Over the past five days, first-year Graduate School of Education student Courtney Hill no longer felt as if she were part of a minority, solely differentiated by her sexual orientation.
Rather, it was the opposite: she was the majority.
Along with seven other Penn students and three staff members, Hill attended the 24th annual National Conference on LGBT equality: Creating Change held in Baltimore, Md.
Sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the LGBT advocacy conference — the largest of its kind — drew about 3,000 participants, ranging from students to activists from all over the country.
“It’s the most welcoming and accepting environment you could be in,” LGBT Center Program Coordinator Rebecca Schept said. “All of the bathrooms are gender neutral, everything is translated to sign language — it’s just a wonderful experience.”
The program featured speakers including Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and hosted a variety of workshops centered around LGBT issues.
The structure of the five-day event provided members of the Penn delegation with opportunities to explore topics they were interested in on a more in-depth scale.
For example, Hugh Hamilton, a College sophomore and chair of the Lambda Alliance — Penn’s umbrella organization for LGBT students — took part in a workshop on class structure in the queer community, focusing on wealth disparities and the ways in which the LGBT community has been affected differently economically.
“[It was] a level of inclusiveness I have never personally experienced,” Hamilton said. “No matter who you are, no matter what background you’re from, they are very sensitive here about making everyone feel like they belong.”
Hill added that she chose to attend workshops that held a more personal meaning for her.
These included sessions that not only aligned with her interests, but also were relevant to her professional field to help foster “a better understanding of how to organize groups centered on issues related to the LGBT community.”
Ultimately, Schept felt one of the greatest takeaways from the conference was simply knowing what it was like to feel at home, particularly for the student members.
“It was very emotional and overwhelming for our students to know what it felt like to belong,” she said.
While Hamilton believes Penn has come a long way in its acceptance of LGBT students, he added that there remains much work to be done.
The conference, he explained, provided everyone in Penn’s delegation with new ideas and lessons on how to make LGBT-related issues known more widely across campus.
“I feel like at Penn, we feel as if we’re on the cutting edge on all these issues, and we don’t necessarily have great need to expand our horizons that much,” he said. “This conference is definitely testament to the fact that there’s always more to address.”
On the same vein, Hill also wants to “integrate into the conversation [at Penn] about queer people of color into the context of the queer community at Penn.”
“This should be the norm,” Schept added. “It should always be this comfortable.”
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