GREENVILLE, N.C. — On Jan. 12, East Carolina University (ECU) held a ribbon cutting and open house for the newly named Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center. It became the largest center of its kind in the University of North Carolina system.
Peel was on hand for the dedication and told The Daily Reflector, “For a young, gay kid in rural North Carolina, having a place like this where you’re able to be who you are and not have to apologize for it, that’s an incredible asset.” He came out in his 30s and considered himself a “late bloomer.”
The center is located on the second floor of the new student center and features expanded study and lounge areas, staff offices, a conference room and a lending library of more than 500 titles. Formerly known as the LGBT Resource Office, it was originally founded in 2011 and currently sees more than 7,000 visits each academic year. Its educational programming includes a speaker series, the Queer Film Series, and annual events such as National Coming Out Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance and World AIDS Day. Peel hopes that the new center will be a “a safe, open and welcoming space for young students struggling in their own journeys,” the Reflector added.
Peel, a philanthropist who lived in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shared ECU’s vision of a safe and welcoming environment that promotes understanding, acceptance and visibility of the LGBTQ community. His family homestead was located close to ECU in Everetts, N.C.
“I would’ve never imagined something like this when I was growing up. I was such a backwoods kid. I didn’t come out until my 30s. I might’ve been too afraid to go to it if there were a place like this in Chapel Hill,” he told the Georgia Voice. Peel was asked to be involved in ECU’s diversity initiative 14 years ago. With the LGBTQ center’s arrival, it captures prime real estate in the heart of the student center.
During the Jan. 12 ceremony, “Peel and 350 other attendees from around the state and Southeast spoke to the courage and determination these students have displayed. Each one of them a sprouting part of the future of the LGBTQ world. ‘With that comes an obligation. You need to get out there and become your full potential and become the queer leaders we need,’” Peel shared with the Georgia Voice.
He, along with his mother Helen Peel, also established the J. Woolard Peel University Scholars Award at ECU in order to memorialize his father. Upon his mother’s death, Peel sold her three farms and used the proceeds to create the J. Woolard and Helen Peele Distinguished Professorship in Religious Studies, the Reflector reported.
The school even made him an honorary Pirate in 2009 and it helped to instill even more love of the university. He hopes that the new center will be a catalyst for the community and provide for a place of welcome for the LGBTQ community.