America Hears a Hoosier at the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference

A college conference is helping train students to battle the idiocy of laws like Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It’s 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, and I’m driving along a desolate stretch of land somewhere in Indiana. There are mounds of snow lining the freeway, and a white blanket covers vast fields that will flourish with wheat or corn in just a few months. In the passenger seat is Calvin, with whom I’m having a delightful conversation, while Aaron sits in the back seat buried in something on his cell. We, along with two other cars full of students, are heading to Normal, Illinois, for a student conference. It has not escaped anyone’s notice that an LGBTQIA conference is being held in Normal.

Despite the pleasant chat, I’m not in the mood to be escorting a group of students to a conference. Just the day before, I got dumped by the guy I was dating, got lost driving in the very city I live in, had a rough day at work, and drove two hours to drop off my dog at her sitter’s, then two hours back home. I want to curl up on the sofa with hot chocolate – spiked with rum and Kahlua – and avoid humanity, and yet, here I am on my way to interact with a few thousand LGBTQIA college students and their sponsors.

The conference is the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, the largest such conference in the United States. To avoid having to say Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference every time someone wants to refer to the conference, the name has been shortened to something that sounds like “Mumble-teck”. This is my first trip to the Mumble-teck, but the students who went in previous years are amped up like they’ve been swilling Red Bulls while holding onto live electrical wires.

Despite the “Midwest” in the title, attendees come from across the country. There are workshops for both students and sponsors, covering every conceivable issue those in the fight for recognition on university and college campuses might face. Break-out sessions discuss graphic novels, the military, leadership on campuses, organizing LGBTQIA groups on campus, Greek life, suicide, homelessness, kink and bdsm, gay conversion therapy, and HIV/AIDS, among other things. There are dozens of different sessions from which students may choose. Options for sponsors are a bit more limited, but there are still plenty of sessions for us, as well.

Based on my observations, students attending the conference fall into three categories: those interested in activism and absorbing as much knowledge as possible, those seeking fellowship and new friends from other places, and those who spend the entire weekend on Grindr or Tinder. All three groups seemed to have considerable success in their respective endeavors.

The one person who managed to garner everyone’s attention, including those who are otherwise glued to their phones, was Laverne Cox, the Emmy and SAG nominated actress from Orange is the New Black, who was the conference’s keynote speaker. Not only is Cox beautiful and stylish, she’s an accomplished public speaker and incredibly intelligent woman. Her address to the adoring, cheering crowd was littered with references to the great activists of today: “According to bell hooks… you all know bell hooks, don’t you?”, “You know Cornel West. He says…”, “If you’ve read Simone de Beauvoir… you know Simone?” Laverne, the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time, also knows her statistics, peppering her speech with statistics, such as the fact that a trans woman of color is murdered every three days in the United States. I fell in love with Laverne Cox that day. (An equally popular guest was Bianca Del Rio, who hosted the conference’s drag show.)

Also while at the conference, I fell in love with Dr. Susan Rankin. She was the first LGBT coach in NCAA athletics, serving as the softball coach at Penn State. Today, she studies and reports on the status of the queer and trans spectrum, as she calls them, in universities and university sports (as well as other demographics). Rankin didn’t speak to the thousands who saw Cox, just the advisors, but I found her equally compelling. Her research has noted that high school students who come out often go back in the closet when they get to college, testing the climate before outing themselves a second time. A third of queer and trans students consider leaving college because of the climate, and 43 percent of queer students and 63 percent of trans students conceal their identity in college to avoid intimidation. (The good news is that 57 percent of queer and 37 percent of trans students don’t conceal their identity, one would assume, which is a huge improvement from a few years back.) Rankin, currently head of Rankin and Associates, helped in the creation of the Campus Pride Index, which measures the social climate of universities for queer and trans students. If you are interested in learning how your college or alma mater measures, visit Campus Pride.org to find out.

For my students, one of the best aspects of the conference was when the attendees were broken into their various demographics – gay, lesbian, ally, bisexual, trans, asexual, disability, queer, queer people of color, and middle sexuality. Something about being in a room with those who had similar experiences and mindsets seemed reassuring and even comforting. Still, the multitude and wide range of programs offered to the students allowed for the potential for every student to leave with a unique experience.

