Officials excited to welcome nation's largest LGBT conference to area; weekend provides opportunities for open, inclusive environment
University of South Dakota student Ross Dietrich reaches into a box of condoms to add to the bag he is stuffing for the MBLGTACC conference on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. Two thousand bags were stuffed to give to visitors of the conference. Katie Stiefel/The State News
Before Colin Wiebrecht came out to himself in January of his senior year of high school, every time someone mindlessly said the phrase “That’s so gay,” he felt a small jab at the person inside of him — he just wasn’t ready to share.
But when the molecular genetics and genomics freshman finally came to terms with his sexuality, it was like the last piece of the puzzle snapped into place.
“At some point along the way, I lost my confidence. But when I came out to people, I got that back,” Wiebrecht said. “It just felt amazing because it was like, if I can accept who I am and not be afraid of who I am … then I can do anything.”
Since coming to MSU, Wiebrecht has been dedicated to helping others feel confident, too. He is part of a group of 14 other students who have spent more than 2 years planning MBLGTACC— the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, ally, or LGBTA, conference in the nation.
This weekend, the work finally will pay off.
MBLGTACC is being held at the Lansing Center this Friday and Saturday, and Wiebrecht hopes it will be a chance for MSU students from every sexual orientation to find a safe place to discuss issues that affect their personal views of sexuality.
For some, that could be the confidence to come out to themselves or their families, and for others, the conference will be a safe place to talk about the LGBTA issues surrounding them.
When the small group of students who wanted to plan MBLGTACC approached Deanna Hurlbert, assistant director of the LBGT Resource Center, the center initially turned them away.
The students had no way to fund the conference, which is expected to draw in 2,000 college students from places as far away as California and Florida.
Despite the almost-impossibly large number of tasks in front of them, the importance of hosting the event weighed more heavily on them than the challenges they would have to put on their shoulders.
“It’s been consuming the last two years of our lives,” Erica Shekell, director of marketing and public relations for MBLGTACC, said. “It’s been a lot of personal sacrifice, but it’s because the conference is so important to all of us.”
Although there were hurdles for the 15-student planning committee, Shekell said MSU is the perfect place to host the conference because of the accepting attitude on campus and the 14 different LGBTA student groups.
With discussion topics at the conference ranging from pansexuality to being an ally to the LGBTA community, the 98 different workshops offer a topic for anyone — gay or straight.
This provides a valuable education that might have been out of reach for students, Shekell said. “If you’re Christian, you’ll (likely) be raised by a Christian family, and if you’re African American, you’ll (likely) be raised by an African American family,” Shekell said. “But if you’re LGBT, your family members aren’t necessarily LGBT, so you don’t get that knowledge.”
She said speakers at the conference can provide participants with the kind of knowledge they haven’t been able to find anywhere else.
For Wiebrecht, the 2,000 attendees the conference is projected to bring will provide a sense of anonymity for students who still are figuring out their sexuality.
Wiebrecht said the fear of being recognized at a neighborhood caucus such as PRISM, RING or SPECTRUM could keep students from getting the information they want to know but are afraid to seek out.
The conference also provides an arena free of any stereotypes or misconceptions and a safe place for students, Wiebrecht said.
Brent Bilodeau, director of the LBGT Resource Center until last year, attended the conference when MSU hosted it at Kellogg Center in 2003. He said the atmosphere was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
“There was something there,” Bilodeau said. “When I reflect on that, for many of those students, it’s the first time in their lives they had the opportunity to gather with a group of (LGBT students) of that size and that scope.”
When Wiebrecht noticed students were ripping down the posters for the Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, he established in his high school, he didn’t halt any of his efforts — he just asked custodians to hang them up higher.
And when he started seeing positive results, he knew he was creating a resource many students across the nation don’t have access to.
“I really felt like I was doing something when one of the girls in the (GSA) said, after talking to the group, she had the courage to come out to her mother,” Wiebrecht said. “It’s so great and so important to have these safe spaces for children, especially with the spikes in LGBT-youth suicide. … It’s one of the most important issues that we’re facing in schools right now, and I don’t think enough’s being done about it.”
Rebecca Sawyer, an MSU alumna, was confronted with the same issues in the school she teaches in when she decided to try and start a GSA chapter.
This weekend, she will be leading a workshop for student teachers about the importance of GSA in schools and integrating LGBT values into their curriculum in hopes of making all sexual orientations acceptable in public schools.
She also said she will try to provide student teachers with strategies to handle intolerance.
“How do you respond when a student says, ‘That’s so gay,’” Sawyer said. “Especially during student teaching, I didn’t like what I (saw).”
Hurlbert said highly-publicized events, such as the MBLGTACC conference, are a step toward making LGBT less taboo at all levels.
“I think it will have a huge impact,” Hurlbert said, explaining it will educate people who might have a negative opinion or haven’t been exposed to the LGBT community. “It reinforces the notion that there’s a wide world out there and being LGBT isn’t really a big deal, and it normalizes it.”
A catalyst for change
The amount of growth Bilodeau said he saw in his 18 years at MSU is almost hard to believe.
When Bilodeau first came to MSU in 1994, there only was one LGBT student group. There are 14 now.
When MSU held the conference in 2003, it was held in Kellogg Center and now, the huge crowds won’t fit there.
“The number of out students, the degree of student involvement and the numbers of student organizations dedicated to (LGBT) issues multiplied exponentially,” Bilodeau said. “(MBLGTACC) is a catalyst for change.”
Although Wiebrecht has come out to both himself and those around him, he knows there are countless other students at MSU who haven’t come to the same terms.
He hopes the conference will help them find the confidence needed to come out.
“I love this quote … ‘The best thing about coming out of the closet is that no one can insult you by telling you what you just told them,’” Wiebrecht said. “It’s like you take the power away from them, (and) they can’t insult you if you’re proud of who you are.”
By hosting the conference, Bilodeau said officials can provide people of all backgrounds with the education they need to develop such confidence.
“Education is the key to transforming a campus for both the (LGBT community) and for all people,” Bilodeau said.