The University’s LGBTQ community and allies will take center stage this weekend as students from across the region descend upon Ann Arbor to join in the largest student-orchestrated LGBTQ conference in the country.
The Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, first held in 1993 at Iowa State University, is convening at the University of Michigan for the first time this year. The conference is being held in Ann Arbor to match the timing of the 40th anniversary of the University’s Spectrum Center.
The Spectrum Center, which serves as a source of support for LGBTQ University students and allies, is the primary host of the event, but other organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are also contributing.
Jim Toy — who founded the University’s Spectrum Center, known at the time as the Human Sexuality Office, in 1971 — said he’s looking forward to the conference’s guest speakers. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, and Mandy Carter, founding board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, will be delivering addresses at the event.
“(The conference) recognizes and highlights Spectrum’s history and achievements since it was founded 40 years ago as the first office of its kind in the United States and in the world,” Toy said.
The conference will also offer workshops and film screenings centered on the event’s theme, “Justice or Just us? Achieving liberty for all.”
Toy, the first person in the state to openly state his sexual identity, said events like the conference are “absolutely” important in light of the LGBTQ bullying that has occurred within the past year.
“Those of us who diverge or appear to diverge from the norms imposed on us by society-at-large are, as we know too well, at risk of harassment, discrimination and assault to property and person,” he said.
The event will bring national attention to Ann Arbor’s role as a national leader in LGBTQ rights, Toy said. The first-ever Gay Pride Week was held in Ann Arbor in 1972, and the city amended its non-discrimination policy to protect gender identity and expression in 1999.
“(The) conference’s presence and influence will necessarily point up Ann Arbor’s leadership in supporting all of us in our human worth and dignity,” Toy said.
The Spectrum Center’s 40th anniversary feels ”fabulous and at the same time unreal,” Toy said.
“When we founded the office through the generous risk-taking of the (University), we couldn’t have predicted this event, which brings together so many TBLGQ students and allies from schools across the Midwest,” he said.
The Spectrum Center not only serves as a resource to LGBTQ students, Toy said, but it is also vital to the University community as a whole.
“The human sexuality threads of our total identity tapestry are bound together with all the other elements of our identity,” Toy said. “Therefore Spectrum responds to and highlights the interconnection of oppressions. As we know — it can’t be said too often — no one is free until we all are free.”
University alum Howard Bragman, founder of public relations firm Fifteen Minutes in Los Angeles, expressed his support for the Spectrum Center’s work on campus. Bragman worked with the University when Andrew Shirvell, a former Michigan assistant attorney general, targeted Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong last year because of his sexual orientation. Armstrong is the only assembly president who has been open about being gay.
Armstrong is attending the conference and is also set to introduce Jim Toy before his speech on Saturday. He added that he thinks the conference will demonstrate the University’s commitment to LGBTQ issues.
“It’s a really exciting thing for Michigan,” Armstrong said in an interview last night. “It’s an opportunity for Michigan to host the LGTB community.”
Bragman said it was “amazing” how the University supported Armstrong and fought against hate speech.
“(The University) never asked, ‘What’s the politically correct thing to do?’ They only asked, ‘What’s the morally right thing to do?’” Bragman said. “It reminded me what a great place the University is.”
Despite the open-mindedness of Ann Arbor residents and members of the University community, Bragman said life can still be difficult for LGBTQ students.
“Ann Arbor is a special place. It’s always been liberal,” he said. “But it doesn’t make it easy for gay people.”