By Mark Villaba
Retired public school educator Toni Smith held a conversational speech in the LVIS conference room on Tuesday, Oct. 6, to train allies of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people on how to create safe zones at GGC. Smith asked all attendees to go into the dark places of their minds and write down every “word, term, or stereotype for LGBTQ” during a minute of silence, after which she asked all to rise if they had written anything positive.
Only three attendees arose. “Now, imagine wearing those labels around your neck like a t-shirt as some of you already have,” Smith said. “I was very impressed to see the wealth of diversity within the audience — faculty, staff, students, people who I recognize within the LGBT community, but then also people who happen to be close to me,” Walker later said, “So I think that the culture and climate of GGC is a lot more supportive than it was when I first arrived five years ago, and to see the amount of support for Safe Zone training was beautiful.”
Smith, whose parents were actively involved during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, told her listeners how coming out as an ally has its consequences, for she too lost friends when she declared herself as an ally of LGBTQ. “Nobody else has come out as female, nobody has to come out as black, nobody has to do this — this is a unique experience,” Smith said before acknowledging that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage earlier in 2015, but Georgia laws still can cost citizens their jobs and even homes for having come out.
Smith then added domestic consequences to legal ones because some students who come out may suffer losing familial support, tuition, food, and a place to live. She mentioned Lost and Found as a homeless shelter in Atlanta for teenage children who are estranged from their families. “I have three kids; they are not quite at that age just yet,” Walker later told The Globe,
“but I am an ally [as] my older brother came out right after he graduated high school and on his way to Basic Training in the Army, so I’m somewhat familiar with that process and remembering what that was like in our house, but I also remember that my family, when my brother came out, may not have been the most understanding or supportive of that situation, but I also know how that affected my brother knowing that the people whom he loved and relied on and trusted didn’t provide that in return.”
Smith advised LGBTQ members and allies alike to immerse themselves in a support system of people in their lives who will not tolerate bigoted and homophobic speech from anybody. “That’s been thirty-plus years, and things have come full circle,” Walker continued, “and everyone loves, knows, and accepts him for who he is at this point, but it’s very important to feel like you can be supported. It’s very important to understand that just because a child suddenly discloses that they’re one way doesn’t change who they are. You know, they’re still the same person who they were two minutes before they told you.” Smith next spoke about language and vocabulary as deciding factors in de-stigmatizing sexual orientations.
“The first thing we’re going to have to do to be an ally to any group,” Smith said, “is to know who we are and to know our internal reservations and biases.” She then reminded listeners that while they may deem themselves as unbiased their previously written words were and still are engrained into their memories. Smith encouraged audience members to include LGBTQ people in their lives and to be flattered if somebody saw enough empathy, caring, and strength in those members to entrust them with his or her orientation. She cautioned attendees that others will likely label allies as being LGBTQ.
“And that’s just silly,” Smith said, “because there were allies in Civil Rights movement, and people didn’t think they were black.” The whole room chuckled with laughter. She then told her audience to understand that such people are not inherently ill-natured; they simply wish to keep the world the way it has been. Smith later described transphobia as a terrible problem and petitioned all to “embrace the T.”
“That issue is not talked about a lot and there’s so much trans-phobia in the LGBT community,” said Tyler Vining, president of the Pride Alliance at GGC, “and that needs to be tackled immediately. “Violence against transgender people still goes on — the suicide among transgender teens is so high, it needs to end, so I found that as one of the most important things that’s not talked about.” Smith summarized with “[B]e visible, be brave, be open, be inclusive, and be patient with yourself and with the LGBT community.”
Then she concluded her speech with requesting attendees to stand up if they were willing to come out as allies on that day, the following Sunday (National Coming out Day), or someday in their lives. All in the room leapt to their feet. Smith turned the floor and microphone over to audience members, who shared their experiences, advice, and feedback. Among them was Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, Laurel Holland, 53, of Dunlap, Tenn., who reminded listeners to evaluate their seemingly good intentions as they might choose to bring their LGBTQ friends to a party/get-together, but they may do more harm than good for their friends if they are not yet ready to come out and if the other partygoers are not yet receptive.
“Just remember that sexual orientation is not a choice just as race is not a choice, but being a bigot is a choice,” Smith added. “People run boot camps to change [other] people’s sexual orientations in some parts of the faith community,” she continued, “[but] I wish we ran boot camps to change people’s hearts so that hatred would disappear.” The conversation ultimately ended with attendees and officials signing up to receive their safe-zone stickers.
Vining commented, “I wholeheartedly believe that any professor, faculty member, or RA should be mandated to go through this training. People are not educated on this issue and matter. So [although] they might not enjoy the experience and they might not learn anything, but the chances of their learning something are greater if they do, and in order for GGC to embrace the diversity that is present on campus, it needs to teach; it’s a school and it needs to teach.”