Two VCU students and two staff members receive Burnside Watstein Awards

The awards, given annually, recognize contributions to the LGBTQIA+ community at the university.

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Harris Erickson, a VCU sophomore theater major, wanted to enhance the LGBTQIA+ community during COVID-19 and worked with others around campus to hold a series of drag shows at Monroe Park. Called Time Warp, the student-led drag show performances attracted audiences from across Virginia Commonwealth University and throughout Richmond.

“When I began drag one year ago, which was inspired by the adoration of the art form, it was years in the making,” Erickson said. “The vision was never centric to the character that would be my own drag character, but to a catalyzation, to a collective of being queer.”

Erickson, a fellow student and two VCU faculty members were honored Thursday at the

16th annual Burnside Watstein LGBTQIA Awards. The awards were created by Equality VCU at a time when the contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies often went unrecognized. They were named for Chris Burnside and Sarah Watstein, former co-chairs of Equality VCU and outspoken voices for diversity and inclusivity.

“Time Warp celebrates the tenacity of drag artists, specifically those who are expertly amateur, who are participating as a king, queen or in between in what we have called our student drag spectacle,” Erickson said.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said awards like Burnside Watstein are important because they recognize people who are doing valuable work at the university.

“They are an amazing group of human beings who are dedicated to making our university community, and really the world, a truly more inclusive, better, more equitable, kind and embracing place for everybody,” Rao said. “We are living during a very pivotal time, and while we see many people who are embracing all of humanity – there are some who are not. We’ll all need to be sure that we are exercising our right to speak in favor of embracing all human beings.”

I went to graduate school to do work that benefits our community and being able to do that work here at VCU has been an amazing experience because of all the support that we have for LGBTQIA+ initiatives on campus.

Eli Coston

Award honoree Lane B. Carasik, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, is the first openly queer professor in the College of Engineering and has worked to create an environment where LGBTQIA+ students feel comfortable studying engineering. Carasik holds office hours that have become a place where openly queer engineering students can gather and create a community.

Carasik is proud to have made a positive impact on the LGBTQIA+ community at VCU. The environment is very different from when Carasik was a student.

“When I was an undergrad at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, there was not a very strong queer community for undergrads and grad students,” Carasik said. “I could not have done any of this without my colleagues who paved the way for me.”

Eli Coston, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, was given the Burnside Watstein Award for promoting inclusion, equity and social justice for LGBTQIA+ people at VCU and in Richmond. Colston works to reduce police harassment of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Coston has testified at legislative hearings about LGBTQIA+ hate-crime issues and used their platform to speak to major media outlets.

“I went to graduate school to do work that benefits our community and being able to do that work here at VCU has been an amazing experience because of all the support that we have for LGBTQIA+ initiatives on campus,” Coston said.

The connections that Coston has made at VCU and across Richmond have allowed them to do social justice work. Coston looks forward to what can be accomplished in the future and was pleased to see so many more faculty at VCU addressing LGBTQIA+ issues.

The other student to be honored, Brenae Flournoy, a senior graphic design major in the School of Arts, is an advocate for people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community at VCU. A lot of the effort has centered around her art, which gives a voice to marginalized groups.

“It’s amazing to be recognized for who you are and for something that is simple and taken for granted, for a piece of my identity,” Flournoy said.

Jonathan Molina-Garcia, an assistant professor of photography and digital futures in the School of the Arts, gave the keynote speech for the awards event. Molina-Garcia focused on the use of the word “them” and how it gives meaning to the LGBTQIA+ community.

Molina-Garcia frames their work with a kind of intensity and passion. Life for a queer person in the American South can be challenging and a hard place to find an identity, Molina-Garcia said. The journey can be winding and full of obstacles.

“It’s passionate intensity that drives an endless becoming and realization,” Molina-Garcia said.

Queerness is an “evolving, sliding scale of limits.” It is limited by the “other” in a person and is always working toward potentiality, Molina-Garcia said. “When I heard someone use the pronoun ‘them’ to refer to me for the first time, I felt (the potential) then.”