A year ago, the Dent County Commission voted to “mourn” for one year the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision by lowering flags at two government buildings.
That action by the three men in the small county southeast of Fort Leonard Wood quickly made national news and brought a swift rebuke from members of the military and veterans who said it violated flag-flying protocol. Lowering the U.S. flag, they said, should be reserved as a way to pay respect to fallen soldiers and dignitaries who die.
The commissioners did an about-face 48 hours later, rescinding their vote. By then, Jacob Wilson had already sprung into action.
A native of Salem, Mo., the Dent County seat, Wilson set up a crowdfunding page to establish a scholarship for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in Dent County.
After the initial vote by county commissioners on July 13, “a lot of friends reached out in disbelief. They were frustrated and hurt,” Wilson, 29, said. “The goal was to raise $3,000, giving out $1,000 a year for three years. Instead, we raised $12,000 in 12 days.”
With that generosity, Wilson knew he was on to something. He formed the Missouri Courage Scholarship organization and teamed with Pride St. Louis, a nonprofit that puts on the annual Pride festival and parade in downtown St. Louis, to craft an application and bolster efforts of both groups to provide educational opportunities for young Missourians.
Wilson’s burgeoning St. Louis-based organization developed a database of Missouri high school counselors and emailed scholarship applications to them. Wilson also visited 17 high schools, delivering cookies and fliers to counselors, explaining his efforts.
He hoped the first year would yield 50 applications; 112 came in. The idea was to assist those, especially in rural districts, who do not have a support base, something Wilson lacked as a gay student in Salem.
“I was not out in high school and definitely did not feel comfortable,” said Wilson, a 2004 graduate. “I didn’t know any open LGBT people.”
In promoting the Courage Scholarship application, he talked with recent graduates and current teachers in the Salem district, hoping that things had changed.
“Like many other schools in the state of Missouri, there might be more tolerance, but there is not a culture of tolerance or acceptance of LGBT students,” said Wilson.
Overall, counselors across the state were receptive to posting the application flier. But not all.
“The worst experience was a counselor who just told me straight up that she would not be able to post the flier because it had ‘LGBT’ on it,” Wilson said. The application process was open to all students, regardless of sexual orientation. What mattered most was being a booster for building a tolerant school, he said.
“It takes COURAGE to go against the grain, take a stand for equality, and live authentically in the face of adversity and hostility,” the flier said.
In the end, eight scholarships were awarded, totaling more than $10,000. None of the applications came from Dent County — a disappointing but not surprising result for Wilson. However, winners came from other rural areas, including Cherryville and Potosi, as well as suburban areas such as Lee’s Summit and Ballwin.
Alex Comstock, who graduated this year from Sikeston High School, was one of the recipients. He plans to attend Missouri State University and major in education. Wading through scholarship applications, the one set up by Wilson caught Comstock’s eye.
“It catered to me,” said Comstock, who came out his sophomore year.
It was tough opening up to family, who didn’t talk about such things. At school, bullying was common. But a funny thing happened as Comstock became more comfortable with his sexual orientation: The mean comments in the hallways subsided. And as word spread about Comstock, others began contacting him.
“Through social media or in between classes, they’d say: ‘Can I talk to you?’ ”
It was not his intent, but Comstock has become a support for others. He shares his feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide, stressing: You are not alone.
Wilson said Comstock exemplified what was happening around the state and the country. Young people are coming out, stepping up and changing attitudes. They are creating more comfortable, welcoming schools.
It’s been a good year, Wilson said, one that certainly took an unexpected turn. As a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, studying higher education, Wilson had not planned on starting a nonprofit. But after Presiding Commissioner Darrell Skiles said lowering the flags would serve as a reminder of “this despicable Supreme Court travesty,” he felt a response was in order.
On Saturday, Wilson and supporters will celebrate the first anniversary of the scholarship program with a fundraiser in downtown St. Louis.
Tyler Dunnington, a former St. Louis Cardinals minor league player, who says he quit baseball because of homophobia in the clubhouse, is scheduled to speak.