The Rainbow Cafe is warm and colorful, tucked away at the Southern side of Carbondale, Illinois, where infrastructure meets and lapses into the woods of Shawnee National Forest. Outside the building, a rainbow flag flies beside the front door in a quiet, artsy storefront. My first impression is of an indie coffee shop—but it’s not actually a coffee shop. Instead, Rainbow Cafe is a youth center, and one of the only LGBTQ+ youth centers in Little Egypt.
Tara Bell, the Cafe’s board chair and community relations manager, greets me warmly; she’s contagiously energetic, bright and welcoming to a fault. We put on a pot of coffee in the Cafe kitchen, and sit down to drink it on warm, soft couches in a room with rainbow walls. The table across from us is piled full of resource flyers, covering everything from lists of local accepting churches to legal name change information. The Cafe exists to “provide a safe, welcoming, and supportive space” to LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13-19, across Southern Illinois, and it does just that: every Friday night, from 6:00 to 10:00 PM, youth gather there for free food, fun, and community.
“We always learn more from them than they do from us.”
Spaces that provide support and connection are incredibly important in any area, but especially so for students at the small, rural schools that characterize Southern Illinois. These students might not have any other LGBTQ+ friends in the entire student body—and there might not even be resources at school to ensure their fair treatment or safety.
Much of Rainbow Cafe’s work is based in schools, because much of the need for advocacy and community is in the education system; Tara’s experience with this began firsthand with her transgender son’s transition. “When he graduated from high school four years ago,” she explains, “there was no Gay-Straight Alliance in place.” Even as a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, she struggled to fully understand or recognize what he was going through at a high school with no resources or community for people like him. That disconnect led her to get involved; “working with younger teenagers helped my relationship with my son, because I started to understand more of his experience.” She pauses to take a sip of her coffee. “You know, we always learn more from them than they do from us.” Continue reading “Q & A: The Rainbow Cafe”