Within the space of several weeks, two things happened in Dent County, Missouri: First, the town lowered flags to half-mast in mourning over the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationally. Second, Jacob Wilson, a native of the town and an educator, founded a scholarship for local students who showed that they would advance the lives of LGBT people. Wilson has currently raised $12,000 for the scholarship through an initiative he calls “Cookies for Courage,” and the Missouri Courage Scholarship is set to begin accepting applications this February.
Though things have started changing at the national level, as demonstrated by Ken Mehlman’s amicus brief in favor of LGBT rights, anti-gay sentiment remains strong in some regions. Because the LGBT community remains a highly disadvantaged one, scholarships like Wilson’s are necessary to ensure that all people have access to education. Wilson, who is now working towards a Ph.D. in higher education at the University of Arizona, says he is concerned about rural LGBT youth because “few organizations are doing everything they can to foster acceptance in rural communities.” He hopes that the Missouri Courage Scholarship will help correct this imbalance.
As part of his advocacy, Wilson visits rural schools to promote the scholarship and raise funds by selling homemade cookies. He says that many schools have been receptive to his message, while others have expressed disinterest or open distaste.
Though Dent County reversed the order to drop flags to half-mast very quickly, the action left its mark on Wilson. He knows what it’s like to be a gay youth in the county and wants to make that life easier for others. “It wasn’t until 17 when I met another gay person,” he says. “The closest resources for an LGBT center is two hours away.” Through the scholarship, Wilson hopes to “provide more opportunities because we have this disparity, and LGBT people in rural America may not have some of the same scholarship opportunities.”
LGBT youth are some of the most at-risk for poverty, depression, suicide, and harassment. A 2012 survey by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network showed that rural students are more likely than urban students to hear negative commentary about LGBT people; nine in ten rural LGBT students reported being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation. Nearly half of those students had been pushed or shoved, and 22 percent said they had been physically assaulted.
The Missouri Courage Scholarship is important, says Wilson, because it exposes “a large need to support guidance counselors on the front lines of creating safe, affirming learning environments for LGBT students and their allies.”
Wilson’s Crowdrise fund is still accepting donations. Wilson says that he is now able to provide two Courage Scholarships and that they will also be able to fund a third, the Trans Courage Scholarship, to help trans students succeed.