The University of Tennessee held its first LGBTIQ conference on Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Knoxville campus. In partnership with OUTstanding, the free public seminar was open to all identities and backgrounds including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) and ally-identified college students and community members.

Lauren Hill, a program administrator in UT’s Office of Research who helped organize the historic event on campus, welcomed everyone to the conference, encouraging those in attendance to "take what you learn from this seminar and pass it on.” She shared that she and her fellow classmates intended for the conference to help in making both the campus and the community a “safe space.”

A national voice for the LGBT community and the Executive Director of Campus Pride, Shane Windmeyer kicked off the day’s events with a discussion about destroying bias and developing straight allies.

“Timing in our movement is everything,” Windmeyer challenged the crowd, “And the South is ready to be pushed harder when it comes to creating visibility and change.”

In providing advice for how to make the college campus a safe place for LGBTIQ students, Windmeyer pointed out the importance of institutional commitment.

“It is is the responsibility of the campus,” hesaid, insisting that the movement cannot be led by LGBT students alone or it will never take roots.

First, he encouraged them to create visibility, by sending a message that the LGBT lifestyle is a normalized and standard part of the campus community. Next, he urged the university to start taking responsibility and ownership in free speech, by promoting civil and respectful discourse as an appropriate way to talk about issues. Finally, he challenged the university to create and demonstrate a climate where students can feel welcome, safe, valued, and supported.

“Colleges encourage students to come out,” said Windmeyer, “But what we really need is for the college itself to come out as LGBT supportive.”

After Windmeyer’s motivational opening, those in attendance were given the opportunity to choose three different sessions to attend throughout the next four hours of the day. Some of the various topics covered in these breakout sessions included the discussion of gender and sexuality on the internet, in the classroom, and within the Christian Bible.

In one specific workshop titled “Teaching for Tolerance,” the Special Education Faculty of the University of Tennessee outlined how they are preparing future and current educators to adequately address the effects of intolerance and exclusion on children’s opportunity to fully participate and achieve.

“Silence means agreement,” said faculty member Stacey Chiak. “If you do nothing, you are allowing it to happen.”

During lunch, guests were given the opportunity to watch a short film entitled Finding Voices. The film was created by Drew Harvill, a University of Tennessee graduate student who identifies himself as an ally for the LGBT movement. Using only a chalk board and a camera, Harvill provided a creative lens that would give viewers a closer look at the experiences of LGBT students on the UT campus.

Describing the passion and excitement of the students who participated in his film, Harvill said, “They already knew what they wanted to say, because it wasn’t something that they had to think about. It was like the words were just bottled up inside of them.”

Once the sessions were finished, attendees participated in a discussion between the public and a panel that consisted of students, faculty, and community members. The focus for the panel’s discussion was based on the question, “Where do we go from here?”

Renee DeLapp, a local LCSW with a focus on LGBTIQ clients and families, encouraged the group to remember that every single person can help with creating a future of safety and equality for the LGBT community, simply by sharing your story with friends, family and the people around you.

“Knowing someone is the single largest way that you can change someone,” said DeLapp.

Further emphasizing on the need for those who identify as LGBTIQ to share the positive moments of their story as well.

“When you see someone loving their life, and not loathing it, that makes a big difference,” stated Andrea Tucker.

Keith Boykin delivered an inspirational closing to the conference, telling highlights from his own personal journey and reading a special poem from his upcoming book. An American broadcaster, author and commentator, Boykin was a special assistant to President Clinton and a veteran of six political campaigns.

“Knowing the right thing to do is not the same as doing it,” said Boykin, as he opened his talk by stating that a revolution has already begun in this country and that each person must choose whether or not they possess the courage to be a part of it.

Recognizing that Knoxville was located in the heart of the Bible belt, Boykin identified the church as “the most homophobic  institution in the black community” and declared that members of the LGBTIQ community must challenge religious bias. Quoting several verses from the Christian Bible, he drew attention to the Bible’s use in our country’s past to support the oppression of women and African Americans.

With a tone of respect and sincerity, he asked, “How do we unlearn the fear we have been taught and relearn the love with which we were born?”

Boykin’s answer to this question involved challenging the church to shift its current fear and condemnation to a better focus on love and respect. In his closing remarks.

“When we have the courage to be open and honest about who we are, people will not only accept us, they will respect us more," Boykin said.

For more information or to get connected, OUTstanding can be found online at outstandingseminar.wordpress.com or by emailing outstandingutk@gmail.com.
 

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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