LGBTQ rights speaker Ronni Sanlo spoke about the importance of acknowledging the historical roots of LGBTQ activism to a group of more than 50 students, faculty and alumni Wednesday night in honor of National Coming Out* Week. Sanlo also spoke about her personal coming out story in addition to her struggles as a lesbian in the 1980s when she faced rampant discrimination in the workplace and lost custody of her children.
Sanlo, who served as the director of the University of Michigan’s Lesbian and Gay Programs Office — and added the words “bisexual” and “transgender” to the office name — from 1994 to 1997, highlighted current attitudes toward the LGBTQ community as products of a long fight against prejudice and discrimination. Sanlo said the lack of attention paid to LGBTQ history contributes to the community’s continued invisibility.
“You probably didn’t learn about us in school,” Sanlo said. “I sure didn’t. I didn’t learn about Alan Turing, a gay man who is considered the great parent of computer science and who broke the German code in 1945 to help the allies win World War II. Or authors Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. People need to know that we LGBTQ folk didn’t just pop out of the Out Bar last Thursday night, or at the pride festival this year. Coming out is an act of courage, regardless of place, or age, or circumstance.”
National Coming Out* Week, hosted by the University’s Spectrum Center, runs from Oct. 8 to 12 and features a queer student panel and student mixer, among other events. The week is centered around National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, which began in 1988 to commemorate the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
Mark Chung Kwan Fan, the assistant director for engagement of the Spectrum Center, said the week’s events focused on the intersectionality of the LGBTQ community. Fan hoped National Coming Out* Week would increase visibility for less-known populations, such as transgender people of color.
“I think that with the campus climate or societal climate changing, there are visibilities for some but not for others,” Fan said. “When we think about cis white gay men, for example, there’s a lot of visibility. When we refer to the LGBT community, a lot of people say ‘gay,’ and that’s just one subpopulation.”
Sanlo, who identifies as Jewish, also discussed the importance of recognizing the diversity of the LGBTQ community. Citing a piece by writer Rita Mae Brown, Sanlo said the LGBTQ community is “confusing” because its members come from every possible race, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic background.
“There are Jewish LGBT people and zen ones, Muslim and all the other religious possibilities, and some who don’t believe in any religion at all,” Sanlo said. “What we do have in common with one another in all our varieties is that many people who are not lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender think us odd.”
Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Syd Brown said Sanlo’s lecture made them realize how important history is to understanding current LGBT issues. Brown also discussed how using theater as a form of activism has allowed them to spread their message of acceptance and understanding in a more effective way.
“I’m really interested in the creative arts as a whole as a medium for exploring social justice,” Brown said. “(History) is not something that’s taught a whole lot, and it’s only talked about in our circles. I think branching out and reaching people who aren’t necessarily part of the community and bringing our history to them is really important.”