Keegan Jones changed his name about a year ago, between finishing his bachelor’s degree at Mississippi State University and starting veterinary school.
A lot had changed since he started college four years earlier. Jones is transgender and had recently started hormone therapy when he arrived at MSU as a freshman.
In the time between, he helped MSU’s two LGBTQ student organizations merge into one and worked on making resources for LGBTQ students more “concrete” and not something they had to “dig and ask” for.
“There were the general crisis resources provided to all freshman students at MSU, and then if you dig through here, you can find a list of (gender-inclusive) bathrooms,” Jones said. “That was about what was available when I first started.”
The LGBTQ+ Union was an advocacy group, while Spectrum “was more focused on giving people, closeted or not, somewhere to be,” Jones said. He was on Spectrum’s leadership council for three and a half years.
“We had always had this issue of competing for membership, which wasn’t necessarily intended, but was the result of people not having time to go to every meeting they want to,” he said.
Months of discussions between the two groups led to the formation of Fostering LGBTQ+ Advocacy, Resources, and Environments — F.L.A.R.E., which Jones said meets both the advocacy and social support needs of LGBTQ students at MSU. The leaders of both organizations worked hard to find the balance between the two goals, he said.
“You don’t want to compromise the ability for people to stay private, or the ability of the group to explicitly support people and protect and try to bring them what they need on campus,” Jones said. “That was something that was really difficult to find.”
The merger happened right before Jones graduated from MSU’s wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture program, so he was no longer on the leadership team during F.L.A.R.E.’s first year of existence. Still, he said the group has developed into the support system LGBTQ students on campus need.
“It’s better tailored to serving everyone F.L.A.R.E. was intended to serve than what we gave them in May (2019),” he said.
Jones grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, which he said is “not quite as conservative” as other parts of the state. His mother is a veterinarian, so he grew up learning “how you hunt down a diagnosis” in animals and found it fascinating, he said.
He wanted to provide support to his fellow LGBTQ students as soon as he arrived at MSU. He is out to his parents and they are supportive, he said. Other LGBTQ youth are not as fortunate, especially in the Southeast.
“It was very important to me, since I have that stability, to get involved as quickly as possible so I could give that stability to someone else,” Jones said. “I’ve heard the horror stories. My first year, there were a couple people who got pulled from school because their parents found out (they were LGBTQ), and I don’t know what happened to everyone that happened to.”
But people’s life stories are only one part of the camaraderie in MSU’s LGBTQ community, he said. F.L.A.R.E. holds multiple social events per year and also provides educational resources, such as allyship training, for non-LGBTQ students.
His first year of veterinary school ended in a completely online learning environment, which he called “an adventure,” due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. He said he was grateful that much of the lab work for the year was already done and that first-year students do not have to learn surgical procedures yet.
After he finishes veterinary school, Jones plans to get a second post-graduate degree — specifically in wildlife veterinary medicine, so he joked that he will “be here forever.” He said he wishes he had as much time to support his cohorts as he did when he was an undergraduate, but he knows they are in good hands.
“Thankfully F.L.A.R.E. is getting out there and making sure they are present for freshmen as soon as possible,” Jones said.