Conservative Republicans’ attempts to investigate or restrict local funding for the Governor’s annual Conference on LGBTQ Youth seem to have largely backfired. Monday’s gathering in downtown Des Moines saw the largest attendance yet in its 11-year run, with over 1,100 students, parents and educators showing up.
Few topics in Iowa have seen more political controversy in the last year than the conference that focuses largely on anti-bullying advice for LGBTQ youth led by the Iowa Safe Schools organization. Republicans at the statehouse tried to launch an investigation into the event, even asking local districts for information on who attended last year from their district. So Starting Line attended most of Monday’s conference to get a feel for what the event was like this year.
By and large, the LGBTQ conference looked like any large meeting of middle and high schoolers, though this one was certainly more colorful with the rainbow flags, scarfs and t-shirts. Groups of a dozen or more attended in busses from many of the state’s city schools, sitting with each other at tables in the Embassy Suite’s ballroom. Smaller contingents from rural schools were chaperoned by a teacher or parent.
The morning began with keynote speakers Candis Cayne, a transgender actress that broke barriers on network TV, and Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo on Orange Is The New Black and was the first lesbian comedian to appear on TV in the early 1990s.
DeLaria focused on her own personal journey through the years to be accepted in society and gave encouragement to those facing difficult times now.
“There are things I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” DeLaria said of being able to get married to her now-fiancé, contrasting it to the days in the 1990’s when Georgia essentially had laws making homosexuality illegal. “I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to strike down the laws to be who we are, be comfortable in my own skin … This is why you guys are so important. This fight is not going to end soon, and we need you in the front lines, we need you here talking about the issues and being involved.”
She also talked about getting randomly attacked and beat up at a bus stop in San Francisco in 1982 by a man who yelled anti-gay phrases at her, while other gay men and women stood by and didn’t speak up. She compared that to a few years ago when a woman started a fight with her in a New York clothing store over how she dressed more like a man, and a group of older straight women came to DeLaria’s defense and ran the person out.
The comedian DeLaria did a nice job of keeping the crowd engaged and entertained with mixing in a number of jokes throughout her presentation.
“I get called sir every day of my life – the worst is at the gynecologist office though,” she joked at one point. “When someone calls me sir, I usually make a joke about it, I’m easy-going about it, I don’t really care. Personally I think gender is so passe anyway. This obsessive need to focus on gender in society is bringing our whole society down. I think it’s ridiculous.”
After the opening speeches, the attendees gathered for breakout sessions in smaller rooms over a wide variety of topics. One morning session addressed transgendered bathroom issues and legislation being pushed in several states. Interfaith Alliance hosted one about the harm of religious exemption laws. Another focused on tips for middle and high schoolers on starting their own Gay-Straight Alliance club at their school. And one talked about the high usage of tobacco in the LGBTQ community and how people could overcome it.
Another morning session taught parents and educators how to go about handling reports of bullying.
“Maybe at the best, 50% of bullying is ever reported,” Penny Bisignano, a board member of the International Bullying Prevention Association, told that group to emphasize the need of taking reports seriously. “If someone has the courage to tell you, it’s very likely there’s something going on that needs to be addressed.”
That session discussed the importance of knowing the proper procedure of reporting bullying in their specific school district. One parent noted that the Waterloo schools have a very useful hotline that kids can text in to.
“Finding a district’s bullying and harassment policy is sometimes near impossible,” Bisignano explained of some school districts’ websites.
Another parent related how her daughter was choked by another girl at school. Her daughter reported it at school and was told the other girl was just playing, but the mother never heard about it from the school – which isn’t supposed to be what happens.
During lunch the attendees heard from Omar Sharif, Jr., the grandson of the famous actor who starred in Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. He related his own story of how he left his home country of Egypt during the uprising and revolutions of the Arab Spring. After Islamic fundamentalist factions gained power, restrictions on gay people increased. He received considerable hatred and threats of violence when he came out as gay himself in 2012 to lend support to those being oppressed in Egypt.
“If you can share your story and your voices and share who you are on social media, those messages are coming across,” Sharif suggested on how people in America can help those elsewhere. “People around the world are seeing them and realizing that they’re not alone, that different isn’t bad, and there’s a community out there that loves and supports them even if they’re many miles away.”
Several elected officials were on hand to lend their support to the school kids. The Iowa Legislature’s two out members, Senator Matt McCoy and Representative Liz Bennett, spoke in the afternoon to a group. State Senator Rob Hogg, who is leading the push for anti-bullying legislation in the Senate, was there in the morning and at a reception the night before. Former Lt. Governor Patty Judge also joined the conference’s supporters and speakers at the reception.
