BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Hundreds of sexual minority college students from throughout the state will attend a three-day pride conference beginning Friday at Florida International University.
“The conference itself is a student leadership conference to help develop our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and allies to become leaders in their institutions and society,” said Gisela Vega, FIU’s associate director for LGBTQA Initiatives. “A range of educational and social programs, lectures — it’s meant to be a leadership development opportunity.”
The 10th annual Florida Collegiate Pride Coalition Conference at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus in West Miami-Dade County will feature workshops including “I Did It On ‘Purpose:’ Using Leadership Concepts and Techniques In Coming Out” and “Doing Cross-Cultural Organizing around LGBT Issues on Campus.”
The coalition began in 2003 and has convened annually throughout the state. This year is the first at FIU.
“There’s a very large LGBTQ population at FIU,” said Geoffrey Vancol, a 21-year-old junior majoring in psychology and English.
Vancol, in charge of programming this year’s conference, attended his first last year at University of South Florida in Tampa.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” he said. “They had speakers who were very powerful.”
Several of this year’s workshops focus on transgender issues.
“It’s a crash course on the needs of transgender individuals, how they feel about being part of the LGBTQA community and how we can be more inclusive,” Vancol said. “We really want people to understand the diversity of the community, that we’re not just gay men and lesbian women.”
The university will provide gender-neutral restrooms for conference attendees, Vancol said.
“FIU has been very cooperative to try and be very inclusive and understanding,” he said. “FIU’s general diversity statement includes LGBTQA people.”
Conference celebrities include national HIV activist Todd Murray of Hope’s Voice, an AIDS awareness group for college students; and entertainer Raja, a makeup artist and drag queen who appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Local speakers include state Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who in 2012 became the first openly gay Florida legislator, and FIU law school Associate Professor José Gabilondo.
Gabilondo, one of the university’s most outspoken gay faculty members, has written extensively about LGBT issues. He’ll welcome the gay students Friday night at FIU’s Green Library.
“For any sexual minority, the chance to be part of a collective that includes other sexual minorities that focuses on issues that are near and dear to their identities and the community is very valuable,” Gabilondo said. “Being a minority means that you are usually alone in a crowd. The value of the conference is that it makes you feel very normal and typical. Straight people don’t have to engineer their society because society is already engineered for them. For gay people, it takes an affirmative effort to coordinate and bring together other sexual minorities like them. It’s very healing.”
“For the very first time, the university is making an effort to unify all these splinter groups into a single community and that’s very valuable,” said Gabilondo, praising FIU President Mark Rosenberg, who told gay leaders on campus he plans to ride a university float along Ocean Drive at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride on April 14.
“Mark has always been a good liberal, but the environment now has made it more acceptable,” Gabilondo said.