RIT’S Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) organizations have worked hard to unite a campus and raise awareness of the issues facing the community today. To further these goals, members of the LGBT groups on campus are hosting the North East LGBT Conference (NELGBTC), an annual convention which is coming to RIT for the first time. From April 12 to 14, the conference will host numerous workshops and speakers lecturing on topics ranging from healthcare to international issues to activism.
The theme for this year’s conference is “The Ally in YOU,” in an effort to encourage alliance and support both from outside and within the LGBT community. According to the conference’s website, “The term ‘Ally’ refers not only to supportive people outside the LGBT community, but also to those within who make an effort to include and support identities and cultures other than their own.”
This idea is the motivation behind the many accommodations that the Conference Host Committee (CHC), a group comprised of a variety of campus representatives, has made for the conference. “One of the values that we have as a committee is that we are inclusive to the greatest extent possible,” says Henry Hinesley, member of the CHC and coordinator of the RIT GLBT Center. They have made sure to include wheelchair accessibility to all facilities, both gender specific and gender neutral bathrooms and interpreters proficient in ASL and LGBT terminology, all in the effort of uniting the campus.
Coming to RIT
After over a year of planning and preparation, NELGBTC is coming to RIT. Since its founding in 1995 at the University at Albany, NELGBTC has gained increasing attention and support and, in 2010, made its first move to University at Buffalo.
Since then, it has taken place in different locations across New York State and next year, they plan to take the conference to New Jersey. In order to maintain consistency at each conference, a Board of Directors works to provide some of the funding and assistance to the campus running the event. “It’s sort of advisory,” explains third year Interpreting major and president of OUTspoken Tristan Wright. “They help in terms of advice and walking us through the process.”
A lot of the organizational work has been done by the CHC, which includes representatives from Access Services, the Student Interpreting Association, Student Affairs, Center for Women and Gender, NTID, Multicultural Student Life, Wellness Education, the GLBT Center and the various LGBTQ clubs around campus (see page 16). “We started out by including everyone who wanted to be involved,” says Hinesley.
About a year and a half ago, Hinesley took up the responsibility for developing the proposal to host the event here on campus. Once their bid was accepted, he encouraged the LGBT leaders from around campus to get involved in the effort. Clubs responded by offering workshops, presentations and volunteers.
“I hadn’t anticipated that we would be quite as involved but it has actually worked out really, really well,” Wright explains. OUTspoken has helped with the conference through their involvement with the welcome reception and some of the other presentations during the event, in addition to helping fund some aspects of the conference.
Other organizations and local companies have been contributing funding as well including RIT’s President’s Office, RIT alumni Frank Selvaggi and Bill Shea, the RIT GLBT Center, the Center for Campus Life/Office of Diversity and Inclusion, ACA: AALANA Collegiate Association, Global Union, the History Department, Residence Life, Student Government, Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Bruegger’s Bagels, the RIT Gay Alliance, Image Out, Spectrum and Wegmans. Gracie’s and Brick City will also be contributing their efforts by providing some of the catering and additional vegetarian and vegan options.
The NELGBTC draws in hundreds of students and advisors from all around the Northeast annually; this year’s conference is expected to reach 500 participants. Last Friday, Hinesley said that they had about 450 people registered and were planning on either ending registration by Wednesday, April 10 or once they had registered 500 people, capping the number in an effort to accommodate everyone in the space they have.
In addition to provided adequate, the committee has made an effort to increase ease of access for everyone wishing to attend.
Access for Everyone
In order to accommodate all attendees, increasing wheelchair access was crucial, yet was one of the simpler tasks that the committee hoped to complete. “It helps with structural accessibility — ramps and elevators — that we are holding it in spaces that are accessible,” Wright explains, “which was part of the thought process. RIT already has to be accessible which is useful.”
However, the rest of the accommodations have required a little more preparation on behalf of the CHC.
Gender neutral bathrooms are not something new to the conference. NELGBTC has made a conscious effort to include both gender neutral and gender specific bathrooms at this conference and the past ones as well.
