Lindsay Hamilton, a senior rhetoric major at Georgia College and State University, drove up to Athens from her home in Milledgeville Saturday morning for one reason: to attend the 2017 Connect Conference, hosted by the University of Georgia’s LGBT Resource Center.
This is the third time the LGBT resource center has hosted this event, and Director Meg Evans said every year the number of attendees has grown, doubling in size from last year.
“This conference, while it’s about LGBT issues, it’s certainly for anybody on campus or in the area,” Evans said. “I think the more we can talk about our identities and be authentic, the more we can understand one another to work on problems and issues that arise and form a better community here at UGA.”
Presenters could be anyone from students and faculty at UGA and other universities to members of the community, Evans said. All the presenters except for the keynote were volunteers.
Evans said they advertised the conference through Facebook, flyers and other campus’ LGBT resource centers.
The conference’s theme this year was Existence in Resilience with four sessions containing four choices of workshops each.
There were four categories for the workshops: heart, mind, body and soul. Each track focuses on a different aspect of the general theme.
Evans said preparation for this conference starts during the summer, and they started taking workshop and presenter proposals in early fall.
Hamilton went to the “Queer as What or Whom?” workshop in the “heart” pillar for her first session, where UGA graduate students Satish Kumar and TJ Johnson talked about the media’s portrayal of the LGBT community.
“I was always super happy when we had LGBTQIA representations in popular media,” Kumar said. “But there was a certain part of that that didn’t speak to my own experience. A lot of popular mainstream gay-male culture tended to be predominately white, cisgender and strangely heteronormative.”
Evans said through LGBT events like this conference, the resource center tries to include students of all identifications and connect them with each other.
“I feel very included here,” Hamilton said. “I don’t ever feel ashamed as this type of conference to talk about my sexuality.”
Hamilton said she’s struggled in the past with identifying in the LGBT group.
“I feel like it’s more complicated because of how bi people are perceived,” Hamilton said. “It’s this idea that there’s a little bit of straight in you, so you don’t count, but I do count. Don’t try and erase me from the group.”
She talked about this issue when Kumar and Johnson opened up the workshop to questions, and the whole room discussed their own stories and ideas about the portrayal of the LGBT community in mainstream media.
“I’ve been to a couple academic queer studies conferences,” Kumar said. “Those are very solemn, serious affairs. With this, I was very grateful to have a forum of this nature. We can talk informally about our identities.”
All the conference attendees meet back together after the first session for lunch and the keynote speaker, Tori Grace Nichols.
Nichols is an LGBT activist and performing artist who previously did LGBT work at Georgia College. They stayed in line with the theme during their speech, talking about resistance to discrimination and inclusion within the community.
“It’s certainly not the time to just sit and pretend everything’s fine,” Nichols said. “Everything's not fine in a lot of different ways. Even if something doesn’t directly impact you, it will eventually.”
Evans said the keynote speaker is always a nationally recognized speaker, and the resource center connected to Nichols through their work with GCSU.
“Their story and identities they hold are not identities that are often centered, and we wanted to create that for our students who hold similar identities to see them centered in a thoughtful and positive way,” Evans said.
After the keynote, there were three more sessions, all touching on diverse issues within the LGBT community.
Kumar went to “The Rainbow Hijjab” during the next session, and he said it was a refreshing change from academic discussions on similar topics.
“For me, it’s very important to try and understand how to talk about personal experience or traumatic experiences in productive ways,” Kumar said. “You can still be rational, logical and critical but still be personally invested in something.”
Other workshops included “Family, faith and Finances,” “More Than Two to Tango,” “Our Love Knows No Boundaries."
Evans said there were no problems during the conference other than having to order more food for the amount of people attending. The center will look into a bigger venue for next year.
Before closing out the conference at 6:30 p.m., the group broke out into a caucus session where they could have a small-group discussion with people with similar identities. Caucus sessions included “Women: Lesbian and Multisexual” and “Trans and Gender Non-Conforming.”
These sessions were created for attendees to have a safe space to talk about their experiences and discuss issues or activism within the community, and Nichols reminded the group to take care of themselves first.
“You have to know when to rest, because I promise you, the work and the movement will be there when you’re done resting,” Nichols said. “So please make sure that you’re taking care of yourself first before doing all the great things I know you’re doing.”