First of all: What is MBLGTACC? It’s short for Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, and it’s the largest LGBTQ+ college conference in the nation. Since 1993, it has been held annually on a weekend in late February, and is hosted by a different college each year in one of the following thirteen Midwestern states: IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, MI, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, and WI.
This year, the 24th MBLGTACC was held at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. I attended the conference along with eleven other members of Spectrum UI, my school’s LGBTQ+ group. I was super excited for a number of reasons… I mean, first of all, it’s gay. YAYYYY.
Secondly, it was held in my home state this year! Indiana is a horrible place to be queer – we have barely any legal protections, and an anti-LGBTQ+ governor – so I was really surprised that it was hosted there, but I also think it’s important to start making progress somewhere.
Putting a new spin on Indiana’s motto, “The Crossroads of America,” this year’s theme was “Introspection at the Crossroads,” and as such, this conference dealt with intersectionality, as well as arriving at a crossroads and having to make decisions about what to do next to further the LGBTQ+ movement.
Also? I was kind of excited to visit Purdue again. Not because I’m a huge fan of their sports team or whatever, but because I attended various 4-H programs there in middle school and I have some great memories of that place. (I could also very well end up being the only person in my family to not attend that school… my parents met there, and my brother might go there this fall.)
Anywayyyy. Enough introductory info. It’s time to tell you how I spent my weekend! Note: This is a very long post, so… well, you have been warned.
Soooo… we actually did not end up attending the conference on Friday. It just wasn’t our lucky day! For example, the road we were going to take was closed – and then we found out our alternate route was also closed! We ended up finding a third route that led us down a dusty gravel road in the middle of an Illinois cornfield. I HAVE NEVER FELT MORE MIDWESTERN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. The land is just so flat.
We also forgot that we’d cross a timezone during our trip. Most, but not all, of Indiana is on Eastern Time, while Iowa is on Central Time. (I live in the small chunk of land that’s on CT, though. EVERYTHING IS SO CONFUSING.) We thought we left on time, but we forgot to factor in the hour we’d gain crossing the timezone.)
Eventually we did find our way to the hotel, but only after first missing a turn and then taking ten minutes to figure out how to navigate the maze of hotel parking lots in order to find our hotel’s parking lot. Like I said, it was just not a good day for us – it was a comedy of errors. It makes for a good story, and that’s why I’m telling you about it. Every time we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did.
On the other hand, we used less than half a tank of gas in our seven-hour trip because the car was super fuel-efficient, so at least we didn’t have to worry about that. (BTW, the drive from the U of Iowa to Purdue is supposed to take four or five hours, not seven. Ughhhh.)
We ended up arriving so late that there wasn’t any time left for us to register, and registration was required to participate in any of the programs. We missed the opening ceremony, the keynote address, and that evening’s entertainment.
It was a bit of a letdown to not participate in the first events of the conference, to not make new friends with people from other states right away, but on the other hand… I’d never even heard of Friday’s speaker and performer before. Jessica Pettitt, who gave the keynote, leads diversity training and social justice workshops, while Todrick Hall, that night’s entertainer, is a YouTube star. Apparently. I probably would’ve enjoyed listening to them, but I wasn’t too disappointed because I had no idea who they were or what sort of work they’d done.
We woke up ridiculously early – six AM, which actually felt like five AM to us – and left for the conference. The morning consisted of workshops: Three sessions, with approximately ten or fifteen choices for each timeslot.
The first workshop I attended, at eight in the morning, was “Queering Femininity: Femme History, Identity, & Erasure.” I have mixed feelings about this workshop, honestly. Some parts of it were useful and affirming, but other parts were just plain inaccurate.
Simply put, “femme” (and “butch” too for that matter) are terms that originated within the lesbian community and were/are intended to be used only by that community. The workshop leader’s opinion, however, was that “ANYONE can be femme!” and… yeah. It made me super uncomfortable, not only because her definition was wrong but because she wasn’t even a lesbian who just happened to not know her LGBTQ+ history: She was bi.
I don’t know… it was just very very weird and I found myself mentally arguing with much of her presentation. I’m not super happy about the appropriation of femme by bi, pan, and queer women, but I also think that’s the least problematic aspect of it: She also said it can be used by straight trans women, and that’s just not true. (Trans lesbians can totally use it, but femme is not a identity for straight people. SHE LITERALLY SAID THAT AND THEN CONTRADICTED HERSELF SEVERAL MINUTES LATER.) She also said that men and nonbinary people can use the term femme, and at that point I wanted to yell that there’s a difference between femme and feminine.
I did enjoy the rest of her presentation, so it was at least partially useful. I liked what she had to say about how femme doesn’t have to be about wearing lipstick and high heels all the time – there are multiple expressions of that identity. She also discussed how straight people assume femmes are also straight because they “don’t look gay,” and how even the LGBTQ+ community often regards femmes as “not queer enough.”
