By: Lauren Wallace, SFU Student
Fast Facts on Dani
Name: Dani McNeil-Willmot
Pronouns: They / Them / Their
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and Psychology from Cape Breton University
Past work and volunteer experiences: Advocacy work with previously incarcerated self-identified women, The Cape Breton University Pride and Ally Centre, arranging talks with medical professionals about queer and trans health, and lots more!
Fun Fact: Dani is a big comic fan, and really enjoyed our local Vancouver Comic Arts Festival.
Favorite Comic Couple: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy
Walking into the Out on Campus (OOC) space is always a little daunting for me. The double doors feel like I’m entering into someone else’s personal hangout zone, even though I know it’s a welcoming space where I belong. Located in the Rotunda, I’ve passed by it daily since my first year at Simon Fraser, but I’ve been too shy to intrude on the cozy and quiet space that’s been sheltering LGBTQ2IA+ students for so long. Luckily, this time I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dani McNeil-Willmot, the new OOC Coordinator, to talk about everything coming up on the horizon for OOC.
Dani has been working in advocacy and creating safe spaces for LGBTQ2IA+ folks for five years, since the third year of their undergraduate studies in Nova Scotia, after coming out as queer in a small, rural community. Dani recounts the challenges of finding a place for queerness in their community.
“I made it my mission to get involved . . . I did a number of presentations talking about internalized homophobia, and the whole ‘coming out as being queer’ thing,” Dani says.
Their role in advocacy and education spanned from talks with medical professionals about queer issues to talks with self-identified women seeking employment after incarceration, plus starting support groups with young trans folks.
“I just fell in love with it … [and it] snowballed from there,” Dani was excited to explain some of their first forays in the trans community helping trans youth and assisting with the Pride and Ally Centre at Cape Breton University, where they graduated with a double major in psychology and biology.
When describing their motivation to move out to BC, they smile rather wryly, and share their story of growing up in a rural, very small community, which definitely impacted their journey as they embraced not only their sexuality, but also their gender identity: “I wanted to have more access to services, to opportunities to get involved, and grow a little bit more . . .”
Dani then chose to pursue a masters in women and gender studies, to give an academic backing to the work they had been doing and add extra confidence to their voice. The gender, sexuality, and women’s studies program at SFU was a huge influence on their decision to move west, with SFU being the first university in Canada to offer such a program.
“Plus I knew I wanted to be on the West Coast anyways, because of the mountains and oceans and all of that good stuff,” Dani laughs.
The biggest hurdle they’ve had since making it out to the coast and starting as coordinator? Making sure people actually are aware of Out On Campus and its existence as a safe and welcoming space, especially with the new Student Union Building coming to Burnaby campus and OOC’s upcoming relocation to the SUB.
“Because we have been historically located in the Rotunda, I think the move in and of itself is going to be a big shift for a lot of folks.”
Not to worry, though! Dani reassures OOC’s regular and future visitors: “We are going to have a space in the SUB building, and I believe it’s even going to be a little larger.”
One of Out on Campus’ current features is its massive library. When I told Dani that I was a huge nerd myself, they immediately had a recommendation for a comic book with good queer representation, despite their heavy reading schedule for school and their having recently splurged at VanCAF (Vancouver’s Comic Arts Festival) — which features tons of local artists, including many artists who are part of the queer community.
“There’s a huge plethora of queer and trans local art and narrative that you can get your hands on,” Dani says.
In the mainstream, Dani is all about Harley Quinn — of whom they even have a tattoo, and whose representation and problematic reception they have even written a paper on once.
“But that’s a story for another time,” Dani laughs.
Moving forward as the new coordinator, Dani really hopes to push for spaces that are open to marginalized folks on campus, especially the BIPOC+ (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) community and Indigenous students in particular.
“Historically, Out On Campus has had some issues with not being necessarily a safe space for our more marginalized folks . . . I want to make a very active effort to make this space safe for everyone, but particularly our most marginalized students, because that’s who safe spaces are meant for.
“Reaching out . . . and making sure we are partnering with the First Nations Students’ Association and partnering with the Indigenous Student Centre, and [not only] making sure we are making programming and events for these students, but that we are partnering with the areas of our school that can be the voice and actually drive which way our programming and events are going, and having OOC be a vehicle for enacting what they want to see.
“I want to create programming and events that are relevant, but obviously my lived experience is very different from many of our Indigenous students’ lived experiences.”
Dani is starting off their time at SFU with a long lineup of Summer events. The best way to stay up to date with OOC’s schedule, workshop, and events and activities is through Twitter, Facebook (SFSS OOC), or their newsletter — which you can sign up for by emailining ooc@sfu,ca.
If you’re like me and still feel shy about crossing the threshold into OOC, Dani closes our time with some words of encouragement, even if they admit this might sound cliché: “University is such a time for you to break out of your shell and learn a lot about yourself, which I know was a huge thing for me in my undergrad . . . I encourage first years or anyone who wants to learn more, regardless of whether they identify as a part of the community or they identify as an ally, stop by the space, say hello. Get to know what we do, because we do quite a bit.”
As if telepathic, they go on to speak to my own shyness. “Just be willing to step through those doors. I know two sets of doors can be daunting for folks, especially if they haven’t entered a space like this before, but I encourage you to take that leap because it’s totally worth it, on so many different levels.”