Sixteenth annual Ally Conference comes to campus this weekend

High school students from Urbana Rebekka Bear-Brister, center right, and Kendall Johnson, center left, share a kiss on the Quad, April 18, 2007. Erica Magda

High school students from Urbana Rebekka Bear-Brister, center right, and Kendall Johnson, center left, share a kiss on the Quad, April 18, 2007. Erica Magda

By James VandeBerg

This weekend, more than 1,500 students from schools across the region will descend on the University for the annual Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, an annual event that promotes diversity, activism and network development among students, staff and faculty.

More than two years of planning have gone into ensuring the event is a success for the University, its students and those attending, said Patrick Hale, senior in LAS and co-coordinator of the conference. The University’s cooperation has been critical to making the conference a reality, Hale added.

The Illinois Student Senate gave a $1,000 sponsorship to the conference, as well as the backing of the University administration. The conference planning committee has particularly appreciated this support, Hale said.

“It really shows that they’re making an effort to reach out to a community that is not very visible on this campus,” Hale said, adding that Chancellor Richard Herman plans to address the conference at its opening ceremonies on Friday evening.

Student reactions to the conference, in its 16th year and last hosted by the University in 2001, have generally been favorable.

“Students are pleased it’s happening, and this is an event that shows how truly important students are,” Hale said. “We’ve gotten nothing but support so far.”

Although the long acronym confuses many, “people are still generally interested,” said Jeff Pastiak, junior in LAS. “But still, if people aren’t interested, they just aren’t.”

Amy Snyder, sophomore in LAS and member of the planning committee, said she feels that many students ignore the conference simply because they are not gay.

“When people find out I’m doing the conference, they wonder why because I’m not a lesbian,” she said.

Snyder said she finds this unfortunate, and said she believes that gay issues affect many people as profoundly as issues such as breast cancer.

“When I tell people about it, they think it’s cool, but fail to recognize its implications,” Snyder said. “People think it’s a segregated issue, but it really isn’t.”

The conference will feature numerous workshops, as well as entertainment and presentations by a number of speakers.

Angela Davis, a notable proponent of racial and gender equality, will be a keynote presenter. Others include Eric Alva, a former Marine who has challenged the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as well as T.J. Jourian, an advocate of transgender rights, Hale said.

Angela Davis’ planned appearance has attracted attention from many outside the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“A lot of people are excited that she’s coming. … She’s an icon as a woman of color,” Hale said.

Still, it remains to be seen how students will react to the conference once it is actually here. Many outside the LGBT community are not aware of the conference, which could make it a shock once it starts, said Lyndon Stewart, senior in Communications.

“Things are looking good so far,” said Glenn Beckwith, junior in LAS. “It’s just hard to tell for sure until the rainbow flags go up on the quad.”