, especially when no queer people are around. Make a point to use people’s pronouns. Make sure your business and social media are queer-friendly. 

Q: What message from your platform do you want to get across to the community?

AM: Queer people are people just like you, and we come in all shapes and sizes. We want to try to give queer people a place to share our collective experience and share our culture with the island. And above all else spread love, because it belongs to everyone. 

Q: If someone would like to be interviewed, or is looking to learn more about the organization, who should they reach out to?

AM: Please reach out to me! And I can direct you to places with more information or answer any questions about gender identity, sexual identity, books, and so forth. I am also the person to go to if you know people that are interested in being featured. At this stage it is mostly self-operated. 

The Times reached out to those in the community who have collaborated with Queer Block Island, such as the Block Island Medical Center and Block Island School. Here are some comments shared with The Times about the group:

“Austin had reached out to me a while ago, because he had heard I was gay, and I immediately wanted to create content that is queer. Creating content that is inclusive and representative of all people is why I’m in business. Queer folk deserve to be highlighted, seen and represented. My hope is that Queer Block Island can do a lot of the work that I think needs to be done, such as ensuring that businesses are inclusive and affirming, as well as the medical, police, and fire departments. Some of that is the culture of a business or a community. It’s someone’s identity and someone can be standing in that room with you.”

“As a wedding photographer, I could see the different types of love, and non-conforming roles and identities. Representation became a huge topic for me, as a wedding photographer, and as someone who pushes couples to be authentic and intimate. It became clear to me I needed to do the same with my audience. Creating content that is diverse is a core part of my business. Folks should just be able to live in existence and not have to question what they are feeling — being gay is normal.”

“It’s going to take a lot of people to come together to make it what it’s going to be one day. Our identities are not a game, or something to make fun of. We need to create spaces that the island can be easy to navigate through. Here, we are bizarrely forced to work with each other – it’s a small community. I’ve found my way to be safe by living here.” — Eli Holmes, owner/photographer at Seas Mtns Co.

“I’m looking forward to collaborating with Austin on this project. Bringing awareness around creating spaces where everyone feels welcome is a really big part of community building. The [Block Island] Medical Center is committed to making sure that all members of our community have access to the highest level of primary care, regardless of circumstance or ability to pay. We hope that through working with Austin we can bring awareness to existing services and expand our offerings to remove any barriers to care. This is integral to our mission of creating a culture that is respectful, safe, and supportive.” — Alison Warfel, Operations Chief and Director of Wellness and Risk Reduction at the Medical Center

“[School Principal] Kristine Monje and I spoke at length about how we can establish a stronger presence of a connection to support systems for people who identify as LGBTQIA+ or are questioning. In 2017, the Student Council agreed to support a gay-straight alliance through their group and that is where the presence began. Being a small school, we had many conversations (some with Austin) about how to best do this without having any one student feel self-conscious or singled out as a result of our efforts.”

“Based on the belief that we have to ensure that every student and every person in the school community feels safe, appreciated, and able to express themselves, there can be no tolerance for hate or bigotry. Additionally, realizing that this can be a very difficult time in a young person’s life, anything we can do as a school community, and as individuals, to ease that discomfort should be done.”

“As far as our efforts here to date, we established non-gender specific bathrooms several years ago, and with Austin’s help and guidance are now putting up flyers around the school to make people aware that there are resources on the island to support LGBTQIA+ individuals as they move forward. Given that we are now involved in distance learning, we are also exploring how to incorporate the information onto the school website.” — Vicky Carson, Health/Special Education Teacher at Block Island School

“The Island Free Library is proud to partner with Queer Block Island. The library’s collection is filled with fiction and non-fiction books and movies for readers and viewers of all ages. It is always our goal to have every person represented in our collection for people to identify with and learn from.”

“We look forward to working with Queer Block Island in the future when we can host events to strengthen the LGBTQIA+ community and educate others. We dream of social events, educational speakers, and support meetings. For now, we hope you will let us recommend and find materials for you and your family and always remember, everyone is welcome at the Island Free Library.” — Kristin Baumann, Director at the Island Free Library

“The conversation around queer identities and the vast spectrum of representation is needed. Whether folks on the island think it’s needed or not, there’s always room to grow and learn, and I’m really excited that Austin and this group are expanding the conversation. Allowing a space for trying out terms or exploring queer concepts that may feel new for some people, is vital. And coming from the health care side, the collaborations between the club, the medical center, and the school will only aid in creating a safe space to learn. Sexual health is basic health care, but we talk about it (and avoid it) like it’s not. I’m proud to be working with Austin and Alison and others on growing support on the island for all people and all experiences.” — Kathrin Lewis, Health Center Manager at Planned Parenthood in Asheville, N.C., and frequent island visitor