Gay-bullying conference veers into left-versus-right politics
April 4, 2013
More than 800 students, parents and educators attended the Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Rights Wednesday. The conference was supposed to help students being bullied in school because of their gender or gender identity. The conference was held at Prairie Meadows Casino in Altoona.
A local legislator's sharp rhetoric helped fuel the fire against Iowa's conservative politicians on Wednesday at the Governor's Conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning rights at the Prairie Meadows Conference Center.
The conference was meant to be an open discussion about how to cut bullying and make a better learning environment for the state's high school students who fit one of those categories, but conservative leaders' verbal attacks on the conference and a threat last week by some Republican lawmakers to withhold funding from Des Moines Area Community College for sponsoring the conference took center stage.
"The right wing is wrong... They twist the facts," said Matt Sinovic, the executive director of Progress Iowa, who led a session on how to combat what he termed conservative propaganda.
Sinovic took aim at the state's leading gay-marriage opponent, radio show hosts, and the 16 Republicans who threatened to cut DMACC's funding, which includes Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, who represents Carroll.
Sinovic began his hour-long bash on conservatives by presenting a quote from WHO Radio host Jan Mickelson: "I don't think the mark of the beast will be a 666. I think it will be a rainbow."
Rainbows have long been symbols of the gay-rights movement.
Sinovic later showed a video called "Bob Vander Plaats: Highlights for the Worst Moments," where Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, compares homosexuality to smoking and laughs at a gay slur. The group's vice president, Chuck Hurley, was quoted condemning the conference:
"This papa bear is here to say, regarding the Governor's conference, stop coming after my kids and other people's kids with evil propaganda."
Sinovic said the best ways to combat such rhetoric is to write letters to the editors of newspapers, contact elected leaders and inform friends and family about the issues.
The conference was the eighth of its kind held in Iowa and played host to more than 800 students, parents and educators.
Though the conference was directly aimed at preventing bullying, students found the conference helpful for other reasons.
"I learned a lot about gender identity through the transgender course," said Jacob Kinlein, a junior at Iowa City West High School. "I helped a friend figure out who she was, where she fit in."
Kinlein said it was his second year attending the conference.
Sam Earley, a freshman from Linn-Mar High School, said the transgender panels also helped him the most.
"I attended all the transgender panels I could to familiarize myself," he said.
Earley said he was surprised by the number of people who attended the conference.
Other hour-long breakout sessions set politics aside and focused on helping students.
Veronica Fowler, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, taught high school students about First Amendment rights.
A group of students from Sioux City West had the most questions for Fowler. The students said they had school spirit days during homecoming in which they were discouraged from wearing clothes that were not gender appropriate.
"Our school stopped us because they didn't want to promote cross-dressing," one student said.
Fowler said she'd look into the situation. At the end of the session, students were encouraged to see what websites their schools were blocking and why.
Fowler told students that they should be able to look up LGBTQ issues at school and told them to try to access websites like Planned Parenthood and the Iowa Pride Network to see if they've been blocked by the school. She said schools can block certain things, such as porn, but most websites should be free for students to access.
Fowler encouraged any student who feels their freedom is being infringed upon to contact the Iowa Civil Liberties Union at 515-243-3576 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another session spent an hour discussing a pink locker room at the University of Iowa.
The co-founders of Gender Justice, Jill Gaulding and Lisa Stratton, discussed why it's a big deal that athletic officials at the school painted the visiting football locker room pink, and said it could be illegal.
Gaulding said that the pink locker room is illegal because no person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be subject to discrimination under any education program.
A final session of the day had conference attendees writing stereotypes on posterboards.
Latinos were labeled as illegals; Baptists were called Bible thumpers; blacks were stereotyped as uneducated; gays named flamboyant; lesbians were butch; and Muslims were proclaimed terrorists.
After the lists grew for about 15 minutes, those in attendance were asked what they thought after seeing the labels.
Answers ranged from frustrated, to people who said they now had something to prove.
Others were uncomfortable that they were so easily able to come up with the stereotypes.
Joel Geske and Luiza Dreasher, of Iowa State University, explained that stereotypes are a way for the human brain to quickly categorize information and should be used for nothing more than that.
At the end of the conference audience members were told to go rip up any of the stereotypical words that offended them most.
The conference also featured keynote speakers His Royal Highness Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, of India, the country's first gay prince, and J.D. Ordonez, a gay cast member of the MTV show "The Real World: Brooklyn."
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