By Mia Freiberg /// Staff Writer
What better way to immerse oneself in French culture than to volunteer at the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex resource center? Fortunately for Kevin Castillo (’16) and me, that happens to be the case. Just half a block behind Notre Dame, between the Île river and the cathedral, sits “La Station” (The Station), Strasbourg’s premier resource center for “lesbien, gai, bisexual, trans and intersexe folk.”
Discovering “La Station” was as intentional as it was intimidating. There were several club booths set up outside of the international school building, one of which served host to an upsettingly attractive young French student and a rainbow flag (in fact, everyone in this country is devastatingly good-looking). Immediately catching our attention for obvious reasons, Kevin and I quickly debated whose French was better and finally worked up the courage to approach him. Using our nervous French, and this student’s limited English, we managed to get a flier for “La Station” and began making plans to do our “stage” there.
Offering professional services from a legal team, psychological counselors and more from the many volunteers who run all other aspects of the association, “La Station” serves as a resource center for those who may identify as LGBTI. Its history began with the harassment of a lesbian couple on the Strasbourg tramway in 2009, and continued to its founding in 2011 in order to support the rights of LGBTI individuals here.The physical space is divided into three distinct spaces: the welcome desk and art exhibition (featuring different artists each month), the mediatech/library and the cafe. Individuals are greeted by workers at the welcome desk, often dope art and an empty doorway leading into the “café associatif,” run by volunteers like Kevin and me.
Although only required by our program to complete three to four hours per week, Kevin and I find ourselves spending more time than is necessary at the place that reminds me the most of home. We each have our own respective shifts during the week, one in which we work together on Monday evenings, and finally, we are responsible for planning the big “fête de Noël” at the end of December––a job I felt qualified enough to take on with my experience as a Rusty Nail coordinator.
The first event left to the cafe volunteers was “La Station’s” third anniversary, a party which we had two days’ notice to organize. My idea for the theme “Birthday Party for a Three Year Old” turned out to be very successful, including plenty of candy, face painting and a game of Pin the Gender on the Spectrum (“Épingle le genre sur la cible”). As the wonderful volunteer, Gills, who runs the cafe, said to me, “if we planned this in two days, imagine what we could do with a full month.”
Working at “La Station” is beyond ideal and incredibly enlightening. While we’re lucky enough to be able to publicize its existence, it bears mentioning that Kevin and I were warned, multiple times during the hiring process, of the consequences of having this type of work experience on a resume––in terms of seeking future employment or housing in France.
There are constant reminders of the cultural difference. For one, I learned from my “boss” during a training session that the identity of gender queer or neutral hasn’t developed here, as the French language is limited to strictly masculine or feminine adjectives. And of course there’s the “small” obstacle of having multiple volunteer training sessions exploring gender, sexuality and advocacy entirely in French.
Only in a space like this could I possibly hope to challenge myself to this extent, and still feel like I’m making a difference. I suppose the next step (or maybe the last) is to catch up on my Simone De Beauvoir in its original French.
I am not just grateful to be a part of this community; I am grateful that it exists and that I have been given the chance to augment its success. Not only do I get a firsthand perspective I had only ever hoped to understand, but I also get a little slice of an Lewis and Clark-esque queer community, just a few blocks from my apartment.