However, there is still a lack of gender neutral bathrooms in most public spaces. Even at RIT, Hinesley predicts that they will need to convert some of the gender specific bathrooms on campus to be all-inclusive.
Hinesley realizes that the lack of gender neutral public restrooms poses a problem to the transgender community who may not feel safe or comfortable going into either bathroom. This has been a problem and a source of controversy across the nation.
A public school in Colorado stopped allowing a six year old student, who was born a male but who is female identifying, to use the girls’ bathroom; instead, she was allowed to choose between the boys’ bathroom, the neutral faculty bathroom, and the nurse’s bathroom. However, her parents have since withdrawn her from the school after filing a discrimination complaint.
In Arizona, State Representative John Kavanagh proposed a bill to make it illegal to use the restroom designated for the biological sex that differs from the one the individual was born with. However, after receiving a great deal of criticism, the bill has been changed to allow the owners of private facilities to make the final call on whether or not to allow this in their facilities.
Despite this proposal, efforts are being made to increase understanding and awareness of the issues that members of the transgender community face. At conferences in the past, Hinesley has participated in this effort through his presentations to advisors on how to make their campuses more transgender friendly.
During these presentations, Hinesley stresses how this can be accomplished: increasing the ease by which a person can change their name and the creation of gender neutral housing and facilities, such as gender neutral bathrooms in dorms and public spaces on campus. Hinesley explains that at RIT, students can change the name on their ID card quite easily; however, changing a person’s name within the different RIT information systems can be quite complicated, time consuming and — in the financial aid arena — impossible unless the change is made legally.
According to Hinsley, gender neutral housing still needs to be addressed at RIT so that transgender individuals can choose which housing to live in based off of their preferred gender.
At this year’s conference, there will be workshops provided on the topic of transgender concerns including Trans 101 and a Gender Neutral Housing Panel.
The Deaf Queer Experience
The Conference Host Committee has also worked to hire and train interpreters for the event. Hinesley says that the goal of the training was to make sure that they are fluent in up-to-date signs for LGBT terminology. Wright explains that “If an interpreter hasn’t been exposed to that either through their academic preparation or through their life experiences, then they aren’t likely to know that terminology.”
Luckily, some of the interpreters with experience on campus know the terminology well already. “[The LGBT clubs at RIT] have been working with interpreting services ... and the conference is a natural extension of that work,” says Wright. Once the committee started meeting up, interpreting services also got involved to interpret those meetings for the Deaf members.
In addition to providing interpreting for the workshops, the conference will have white boards available to enable conversation between the deaf and hearing attendees. But incorporating Deaf culture into the conference has involved more elements than this alone.
“We’ve really worked hard to incorporate a lot of the Deaf queer experience which is just something that the average individual does not encounter,” explains Wright. “I’m an interpreting student. They always remind us in the department that we exist in a [community] where it seems like Deaf people are everywhere and Deaf queer issues, including “It’s a Deaf, Deaf World,” “No voice Zone,” “Mentoring Deaf Queer Students” and “Deaf Queer Culture”.
Wright mentions that the Deaf culture here is “something that’s very unique about RIT and something that is very unique about the queer culture at RIT.” According to Hinesly, this uniqueness is part of what contributes to what he believes to be the main issue that Deaf members of the LGBT community face: social isolation.
The Deaf community is relatively small already but when an individual is also part of a specific sector of the queer community, it can be difficult to find people to relate to the individual’s situation and the issues that they face. Spectrum, one of the LGBT-focused clubs on campus, is primarily focused on the deaf and hard of hearing queer communities and although Hinesley admits that the club is small, it can help students to feel less isolated. “That’s the whole point,” says Hinesly. “Trying to get past feeling different.”
Belonging to any type or any number of cultural subgroups can lead to this type of isolation. But with the growing prominence and popularity of conferences and gatherings like the NELGBTC, it may become easier to find the support and inclusion that so many seek. With the theme of “The Ally in YOU” for the upcoming conference, this goal may be within reach.