Kenyon College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is never without work to do, especially as they continuously create new and innovative ways for the LGBTQ+ community to connect and develop.
Two years ago, in 2019, the college held its very first Queer and Trans Studies Conference to provide resources and informational sessions to LGBTQ+ students within five different tracks: healthcare and technology, visual and performing arts, humanities and pop culture, politics, society and the law, and community-interest.
This inaugural conference attracted a diverse group of over 130 students from more than 15 different academic institutions, making it the largest LGBTQ+ student conference within the state of Ohio. Following this success, Kenyon is gearing up for its second biennial conference this April 9th-11th, with a few important modifications.
The 2021 Queer and Trans Studies Conference will be held 100% virtually. Despite the change to online format, there will still be educational programs, breakout groups, and resource offerings, from a name and gender marker change clinic to information on how to access a home HIV testing kit. In light of COVID-19 and the challenges we have all faced this past year, the conference will also end with a focus on mental health.
The Buckeye Flame connected with Dorian Rhea Debussy, Associate Director for the college’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, to learn more about what we can expect from the 2021 conference.
What inspired the initial creation of Kenyon’s Queer and Trans Studies Conference two years ago?
A lot of our LGBTQ+ students, and particularly our seniors at that time, were sharing that they wanted more academic opportunities to learn about the LGBTQ+ community. The conference really rose out of the needs that the students were expressing in regards to having a space to explore academic topics related to the LGBTQ+ community and to share that knowledge with folks from the broader community.
The idea for the creating a LGBTQ+ studies conference was certainly on my “to do” list when joining Kenyon College back in 2018. After consulting with our seniors and hearing what opportunities they wanted to see before they graduated, we decided to essentially fast track this idea and develop the conference.
Can you walk me through some of the programs and resources offered at the 2019 conference?
In terms of general resources, we partnered with Knox Public Health to offer a HIV and STI testing clinic, which was fully free and available to folks at the conference. We also partnered with TransOhio, Equitas Health, and Equality Ohio to offer a free name and gender marker change clinic at the conference. And, we hosted a raffle of gift cards for items like binders, LGBTQ+ books, and more.
In terms of conference presentations, we had a wide variety of sessions offered. We had a group of Kenyon students who delivered a presentation on the basics of asexuality, and that session later led to the creation of the college’s first Ace Space and Aro Place student group a few weeks after the conference. We also hosted a session on exploring polyamory and ethical non-monogamy, which I know was really well attended. And finally, we also had a very useful session on navigating clothing as a trans or gender non-conforming person.
What limitations are there with holding the 2021 conference virtually?
I think everyone is really eager to have something that can be safely done in-person. Unfortunately that isn’t possible right now. I think the one big downside to the virtual program is that people are definitely experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, and we certainly do recognize. But our student leaders really wanted to move forward with the conference this year, particularly since it’s something that LGBTQ+ students in other areas of the state or other areas of the country might be needing.
The other challenge is the logistics of hosting such a large virtual program. This was a one-day conference [in 2019], and we were able to offer the five tracks simultaneously throughout the day. There’s now a lot of person-power required for all the Zoom rooms and the associated registrations, and despite the virtual format, we want to offer basically the same amount of content for folks, rather than scaling back. However, that requires us to stretch the conference schedule out, which is why we’re starting on a Friday evening and ending on a Sunday afternoon.
In terms of upsides, the extended schedule does mean that folks can attend more sessions, and it makes more knowledge available for the attendees. The other really wonderful benefit is that the virtual format allows us to reach LGBTQ+ students across the country, since they don’t have to travel to Central Ohio to attend the program.
Why is a conference like this so important for the LGBTQ+ community, especially this year?
COVID-19 has created so, so many challenges for students. We know that the pandemic disproportionately affects communities of color, and we know that the LGBTQ+ community has existing health disparities, which makes the pandemic even more troublesome for that community too.
The switch to virtual learning has obviously created challenges for students across the country. But, this is particularly true for LGBTQ+ students. These students may be studying virtually from familial homes that aren’t supportive of their identities and that don’t celebrate their identities. Or, they might be studying from other places where they’re not connected to a biological family or familial support structure.
With that in mind, I think making sure that we’re providing a space for LGBTQ+ students in this ongoing virtual academic year is critically important, and that’s one of several reasons why we’ll be explicitly focusing on mental health and wellness at the end of this year’s conference.
- Proposal and Registration Info: Proposals will be accepted from undergraduate and graduate students at any educational institution in Ohio and beyond until Friday, February 5th. The conference is free-of-charge and registration will be open until mid-February. More information about the conference is available on their website.