Finally, she told us that being femme is not necessarily defined as being attracted to butches, which is something I already knew, but I appreciated it anyway. As a femme lesbian who is attracted to feminine women – again, note the difference between feminine and femme – 99.9% of the time, this isn’t something I hear often enough.
The second workshop was my favorite! It was “GaySL: A Crash Course in LGBT American Sign Language.” I find languages fascinating, and I’ve tried to teach myself ASL on and off over the years, but have never managed to make to make much progress. This workshop inspired me to try again, however.
First, we learned the alphabet in order to be able to sign “LGBTQ.” Then we learned the signs for various identities, as well as signs for terms such as coming out. The guy who led this workshop had a great sense of humor, and some very creative tips for remembering the signs.
He talked about how there isn’t very much standardization even within ASL, let alone sign languages in general, because it’s neither written nor spoken. He said that technology such as Skype has made it much easier to break down the language barriers between Deaf people in one part of the country and Deaf people in a different part of the country, because you can videochat with someone hundreds or even thousands of miles away from you, and you end up adopting some of their signs and teaching them yours.
One example is that one of the signs for “coming out” looks very similar to the sign for “possum” in Missouri, where the workshop leader was from, so we all got a good laugh out of that. He also recommended finger-spelling any words we were unsure about because at an earlier MBLGTACC, one of the interpreters apparently tried to sign “queer” but accidentally used a sign that means “f****t” in many parts of the country and became super embarrassed about what she’d done.
Last but not least, he talked about the need for better accessibility within the LGBTQ+ community. The queer community tends to do a good job of accommodating and understanding those with mental illness – there were designated “quiet spaces” for anyone who needed them – but LGBTQ+ Deaf people are often quite literally left out of the conversation because no one thinks to provide them with an interpreter.
The third workshop of the day was “When Did We Become Bihets And Monosexuals?: Tracing Tensions Between Lesbians and Bisexual Women.” The presenter discussed her master’s thesis about those tensions, how they flare up in tumblr discourse, and how they stem both from the feminist movement and from a misguided attempt to classify the “other side” as essentially straight.
Basically, if you don’t already know, “bihet” is a derogatory term for bi women in relationships with men, and it’s a bad term because you’re trying to pretend their identity as a bi woman doesn’t exist. “Monosexual” is a term for people who are attracted to one gender, and it’s frowned upon because it groups gay men and lesbians with straight people. Gay men and lesbians are totally capable of being biphobic but unlike straight people, we don’t have such a stranglehold on power that we can make laws and create social norms that condemn being LGBTQ+.
The part of the presentation that I loved the most was the bit about feminism – in the sixties and seventies, lesbians would insist that being solely attracted to women was the only way to be a real feminist, and bi women would tell us that being attracted only to women was “gender discrimination.” I’m definitely glad I went to this workshop, because I’m all about supporting other queer women, and it’s important to understand why there’s distrust among some members of our community.
After lunch, I went to the Iowa Caucus. Technically. I mean, that’s what it’s called, even though it’s not THE Iowa Caucus. It’s basically a session where we talk to people from other schools in our state about LGBTQ+ issues in that state, as well as our thoughts about what we enjoyed about the conference and what could be improved for next year. My state’s caucus wasn’t attended by very many people, but I’m glad I went anyway because I got to meet some other queer people from Iowa!
Next up was workshop four, the final one of the day. I attended “Queering Sex Ed: The Past, Present, and Future of Sexual Health Education.” This workshop was much more discussion-based than the others, with lots of time to talk amongst ourselves.
The gist of this workshop was that sex ed programs in US schools are pretty pathetic and full of misinformation, and information about LGBTQ+ subjects is practically nonexistent – hardly anyone was taught about that. I certainly wasn’t. Thank god for websites such as Scarleteen, because queer safe sex barely registers on most people’s radar, and even in the LGBTQ+ community people tend to think only about guys having safe sex and forget that queer women exist. A lot of people cited Scarleteen, actually. It’s a pretty awesome site. You should check it out
Afterwards, I popped into the room where the vendors’ booths were set up and grabbed a bunch of free rainbow buttons and mini Pride flags. (I plan to decorate my room with the latter in order to piss off my homophobic roommate who still, somehow, hasn’t figured out that I’m gay. She is… heteroblivious.)
The next timeslot was for the identity forums. There were a whole bunch of them for various sexual/romantic orientations and gender identities and I, of course, attended the one for lesbians. AHHHH IT WAS SO MUCH FUN. There were probably seventy or eighty of us there! I’d never been around so many lesbians before – I’d never even known that many prior to this – and it was just amazing to be around so many women who completely understand how I feel and who I am. It was beyond weird to look around that room and know that.
