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10 Penn students affiliated with Penn’s LGBTQ community travelled 673 miles to attend the nation's largest LGBTQ conference. | Courtesy of Julia Pan

This year, five undergraduate and five graduate students affiliated with Penn’s LGBTQ community travelled 673 miles to Chicago to attend the nation’s largest LGBTQ conference.

Penn has been sending students to the Creating Change Conference for years, with all expenses covered by alumni donations to the LGBT Center. In order to attend the conference, which lasted from Jan. 20 to 24, students had to submit a short statement describing why they should be chosen, what they hoped to gain from the conference and what they would be able to contribute to the LGBT community at Penn upon returning. This year, over 30 students applied.

“It’s very innovative, it’s very rooted in social justice, and I think that by taking our students out of Penn and bringing them to the conference, we get a lot back from it, but they also get a lot out of it,” LGBT Center Associate Director Rebecca Schept said.

Many of the conference’s workshops and sessions focused on the challenges of identifying with multiple minority groups as well as the experiences of less well-represented populations.

“There were a number of workshops that focused directly on LGBTQ-specific issues and very intersectional workshops that focused on Latino LGBT issues, Asian LGBT issues and black LGBT issues,” said College senior Chikezie Wood, co-founder of the Association of Queer International Students.

“I thought it was beautiful because there were so many intersecting identities that were given space,” graduate student Maurice Jackson added. “Their narratives were given the space, time and love that the people in this community need and seek.”

One of the events that resonated with Jackson was entitled “Black Feminism and the Movement for Black Lives”, a discussion featuring activists Barbara Smith, Reina Gossett and Charlene Carruthers. The discussion encompassed the trans perspective within black feminism and offered three generations’ worth of different views on the black feminism and Black Lives Matter movements.

The conference was not without controversy, however. Some people attending the conference felt that the invitation for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement to speak violated their safe space. And a group of protesters spoke out against A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel organization which some accuse of “pinkwashing,” or using LGBTQ advocacy to turn the focus away from human rights disputes within Palestine.

“I think that when there’s a space of healing, you have to realize that people are coming with scars and wounds and hurt and pain, and the smallest things can be triggers,” said Jackson.

Participants brought back a variety of new perspectives to apply to the Penn community.

“I think that we need to appreciate our privilege and what that affords us,” Jackson said. “But when we step out of this campus and onto the street and we’re being activists and we’re interacting with regular people, we need to meet people halfway and realize that not everyone has that pool of knowledge. It’s about educating each other because education is a shared experience.”

Medical student Mark Meisarah believes that attending the conference with other campus leaders in the Penn LGBTQ community allowed everyone to get to know each other on a personal level, which will hopefully increase collaboration between different LGBTQ constituent groups in the future.

Creating Change remains as relevant as ever to the LGBTQ community, even though the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of marriage equality.

“To say that the fight [for LGBTQ rights] is over disregards the rest of the community. The first step is marriage equality,” Jackson said. “Now how do we get equality for everyone else? How do we respect bisexual identities? How do we respect non-cis identities? How do we respect asexual identities? There are so many identities that fall under this umbrella. How do we gain respect and love for them?”

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