Rainbows could be spotted throughout the filled university auditorium. The colorful scarves, belts, bandannas and patches, were proudly displayed as symbols of gay community and pride. Friends yell words of encouragement to each other from across the room and many members of the audience hold hands or embrace. In the hallway a young blond female student cries in the arms of another student as she worries about coming out.
Titled "Out and About: Breaking the Silence, Breaking the Boundaries, Breaking the Labels," the ninth Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, also known as the "Big Gay Conference," was held at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana last weekend.
This is the first time the university has hosted the conference. With about 1,300 participants, the three-day conference included more than 70 workshops, six keynote speakers and entertainment events such as a drag show, musical performances ranging from punk rock to blues and poetry readings. Conference volunteers and staff said they hope the conference gives a sense of support and growth to the queer community. "We're immersed in a straight culture every day, it's great to be around people you feel natural with," said Steve Wang, the Conference's webmaster.
"My first conference was two years ago. I'd come out two weeks before. Walking into a room of thousands of people dealing with the same issues as me gave me somewhat of a feeling of coming home," Cara Nance, co-outreach and advertising chair, said. "The idea of sharing about queer issues was just a great experience."
Keynote speaker Wilson Cruz, a gay youth advocate and actor, began his speech by serenading the crowd with "Over the Rainbow." Cruz, best known for his role as Ricki Vasquez on the television series My So Called Life, spoke about his own experiences as a gay teenager. Audience members alternated between laughter and silent nods of empathy as Cruz spoke humorously about the many struggles he faced coming out to his family and how he overcame those same struggles.
"It took me 19 years to become OK with being gay ... ( my father ) needed his time to come to terms with the news. How could I expect him to understand overnight when it took me 19 years?" Cruz said about his father's struggle to accept his identity.
Cruz also gave advice to those coming out to their own families. "If they have problems with your sexuality, that is their problem. Your job is to be patient, to have lines of communication open, to let them know you're willing to have dialogue ... . You give them the tools to educate themselves," he said, responding to a question from the audience.
Curt McKay, a member of the conference's planning committee, said this is the first year the term ally has been included in the name of the conference. "Our straight allies are extremely important to us. Having them understand who we are is extremely important," he said. "The conference has an aim of being inclusive of all orientations, races and ethnicity."
Writer and advocate for children with parents who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, Abigail Garner spoke about her own experiences of having a gay father and about the importance of being an ally. Garner said she wished there were more opportunities for allies to support each other and that it's time to build a community that involves straight people. She also addressed the issue of homophobia.
"Homophobia is something that you learn. It is something that is taught and it can be unlearned," Garner said.
Conference participant and UIUC student Kyle Whiteley agreed that the conference is a positive move against homophobia.
"Times have changed and people aren't as homophobic," he said. "However, people will still make homophobic comments and it's always a question whether you should go up to people and ask them to stop. It's about being safe, yet still making that step."
Workshops ranged in topics from feminist/queer theory to how to become a drag king to AIDS activism.
Lisa Murphy, an instructor at Central Michigan University, presented a workshop called "The New Testament and Homosexuality." She challenged the negative interpretations of the Bible against homosexuality. Murphy also praised the progress and awareness that the gay community has achieved. "When I was an undergraduate 20 years ago, could I have even imagined having an all-out gay conference?" Murphy asked. "Kids today have a totally different world and I think a much better world."
Professor Tracy Ore of St. Cloud State University passed out dental dams and condoms during her "Sex, Sex, and More Sex" workshop. Ore led an open discussion about sex, AIDS and relationships.
James Allen said he traveled from the University of Maryland to the conference to meet new people. "Out at Maryland we've never had anything like this. I came because I'm interested in learning about my own community," Allen said.
For Curt McKay the message of the conference was clear. "It's a way of saying to the university, 'we're gay, we're here, get to know us,'" he said. "And that will make things better."