We ended up playing a humongous game of trainwreck, where one person stands in the middle of a circle and says something like, “I’m [name] and my favorite color is blue!” and everyone whose favorite color is also blue runs around trying to find a new spot in the circle, and then the last person left has to say something. OUR VERSION ENDED UP BEING REALLY REALLY GAY.
Someone also had the brilliant idea to make a Facebook group as well as a group chat for us because, as she said, it’s hard to form a network of fellow lesbians. I know that I often feel lonely, and I have very few IRL lesbian friendships. Online friends are great, but sometimes it’s hard to not have those IRL friends, so we made the Facebook group in the hope that we can stay in touch and meet up again next year.
At this point in the day, I was becoming pretty exhausted, so I was grateful for the chance to transition to a quieter activity. I attended a screening of Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine, which I highly recommend: It gave me a good sense of who he was as a person. We tend to forget that he was more than just a name and a tragedy that drove us even harder to fight for LGBTQ+ rights. I cried A LOT during this movie.
Following that, we listened to his mother, Judy Shepard, speak for more than an hour. She was AMAZING. I have a lot of… issues… with so-called straight allies because I think a lot of them expect effusive praise for meeting basic levels of human decency, but I really think she gets it. She talked about how hard it is to find the strength to go on after losing someone, or to keep fighting for equal treatment. She talked about how ignoring conservative Christians was easy because she believes true Christianity isn’t hateful, and how we’ll win over everyone’s hearts and minds eventually.
Throughout this entire session, I couldn’t help but think that Matt was lucky to have had her as a mom – and I’m not just saying that to be nice. She was down-to-earth, and funny. (She reminded me of my own mom in that way, actually.) During the Q&A session, one young man said that the advocacy programs she helps to run saved his life and when he got embarrassed about starting to cry as he said that, she was just like, “Do you want a hug?” And he did. She was so kind to people she didn’t even know.
After that… well, we had dinner, and that ended up taking so long that we missed most of the drag show. I wasn’t particularly interested in attending either that or the dance, because Engie The Tiny Introvert was tired and stressed from being around so many new people that all I wanted to do was rest. So I did. I went back to the hotel along with several other people from our group, and I went to bed early. I would love to attend both the drag show and dance next year if I feel better, but at that point last night, I was just plain cranky.
…also, thanks to the Facebook group I later discovered that the 21+ lesbians were going out to a bar, while those who were too young to drink made plans to play Cards Against Humanity during the dance. NOW I KIND OF REGRET NOT GOING TO THE DANCE. On the other hand, though, no one wants to deal with a small, cranky Engie-beast.
In the morning, I attended my fifth and final workshop of the conference: “Bienvenidos/as/es: Creating an Inclusive Spanish Language.” As you already know, I’m very interested in languages.
It turned out that I already knew much of the information about gender-neutral pronouns, endings, et cetera, but it was nevertheless interesting – mostly because of the Latinx attendees who spoke up at various points throughout the session with their input. (The presenter was a white guy, and while he was certainly passionate about the subject material, there were many terms that he wasn’t aware of… that I wasn’t aware of, until Latinx people told us about it.)
The final event of the conference was a speech by Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay priest in the history of the Christian faith. I am not currently and never have been religious, but I loved what he had to say because I thought that much of it was applicable to everyone. I was excited to hear what he had to say because I thought his chapter in the book version of the It Gets Better Project was absolutely amazing.
He talked about soooo many things that I can’t even remember them all, but here are some of them: Intersectionality, the roots of homophobia lying in misogyny, #BlackLivesMatter, the fallacy of reverse racism, and how the Bible’s passages on homosexuality have been taken out of context.
I also REALLY appreciated his criticism of the current pope, because he’s just as anti-LGBTQ+ as the last one, even though he pretends not to be, and we need to stop glossing over that and acting as if everything is all right.
Well, that pretty much sums up my first MBLGTACC experience. We headed home after Robinson’s speech, and I took a nap once I got home because I was so exhausted. I miss MBLGTACC so much already. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to attend this conference and meet all those people.
I felt more at home there than maybe anywhere else ever before… I could be myself around these people. I felt safe around them. Thousands of queer people, all around me, and we were all animatedly talking about things that we normally keep to ourselves for fear of rejection or even violence. I kid you not, my first thought upon arriving back in my dorm was, “This place is depressingly straight. Who am I gonna talk to about GAY STUFF?!”
That’s perhaps an overreaction on my part, because I have plenty of LGBTQ+ friends here. But there was something incredible about being around so many openly and proudly LGBTQ+ people that I want to feel again as soon as possible. I just hope I can convince at least a few of my friends to attend MBLGTACC with me next year, because it was an amazing experience and I feel the need to share it with others. I can’t wait until MBLGTACC 2017 – it will be held at Navy Pier in Chicago, IL, by a consortium of colleges from that area!