This type of conference – which teaches LGBT IA students that there is nothing wrong with them – is the sort of thing that gives the staff at The 700 Club and Family Research Council chest pains, which progresses into full-blown panic attacks when they realize that one small fraction of one cent of their state taxes helped fund some student’s trip to the conference. These trips teach students self-assurance, comradery, pride, perseverance, and leadership skills. What those who support the wave anti-gay legislation rearing throughout the United States want least is an organized, intelligent opposition, which MBLGTACC allows students to be through education and fellowship. At least those who didn’t spend the whole weekend on Grindr.

My students from Indiana are going to need those leadership skills once they get out of college, as a few weeks after the conference, the governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which put Indiana at the top of the “do not travel to” list of places. The law, in essence, allowed businesses the right to refuse service to LGBT individuals on religious grounds. The fallout of the act was immediate, and there is no need to rehash the governor’s embarrassing media appearances, the quick backtrack with the legislative “fix” to the bad law, or the millions of Facebook posts condemning the governor, the legislature, and the state of Indiana…and that’s just how many were on my home page. People who never had any intention of coming here announced they couldn’t bring themselves to come to Indiana, while owners of a pizzeria became wealthy after raising cash online once their bigotry was exposed in the media and they were forced to close their business.

Meanwhile, out in California, Matt McLaughlin wants to pass a law allowing anyone to shoot a homosexual on sight (“California lawyer seeks to put ‘shoot the gays’ proposal on 2016 ballot“, by Lauren Gambino, 23 March 2015), while Florida is trying to once again ban adoption by LGBT people. North Carolina is considering RFRA legislation of its own, which some are calling more damaging to LGBT rights than the Indiana law. In some states, so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws exist for sex education, with Alabama’s law calling homosexuality unacceptable and illegal, although the state’s sodomy law was ruled unconstitutional 12 years ago. Mississippi’s law lumps homosexuality in with forcible rape, statutory rape, paternity establishment, and child support as topics about which students must be taught current laws. Other states have similar laws to the ones cited above, and they aren’t all in America’s South.

While the outpouring of condemnation over the Indiana law is reassuring to see, and apparently effective in bringing about some small token change, it also elicits a response – at least from me – of “Where ya’ been?” These laws are nothing new. States and the federal government have been hating on us for quite some time. Perhaps if people had asked for some clarity when the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed and signed into law by President Clinton back in 1993, as well as asked candidates for their interpretations of the act with regards to discrimination in the five presidential elections we’ve had since 1993, states wouldn’t be so quick to jump onto the RFRA bandwagon. Or if companies threatened to pull their businesses out of other states when they passed anti-LGBT laws (some did, in all fairness). Or if celebrities tweeted and Facebooked their indignation over discriminatory laws in years passed (again, some did).

Still, it often just takes one person to wake people up and start a movement, whether it’s a tired black woman on a bus or a conservative governor of Indiana. One can only hope that the momentum and support gained in recent weeks doesn’t fade once the next celebrity cause appears, and that the army of LGBT supporters continues to fight to be recognized with dignity. One can also hope that many of the students at MBLGTACC will lead that army in the next generation.

It’s 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, and I find myself driving once more through that bleak Indiana landscape. The conference has been a wonderful experience, even if Normal, Illinois, was one of the coldest freaking places I’ve ever been. Quiet Aaron now occupies the front seat of the car, and Haley is stretched across the back seat. While Haley was apparently born with a rainbow umbilical cord and has been out since she learned to talk, Aaron reveals that he has been out of the closet for about two seconds, but not to everyone, and isn’t quite sure what to make of this whole gay lifestyle. He treasures the small-town morals of his parents, although not their position on homosexuality, and he longs to meet a man who has those same morals. These two are at opposite ends of the experience of being out and queer, yet here we all are discussing different perspectives on the LGBT experience and learning from one another. It is these conversations, in the car and over dinners and lunches, that were the most rewarding part of the conference, and what has convinced me that it’s going to be one hell of an army fighting for our civil rights.