The hotel itself was packed with the conference having quickly outgrown its capacities, but students there relished the opportunity to spend a day with other kids facing the same challenges they are. One larger group from Scavo, the alternative high school in downtown Des Moines, particularly enjoyed the day.
“For those people who feel on the outs of their high schools, maybe huge or small ones, they can come be a part of this event and feel a part of something bigger,” Darby Payne, a senior at Scavo, said. “I feel as though I could walk up to any single one of these people and we could talk and be friends. And I think that’s really important to LGBT youth, that they feel able to make friends and connect with people on a little deeper level than just ‘oh, there’s that gay guy,’ where that’s how they’re labeled at school. Nobody is labeling us here.”
She’s also seen a lot of progress in just her few years since coming out.
“It makes me feel so good compared to five years ago when I was in middle school and I came out,” she said. “There were people being mean to me, I got harassed repeatedly. I got harassed so bad I had to switch schools one time, it was so bad. I feel like we’ve come so far from then.”
Crystal and Paul Johnson from Whittemore, Iowa (population of 494, near Algona in Kossuth County), were there to support their 16-year-old son who recently came out. They’ve faced some difficulties with others in the community since.
“I get a lot of comments from people at work, people who are saying, ‘what’s up with that hair?’” Paul Johnson said.
“Or, ‘Oh, did you see that boy in Algona that’s gay?’ Yeah, that’s our son,” Crystal Johnson added. “In some of the smaller towns like Algona, they won’t even allow the [Gay-Straight Alilance] clubs in the schools. There’s a couple of outed kids – the school district has been pretty close-minded.”
Still, they too have seen an overall improvement in acceptance.
“To see this [conference] in a state like Iowa, especially with many rural communities, the support has grown tremendously,” Crystal, whose sister came out as gay in the late 1980’s, said about the Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth.
For those actually at the conference, the political controversy that swirled around it the last year seemed like a completely different world.
Still, there was more than plenty at the conference that would’ve made a Republican legislator feel plenty uncomfortable. Andy McGuire, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, hosted a session on students becoming more involved in politics while another breakout group discussed combatting the “right wing smear machine.”
This was a conference decidedly progressive in its politics, though it largely kept that to LGBTQ issues – and that’s simply how the topic breaks down currently between the parties and ideology.
And yes, the language and phrasing used in some speeches, especially DeLaria’s, was just as colorful as some of the students’ dyed hair. She noted that Donald Trump’s talk on women made her want to her punch him in the face.
“The more we get our rights, the harder those conservative assholes are going to fight back,” DeLaria told the crowd in the morning.
But she was also restrained on the topic that garnered the most controversy from last year, when asked by a student how much should young people explore their sexuality.
“I’m trying not to get this conference in any more trouble,” DeLaria joked, and then emphasized the importance of talking such things through with parents if possible. “We’re all human beings – and I’m sorry, but sexuality is part of being human. So I personally feel that it’s important. But I also think that at a certain age you might want to talk to peers, counselors, your parents if you can, about what you’re thinking about.”
Still, when asked about what they liked most about the conference, every student immediately turned to their interactions with fellow LGBTQ youth.
“When I come to places like this it makes me feel ok, and like I’m not the problem,” said Korbin Allen, a transgendered junior at Scavo who transferred from North High School and felt much more at ease now. “It’s not my fault and it’s happened to other people. This is a safe space where I can look around and see a stranger and talk to them. I have social anxiety and I can’t walk through the halls of my school, but I feel like I can talk to anyone here.”
It’s likely that those conversations and words – and not the speeches from the big-name presenters – will be what the kids who this conference is meant for will go away remembering. Conversations between awkward teenagers who feel like outcasts and unwanted at their school, talking about their shared challenges with other people who actually understand them.
It’s unclear whether or not Republicans in the Iowa Legislature will want to continue their politically-charged investigation against the conference over a few contested incidents from 2015. But whatever partisan posturing they may go forward with likely won’t make a bit of difference to the students and families who gained so much from the Iowa Safe Schools conference. They’re still coming – in even larger numbers – despite whatever surrounding controversy.
And because at the end of the day that type of scape-goating and shaming behavior is increasingly part of the past. The kind of acceptance, solidarity and love expressed between the LGBTQ youth at the conference is society’s future. And there’s not a thing some conservative-led legislative committee can do to stop that.
by Pat Rynard