When sophomore Freddy Purnell heard about an anti-LGBT+ protest at Penn State, he geared up with his red hat emboldened with “Make America Gay Again” and hurried to counter it. Purnell is deeply invested in LGBT+ and sexual assault issues, and he takes a leadership role both individually and within a variety of student organizations. He has spoken at a number of events, such as pride rallies and during National Coming Out Day. A peer educator for Men Against Violence, a group run by the Gender Equity Center, he informs students about sexual assault on campus and advises on how to prevent it. He goes to fraternities, classes and club meetings to discuss topics such as consent, bystander intervention, relationship violence and gender equity.
While Purnell is reluctant to say he can have a national impact, he believes he can influence more local areas. According to The Daily Collegian, 14 sexual assaults had been reported at Penn State in the fall 2017 semester as of Nov. 1. “I definitely feel like I can make a difference here,” Purnell said, “and that's why my goal is to become even more involved so I can expand my ability to help people.” An aspect of the LGBTQA Resource Center, “Straight Talks” educate about LGBT+ campus resources and open conversation to people’s personal stories. Purnell’s confidence in his ability to spur progress is not baseless.
One of his talks this year brought Purnell to a local middle school. The middle schoolers were given papers listing and defining terms relating to sexuality and gender identity. At the end of the session, the students turned in papers with their written feedback about the talk. One student wrote the session and term list had helped them understand how they identified theirself. “That’s the best part of doing any of these programs,” Purnell said. “[It’s] when you know you made a difference in someone’s life.”
Along with helping out with student organizations, Purnell practices activism as an individual by frequently attending protests and speaking about his personal experiences in front of crowds at rallies.
Despite his dedication, he denies that he is a leader. Instead, he said he prefers to assist qualified people who are able to organize programs with getting their messages across. Regardless, he is seen as a leader by some students. Purnell was recently elected as a finalist for an award in the LGBTQIA+ Advocacy category for Black Student Union’s 2017 Black Men on the Rise competition. Nominees for the award are African American men in the Penn State community, who show prowess through leadership activities. They are put forth by themselves or their peers and are then voted on by students. Among others, finalists in other categories alongside Purnell include senior Brian Davis, a social justice activist, and senior and Penn State football player Marcus Allen.
Black Student Union referred to Purnell as “known to be an inspirational and powerful speaker at pride rallies and other events that uplift the [LGBT+] community” and as “an inspiration to many members of the [LGBT+] community as well as their allies.” While awards are a plus, they are not Purnell’s motivation for doing what he does nor are they his goal. He said he is inclined to peer educating because he enjoys helping people. LGBT+ and sexual assault are real and relevant issues, he said.
“Queer discrimination and sexual assault are problems that happen every day in the U.S. and more frequently on campus than we care to talk about,” he said. “I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to try and put an end to those.” With the help of others and with his continuance with advocacy, Purnell said he ultimately aims “to improve Penn State and make it a place where everyone can feel safe and accepted, regardless of race, orientation or gender identity.”
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